Words: Victor Parachin
Ikkyu Sojun nicknamed himself “Crazy Cloud’ Ikkyu because he preferred to live, write and act in ways which challenged the conservative, traditional Japanese culture into which he was born in 1394. One of the most eccentric of Buddhist Zen teachers, he was known to drink too much, cavort with prostitutes, and frequently live as a homeless vagabond. In spite of his non-traditional style, he had a powerful influence upon Japan in the 15th century and one which continues to be felt.
Born in Kyoto (1394), Ikkyu’s birth was the result of an affair between emperor Go-Komatsu (1377–1433) and his seventeen year old lover. As news of an illegitimate child emerged and combined with concerns of royal succession, Ikkyu and his mother were exiled from the royal court and assigned to live in suburb of Kyoto. At the age of five, he was permanently separated from his mother and sent to a Zen temple to be raised. The separation was arranged by court officials who sought to limit completely any political considerations the boy might aspire to in later years.
Quickly, it was acknowledged that Ikkyu was a brilliant student, creative writer with an independent spirit. At the age of thirteen, Ikkyū published his first book of poetry. By the time he was sixteen, Ikkyu became appalled at the conduct of senior Zen monks who constantly colluded to gain prestige and power. He ran away from the temple. Though disgusted by those monks’ behaviour, he, nevertheless, valued Zen philosophy and sought out another Zen master, named Ken’o who gave him the name Sojun.
Master and student worked well together until Ken’o’s sudden death in 1414. Twenty year old Ikkyu performed the funeral rites for his teacher and then fasted for seven days. Upon the conclusion of his final responsibilities to his teacher, Ikkyu, despairing and lonely, attempted suicide by walking into a lake. Fortunately, his suicide attempt was aborted when he rescued and persuaded that his life was worth living in spite of the death of his beloved master. Before long Ikkyu found his second teacher, Kaso, who assigned Ikkyu to meditate on Zen koans. (A koan can be a riddle or a short, puzzling story used to help meditators abandon dependence on reason in favour of intuitive insights) After Ikkyu successfully penetrated a particularly difficult koan, Kaso honoured the young man by giving him the Zen name “Ikkyu”, meaning One Pause to commemorate the single moment when he gained insight into the difficult koan.
By the summer of 1420, Ikkyu felt confident enough to leave his teacher becoming a wandering ascetic, meditation teacher and freelance writer of poems as well as doing calligraphy and producing paintings. For more than three decades he wandered, taught, painted and wrote becoming well known as a Zen master. On one occasion a spiritual seeker asked Ikkyu to summarise, as briefly as possible, the essence of Zen. On a small sheet of paper, he carefully wrote one word – Attention. Disappointed in the answer, the seeker responded “Is that all?” So Ikkyu expanded with two words – Attention. Attention.
For periods of time, Ikkyu enjoyed living the life of a solitary hermit in a hut describing his experience in this poem:
I like it best when no one comes,
Preferring fallen leaves and swirling
flowers for company.
Just an old Zen monk living like he should,
A withered plum tree suddenly
sprouting a hundred blossoms.
Ikkyu adhered to the Tantric Buddhist view that the body is a source of enlightenment not an impediment. In keeping with this philosophy, Ikkyu became a patron of life’s pleasures spending his time inside alcoholic establishments, visiting brothels, and writing sensual poetry. Far ahead of his time, Ikkyu was a fervent feminist who included women as his students declaring they were social and intellectual equals to men. His writings also directed scathing criticisms at greedy politicians, incompetent rulers and hypocritical Zen monks. Both his lifestyle and writings were embraced by Japan’s artist community, who admired him and revered him in their songs and poems.
In his seventies he fell in love with Lady Shin, a blind musician, composer and singer. She was in her thirties. In spite of their age difference, the passionate relationship lasted until his death in 1481.
He left behind many works of art and writing including Kyounshu (The Crazy Cloud Collection), a compilation of more than one thousand Chinese poems.
Ikkyu has emerged becoming a favoured hero among Japanese children and young adults. He is the central character in a popular anime television program Ikkyyusan (The Little Monk). In the long running series, Ikkyu is presented as a little boy training to be a monk at an important Temple where he is portrayed as a mischievous
troublemaker who is always outsmarting teachers, challenging greedy, self-serving officials while helping others at the same time. His biography also appears in a magna, a Japanese graphic novel. It is tremendously popular not only in Japan but worldwide with translation available in Spanish, French, German, Catalan, and Italian. American best selling author Tom Robbins describes Ikkyu as his “idol”.
Victor M. Parachin, M. Div. (CYT) is an author, Vedic educator, yoga instructor, and Buddhist meditation teacher. He is the director of Tulsa Yoga Meditation Centre (USA). Victor researches and writes extensively about eastern spiritual philosophy and is the author of numerous books. His work is published regularly in YOGA Magazine. His latest book – ‘Think Like a Buddha: 108 Days of Mindfulness’ was published by Hohm Publishers.
WORD OF WISDOM FROM ‘CRAZY CLOUD IKKYU’
- Having no destination, I am never lost.
- We’re lost, born in delusions deeper than any mind. If you could escape awakening, you’d ripen like a pear, all by yourself.
- Many paths lead from the foot of the mountain, but at the peak we all gaze at the single bright moon.
- Why do people lavish decorations on this set of bones destined to disappear without a trace?
- Books, koans, sitting, miss the heart But not the fishermen’s songs. Rain pelts the river. I sing beyond all of it.
- Studying texts and stiff meditation can make you lose your Original Mind.
- I found my sparrow Sonrin dead one morning and buried him just as gently as I would my own daughter.
- Every day, priests minutely examine the Law and endlessly chant complicated sutras. Before doing that, though, they should learn how to read the love letters sent by the wind and rain, the snow and moon.
- Like vanishing dew, a passing apparition or the sudden flash of lightning – already gone – thus should one regard one’s self.
- If it rains, let it rain; if the wind blows, let it blow.
- No masters, only you. The master is you. Wonderful, eh?
- Peace isn’t luck. For six years stand facing a silent wall, Until the ‘you’ of your face, Melts like a candle.
- Very high clouds – Look! Not one word Helped them get up there.
- The vagaries of life, though painful teach us not to cling to this floating world.