Ryokan, Basho and
Japanese Zen Poetry

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Ryokan's poetry

Ryokan's Chinese poems are often compared to those of Hanshan, the eccentric hermit of Cold Mountain. Ryokan often read Hanshan's poems, and the work of both men has a fresh, "country" feeling with little ornamentation. Like Hanshan Ryokan frequently ignored rules of literary composition. Far from being highly crafted and refined, Ryokan's poems are spontaneous and direct; simple and pure on the surface, they encompass a profound inner feeling and spirit. His poems are very beautiful when chanted and are popular among devotees of poetry recitation.

Returning home after a day of begging;
Sage has covered my door.
Now a bunch of green leaves burns together with the firewood.
Silently I read the poems of Hanshan,
Accompanied by the autumn wind blowing a light rain that rustles through the reeds.
I stretch out both feet and lie down.
What is there to think about ? What is there to doubt?

Poetry and Zen

From Ryokan's poetry we can observe Ryokan's Zen. Two primary Zen elements in his poetry were no-mind and impermanence.

With no-mind, blossoms invite the butterfly;
With no-mind, the butterfly visits the blossoms.
When the flower blooms, the butterfly comes;
When the butterfly comes, the flower blooms.
I do not "know" others,
Others do not "know" me.
Not-knowing each other we naturally follow the Way.

Ryokan's no-mind is really synonymous with Zen — mind with no obstructions or inhibitions, mind that abides nowhere, mind free of contrivance. When Ryokan says he does not "know" others and others do not "know" he is advising us not to categorize or analyze ourselves or others. Over and over in his poems Ryokan implores:

Don't cling! Don't strive! Abandon yourself! Look beneath your feet!

Ryokan's poems also reflect the impermanent nature of everything — this world is a dream, passing away, like dew.

Long ago, I often drank saki at this house;
now only the earth
Covered with plum blossoms.

If you speak delusions, everything becomes a delusion;
If you speak the truth, everything becomes the truth.
Outside the truth there is no delusion,
But outside delusion there is no special truth.
Followers of Buddha's Way!
Why do you so earnestly seek the truth in distant places ?
Look for delusion and truth in the bottom of your own hearts.