SKY ABOVE, GREAT WIND: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan

Kazuaki Tanahashi
Shambhala ($17.95)
by Justin Wadland

Children flocked around Ryokan when he came on his begging rounds through the village near his home. To them, he was the monk who joined into their play as if he himself was a child. One of Ryokan’s poems expresses how he abandoned himself to such activities:

Day by day, day by day, and day by day,
quietly in the company of children I live.
In my sleeves, tiny embroidered balls, two or
Useless, intoxicated, in this peaceful spring.

The word “zen” has entered the vernacular as an adjective often used to denote calm detachment, but in Kazuaki Tanahashi’s new translation and overview of the life and work of Ryokan, this man of Zen is not detached but radically engaged and deeply compassionate.

Ryokan lived from 1758 to 1831, during a time when Japan was largely closed to the outside world. He trained as a monk for ten years, but it is the ordinary details of his existence as an eccentric hermit and mendicant monk afterward that appear in his poems and the anecdotes about him. He listens to crickets from his mountain hermitage. At a tea ceremony, he picks his nose and wipes snot on a cushion. He sleeps under a mosquito net not to protect himself but the insects, leaving one leg exposed so that they too might get sustenance. Ragged and poorly dressed, he is often mistaken for a thief and a criminal. Famous for his calligraphy, he will not produce it on command, but when a child asks him to write something upon a kite, Ryokan composes, “Sky Above, Great Wind.” He longs for times past and admonishes his fellow monks for their dissembling and pride. Of himself, he writes:

If someone asks
about the mind of this monk,
say that it is no more than
a passage of wind
in the vast sky.

Yet his sleeves are often damp from dew and his own tears. When smallpox takes the lives of children in the nearby village, he embodies in his poems the unbearable grief of their parents.

Within Zen poetry of Japan, there are levels of expression that are nearly impossible to translate. In the original, the calligraphy itself and the language of the poem unite to convey the insight of the poet. Since Ryokan wrote in cursive, using a poetic style that was antiquated in his own time, contemporary Japanese readers might even have difficulty understanding his poems. Kazuaki Tanahashi—who was born in Japan but has lived much of his life in the United States—seems uniquely qualified as a translator to provide English readers a glimpse of the generous spirit and open mind of Ryokan. Just a few years ago, he completed a monumental project to translate Zen master Dogen’s major work, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye. Thus, he can not only comment on the influence of Dogen on Ryokan’s poetry but articulate the role of Zen in Ryokan’s aesthetic: “Although there is no evidence that he used one of his Buddhist names, Daigu (Great Fool), [Ryokan] was indeed a great fool—having practiced Zen intensively and being well versed in literature but showing no trace of his achievement.”

Even more significantly, Tanahashi is a renowned brush artist in his own right and brings a trained eye to Ryokan’s calligraphy, explaining it in a way that previous translations have not. For example, he explicates the technique on display in the calligraphy of “Sky Above, Great Wind,” noting how its flaws reveal the quality of Ryokan’s art: “We see vast freedom in his childlike brushstrokes, which demonstrate that Ryokan was a child when he was with children.” In the final section of the book, a chapter on Ryokan’s poetic forms, Tanahashi combines his experience as a translator and artist to give an invaluable glimpse into the challenges of translating Ryokan. It may be the closest in English one might get to reading the poems in the original language. Those familiar with Ryokan from previous translations will encounter another, intimate side of the poet, but those coming to him for the first time will receive a bracing introduction to the Great Fool.

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