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June 6, 2016

Thinking about Ikkyu in Ikkyuji (Kyoto)

Ikkyuji is one those ever rarer Kyoto temples that is still quiet and unspoiled by mass tourism. It is situated in southern Kyoto, at the border with Osaka and Nara, near the Kizu River in what is now Kyotanabe, far off the beaten tourist path. Although Kyotanabe has grown into a big town, especially around the station, and the rice fields which - as I remember from two decades ago - used to lead to Ikkyuji have now been plastered over with housing, the temple stands way back at the side of the hills, far from any noise. After arriving, I just sit on the veranda, watching the garden and the green hills behind it, and allow the serenity to take hold of me. There are only few other visitors, one or two at a time, who walk past or also sit down quietly for a while.

 [Ikkyuji - the garden]

And sitting there on the veranda of the Hojo from 1650, with its Kano school fusuma paintings, looking at the raked gravel and plantings of the sun-filled classical Zen garden, with the tiled roof of Ikkyu's mortuary building as "borrowed scenery," I think about the man after whom the temple has been named: the Zen priest, poet and calligrapher Ikkyu (1394-1481), whose name "One Rest" points at the shortness of human life.

Who was Ikkyu?

Although he followed a solid program of meditation and study with several strict masters in his youth, Ikkyu (reputedly the out-of-wedlock son of Emperor Gokomatsu - thanks to this imperial connection, Ikkyu was twice invited to give a Zen lecture in the palace) is in the first place remembered as an eccentric, as a "mad priest." And indeed, when he lived in Sakai, in the 1420s, he frequently spent time in wine shops and brothels, as we can also read in his poetry. But the "madness" of Ikkyu has been much exaggerated, especially in the Edo period when supposed anecdotes from his life became the subject of Kodan story tellers. This was all fantasy, including the stories about Ikkyu as a mischievous acolyte - many of these fictional stories have mistakenly been repeated in popular biographies, also in English, as if they were the sober truth.

[Two images of Ikkyu: as mischievous acolyte (above) and as serious priest]

In fact, Ikkyu was a serious poet, whose Chinese poems in the jueju form are like a sort of koans. In contrast to contemporary priests, who also wrote in Chinese but on secular themes, and who used Chinese poetry as a tool for social intercourse, Ikkyu wrote passionately religious poetry, focusing on the philosophical and soteriological problem of non-duality, a religious conundrum to which he gave an intensely personal expression.

Ikkyu's Chinese poems are in fact the main reliable source of information about his life. His major literary work is the Kyounshu or "Crazy Cloud Anthology," a posthumous collection of 1,060 poems in Chinese (most of the other writings attributed to him are spurious). While the Ikkyu of fiction is a carefree fellow, exceptionally clever and witty as a child, and as a grown-up priest a sake-drinking, love-making and prank-playing Zen prelate, in his poetry Ikkyu appears as very learned and erudite, and instead of just abandoning himself to pleasure, he explores all the philosophical and metaphysical levels of love. Far from being carefree, he appears as a man who knew sorrow and the darker depths of the soul.

[Ikkyuji -path inside the temple]

But although very different from the Ikkyu of popular fable, even in his poetry Ikkyu appears as an eccentric, as someone unlike his contemporaries. This is something we should see against the background of his time. In the Muromachi period, Rinzai Zen was at the zenith of its power and wealth. Monasteries acted as pawn-brokers and sake brewers, and were also active in foreign trade. This had lead to the inevitable corruption and spiritual vacuity. Seals of Enlightenment were sold to the highest bidder. Incensed by the decadence of the religious structure that surrounded him, Ikkyu became a monk who wrote anti-clerical poetry and indignantly criticized the hypocritical behavior of his fellow priests. Many monks had secret wives or went to brothels, and on the sly indulged in sake or fish. In that light, Ikkyu's preoccupation with these matters was not so much an eccentric aberration as an attempt to reconcile everyday reality with his own religious views. Ikkyu was both a fundamentalist and an iconoclast.

That he was not just an eccentric is also shown by the fact that he attracted the interest of various contemporary literary and artistic figures, such as the Noh playwright Konparu Zenchiku and the renga masters Sogi and Socho.

By the way, since Japan gave up the study of Chinese language and culture in the Meiji-period and de facto started only considering literature written in Japanese as Japanese literature, Ikkyu unfortunately has almost been forgotten as a literary master, and funny, fictional anecdotes have taken the place that rightfully belongs to his literature written in Chinese.

[Ikkyuji - main building]

That Ikkyu was not a man who just played around is demonstrated by his love for the blind singer Mori, whom he met in 1471 and who lived with him until his death. From the poems he dedicated to her speaks a genuine, deep love - they also had a daughter. (Perhaps Zen Buddhism should have gone the way of the Pure Land School, where from this time on, priests were allowed to marry and raise a family.)

Ikkyu spent the last years of his life in a hermitage called Shoun'an, present-day Ikkyuji, which he had set up already in 1456. Since 1474, Ikkyu was abbot of Daitokuji, the particular Zen temple whose priests he had often severity criticized for their worldly behavior. But Daitokuji had fallen on bad times as it had been destroyed in the Onin War (1467-77) and Ikkyu was called upon to help restore it - he had close contacts with the wealthy and powerful merchants of Sakai, a port town south of present-day Osaka where he had lived for many years, and managed to get their financial support. Ikkyu probably choose this location for his hermitage because it was halfway between Kyoto and Sakai, and it could be reached by boat from Sakai over the Kizu River. Moreover, it was far from war-ridden Kyoto and the worldliness of its temples.

In Ikkyuji, one of the last serene temples in Kyoto, the spirit of Ikkyu lives on.
For visiting details in English, see the temple's website. Ikkyuji is a 25 min walk from JR Kyotanabe St (30 min from Kintetsu Shintanabe St). As the route passes over a narrow and busy road with dangerous traffic, a 5-min taxi is advised.
My information about Ikkyu is based on Ikkyu and the Crazy Cloud Anthology: A Zen Poet of Medieval Japan (Unesco Collection of Representative Works, 1987) by Sonja Arntzen, a seminal study unfortunately long out of print.