The literature of Zen is thronged—even overpopulated—with gritty eccentrics. Yet Japanese poet Ikkyu (1394-1481) stands out from the roster. I’ve wondered how the art & poetry of Buddhism, explicit throughout India and Tibet in the use of erotic imagery, came in Zen to rarely employ it. It isn’t that China and Japan are reserved. Depictions of amorous exploits abound in East Asia, and much Chinese poetry got set to folk songs brought by rural girls into the pleasure quarters. Yet possibly alone among the poets of Zen, Ikkyu set erotic candor at the heart of both Zen and his own verse. Is it that he never divided the raptures and torments of love from his practice? He raged at Buddhist bureaucracy, reviling fame-and-fortune Zen, preferring his “whorehouse joy.” At seventy-seven he took up with a young, blind attendant of the Shuon’an Temple at Takigi. Ikkyu explicitly praised what he’d learnt from Mori’s “hands, mouth, breasts, long moist thighs.” The point after all is not to avoid pleasure but to cause minimal harm. “I was an old leafless tree when we met,” sings one poem. “I’ll never forget what I owe you.” She kept his mind focused, his Zen rakish.

—Andrew Schelling

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

Ten days in this temple and my mind is reeling!
Between my legs the red thread stretches and stretches.
If you come some other day and ask for me,
Better look in a fish stall, a sake shop, or a brothel.

Follow the rule of celibacy blindly, and you are no
     more than an ass;
Break it and you are only human.
The spirit of Zen is manifest in ways countless as the
     sands of the Ganges.
Every newborn is the fruit of the conjugal bond.
For how many aeons have secret blossoms been
     budding and fading?

With a young beauty, sporting in deep love play;
We sit in the pavilion, a pleasure girl and this Zen monk.
Enraptured by hugs and kisses.
I certainly don’t feel as if I am burning in hell.

A Man’s Root
Eight inches strong, it is my favorite thing;
If I’m alone at night, I embrace it fully—
A beautiful woman hasn’t touched it for ages.
Within my fundoshi there is an entire universe!

A Woman’s Sex
It has the original mouth but remains wordless;
It is surrounded by a magnificent mound of hair.
Sentient beings can get completely lost in it
But it is also the birthplace of all the Buddhas of the
     ten thousand worlds.

The Dharma Master of Love
My life has been devoted to love play;
I’ve no regrets about being tangled in red thread from
     head to foot,
Nor am I ashamed to have spent my days as a
     Crazy Cloud—
But I sure don’t like this long, long bitter autumn of
     no good sex!

Three Poems on Love and Longing
Day and night I cannot keep you out of my thoughts;
In the darkness, on an empty bed, the longing deepens.
I dream of us joining hands, exchanging words
     of love,
But then the dawn bell shatters my reverie and rends
     my heart.

Women, lovely flowers that bloom and quickly fade;
Flowery faces, in full flush, lovely as dreams.
When flowers burst open they grow heavy
     with passion
But once they fall, no one speaks of them again.

Even if I were a god or a Buddha you’d be on
     my mind.
I sit beneath the lamp, a skinny monk chanting
     love songs.
The fierce autumn wind nearly bowls me over
And my heart is choked with thick clouds.

From Wild Ways: Zen Poems of Ikkyu, translated by Jon Stevens, © 2003 by White Pine Press. Reprinted with permission.

Image: “Elegant Horny Maneemon,” C. 1768-70. Suzuki Harunobu. From the book, Japanese Erotic Prints: Shunga by Harunobu & Kuryusai by Inge Klompmakers. Reprinted courtesy of Hotei Publishing, Amsterdam.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .