* Ryokan (1758 - 1831)
Ryokan was a Buddhist monk of the Zen sect in the late Edo Period. He was also an accomplished composer of poetry, both in Chinese and in Japanese, and calligrapher.
Ryokan was born as Yamamoto Eizo. He took the tonsure at age 18, but never had his own temple; he was instead an itinerant monk who obtained his daily sustenance by begging. At age 34, he departed on a pilgrimage that took him through many provinces of Japan. He became versed in the Shingon (True Word), Jodo (Pure Land), and Nichiren sects of Buddhism as well as in the indigenous Shintoism. He died at age 74 in 1831.
Ryokan was born into the house of Tachibanaya Yamamoto in 1758 in the town of Izumozaki, Echigo province (present-day Izumozaki-machi, in the Santo district of Niigata Prefecture). The Yamamoto were a distinguished family, and Ryokan's father was both the town headman and a shipping agent. Ryokan was named Eizo, and was the first-born of four sons and three daughters. Besides being the town headman, his father Yasuo served as one of the Shinto priests at Ishii Shrine, and composed haiku poems under the pen name Inan.
When Eizo was seven years old, he began attending Sanpo-kan, a school run by Omori Shiyo, a scholar of Chinese learning, at Jizo-do (in what is now the district of Bunsui in city of Tsubame, Niigata). There, he enthusiastically studied the Chinese classics.
At age 18, Eizo was apprenticing to succeed his father as the headman, when he suddenly decided to become a monk. In preparation, he betook himself to Koshoji Temple, which belonged to the Soto school of Zen, at Shirise, and was tonsured there. At age 22, Koshoji received a visit from Kokusen, the superior of Entsuji Temple in Tamashima, Bitchu Province (the present-day city of Kurashiki in Okayama Prefecture). It was at this time that Eizo underwent the rites for ordination and was given the name Ryokan. Ardently admiring the lofty character of Kokusen, Ryokan studied under him at Entsuji Temple for about 12 years, before receiving his certification for teaching as a Zen monk himself. Ryokan then departed on a pilgrimage that took him to various provinces.
In 1796, Ryokan returned to Niigata. At age 47, he took up residence in a hermitage he named "Gogo-an" in Kokujoji Temple on Mount Kugami (located in today's Tsubame), and spent the next approximately 20 years there. He then moved to a hut in the precincts of Otogo Shrine, at the base of Mount Kugami. In 1826, he left Mount Kugami and moved to the house of Kimura, a distinguished family in the city of Shimazaki (present-day Nagaoka). It was around this time that he made the acquaintance of the Buddhist nun Teishin. The two shared compositions of waka poetry with each other and developed a heart-to-heart friendship that continued until Ryokan's death. Ryokan expired at the Kimura house in 1831 at age 74.
Ryokan was a monk of the Soto school of Zen Buddhism. He was faithful to the teachings of his master Dainin Kokusen and Dogen, the founder of the Soto school. All of his life, he never had a temple of his own and never married. He adhered strictly to the vow of poverty and lived simply.
Ryokan wrote more than 600 poems in Chinese, and is one of the foremost Japanese poets in this genre.
The surviving specimens of Ryokan's calligraphy contain mainly his own poems. They show he was a master of the square, semi-cursive, and cursive scripts as well as Japanese kana syllabary. Coupled with his letters, these works are praised as representing the acme of Japanese esthetics in calligraphy.
Ryokan composed about 100 haiku poems. Some of them are known around the world, such as the following one.
The winds gives me
Enough fallen leaves
To make a fire
(translated by John Stevens)
Ryokan sometimes bounced balls and played hide-and-seek with children, and there are many anecdotes about his doings. He endeared himself to both young and old. The deep humanity permeating his Zen outlook, poetry, calligraphy, and behavior still command the love and respect of many people.
The city of Tsubame is the place where Ryokan underwent Zen training and reached maturity in his artistic endeavors. It is the site of the Gogo-an hermitage and Otogo Shrine hut where Ryokan lived for many years, and the Nakamura house where he stayed while attending the school run by Omori Shiyo. It also contains the houses of the Abe, Kera, and Harada families, whose heads were fellow-poets and supporters of Ryokan. Visitors may find sites associated with Ryokan and monuments inscribed with his poems in many parts of the city. We urge you to come and see for yourself!
The Bunsui Ryokan Archive collection
Ryokan iai no kazarimari
A decorative temari ball with which Ryokan used to play
Ryokan shofuku "Sakura no uta"
"Song of the Cherry" hanging scroll with calligraphy by Ryokan
Ryokan temari no zu
A painting of Ryokan bouncing the temari ball