Haiku – The Magic and The Mastery of Ryōkan

It took me awhile to understand the art of haiku. My disparagement and indifference were products of  ignorance and lack of knowledge. As a child, I would listen to grownups making fun of haiku poetry, trying to glue together few simple words without any coherent meaning, deluding themselves thinking the secrets of haiku would be revealed to their unengaged souls. But as with all things distant and unknown, only when you allow yourself to grow and learn, can you perceive and appreciate the hidden beauty and wisdom.

There are very few works of art that deeply touched me throughout my life, pushing me to rethink and question the choices I make, the way I see the world around me.

It happened suddenly and unexpectedly, I was ambushed by few simple lines. Like a fish on a hook, I was dragged onward, trying to free myself, entangling ever deeper. The words haunted me for days, always vibrating in the corner of my mind, asking to be noticed, encouraging me to learn more. When I first heard the words, I hastily  wrote those lines on a simple piece of paper, both in fear of losing that feeling that overwhelmed me and in need to comprehend.

Ryokan - Haiku

The thief left it behind:
The moon
At my window.

There is a story behind these words, written by one of the most beloved Japanese poets, Ryōkan. One evening a thief visited Ryōkan’s hut at the base of the mountain only to discover there was nothing to steal. Ryōkan returned and caught him. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away. Ryōkan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.”


Ryōkan: Self-Portrait

Ryōkan Taigu was a quiet and eccentric Sōtō Zen Buddhist monk. A contemporary of Mozart,  living on the opposite sides of the world and completely different ways of life, they shared astounding amount of genius and creativity.

He was born as Eizō Yamamoto in the year 1758. in the village of Izumozaki, in the cold and isolated  Echigo Province. His father was a merchant and the village elder, who passed on to his son a love of poetry. Ryokan’s quiet childhood included both literature and religion, and his reticent nature rebelled at the notion of succeeding his father in business and politics. Ryōkan renounced the world at an early age to train at nearby Sōtō Zen temple Kōshō-ji, where he met visiting Zen master Kokusen and became his disciple , and the two continued their lives in Entsū-ji monastery in Tamashima . He was originally ordained as Ryōkan Taigu, which would translate as “broad-hearted generous fool”, reflecting the  qualities that Ryōkan’s work and life embodies.

After Kokusen death, some twenty years later, Ryōkan, now in his forties, embarked on a long pilgrimage and never returned to monastic life, his decision probably influenced by aggressive reforming of the Sōtō school. Only in 1804 did he settle down on Mt. Kugami, where he stayed for many years. He lived much of the rest of his life as a hermit and spent much of his time writing poetry, calligraphy, and communing with nature. He saw the poverty of his hut as a projection of his own voluntary station. More often than not, he suffered hardships.

No flame in the lamp nor charcoal in the fireplace;
Lying in bed, listening to the sound of the freezing rain. …
Lying in my freezing hut, unable to sleep.


Gogō-an, the modern replica of the cottage where Ryōkan lived from 1804 to 1816

Guests could expect little more than “weak tea and thin soup.” Still, Ryōkan wrote:

Don’t say my hut has nothing to offer
come and I will share with you
the cool breeze that fills my window.

His hut and his hermit way of living represented a microcosm of life and the universe.  It is the backdrop for the continuance  of existence, which he so perceptively depicted in his work.

My life is like an old run-down hermitage
poor, simple, quiet.

In 1826. Ryōkan became ill and was unable to continue living alone. He moved into the house of one of his patrons, Kimura Motouemon and was cared for by a young nun called Teishin, forty years his junior. They struck a curious friendship and exchanged a series of haiku.

Was it really you
I saw
Or is this joy
I still feel
only a dream?

In this dream world
We doze
And talk of dreams —
Dream, dream on,
As much as you wish

Here with you
I could remain
For countless days and years
Silent as the bright moon
We watched together

Have you forgotten me
Or lost the path here?
I wait for you
All day, every day
But you do not appear

The moon, I’m sure
Is shining brightly
High above the mountains
But gloomy clouds
Shroud the peak in darkness

You must rise above
The gloomy clouds
Covering the mountaintop
Otherwise, how will you
Ever see the brightness?

In a book “Great Fool: Zen master Ryōkan: poems, letters, and other writings” translated by  Ryūichi Abé and Peter Haskel, it is noted: “The [first] visit left them both exhilarated, and led to a close relationship that brightened Ryōkan’s final years.” When an earthquake occurred at Echigo-Sanjo, he sent her a letter that said “It is good to suffer a misfortune when suffering a misfortune.”

Ryōkan Taigu died in 1831.  “Teishin records that Ryōkan, seated in meditation posture, died ‘just as if he were falling asleep.'”

He is remembered for the depth of his enlightenment that manifested in the spirit of acceptance and equality that he showed to all without a difference,  from respected officials to scorned prostitutes. He played with children, composed poetry in praise of nature, was renowned for his calligraphy, lived in spartan simplicity, and showed love for all living things.


Ryōkan is considered one of the giants of Zen, but he led no school, or left an heir to pass on his style. 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 says my poems are poems?
My poems are not poems.
When you know that my poems are not poems,
Then we can speak of poetry.

and yet his work contains around 140 poems. Ryōkan  may seemed to be a mass of contradictions, but the more likely simple truth is that he was a whole man, who recognised the many worlds he inhabited.

Kazuaki Tanahashi, in the Introduction of his collection “Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryōkan ” wrote: “Because he did not strive to become free, he was always free from attainment—even from attainment of freedom.”

But maybe the great master himself best described the essence of his life and of living in general:

I have nothing to report, my friends.
If you want to find the meaning,
Stop chasing after so many things.


Statue of Ryōkan, Izumozaki, Niigata Prefecture

I am not a fool to claim my knowledge of art of haiku is more than average, but I am foll enough to believe that I discovered a piece of magic and hidden beauty of life through deceptively simple poetry of one of the greatest poets of all times.