Sometimes I Think About Old Ikkyu

Sometimes I think about old Ikkyu. A lifetime spent as a Zen renegade. A teacher certified his Enlightenment, but he thought certificates were dumb so he burned it.

The consensus at the time was that teachers should be living in temples spending their days talking about how great the sutras are and spending extraordinary amounts of time on retreat.

Ikkyu didn’t do that. He was in the world. He walked the Bodhisattva path rather than the monk path.

He taught where other teachers would never go. He took the dharma to bars and brothels and to the homeless living on the street. He took it to the people that were suffering the most, the people that really needed help. He took Zen teachings to the poor and the broken, to criminals and the weakest people he could find.

He was also open and honest about his weaknesses. it’s well known that old Ikkyu visited prostitutes and drank a lot of alcohol. He didn’t hide any of his indulgent activities. I’d be willing to hazard a guess that many of his contemporaries did these kinds of things too, they were just good at keeping things hidden.

Ikkyu thought being authentic was more important that his reputation.

Ikkyu wasn’t taken seriously as a teacher in his own time. He was mistrusted and ridiculed. People said he wasn’t a real teacher, but he was.

He is now viewed as a very special historical figure, equal parts heretic and saint. That’s something that not a lot of people can pull off.

But the problem back then was that people thought that “Temple Zen” was the only way to practice, the only way to be of benefit. And that has never been the case.

He wouldn’t be viewed as a good teacher by today’s standards either, even if he lived here in the west. The Zen that has come here is the same Zen that Ikkyu stepped outside of. People think you’re not serious about the practice if you don’t fit a specific image they have in their minds, if you don’t have a teacher that you meet with regularly (in person), if you don’t spend months on retreat. Western Zen is Retreat Zen. Away from the world for long periods instead of in it.

To say that there is only one way of doing things and it involves living in a temple or even spending a lot of time on retreat is to miss the point of practice. The truth is already here with us and there are many different kinds of teachers.

I don’t want to be the kind of teacher that runs a temple. I want to be like Old Ikkyu.


  Daniel Scharpenburg is a meditation instructor and dharma teacher in Kansas City. He regularly gives teachings through the Open Heart Project, the largest virtual mindfulness community in the world.
Find out more about Daniel on his website and connect with him on Facebook.
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