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?

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