Recalling Zen’s Crazy Cloud

Recalling Zen’s Crazy Cloud December 21, 2022




“The autumn breeze of a single night of love is better than a hundred thousand years of sitting meditation.” Ikkyu

(translated by John Stevens)

Ikkyu Sojun is one of my favorite figures in the history of Zen. Ikkyu died on this day, the 21st of November, in 1481. He was eighty-seven years old.

He was born in the suburbs of Kyoto in 1394, possibly an illegitimate child of the emperor and a courtier. At least these were the whispers that followed him through his life. Whatever the truth of that matter, he was always a person of interest to the court.

At the age of five Ikkyu was placed in the care of a Rinzai monastery. At thirteen he formally entered Kenninji. Not much later he began a period of wandering from temple to temple and teacher to teacher. Many, perhaps most monastics committed to a single monastery. But others, especially those committed to finding the great matter of life and death, wandered in search of a right teacher. This was his path.

Ikkyu eventually settled into study with master Kaso at a branch temple of Daitokuji. After deeply investigating the koan system and with that his own heart, and plumbing the depths of the mystery, Ikkyu received dharma transmission from Kaso. After transmission he began another period of wandering. This was a more common event for those who had completed the formal aspect of Rinzai Zen training.

Ikkyu was always an eccentric, more than skirting the edges of monastic expectations. He was known to drink and carouse. While at the same time he was a deeply devoted to the practice of zazen, Zen meditation.

He was a poet whose work was widely read.

Studying texts and stiff meditation can make you lose your Original Mind.
A solitary tune by a fisherman, though, can be an invaluable treasure.
Dusk rain on the river, the moon peeking in and out of the clouds;
Elegant beyond words, he chants his songs night after night.

(translator John Stevens)

Ikyu is often held up as an example of “crazy wisdom.” Frankly, I’m past wary of “crazy wisdom.” It can easily be argued that figures in the West standing in that “tradition,” if we can use that term for those who walk their own idiosyncratic paths, mostly did at least as much harm as they did good. Crazy wisdom as an excuse for not attending to normative ethical expectations by itself is problematic.

But, and I think this is terribly important. As a current within something larger, not the main show, this tendency to follow a different drummer sometimes allows magic to happen. Sometimes. And, Ikkyu is an example of that magic when it does happen.

Me, I find it terribly important to note how later in his life he was elected abbot of Daitokuji. And that he was critically important in preserving the monastery during some very hard, hard times.

I love how Ikkyu is often credited with bringing the tea ceremony and Zen together in an unambiguous way. I might be true, and even if not a historical truth, the myth is important.

Also, he had a long term love-affair with the blind singer Mori. This blending of the Zen way and an intimate relationship feels important. Especially as how later he would write:

The tree was barren of leaves but you brought a new spring.
Long green sprouts, verdant flowers, fresh promise.
Mori, if I ever forget my profound gratitude to you,
Let me burn in hell forever.

(translator uncertain, from

Small wonder he picked up the popular nickname, Kyoun, “crazy cloud.” Crazy wisdom, no doubt. But, something else in that wandering about cloud…

Through most of his life he avoided the Zen institutions.  But. as I noted, late in his life Ikkyu was elected head of Daitokuji. The monastery had been ravaged in a terrible civil war, and lay in ruins. With skills few expected he possessed, he devoted himself to the restoration of the monastery. It would become a central institution for the transmission of the Rinzai school, which remains true to this day.

After his death Ikkyu grew in legend to become a major folk figure including as a sort of trickster figure tweaking authorities while at the same time offering something deep and true. Certainly works for me.

After all, he would sing to us…

My life has been devoted to love play;
I’ve no regrets about being tangled in red thread from head to foot,
Nor am I ashamed to have spent my days as a Crazy Cloud—
But I sure don’t like this long, long bitter autumn of no good sex!
Follow the rule of celibacy blindly and you are no more than an ass;
Break it and you are only human.
The spirit of Zen is manifest in ways countless as the sands of the Ganges.
Every newborn is a fruit of the conjugal bond.
For how many eons have secret blossoms been budding and fading?

(translation by John Stevens)

Thank you to the Bodhisattva Ikkyu…

Endless bows…


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