Ikkyū Sōjun

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IKKYŪ SŌJUN (13941481) was a poet, calligrapher, Zen eccentric, and revitalizer of the Daitokuji line of Rinzai Zen. Ikkyū was likely, as legend suggests, the unrecognized son of the hundredth emperor of Japan, Gokomatsu (13771433; r. 13921412), by a rather low-ranking court lady. At an early age, perhaps for lack of any other option, his mother placed him in the Gozan temple of Ankokuji, in Kyoto. He spent the rest of his childhood in Ankokuji and in Tenryūji, yet another Gozan establishment. A quick student, Ikkyū was precocious in both scriptural studies and in the literary arts that had become a focus of the aesthetically oriented Gozan movement.

In 1410 Ikkyū left Tenryūji to live in the streetside hermitage of the eremetic monk Kenʾō Sōi (d. 1414). Kenʾō belonged to the Daitokuji-Myōshinji lineage of Rinzai. Because these two temples had long been out of the Gozan orbit patronized by the shoguns, and because Kenʾō lacked formal certification of enlightenment from his own master, Ikkyū's decision to take him as spiritual master left the young monk doubly removed from the orthodox Zen establishment and clearly illustrates his desire to reach the substance of the Zen tradition rather than grasping for the formal honors offered by the power brokers of his day.

Ikkyū's devotion to the rigors of meditative life in preference to the aesthetic glory and institutional pomp of establishment Zen led him, after Kenʾō's death in 1414, to leave Kyoto to join the circle of the demanding master Kasō Sōdon (13521428), twenty-second abbot of Daitokuji, at his small hermitage at Katada on the shores of Lake Biwa. There, in 1420, Ikkyū attained satori but following the example of his early master, Kenʾō, refused to accept Kasō's certification.

Shortly thereafter, apparently following an extended squabble with Kasō, Ikkyū left Katada to spend several years in Sakai, a booming port town on the Inland Sea. There he gained a reputation for wild eccentricity, in part due to his repeated bouts of tavern and brothel hopping. These establishments, he claimed, were far better sources of enlightenment than the corrupt temples of Kyoto and Kamakura. Even Daitokuji came under his criticism, and although he was briefly appointed abbot of Daitokuji's Nyoian subtemple in 1440, he soon stormed out in disgust at the temple's general pretentiousness and in particular at the role taken there by Kasō's chief disciple, Yōsō Sōi (13761458).

By the 1440s Ikkyū had once again taken up practice of the arts. He was eventually to become known for his unconventional poetry and his powerful, at times even unsettling, calligraphy. He was, as well, the confidant and friend of a number of key figures in the development of the new urban middle-class artsthe nō playwright Komparu Zenchiku (14051468); the early tea master Murata Shukō (14271502); the painters Bokkei Saiyo (dates unknown) and Motsurin Shōtō, also known as Bokusai (d. 1492), who wrote the earliest biography of Ikkyū; and the renga poet Sōchō (14481532)and was thus an important conduit for Zen ideas and attitudes geographically outward from Kyoto and socially downward to the largely nouveau riche audience for these emerging arts.

In his later years, Ikkyū made peace with the hierarchy of Daitokuji and was appointed abbot of the temple in 1474, at a time when the temple was but a shell, its buildings having been almost entirely destroyed in the early battles of the Ōnin War (14671477). It was, indeed, in no small part Ikkyū's connections with the upwardly mobile merchant class of Sakai that provided the funds for the rebuilding and revitalization of Daitokuji and laid the foundation for it and its sister temple, Myōshinji, to fill the spiritual vacuum left by the intertwined collapse of the Ashikaga shogunate and the Gozan establishment. Ikkyū's final years were also marked by his famous autumnal affair with a blind woman singer called Mori. He died in 1481 at the age of eighty-seven. Popular fiction of the Tokugawa period made much of Ikkyū's eccentricities and transformed him from a serious historical figure into an amusing, but stereotypical, folk image, an image whose most recent manifestation was as the hero of a cartoon show on Japanese television.

Several literary works are attributed to Ikkyū. The most important of these are his collection of more than a thousand poems, the Kyōunshū (Crazy-cloud anthology), and the related collection the Jikaishū (Self-admonitions). He was also the author of six prose works on Buddhist themes: the prose poem Gaikotsu (Skeletons); Amida hadaka (Amida laid bare); Bukkigun (The war of the buddhas and demons); Mizu-kagami me-nashi gusa (Mirror for the sightless), which includes the sometimes separated Futari bikuni (Two nuns); Kana hōgo (A vernacular sermon); and Maka hannya hara-mitta shingyō kai (Explication of the Heart Sūtra). Two nō librettos, Yamamba (Old woman of the mountains) and Eguchi, are also ascribed to Ikkyū, but these attributions are doubtful. A fair number of examples of his extraordinary calligraphy survive, as do a number of forgeries.

See Also

Calligraphy; Gozan Zen.


The fullest, though by no means either complete or perfect, treatment of Ikkyū in English is my own Zen-Man Ikkyū (Chico, Calif., 1981). Also useful are Donald Keene's biographical sketch, "The Portrait of Ikkyū," most easily available in his Landscapes and Portraits (Tokyo and Palo Alto, Calif., 1971), Sonja Arntzen's annotated translations of several dozen poems from the Kyōunshū, Ikkyū Sōjun: A Zen Monk and His Poetry (Bellingham, Wash., 1973), and her Ikkyū and the Crazy Cloud Anthology (New York, 1986). The best study of Bokusai's critical biography of Ikkyū is Hirano Sōjō's "Ikkyū oshō nempu" no kenkyu (Kyoto, 1977), which includes the whole of Bokusai's original text. The best, though still incomplete, study of Ikkyū's poetry is Hirano's Kyōunshū zenshaku, 2 vols. (Tokyo, 1976). Ikkyū's prose pieces can be found in Ikkyū oshō zenshū, edited by Mori Taikyo (Tokyo, 1913). The fullest representation of his calligraphy is Tayama Hōnan's Zenrin bokuseki kaisetsu (Kamakura, 1965) and Zoku Zenrin bokuseki kaisetsu (Kamakura, 1965). Serviceable modern biographies on Ikkyū in Japanese include Furuta Shōkin's Ikkyū (Tokyo, 1946), Ichikawa Hakugen's Ikkyū: Ransei ni ikita zenja (Tokyo, 1971), and Murata Taihei's Ningen Ikkyū (Tokyo, 1963). For general background on the age in which Ikkyū lived, Japan in the Muromachi Age, edited by John Whitney Hall and Toyoda Takeshi (Berkeley, Calif., 1977), and Martin Collcutt's fine Five Mountains: The Rinzai Zen Monastic Institution in Medieval Japan (Cambridge, Mass., 1981) are especially valuable.

New Sources

Ikkyu. Wild Ways: Zen Poems of Ikkyu. Translated by John Stevens. Boston, 1995.

Stevens, John. Three Zen Masters: Ikkyu, Hakuin, Ryokan. Tokyo, 1993.

James Hugh Sanford (1987)

Revised Bibliography