Sky Above, Great Wind – New Translation of Ryokan’ Poetry and Life Tales

I had planned to write about Journeys on the Silk Road this morning, but I see that old Monkey Mind has beat me too it, leaving me with not enough to add to interest even me in my own review.

I’ll just confess that I sure get fascinated by history these days and dharma history is especially riveting (Neanderthal’s and Denisovan’s DNA coming in a close second).

Another long-time interest is Zen poetry and good lordy has Kaz Tanahishi come up with a great one – Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan.

“Ryokan (1758-1831),” writes Kaz, “was a pilgrim, a hermit and a beggar. He was one of the numberless spiritual practitioners who gave up secular life to practice humility in search of the highest truth.”

Kaz also makes this compelling comparison: “In my mind, Dogen, Hakuin, and Ryokan are the three greatest figures in the history of Zen Buddhism in Japan. It is not difficult to see commonalities among these monks in their search, practice, enlightenment, and teaching. On the other hand, they seem to form a triangle of extreme opposites in their expressions of enlightenment.”

Ryokan’s dharma brother, Gento Sokuchu (could be translated as “Mysterious Penetration Hit Center”), don’t you know, is one of the luminaries in the lineage that Katagiri Roshi transmitted so you might say that Ryokan is my great, great, great, great, great uncle. Or you might not.

Gento Sokuchu, by the way, did much to get the Shobogenzo printed and distributed for the first time and was one of the early leaders in the back-to-Dogen movement. When he became abbot of Eiheiji, he had the temple’s huge mokugyo burned because he saw the fish drum as a Pure Land accretion and I guess he was into “pure” Zen. I like that about him.

Ryokan, of course, gave up on all that and lived a quiet life playing with children and being really lonely, hungry and cold a lot of the time.

Back to the book, Kaz’s introduction and postscript are excellent. The first frames the life and times of Ryokan and also emphasizes his simply wonderful style of caligraphy while the second carefully unpacks Ryokan’s various ways of writing and shows in vivid detail the enormity of the task of translating. This in itself makes the book well-worth $9.64 – the current price on Amazon.

There are many Nasrudin-like, holy-fool stories about Ryokan that are still told in Japan. Kaz translates about ten pages of these gems. Here’s one of my favorites:

“Someone said, ‘It’s exciting to find money on the street.’ Hearing it, Ryokan threw his own money onto the street and picked it up. He did not enjoy it at all. Suspecting that the man had tricked him, Ryokan kept throwing money, but eventually he could not find where the money had gone. He searched for it everywhere until, finally, he found the money and was overjoyed. Then, he said, to himself, ‘That man didn’t trick me after all.’”

And here are a few poems to close:

Although from the beginning
I knew
the world is impermanent,
not a moment passes
when my sleeves are dry.

In one thousand years,
how can I
live up to the true path
even for a single day?

How did you wriggle
your way
into my dream path
through such deep snow
on the night mountain?

Dogen Did Not Practice Shikantaza and Even Had a Gaining Idea
A Goose in a Bottle – How Will You Be Free?
On Receiving Inka Shomei from James Myoun Ford Roshi
BTW, We Have to Remove Your Feet: Being Mortal, Waking Up, and Dying Together
  • ZenPresence

    I’ve not read much Ryokan. You’ve piqued my interest.


    Dan Garner

  • Stephen Slottow

    How do you compare Tanahashi’s translation (which I don’t have) with those by Burton Watson and John Stevens (which I do).


    • doshoport

      I haven’t compared to any of the various translations so I don’t know.
      Kaz’s reads smooth though!

  • Stephen Slottow

    John Steven’s is my favorite. But I just ordered this translation and will have fun comparing.

  • Koun Franz

    My understanding is that the mokugyo-burning was not about Pure Land, but about Obaku–most of the instrumentation/musicality of our ceremonial is an Obaku remnant. The big mokugyo at Eiheiji today are so big that one wonders at the size of the trees they must have been carved from to arrive all in one piece. If the mokugyo of old were at all similar, it must have been quite an angry blaze.

    Thank you for the review–I had no idea this book was out there. Kaz Tanahashi strikes me as a very busy man. Impressive.


    • doshoport

      That makes sense … although I’d thought the Obaku influence would have been waning by that time – ~1800. This was “oral transmission,” I believe from Tsugen Roshi.
      Kaz always says he’s very lazy … and he gets more done than anybody I know.

  • Harry


    Have you read Taigen Dan Leighton’s poetic jaunt around zazen and Dogen?



    • doshoport

      Haven’t but will. Thanks.

  • Harry

    The poetic enterprise (from within many traditions) often seems to resonate with the Zen spirit of inquiry and ‘myriad things coming forth and illuminating themselves’.

    In particular I’m thinking of Keats who explained it in terms of developing what he termed ‘negative capability’ it being “the capacity of human beings to transcend and revise their contexts… the ability of the individual to perceive, think, and operate beyond any presupposition of a predetermined capacity of the human being. It further captures the rejection of the constraints of any context, and the ability to experience phenomenon free from epistemological bounds, as well as to assert one’s own will and individuality upon their activity” :