A Life of Zen: Ikkyū, the Crazy Cloud

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By Surendra

Please, please don’t worry.
How many times do I have to say it?
There’s no way not to be
Who and where you are.

The portrait of Ikkyū, by one of his disciples, Bokusai (Motsurin Shōtō, 1412-1492), typically shows him with a beard and unshaved head. This was in keeping with the founder of Ikkyū’s lineage that began centuries earlier in China with Rinzai. But it was in total contravention of what had become the rules for the conceited Japanese Zen priests and monks of Ikkyū’s day. Like all religious traditions, even radical and eccentric Zen can become institutionalized. Those unique Zen masters, such as Ikkyū, did all they could to prevent Zen being stifled by scholarship, obeisance and the glaciation of hierarchical traditions. They shook Zen out of the stench of pious doctrine and returned it to living experience. All refused to accept distinctions between the sacred and mundane. Some, like Ikkyū, went further, exalting the ordinary life and condemning the religious. If you want to see just how far disregard for any form of restrictive morality can be taken, read on. You might be in for a surprise.

Books, koans, sitting, miss the heart
But not the fishermen’s songs.
Rain pelts the river.
I sing beyond all of it.

Ikkyū’s lifetime (1394 -1481) was a politically turbulent and violent era in Japan.

In war, there’s no time
To teach or learn Zen.
Carry a strong stick,
Bash your attackers.

Zen Buddhism had become well established throughout Japan. Adopted and controlled by the ruling shogun, priests were expected to curry favor. They also became very powerful through usury and by giving prophetic advice on business matters. The temples even offered seals of bogus ‘enlightenment’ (inka) to those who could afford them.

Stilted koans and convoluted answers 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.

A few Zen priests opposed these corrupt developments and maintained their dedication to authentic Zen. After years of committed practice with two such rare teachers, Ikkyū flowered into the most vociferous renegade of them all. He lampooned politicians and priests and declared, “the scriptures from the beginning have been nothing but arse-wipes.” In the above poem, Ikkyū was not being fanciful, either. He was writing from personal experience. Delving into brothels as much as temples, Ikkyū parodied Buddhist rituals and scorned all reverence for celibacy.

A sex-loving monk – you object!
Hot-blooded and passionate, totally aroused.
Remember, though, lust can consume all passion,
Transmuting base metal into pure gold.

Ikkyū’s origins were unusual. His mother had been presented as a consort to the young Emperor Gokomatsu by one of two main warring factions. When she became pregnant with Ikkyū, the empress turned her out of the Imperial Palace onto the streets of the capital, Kyoto, where she gave birth in a local hovel. Ikkyū was an unlikely, but potential, heir to the throne. At the age of five, probably to ensure his protection, his mother placed him in an unexceptional Zen monastery. Here, and through two successive moves, Ikkyū received a very thorough, classical education, based on the study of Chinese literature and Buddhist sutras. To Ikkyū’s disappointment, it never included zazen. So, the determined Ikkyū sat on his own.

Very high clouds –
Not one word
Helped them get up there.

At eighteen, Ikkyū found ideal support for his practice. He became the sole disciple of a reclusive priest, Keno, at a little-known hermitage, on the outskirts of Kyoto. With no worldly ambitions whatsoever, Keno was uncompromisingly dedicated to meditation. Four years later, when Keno suddenly died, Ikkyū was left to perform the funeral rites alone. Devastated, Ikkyū became suicidal and was rescued from an attempt to drown himself.

I walked through the door of death,
Came back, went back, and came here.
Brisk wind, warm rain,
Dawn – the bleached moon.

Desperate to awaken, Ikkyū sought an interview with the famous Kaso Soton, considered to be the strictest of the few remaining ‘old school’ Zen masters. Typically, at first, Ikkyū was rejected by Kaso and barred from his small, frugal temple. To test Ikkyū, Kaso even ordered the monks to throw slop-water over his head. Undeterred, Ikkyū stood all day in front of the retreat and slept under a nearby boat at night. To survive his five-day ordeal, he drank dew draining from the temple roof. Ikkyū was eventually accepted by Kaso and committed himself to a very demanding regime.

Peace isn’t luck.
For six years stand facing a silent wall,
Until the ‘you’ of your face,
Melts like a candle.

But there was some respite during the hot summer recess. Since they lived near the sizable Lake Biwa, Ikkyū meditated in the evening in a local fisherman’s boat, on the undulating water. In the daytime, he travelled into Kyoto to sell incense and cheap clothing or to work carving dolls.

I’m in it, everywhere.
What a miracle!
Trees, lakes, clouds,
Even dust.

After three years Kaso gave him the name Ikkyū, meaning ‘one pause’, in recognition of his progress. Ikkyū had been listening to a group of blind entertainers when a popular love song penetrated him to the core. Another three years later, while sitting in the boat, he was startled into enlightenment by the cry of a crow. Ikkyū rushed back at dawn and reported this to his master.

Kaso responded, “You have reached the stage of an arhat but not that of a master.”

Ikkyū replied, “Then I’m perfectly happy as an arhat, and don’t need to be a master.”

Kaso said, “Well, then, you really are a master, after all.”

But when Kaso followed the custom of issuing him a certificate, Ikkyū threw it on the floor and turned away. Already, the far-out (furyu) Zen demonstrated by Ikkyū, could not be bothered with formalities or convention. Zen, for him, was not about holiness but living life to the full, without excluding anything. As Rinzai expressed it, “shit, piss and be ordinary.” Or, in the more eloquent song of Hakuin, “this very body the Buddha.” With sex as one of his prominent themes, Ikkyū took this concept to another level.

The crow’s ‘caw-caw’ was OK.
But one night with a lovely whore,
Opened a wisdom deeper than
What that bird said.

In many respects, Ikkyū would have been at home in the world of Tantra.

Break through one impasse,
There’s another.
Let the sweet lychee slip,
Over your tongue and down.

A number of his verses celebrate sexual union.

A woman is enlightenment.
When you’re with her,
And the red thread of both your passions,
Flare inside – see!

Others point beyond sex:

Beneath the skin of
The one we fondle today,
There is a skeleton,
Propping up the flesh.

Back at the temple, Ikkyū’s emphasis on ‘no Zen, Zen’ began to disturb not only the other monks but Kaso as well.

We’re lost, born in delusions
Deeper than any mind.
If you could escape awakening,
You’d ripen like a pear, all by yourself.

One day, Kaso appointed Ikkyū’s jealous and orthodox rival, the head monk, Yōsō, as his successor. Soon after that, Ikkyū walked out. Later, whenever Kaso was asked to name his true dharma heir, he declared, “the mad one.”

No masters,
Only you.
The master is you.
Wonderful, eh?

For many years, as a wandering monk, apart from occasionally officiating as one, Ikkyū wandered more into bars and brothels than temples.

A crazy lecher, shuttling back and forth,
Between whorehouse and bar.
This past master paints
South, north, east, west with his cock.

Ikkyū used his life as a living koan to shock the ruling elite and general public as much as the priesthood. In times rife with street combat and samurai touting for hire, he risked brandishing a sword with a spectacular hilt. This was to make a point to passers-by about the deception of appearances.

In a dazzling scabbard,
This wooden sword.
It can’t kill
Or help you live.

Ikkyū became famous for such flagrant gestures. Offering greetings for the New Year, he paraded a human skull on a long bamboo pole through the crowded streets of the capital.

I’m like the wind,
Pouring down the hills into the city.
Whatever I do, is beyond
Whatever’s been done.

On another occasion, Ikkyū was invited to inaugurate a new bodhisattva effigy. Dressed in appropriate regalia, Ikkyū started well and received a warm welcome. To tumultuous astonishment and outrage, he finished the ceremony by pissing all over the statue.

That stone buddha,
Deserves all the birdshit it gets.
I wave my skinny arms
Like a tall flower in the wind.

Ikkyū brushed more than a thousand poems in fine Chinese calligraphy. As might be anticipated, he played havoc with poetic conventions. But he wrote to express himself and deliver maximum impact, not to display craftsmanship.

Look up to Heaven, look around at Earth.
Red flesh, white bones:
Crushed between both,
The real you survives.

Lyricism was uncommon in his work but not entirely absent.

What is the heart?
But the voice
Of the pine breeze,
In a forgotten painting.

Ikkyū gave himself the name, ‘Crazy Cloud’. One main anthology of his verses was published under this title, as Kyoun-shu.

So many paths
Go up from the foothills.
One moon
Grazes the peak.

Initially, he reached only a small audience but it numbered very influential patrons. It included two emperors, several powerful merchants and two famed in the arts: the founder of the Japanese tea ceremony and a principal exponent of Noh theatre, the classical, masked drama. Not that Ikkyū cared about notoriety:

Keep writing those deep questions,
Sleep on.
When you wake,
You’ll be gone.

In spite of shocking behavior and crude statements, Ikkyū’s refinement and aesthetic sensitivity were beyond question.

Over the years, one hundred followers gathered around Ikkyū. Many were laymen leading normal daily lives, with families and jobs. They visited Ikkyū for meditation and satsangs at his self-designated ‘Hermitage of the Blind Donkey’. This was Ikkyū’s humorous allusion to Rinzai who wondered doubtfully, on his deathbed, whether he had entrusted his dharma to a ‘blind donkey’.

These days, accomplished monks of long training
Are mesmerized by their own words and call it ability.
At Crazy Cloud’s hut, there is no ability but a flavor of truth:
He boils a cup of rice in a wobbly, old cauldron.

For some periods, Ikkyū enjoyed this hut on his own.

I like it best when no one comes,
Preferring fallen leaves and swirling flowers for company.
Just an old Zen monk living like he should,
A withered plum tree suddenly sprouting a hundred blossoms.

Much of the capital was devastated during the decade-long Ōnin civil war, that was fought directly on its streets.

Ōnin War 1467-1477

Portrait: Ikkyū in abbot’s attire, attributed to Tosa Hirochika (15th CE)

One of the principal Rinzai temples, Daitoku-ji, was in ruins. Without any offer of funds, the current, impoverished emperor instructed Ikkyū to organize its restoration. And, accordingly, to his great discomfort, this anarchic, enfant terrible, Ikkyū, was made the abbot.

Fifty years
A rustic wanderer.
Now mortified
In purple robes.

With the help of merchants who had profited from the war, the restoration of Daitoku-ji was accomplished and completed after Ikkyū’s death. Meanwhile, in spite of his abbot’s robes, the irreverent Ikkyū continued the love affair he had begun when he was seventy-seven. This was with a thirty-six year old blind singer, named Mori. In a number of erotic verses he attributed his unflagging vitality to this remarkable relationship.

A white-haired priest in his eighties.
Ikkyū still sings aloud each night: to himself, to the sky, to the clouds.
Because she gave herself freely,
Her hands, her mouth, her breasts, her long moist thighs.

Ikkyū left a clear message for his followers that sums up his approach:

After my death, among my disciples, will be those who go to the forests or mountains. Some may drink sake and enjoy women. But those disciples who lecture about Zen as ‘the moral way’ misappropriate the teaching. They are Ikkyū’s enemies.

Before that, he also brushed this poem:

I won’t die. I won’t go away.
I’ll always be here.
No good asking me anything, though.
I won’t be able to answer.


Reprinted with kind permission from Osho News, where you can find further essays by Surendra.
More about Surendra at http://www.surendraphoto.com/


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