Ikkyu Burned His Enlightenment Certificate

Ikkyu Burned His Enlightenment Certificate December 21, 2016

3255695493_3c3ce9792e_zphoto by Hartwig, Flickr cc

Ikkyu is a big inspiration to me.

He didn’t settle down.

The Zen culture in the 1400s in Japan may have been different than the Zen culture here and now, but maybe in a lot of ways it was the same. He burned his Enlightenment certificate because he saw people in the temples who seemed fake, just going through the motions, just trying to get the most promotions and the best temple positions, instead of dealing with the Great Matter of Birth and Death.

I guess it’s not really true that he didn’t settle down though. Near the end of his life, after the country was torn apart by warfare and a lot of Zen temples were destroyed, he became the abbot of a temple. But by then he was super old. I’m talking about his younger days, his days as a vagabond and an outlaw zen teacher. He was a renegade spiritual teacher.

He received teachings from great masters and was indeed declared a master himself, which he refused. He refused to be a lineage holder and to carry on a lineage. He thought that settling into a lineage could lead to at best complacency and at worst corruption. He had deep deep concerns about that.

He called himself Crazy Cloud. He just traveled, had adventures, and gave teachings. He wasn’t content to sit in a Zen temple, preaching to the choir. He walked the bodhisattva path, dwelling in the world instead of apart from it. People thought he was crazy but he made no apologies for being free. He thought he was practicing the old zen, the real zen, before the influence of things like hierarchy, nepotism, and competition entered the stream.

And he went out into the world. He went to teach in places where other teachers would fear to tread. He spread the dharma in brothers, bars, homeless camps, and in the street; these were his temples. Because everywhere is sacred. Prostitutes, criminals, artists, and poets; these were his students. While other teachers were spreading the dharma among nobility and samurai, he was spreading the dharma to those who had no chance to hear it. He judged no one. People in the establishment vilified him, saying his conduct wasn’t fit for a practitioner of zen, but it seems that he didn’t worry much about their opinions.

He’s viewed in Japan today as a heretic and saint in equal measure.

I’m writing about him because I think we can be like him. To him Zen was wild and free. It can be to us too.

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