Hakuin (1685-1769), Daito Kokushi, ink on paper. Courtesy Eisei Bunko Museum, Tokyo.
Hakuin (1685-1769), Daito Kokushi, ink on paper. Courtesy Eisei Bunko Museum, Tokyo.

Once Ryokan was traveling with a young monk. At a certain teahouse they received food that contained fish. The young monk left the fish untouched, as is the orthodox Buddhist custom, but Ryokan gobbled it down without a moment’s thought.

“That food has fish in it, you know,” the monk said to Ryokan.

“Yes, it was delicious,” Ryokan said with a smile.

That evening they were put up by a farmer, and the following morning the young monk complained, “The fleas were biting like crazy, and I was up all night. But you slept like a baby. Why?”

“I eat fish when it is offered, but I also let the fleas and mosquitoes feast on me. Neither bothers me at all,” Ryokan replied matter-of-factly. (Ryokan slept inside a mosquito net, not to protect himself but to protect the bugs—he feared he might accidentally kill them in his sleep. However, he left one leg outside the net so the insects would not go hungry.)

Like the Buddha, Ryokan gratefully received whatever was put into his begging bowl:

For our sakes
The clams and fish
Give themselves
As food.

Find other perspectives on food and practice in our special section: Meat: To Eat It or Not


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