The Striking Honesty of Ryokan

By Adam J. Pearson

PhotographStatue of Ryōkan from the Ryūsen-ji (隆泉寺) temple in Nagaoka, Niigata Japan

Speaking about the tendency of the human mind to attempt to think about subjects–like the fundamental nature of reality–that are essentially inconceivable, the Japanese monk Ryokan Taigu (良寛大愚) (1758–1831) once wrote:

Though I think not
To think about it,
I do think about it,
And shed tears
Thinking about it.

What makes this short verse so beautiful is its unabashed, tender, even vulnerable honesty.  This naked honesty is  one of the features of Ryokan’s writings that I love the most.  He knew his practice wasn’t perfect and he admitted it. He wrote about it. He put it into poetry. He saw the flaws in his practice as revelations of the same Suchness of reality that he always tried to express.

This feature of Ryokan’s writing sets him apart from the multitudes of flaky-fluffy modern pseudo-gurus who say things like “I am perfectly content at all times. I am never angry or disturbed. I can easily enter a thoughtless state and remain in it for 10 hours without the slightest bit of difficulty.”

I hear things like this and I begin to laugh so hard I think I’m going to burst. I just want to tell them: “Really? You’re perfectly content at all times? No matter what? Is this  the Corvette that you purchased using your disciples’ ‘donation’ money? You know what? I’m just going to spontaneously and effortlessly smash all the windows. There you go, there’s the windshield; wave bye-bye to its impermanent form. Oh yeah, what a beautiful smash! Just look at the Suchness of it. I’m breaking your windows and I Am That.  You know what they say, if you see the Buddha in a windshield, kill him.”

Now, I’m going to dump Sunny Delight into the engine and, what the heck, let’s just blow the whole thing up. All with perfect detachment, of course. How’s that? I’m feeling pretty content now, how about you? How’s your ‘thoughtless state‘ doing? You can’t press charges, you know. It wouldn’t be fair. Why? Because I wasn’t thinking, just like you. I was in my ‘perfectly thoughtless state.”

Of course, I’m being ridiculous here.  The difference is that I admit it.  I believe Ryokan would have done the same. I can imagine him writing a verse along the lines of:

The Buddha dharma 
Is a matter of life and death
A very serious matter,
And yet–I joke. 

Ryokan didn’t exaggerate his practice to make himself look good.  He didn’t pretend to be what and where he wasn’t; he spoke from the very heart  of his real experience, however pretty or imperfect it may be.  He didn’t claim to dwell in an unshakably thoughtless state at all times. No, he said what amounts to: “I have the thought that I should not think about it, but guess what: I think about it anyway. I even cry about it.” How different is that from the pretenders who put on a show of being perfect masters of all spiritual practices and elevated states?

To really distill the difference to a single sentence, the key point that sets Ryokan apart from the pretenders is this:
Ryokan spoke from his lived reality; spiritual pretenders speak from the reality they wish they were living.


See also Kobayashi Issa and the ‘And yet…’ of Human Existence.


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