Monday, July 14, 2014



Historically most Zen students, monks, and masters have been compliant sorts. They studied, they practiced zazen, and they conducted themselves in an unobtrusive manner. They didn’t cause problems or rock the boat.

There were exceptions.

Ikkyū Sojun was an unconventional Japanese Zen Buddhist monk and poet. Calling himself "Crazy Cloud," he seldom took anything seriously and saw everything, including the political establishment and himself, as a hilarious spoof. And he did not curb his opinions.

Ikkyū was born in 1394 in a suburb of Kyoto. Gossip said he was the son of Emperor

Go-Komatsu and a court noblewoman. Because Ikkyu was thought to be illegitimate, his mother was forced to leave the royal household.

In the south of Japan Ikkyū was raised by servants. At the age of five he was placed in a Rinzai temple in Kyoto called Ankoku-ji. The master of Ankoku-ji taught Chinese culture and language as part of the curriculum, a method termed Gozan Zen that was state sponsored.

Eight years later, when Ikkyū turned thirteen, he left Ankoku-Ji and entered Kennin-ji, a Soto school in Kyoto, where Dogen had trained. There he studied poetry under a priest by the name of Botetsu. Student and teacher seemed to get along fine, and Ikkyū began to write verses that were non-traditional in form. However, in his poetry Ikkyu was openly critical of Kennin-ji's leadership, cynical about the social divisions, and depressed with the lack of zazen practice he saw around him. In 1410, at the age of sixteen, he left Kennin-ji and entered the temple Mibu-dera.

Ikkyu was impatient and did not stay long at Mibu-dera. He soon found himself at

Saikin-ji in the Lake Biwa region, northeast of Kyoto. There he was the sole student of an abbot named Ken'o. From various reports, it seemed Ikkyū had finally found a master that taught true Rinzai Zen as Ikkyū saw it. When Ikkyū was 21, Ken’o died. Ikkyū performed funeral rites and fasted for seven days, then moved on.

Ikkyū found a new teacher in a master named Kaso at Zenko-an, a branch temple of Daitoku-ji. Ikkyu worked hard on koans, and in his spare time made dolls for a local merchant in Kyoto.

In 1418 Ikkyū was given Case 15 of the Mumonkan, “Tozan's 60 Blows.”



 The monk Tozan came to study with Master Ummon and Ummon asked, “Where are you from?”

“From Sato,” Tozan replied.

Ummon asked, “Where were you for the summer?”

“A temple at Hozu, south of the lake,” Tozan replied.

Ummon asked, “When did you leave?”

“On the 25th of August,” Tozan replied.

Ummon said, “You deserve sixty blows with my stick, but I will forgive you today.”

The next day Tozan bowed to Ummon, saying “Yesterday you spared me sixty blows. I beg you, please tell me my fault.”

“You bag of rice,” Ummon shouted, “you just wander there, wander here.”

At Ummon’s words, Tozan was awakened.


Getting back to Ikkyu, one day a group of blind singers performed at his temple and Ikkyū, captivated by the music, fathomed his koan. A couple of years later he was meditating in a boat on Lake Biwa when the croaking sound of a crow ignited his satori. Kaso confirmed the awakening and granted inka, or what was known as transmission of lineage.


So far Ikkyu’s story is pretty benign. Now comes the interesting part.

          Ikkyu became so ticked off by the politicization of Zen, he proclaimed Zen had strayed far from the spirit of its founders and needed a major overhaul. He was especially pissed when he realized many monasteries actually sold secrets of koan study in exchange for patronage.

          In 1440 Ikkyu was named abbot of a small temple. He lasted only ten days, saying that wandering was much better to his taste. He also suggested that if anyone wanted to look for him, they should look in a fish stall, a sake shop, or a brothel.

          Cranky as he was, Ikkyu has become a folk figure in Japan because of his refusal to go along with the political affairs of his day.

          He was not a rebel out to overthrow the government. He was not a radical who wanted to change the world. He was a prime example of a spirited soul who thought for himself, and who was multi-talented.

          Ikku’s ink paintings were top quality, as was his calligraphy. His poems follow more of the Chinese style of poetry than they did of Japanese haiku, but they were insightful.

          Here are two of his verses from The Crazy Cloud Anthology:


Stilted koans and convoluted answer are all monks have,

Pandering endlessly to officials and rich patrons.

Good friends of the Dharma, so proud, let me tell you,

A brothel girl in gold brocade is worth more than any of you.


          Every day, priests minutely examine the Dharma

          And endlessly chant complicated sutras.

          Before doing that, though, they should learn

          How to read the love letters sent by the wind and rain, the snows and moon.



Ikkyu established what became known as the "Red Thread" school of Zen. The term Red Thread refers to a Chinese custom in which a red thread is tied around a new bride’s wrist as a sign of hope for a happy and fruitful marriage, the red thread being a symbolic umbilical cord. The Rinzai Zen tradition which adopted this symbol did so as a way of acknowledging that sexuality was a natural aspect of human life and therefore innately good.

The point of Ikkyu’s life story is that what was referred to as ‘sacred’ is nothing more than ordinary life experienced with total awareness. He was single minded, believing mind and matter were one. He traveled the country doing things that we don’t associate with monks. There are a lot of stories about his wandering life, drinking sake, and sleeping with women. He was freedom-loving, and he didn’t care what the authorities thought.

Ikkyu didn’t name a successor, so he didn’t create a lineage of followers. Rinzai Zen is still around, but the offshoot that Ikkyu created died with him.

In 1481, Ikkyū passed way at the age of eighty-seven from a malaria-like disorder.

To close, here are two more of Ikkyu’s distinctive verses.


Don’t hesitate, get laid.

Sitting around chanting,

What crap.


If there is nowhere to rest at the end,

How can I get lost on the way?


Post a Comment

<< Home