Born in Kyoto to a court lady-in-waiting and, according to some sources, the young sovereign Gokomatsu (1377–1433), Ikkyū Sōjun (1394–1481) became an acolyte at age five at the Zen temple Ankokuji. He later trained under two harsh, iconoclastic Zen masters, first Ken'ō Sōi (d. 1414) and then Kasō Sōdon (1352–1428). Kasō granted his student the name Ikkyū (One Pause) after he had an awakening experience in 1418. Around 1425 Ikkyū moved to Sakai, where he reveled in an independent, pleasure-loving way of life. At age seventy-seven, he fell in love with the blind minstrel Lady Mori, and may have fathered a daughter with her. At eighty, he was appointed abbot of the great Zen monastery Daitokuji, which had been mostly destroyed in the Ōnin war (1467); Ikkyū completely rebuilt it in the last years of his life.
Ikkyū is a Zen master beloved as much for his outlandish jokes and erotic affairs as for his ascetic meditation practice. One New Year's Day he appeared in the streets of Kyoto brandishing a human skull on a pole, claiming that this reminder of death should not dampen the day's spirit of celebration. Ikkyū refused to receive or grant official dharma transmission, compared the Zen of his day to a wooden sword—all show and no substance—and flouted convention by frequenting bars and brothels. He is well known for his literary works, including Skeletons (Gaikotsu), Crazy Cloud Collection (Kyōunshū), and many other poems and prose works, as well as calligraphy and paintings.
Arntzen, Sonya. Ikkyū and the Crazy Cloud Anthology: A Zen Poet of Medieval Japan. Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1987.
Berg, Stephen, trans. Crow with No Mouth: Ikkyū, Fifteenth Century Zen Master. Reprint. Port Towsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 2000.
Sanford, James. Zen-Man Ikkyū. Chico, CA: Scholar's Press, 1981.