The story of Ryokan (1758–1831), the beloved priest, poet, and calligrapher of Japan, is sometimes embellished in folklore and myth, and is at other times too sparse and lacking in detail to satisfy our wish for substantive information about his life. There remains much that we just don’t know. Ryokan was not concerned about his own fame and whether or not his life story would resonate through history. He had no stomach for celebrity. It bemused him to think that his calligraphy had gained enough notoriety that all the local people wanted were his works of calligraphy. He had no plan to publish his poems, to promote himself in any way, or to encourage popularized stories detailing his uniqueness. He simply continued to live day by day, not as a unique figure but as someone authentic to his vow, living the dharma somewhat hidden away as a hermit priest. There’s not much to tell concerning his daily life, no drama to speak of as he climbed up and down the slope of his mountain refuge bearing the cold in winter and enduring the mosquitoes in summer.

Yet nearly 200 years after his death, Ryokan is known globally, and we hold him in high esteem. Our wish to know him might suggest our hunger, in these difficult times, to touch a rare, sainted life that is unabashedly simple. Perhaps we long to live fully in the courageous way that Ryokan did, to help us withstand with some grace the frictions and challenges that beset us. Ryokan is like each of us, standing at the mirror and facing those hard questions that life presents. How do we fully live our Buddhist values? How do we live the first precept, not killing life, in this age of chemistry, science, nuclear war, technology, self-comfort, and complacency? How do we contend with the mesmerizing influence of technology? How do we have the courage to make choices that are uncomfortable and unpopular? How do we save the world and at the same time honor our obligations? How do we go beyond the deceptions and dishonesties of our culture? I don’t believe for a moment that simply looking at Ryokan’s life can answer these monumental questions, but perhaps because his life is at such an extreme from our own, it causes us to ask questions about a larger world that must be asked even if they can never be answered.

As a practicing Buddhist, Ryokan followed the four noble truths and lived the Buddha’s prescription to acknowledge suffering, see its cause, and follow the way to overcome it. Having that prescription before us is still not enough to tame the poisons that cause suffering; the prescription has to be chewed up and swallowed and put into practice. Even after some of us do that, there will still be suffering. Ryokan himself said that no matter how hard he tried, he could not stop suffering in the world; yet he lived in the best way he could as a true mendicant on the Buddha’s way. The bodhisattva continues to try even when it seems impossible.

A civilized society does not run from itself but rather addresses the most compelling and difficult questions, for the sake of its own progress. Most of the questions we ought to ask can only be worked with as we stumble forward in the world we have created, aiming to alleviate suffering and to develop a healthier future for all sentient beings. The questions teach us and help us take a deeper look at how and what we are doing in this complex world. With incredibly hard work, we may realize the way to ease suffering. Ryokan and the life he chose represent a silent presence, a spirit of wisdom, as we bear witness to his surging life and try to alleviate the woes of existence.

Japan Temple Walls series; Kohfukuji 2
Japan Temple Walls series; Kohfukuji 2

Following the Way of Ryokan

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