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Ryōkan (Taigu, 1758–1831) was the eldest son of a prosperous family in a port town of northwest Japan. He was ordained at the age of seventeen as a Sōtō Zen monk. After ten years of monastic training and five years of wandering Ryōkan returned to his home district, where he lived alone in a mountain hermitage. He maintained no ties to the Buddhist institutions, preferring a life of simplicity and poverty, writing poetry and practicing solitary meditation. He supported himself by the traditional practice of begging for alms, often stopping to play with children or to drink with the farmers. Gradually his fame spread and he became widely known as a poet and calligrapher. Scholars and writers traveled from far away to see him. The last three years of his life he became close friends with Teishin, a beautiful young nun who was an accomplished poet.

Ryōkan's poetry describes the fleeting details of his rural life with both joy and sadness, adding occasional references to Buddhism and classical allusions. He wrote in both Japanese and literary Chinese, often bending or ignoring rules of composition in favor of common speech. Beneath this surface of transparent simplicity is Ryōkan's great erudition in the most ancient classics of both Japanese and Chinese poetry. His unparalleled popularity in contemporary Japan comes both from his poetry and from the ideal of his life. Ryōkan is seen as one who achieved religious awakening in the midst of ordinary events, living a life that embodied the ideal of the unity of the mundane and transcendent.

See also:Japanese, Buddhist Influences on Vernacular Literature in; Poetry and Buddhism


Abé, Ryūichi, and Haskel, Peter. Great Fool, Zen Master Ryōkan: Poems, Letters, and Other Writings. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1996.

Yuasa, Noboyuki. The Zen Poems of Ryōkan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981.

David E. Riggs

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