Ryokan, the Japanese Zen monk and spiritual poet (1758-1831), is not traditionally considered a formal incarnation of Maitreya, but his life clearly exemplifies Maitreya. Ryokan was fully trained in a Soto Zen monastery, but instead of becoming a temple priest and teaching formally, he returned to live a hermit's life of meditation in a hut near his home village and made his modest livelihood via mendicant practice in nearby towns. Still a deeply beloved figure in Japan today, Ryokan chose the spiritual name Daigu, or Great Fool, although he was well read, intelligent, a skilled meditator, and an elegant calligrapher whose brushwork was already treasured in his own time.
Perhaps best known for his kindly foolishness and play with children, Ryokan always carried balls or other toys in his robe sleeves and frequently broke from begging rounds to join in neighborhood children's games. Once, playing hide-and-seek, Ryokan hid in a barn. It got late and the children were all called to dinner. The next morning upon opening the barn, the surprised farmer asked Ryokan what he was doing. Ryokan said "Shh! Be quiet. The children will hear." Ryokan may have been so absorbed in samadhi that he was unaware of the night's passage, but such foolishness matches and illuminates Maitreya's naivete and charming innocence.
Ryokan cared for even humble creatures. When he came out to sun himself before his hut in the morning, he would carefully pick the lice out of his robe and gently place them on a nearby rock. When he was finished, he would just as carefully place them back in his robe. Ryokan's loving care even for insects, echoing Asanga's concern for the dog and worms, illustrates the full extent of Maitreya's loving-kindness.
Another example of his loving-kindness occurred when a relative asked Ryokan's help in dealing with his son, who was becoming a delinquent. Ryokan visited the family and stayed the night, without saying anything to the son. The next morning as he prepared to depart, Ryokan asked the boy's help in tying up his sandals. As the lad looked up from doing so, he saw a tear roll down Ryokan's cheek. Nothing was said, but from that time the boy completely reformed. The easy camaraderie with children and attention to young people shown by figures such as Ryokan and Hotei is another form of Maitreya's concern for the future, in the next generation.
Without desire everything is sufficient.
With seeking myriad things are impoverished.
Plain vegetables can soothe hunger.
A patched robe is enough to cover this bent old body.
Alone I hike with a deer.
Cheerfully I sing with village children.
The stream beneath the cliff cleanses my ears.
The pine on the mountain top fits my heart.