Ikkyu Sojun: Zen Master

Crazy Cloud Zen Master

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Ikkyu (Inset) and His Calligraphy.

Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1481) remains one of the most famous and popular Zen masters of Japanese history. He has even been portrayed in Japanese anime and manga.

Ikkyu broke rules, and molds, and called himself "Crazy Cloud." For a large part of his life he avoided monasteries in favor of wandering. In one of his poems he wrote,

If some day you get around to looking for me,
Try the fish-shop, the wine parlor, or the brothel.

 Who was Ikkyu?

Early Life

Ikkyu was born near Kyoto to a lady of the court who was disgraced by the pregnancy. There is speculation he was the son of the Emperor, but no one really knows. At the age of five, he was given to a Rinzai Zen temple in Kyoto, where he was educated in Chinese culture, language, poetry and art.

At 13 he entered the larger Kennin-ji temple in Kyoto to study with a well-known poet-monk named Botetsu. He gained skill as a poet but was unhappy with the cliquey and superficial atmosphere he found in the temple.

At the age of 16, he left Kennin-ji and took up residence in a small temple on Lake Biwa, near Kyoto, with only one other monk named Keno, who was devoted to zazen practice. When Ikkyu was only 21 Keno died, leaving Ikkyu in despair. The young monk considered drowning himself in Lake Biwa, but was talked out of it.

He found another teacher named Kaso who, like Keno, preferred simple, ascetic living, rigorous practice and koan contemplation to the politics of Kyoto.

However, his years with Kaso were marred by a rivalry with Kaso's other senior student, Yoso, who seems not to have appreciated Ikkyu's attitude.

According to legend, Ikkyu often took a boat out on Lake Biwa to meditate through the night, and on one night the cawing of a crow triggered a great awakening experience.

Kaso confirmed Ikkyu's realization and made him a lineage holder, or a part of his teacher's lineage. Ikkyu threw the lineage documents into a fire, it is said, either out of humility or because he felt he didn't need anyone's confirmation.

Nevertheless, Ikkyu stayed with Kaso until the older teacher died. Then Yoso became abbot of the temple, and Ikkyu left. He was 33 years old.

A Wandering Life

At this point in Zen history, Rinzai Zen enjoyed the favor of the Shogun and the patronage of samurai and aristocrats. To some Rinzai monks, institutional Rinzai had become political and corrupt, and they kept their distance from the main temples in Kyoto.

Ikkyu's solution was to wander, which is what he did for nearly 30 years. He spent most of his time in the general areas around Kyoto and Osaka, making friends with people of all walks of life. He gave teachings wherever he went to whoever seemed amenable. He wrote poetry and, yes, visited wine shops and brothels.

There are a great many anecdotes about Ikkyu. This is a personal favorite:

Once when Ikkyu was crossing a lake on a ferry, a Shingon priest approached him. "I can do something you can't, Zen monk," the priest said, and caused an apparition of Fudo, a fierce dharma protector of Buddhist iconography, to appear in the prow of the boat.

Ikkyu regarded the image solemnly, then declared, "With this very body I will cause this apparition to disappear." Then he peed on it, and put it out.

On another time, he was begging house to house wearing patched old monk's robes, and a wealthy man gave him a half penny. He returned some time later wearing the formal robes of a Zen master, and the man invited him inside and asked him to stay for dinner. But when the sumptuous dinner was served, Ikkyu stripped off his robes and left them in his seat, saying that the food had been offered to the robes, not to him.

Later Years

At about the age of 60, he finally settled down. He had managed to attract disciples in spite of himself, and they built him a hermitage next to an old temple he restored.

Well, he settled down up to a point. In his old age, he enjoyed an open and passionate relationship with a blind singer named Mori, to whom he dedicated many erotic poems about the wonders she had performed to revive his "jade stalk."

Japan suffered a brutal civil war from 1467 to 1477, and during this time Ikkyu was recognized for his work to help those who suffered because of the war. Kyoto was especially devastated by the war, and a Rinzai temple called Daitokuji had been destroyed. He rallied the help of old friends to rebuild it.

In his final years, the lifelong rebel and iconoclast was given the ultimate establishment job -- he was named abbot of Daitokuji. But he preferred to live in his hermitage, where he died at the age of 87.