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Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan

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Ryokan (1758–1831) is, along with Dogen and Hakuin, one of the three giants of Zen in Japan. But unlike his two renowned colleagues, Ryokan was a societal dropout, living mostly as a hermit and a beggar. He was never head of a monastery or temple. He liked playing with children. He had no dharma heir. Even so, people recognized the depth of his realization, and he was soug Ryokan (1758–1831) is, along with Dogen and Hakuin, one of the three giants of Zen in Japan. But unlike his two renowned colleagues, Ryokan was a societal dropout, living mostly as a hermit and a beggar. He was never head of a monastery or temple. He liked playing with children. He had no dharma heir. Even so, people recognized the depth of his realization, and he was sought out by people of all walks of life for the teaching to be experienced in just being around him. His poetry and art were wildly popular even in his lifetime. He is now regarded as one of the greatest poets of the Edo Period, along with Basho, Buson, and Issa. He was also a master artist-calligrapher with a very distinctive style, due mostly to his unique and irrepressible spirit, but also because he was so poor he didn’t usually have materials: his distinctive thin line was due to the fact that he often used twigs rather than the brushes he couldn’t afford. He was said to practice his brushwork with his fingers in the air when he didn’t have any paper. There are hilarious stories about how people tried to trick him into doing art for them, and about how he frustrated their attempts. As an old man, he fell in love with a young Zen nun who also became his student. His affection for her colors the mature poems of his late period. This collection contains more than 140 of Ryokan’s poems, with selections of his art, and of the very funny anecdotes about him.


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Ryokan (1758–1831) is, along with Dogen and Hakuin, one of the three giants of Zen in Japan. But unlike his two renowned colleagues, Ryokan was a societal dropout, living mostly as a hermit and a beggar. He was never head of a monastery or temple. He liked playing with children. He had no dharma heir. Even so, people recognized the depth of his realization, and he was soug Ryokan (1758–1831) is, along with Dogen and Hakuin, one of the three giants of Zen in Japan. But unlike his two renowned colleagues, Ryokan was a societal dropout, living mostly as a hermit and a beggar. He was never head of a monastery or temple. He liked playing with children. He had no dharma heir. Even so, people recognized the depth of his realization, and he was sought out by people of all walks of life for the teaching to be experienced in just being around him. His poetry and art were wildly popular even in his lifetime. He is now regarded as one of the greatest poets of the Edo Period, along with Basho, Buson, and Issa. He was also a master artist-calligrapher with a very distinctive style, due mostly to his unique and irrepressible spirit, but also because he was so poor he didn’t usually have materials: his distinctive thin line was due to the fact that he often used twigs rather than the brushes he couldn’t afford. He was said to practice his brushwork with his fingers in the air when he didn’t have any paper. There are hilarious stories about how people tried to trick him into doing art for them, and about how he frustrated their attempts. As an old man, he fell in love with a young Zen nun who also became his student. His affection for her colors the mature poems of his late period. This collection contains more than 140 of Ryokan’s poems, with selections of his art, and of the very funny anecdotes about him.

30 review for Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan

  1. 5 out of 5

    Eadweard

    On a grass pillow, my journey’s lodging changes night by night. Dreams of my village remain. --- Arriving here at this village, peach blossoms in full bloom. Red petals reflect on the river. --- See and realize that this world is not permanent. Neither late nor early flowers will remain. --- Past has passed away. Future has not arrived. Present does not remain. Nothing is reliable; everything must change. You hold on to letters and names in vain, forcing yourself to believe in them. Stop chasing new knowledge. Leave old On a grass pillow, my journey’s lodging changes night by night. Dreams of my village remain. --- Arriving here at this village, peach blossoms in full bloom. Red petals reflect on the river. --- See and realize that this world is not permanent. Neither late nor early flowers will remain. --- Past has passed away. Future has not arrived. Present does not remain. Nothing is reliable; everything must change. You hold on to letters and names in vain, forcing yourself to believe in them. Stop chasing new knowledge. Leave old views behind. Study the essential and then see through it. When there is nothing left to see through, then you will know your mistaken views. --- In an autumn field, hundreds of grasses burst into bloom. Kneeling down, a male deer cries. --- Reflection on leaving the household I came to the mountain to avoid hearing the sound of waves. Lonesome now in another way— wind in the pine forest. --- I sit facing you, but you utter no words. Although no words, feelings abound. Books and their cases are scattered near the bed. Rain patters on plum blossoms outside the bamboo screen. --- Although from the beginning I knew the world is impermanent, not a moment passes when my sleeves are dry. --- In the mountain shade, water in the moss drips between rocks. I feel a glimmer of clarity. --- "In the middle of summer, Ryokan announced: “I will air the entire Buddhist canon in the Five Scoop Hut. Please come and see.” The villagers went to the hut, but there were no books of the canon; only Ryokan, lying naked. On his drum-like belly was written the phrase “Entire canon.” The villagers were dumbfounded."

  2. 4 out of 5

    Jessaka

    On a quiet evening in my thatch-roofed hut, alone I play a lute with no string. Its melody enters wind and cloud, mingles deeply with a flowing stream, fills out the dark valley, blows through the vast forest, then disappears. Other than those who hear emptiness, who will capture this rare sound? When I lived in Berkeley back in the 70s, I used to walk through neighborhoods at night, and I could often hear someone play the fluke from their apartment window. I wanted so much to learn, but I couldn't afford a go On a quiet evening in my thatch-roofed hut, alone I play a lute with no string. Its melody enters wind and cloud, mingles deeply with a flowing stream, fills out the dark valley, blows through the vast forest, then disappears. Other than those who hear emptiness, who will capture this rare sound? When I lived in Berkeley back in the 70s, I used to walk through neighborhoods at night, and I could often hear someone play the fluke from their apartment window. I wanted so much to learn, but I couldn't afford a good flute. I bought a Native American made flute after moving to the Indian Nation in 2006, but after my first lesson, I came down with bronchitis. I gave it up.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Anima

    “Within this serene snowfall One billion worlds Arise. In each, Flurries come floating down “ “Brush lines In a letter to a dear friend Turn out beautifully. A moment of Joy”

  4. 4 out of 5

    Katherine Davis

    Master Ryokan's poetry is startling and moving. In fact, I made this purchase because when I read the title, I burst into tears. After reading the book front to back, I continue to reread poems here and there throughout my day. It amazes me how writing that is ~200 years old and translated into another language can hold so much power and create so much yearning.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Fran

    I had the wonderful good fortune of getting to know Kaz Tanahashi Sensei this past weekend when he taught a Brush workshop at my dojo. This book was a gift from him and without a doubt, there are treasures within its pages. It will be a pleasure to read. Later... The first read through of this lovely little book is done. Learned there are so many elements to reading Ryokan's poems (that must make it a huge challenge to translate into another language). The script is filled with nuances, breaks tha I had the wonderful good fortune of getting to know Kaz Tanahashi Sensei this past weekend when he taught a Brush workshop at my dojo. This book was a gift from him and without a doubt, there are treasures within its pages. It will be a pleasure to read. Later... The first read through of this lovely little book is done. Learned there are so many elements to reading Ryokan's poems (that must make it a huge challenge to translate into another language). The script is filled with nuances, breaks that emanate from it as a picture/poetry written in the moment. Then there are the layers of Ryokan's life and practice. And how all this is interpreted and translated is another matter of consequence.

  6. 4 out of 5

    David Peirce

    This book is a small collection of the reclusive, Japanese Zen monk Ryokan’s poetry. (Ryokan lived in the early 19th century. I won't go into his biography.) It is not just a compendium, however. The introduction to the book presents a biography of Ryokan. In the context of this linear look at his life, his poetry and calligraphy are also introduced. Ryokan studied and practiced Japanese poetry forms and calligraphy throughout his adult life. He became a master of both and developed his own voic This book is a small collection of the reclusive, Japanese Zen monk Ryokan’s poetry. (Ryokan lived in the early 19th century. I won't go into his biography.) It is not just a compendium, however. The introduction to the book presents a biography of Ryokan. In the context of this linear look at his life, his poetry and calligraphy are also introduced. Ryokan studied and practiced Japanese poetry forms and calligraphy throughout his adult life. He became a master of both and developed his own voice in which he was free to alter accepted forms in both to serve his artistry and expression. With the introduction as a biographical and artistic backdrop, the poems then beautifully illustrate his life’s story. They capture his devotion to the Soto Zen of Dogen, his lonely life in a small hut on the side of a mountain, his interaction with the villagers, his poverty, his frustration with the shallowness of Buddhist monastic life, his appreciation of nature, and his joy in playing with children, and his Zen practice. Kazuaki Tanahashi, who compiled this collection, wrote in the Introduction of Ryokan, “Because he did not strive to become free, he was always free from attainment—even from attainment of freedom.” It might be best to let just a few of Ryokan’s poems provide some glimpses of the color of this collection. On his lonely life in poverty: Geese and ducks have flown away, abandoning me. How happy I am that tofu has no wings! My lodging is bamboo poles and a straw mat screen. Kindly throw down a cup of cheap sake. His empathy for parents after a smallpox outbreak claimed many children’s lives: If I die of this unbearable grief, I may run into my child on the way to another world. On Zen itself: How could we discuss this and that without knowing the whole world is reflected in a single pearl? Falling blossoms. Blossoms in bloom are also falling blossoms. I don’t tell the murky world to turn pure. I purify myself and check my reflection in the water of the valley brook. Reflecting over seventy years, I am tired of judging right from wrong. Faint traces of a path trodden in deep night snow. A stick of incense under the rickety window. And perhaps my favorite, one that I return to again and again: Like the little stream Making its way Through the mossy crevices I, too, quietly Turn clear and transparent. It's a lovely collection that beautifully portrays the mind and art of one of Zen's most important figures.

  7. 5 out of 5

    rosamund

    Ryokan was born in 1758, almost 100 years after Basho, and lived an austere and solitary life as a hermit and zen monk. This book contains a selection of poems, divided by periods of Ryokan's life, and an introduction and explanatory notes compiled by the translator, Kazuaki Tanahashi. The introduction gives the reader a sense of Ryokan's lonely life, his place among other Japanese poets, and an insight into his personality. Ryokan was called "the great fool" because of his slovenly appearance, Ryokan was born in 1758, almost 100 years after Basho, and lived an austere and solitary life as a hermit and zen monk. This book contains a selection of poems, divided by periods of Ryokan's life, and an introduction and explanatory notes compiled by the translator, Kazuaki Tanahashi. The introduction gives the reader a sense of Ryokan's lonely life, his place among other Japanese poets, and an insight into his personality. Ryokan was called "the great fool" because of his slovenly appearance, the joy he took in playing with children, and his enthusiasm for simple pleasures, such as playing with toys. One anecdote describes Ryokan picking lice out of his clothes all day, only to return them in the evening! But Ryokan was also an accomplished artist and calligrapher, and his poetry and art were much admired in his lifetime. He lived a life of austere poverty because of his commitment to Buddhism and zen practice. The explanatory notes in this book are excellent, and the translations, to my inexperienced ears, seemed precise and evocative. Ryokan writes waka (poems of five lines), haiku (poems of three lines) and longer contemplative pieces. It was interesting for me to compare Ryokan's work with that of more secular Japanese poets,such as Issa or Bosun. While Buddhist thought certainly comes into their work, they are not monks, and their poems are less focused on a Buddhist way of life. Ryokan's longer poems are frequently about his dissatisfaction with other Buddhist monks, and details of Buddhist thoughts. Despite the translator's helpful notes, I found these poem inaccessible and vague. English-language poetry usually focuses on the explicit and immediate rather than the general -- Ryokan's longer poems in particular lacked immediacy for me. For example, "The myriad phenomena are altogether serene. / After the bell sounds the fifth night period, / a voice chants in harmony with the trickling fountain. " This is a section from one of Ryokan's longer poems, and I struggle to visualise phrases such as "the myriad phenomena." The shorter poems are often very beautiful. Ryokan has a witty voice and a keen eye for details. A few short lines can create a memorable scene, as in all the best haiku. For example Walking to a neighbour's bath, clogs clatter loudly -- winter moon. This whole scene comes to life for me! The anticipation of a hot bath, the frosty air, the wooden clogs clattering on cold, hard ground, the crisp brightness of a winter moon. It is an image one can meditate on and return to in one's thoughts. Ryokan is keenly aware of the loneliness and transience of life, and writes hopeful waka that remind us of our place in the universe -- I don't regard my life as insufficient. Inside the brushwood gate there is a moon; there are flowers. He comes across as a tender figure -- a series of poems about children afflicted with smallpox shows his compassion and empathy. He struggles deeply with his paths in life, and gives us no answers -- How can I sustain my life? So far, winter this year has been brutal. This short poems give the reader the immediacy and depth of feeling that some of the longer poems lack. I do not find Ryokan's work as accessible or accomplished as that of the great haiku poets such as Basho, Bosun and Issa, but I am very glad I encountered his work. He gives an account of a way of life totally foreign to most of us, and moment of deep insights.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Thomas

    The poems of Ryokan reflect an innocence that comes from the strength of spiritual experience. From one perspective (a modern, Western one, I suppose) Ryokan was so naive as to appear childish, and perhaps he was, but he wrote that way purposely, and with a purpose. The poems teach silently, surreptitiously, in the way of the best teachers. The anecdotes are amusing, but they seem to be a bit of a sideshow. Better to listen to Ryokan than to hear about him.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Mark

    This is another book of Zen poetry that I truly enjoyed. Ryokan was a wandering Zen Master and poet of Japan. I posted my full review at Epinions. Ryokan Sky Above, Great Wind The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan This is another book of Zen poetry that I truly enjoyed. Ryokan was a wandering Zen Master and poet of Japan. I posted my full review at Epinions. Ryokan Sky Above, Great Wind The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan

  10. 4 out of 5

    Henneke

    My favorite Haiku Master...

  11. 4 out of 5

    Caroline

    Nice biography of Ryokan. Focus on his calligraphy. Selection of poems from various periods of his life. I liked the late period best; less carping about practice, more nature and observation.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Andrew

    I may reread this later as I am sure I didn't appreciate it as much as I should, though generally I would only recommend to folks who are students of poetry or the history of Zen. Novel teachings were few for me though there were two. The first was 'give and receive food the way you give and receive the dharma'. The second was the autobiographical content of a true aescetic. It makes you realize you can enjoy large parts of life with nearly nothing. I would speculate this, like probably most poe I may reread this later as I am sure I didn't appreciate it as much as I should, though generally I would only recommend to folks who are students of poetry or the history of Zen. Novel teachings were few for me though there were two. The first was 'give and receive food the way you give and receive the dharma'. The second was the autobiographical content of a true aescetic. It makes you realize you can enjoy large parts of life with nearly nothing. I would speculate this, like probably most poetry would be better in it's native language. As is it kind of sounds like the Twitter feed of a monk. (as the poems tend to be short. though to be fair much more content rich then Twitter ). Last thing to note is a good chunk of this book is not poetry. it's an essay on the life of Ryokan, analysis of brush strokes, etc.

  13. 4 out of 5

    B.

    This is part history book, part poetry book, part biography. I would not classify this as a bad book at all, but I just didn’t get anything from it that I was looking for...which is my own problem because as Zen teaches, nothing should have a goal...therefore, it just wasn’t for me. If you like haiku, Japanese history and a look into the lives of men(in specific One man)who follow traditions of the Buddha zealously, check out this book, but beware, it is replete with contradictions-no attachment This is part history book, part poetry book, part biography. I would not classify this as a bad book at all, but I just didn’t get anything from it that I was looking for...which is my own problem because as Zen teaches, nothing should have a goal...therefore, it just wasn’t for me. If you like haiku, Japanese history and a look into the lives of men(in specific One man)who follow traditions of the Buddha zealously, check out this book, but beware, it is replete with contradictions-no attachment but unrequited love, a man that begs but also yearns, attachments to places and people, etc....people are people, zen can only take you so far

  14. 4 out of 5

    Matt Miles

    Ryokan’s poetry of varying styles and lengths are definitely the star of and the reason for reading this book. Each poem says more in an image or feeling than many books about impermanence, grief, loss, loneliness, enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures and moments, and more. The background information and amusing anecdotes humanize this peaceful literary genius as a simple and flawed person as well known for his antics as his poetry. Even without the aforementioned antics, however, the poetry wou Ryokan’s poetry of varying styles and lengths are definitely the star of and the reason for reading this book. Each poem says more in an image or feeling than many books about impermanence, grief, loss, loneliness, enjoyment of life’s simple pleasures and moments, and more. The background information and amusing anecdotes humanize this peaceful literary genius as a simple and flawed person as well known for his antics as his poetry. Even without the aforementioned antics, however, the poetry would have been worth the read. This fool could write.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Amer Cuca

    I'm not a calligrapher myself but it's still interesting to read this book whic talks about Ryokan's calligraphy work. It also talks about his poetry and his life. It's nicely written and fun to read. Ryokan was indeed a very interesting character and this book present this quite well. The book does require a bit of knowledge about Zen or characters such as Dogen, Hakuin and their work but then again, I think that people who find this book usually know a bit about these things.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Aaron Majors

    A beautiful set of poems, writings, and stories about and by zen monk Ryōkan. This was a quick read and I enjoyed the writer’s raw creativity and ability to synthesize daily life with zen/Buddhist teachings. A fascinating man from a fascinating time. Additionally, Tanahashi himself is a master calligrapher, and he does a brilliant job in presenting this material with proper context and treatment.

  17. 5 out of 5

    Laurel

    Sky Above, Great Wind is a lovely introduction into the life and works of Ryokan. Replete with amusing anecdotes of his life, the biographical sections were anything but dull. Ultimately, though, it's his poems themselves which resonate most. His experiences and emotions are not confined to that world or time, but are universal. I can't express the profundity of his writings.

  18. 4 out of 5

    Aad Kamsteeg

    The collection of a great Japanese poet. Typically one of those books that’s never read to be finished, it embodies a life time of superb poetry writing, so it is jusified for a lifetime of reading as well. Keep the slider to 99% for ever.

  19. 5 out of 5

    bibliotekker Holman

    A great compendium of the life and works of one of the world's great poets. Ryokan, like Basho and many of their Chinese counterparts were not only writers of spare, reflective poetry full of power, but their unique lives were also a sort of poetic expression that reverberates to this day.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Moonshine

    This one I will re-re-read.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Harrison Richards

    Autumn advances and I become a bit sad closing the gate to my hut.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Bryan

    great book, ryokan is such an interesting and hilarious person, and i loved reading about his life.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Helfren Filex

    The journey of Ryokan and his poem form of Haiku which originated in Japan many decades ago. The beginning was fine but in the middle to the end, the book seems just way too short.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Abhijeet

    Contemplative & relaxing. Contemplative & relaxing.

  25. 5 out of 5

    Anton Koval

    Anecdotes of his life are even more fun than poetry itself.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Malum

    An interesting biography and collection of poems from a very interesting and eccentric Buddhist monk.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Aalok Ghimire

    Tears. Tears. Absolutely, unbearably, painfully beautiful.

  28. 4 out of 5

    aurkihnowe

    like a mini dharma talk crossed with a poetry collection crossed with a biography, this short audiobook has inspired me each time (which have been several) i've heard it...Ryokan's spirit soars through the pages as he demonstrates the dharma through his everyday being (which especially his actions, empathetic, wise/foolish, and often comical)...I'll not include any poems here, as you should discover them for yourselves, except this one.. the thief left it behind the moon at my window written after like a mini dharma talk crossed with a poetry collection crossed with a biography, this short audiobook has inspired me each time (which have been several) i've heard it...Ryokan's spirit soars through the pages as he demonstrates the dharma through his everyday being (which especially his actions, empathetic, wise/foolish, and often comical)...I'll not include any poems here, as you should discover them for yourselves, except this one.. the thief left it behind the moon at my window written after he came to his hut and found it denuded of property...anyone who can take the loss of possessions so gracefully is definitely some kind of wise man, or holy fool, as some have called him... really the only boring parts are the descriptions of calligraphy, examples of which, while they may be in the print edition, are lost in the reading (excellently interpreted by Brian Nishii).... in a few poems Ryokan talks of the foolishness of dreaming/worrying about gain and loss, which, in our hyper acquisitive times (money, property, collectables, even "likes" on social media) rings like fresh air in the ear....not that worrying about these things, liking to be liked, disliking to be derised, are bad, but to be caught up in them to the point of distraction, are considered foolish (not just by Ryokan)... recommended for neophytes to zen or buddhism in general (although, of course, those of any spiritual bent can benefit from Ryokan's example(s) after another, more thorough listen (i've mostly listened to this 2 1/2 hour audiobook while at work, which can lead to missing by distraction some key parts...

  29. 5 out of 5

    Victor Negut

    Not memorable which probably means I didn’t quite get it, or I was not in the right frame of mind at the time. I will have to come back to this later to form a better opinion

  30. 5 out of 5

    Parrish Lantern

    Within this serene snowfall - Master ( Taigu) Ryokan Within this serene snowfall one billion worlds arise. in each, flurries come floating down. In these few words, a fool, Zen master & philosopher, artist and child paints his world view. Ryokan is considered one of the giants of Zen, but he led no school, or left an heir to pass on his style. His poetry is up there with Issa, Buson & Basho as was his calligraphy and yet he gave it away to children, even the title of this collection came from somethi Within this serene snowfall - Master ( Taigu) Ryokan Within this serene snowfall one billion worlds arise. in each, flurries come floating down. In these few words, a fool, Zen master & philosopher, artist and child paints his world view. Ryokan is considered one of the giants of Zen, but he led no school, or left an heir to pass on his style. His poetry is up there with Issa, Buson & Basho as was his calligraphy and yet he gave it away to children, even the title of this collection came from something he wrote on a child's kite. This was a man who disassociated himself from all religious institutions, yet came to be seen as one of the greatest figures in the history of Zen Buddhism in Japan. A Poet who wrote Who calls my poems, poems My poems are not poems Only when you know my poems are not poems can we together speak about poems. and yet this collection contains around 140 poems. Ryokan may seemed to be a mass of contradictions, or just a whole man, who recognised the many worlds he inhabited. http://parrishlantern.blogspot.co.uk/...

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