THREE ZEN MASTERS: Ikkyu, Hakuin, and Ryokan
Kodansha International: New York, 1993.
161 pp., $10.00 (paperback).
IF ALL THE JAPANESE BOOKS, both popular and scholarly, devoted to Ikkyu, Hakuin, and Ryokan were collected in one place, one would have nothing less than a small library. Such prodigious output testifies to the importance of these three masters and, at the same time, has helped to create it. Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1481), Hakuin Ekaku (16861768), and Daigu Ryokan (17581831) rank among the greatest Zen masters in Japanese history-their names have become nearly synonymous with Zen itself. Iconoclastic, funny, and artistically vital, these men represent that which drew many of us Westerners to Zen in the first place.
Both Ikkyu and Hakuin played pivotal roles in the formation of modern Rinzai Zen. Ikkyu, despite his early disregard for the stilted atmosphere of the institutionalized Zen of his day, oversaw the initial rebuilding of Daitokuji, which had been almost totally destroyed during the violent Onin War, and helped pave the way for the ascendance of the Myoshinji/Daitokuji line of Rinzai Zen. Hakuin revitalized the system of koan study in accordance with the Myoshinji/ Daitokuji tradition and reemphasized the importance of zazen, close study under a teacher, and meditation in action. Although today the details of Hakuin’s system of koan study are unknown, the system formalized by his disciples remains at the heart of Rinzai practice. All contemporary Rinzai masters are in Hakuin’s lineage. Ikkyu, Hakuin, and Ryokan in many ways defined what we now think of as Zen, and they in turn are now considered quintessential Zen masters.
In Three Zen Masters: Ikkyu, Hakuin, and Ryokan, a slim paperback, John Stevens has given us a neat, concise compilation of the traditional biographies of the three men, culled from traditional biographical materials, autobiographical primary sources, and the scholarly literature. Stevens’ inspirational biographies are by no means critical, however, and little has been done (particularly in the case of Ikkyu, for whom contemporary biographical sources are very limited) to separate apocryphal and hagiographical tales about the teachers from more reliable information. Though Stevens has taken this approach deliberately, for example, in the case of Ikkyu, because “each story conveys an important message characteristic of Ikkyu,” the stories often tell us more about the ideals of the compilers than about Ikkyu. Had Stevens provided a richer description of the historical context in which the men lived, such things as the vigorous sectarianism of Ikkyu and Hakuin would have been more easily understood.
In light ofJohn Stevens’ previous writings on Zen and calligraphy, Buddhism and sex, and poetry, his avid interest in these three masters is not surprising. Ikkyu, Hakuin, and Ryokan were all brilliant poets, calligraphers, and painters. The book is illustrated with many examples of the stunning works of painting, calligraphy, and poetry that comprise an important part of their legacy, and these biographies raise provocative questions about the relationship between the arts and Zen practice. Although some have suggested that real Zen practice flourishes in inverse proportion to devotion to the arts-an oftcited example is the stifling, overrefined artistic atmosphere of many leading fifteenth-century Rinzai monasteries-the artistic record of Ikkyu, Hakuin, and Ryokan disputes that view. The three masters, however, are often remembered and treasured more for their art than for their teachings. Acutely aware of this problem, Ryokan laments,
I shaved my head, became a Zen
And spent years making my Way
But now, all people say to me is,
Brush us some poetry! Brush us
Stevens provides competent translations of a large selection of the trio’s prose and poetry, including translations of Ikkyu’s famous Zen text Skeletons, Hakuin’s Song of Meditation, and the poems of Ryokan. The material included here adds little to what has been previously translated and more fully annotated by James Sanford, Burton Watson, Norman Waddell, and Philip Yampolsky. Stevens often makes the justifiable choice of the translator to sacrifice literal accuracy for colloquiality, but, occasionally, his renderings deprive the reader of additional layers of meaning. For example, in his translation of the above poem by Ryokan, Burton Watson more fully conveys Ryokan’s mastery of two distinct Japanese poetic traditions by translating the final line as “and all they say is ‘Write us a waka!’ ‘Write us a Chinese poem!'”
This brief introduction to the life and thought of three major figures in the history of Japanese Zen is entertaining, but it does not go beyond the conventional picture already so widely known. For that one should turn to some of the more in-depth works that Stevens lists for further reading.
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.