Ikkyu book review by Michael Harings

Zen-Man Ikkyu is a scholarly yet accessible book, in which
James Sanford sets out to define the Zen Master Ikkyu in the context of
fifteenth-century Japan. To accomplish this, he involves the reader deeply
in the history of feudal Japan, sifting among the official and reconstructed
chronicles of the time. Hence, the book commences by familiarizing one
with Japanese culture, following this with a chronicle of Ikkyu’s life.
Ikkyu’s own poetry and prose comprise the heart of the book, and a delightful
collection of stories about his life—some fanciful, some undoubtably true
round out the volume. Readers already familiar with the other English book
on Ikkyu, Unraveling Zen’s Red Thread, by
Covell and Yamada
, may appreciate this Zen monk for his aesthetics
and uncommon acceptance of sexuality within a religious tradition. The
present volume, however, stresses Ikkyu’s Realization and broader regard
of life.

What stands out most in the life of Ikkyu is his iconoclastic
behavior. Amid the territorial wars of shoguns and the rule of corrupt
Zen priests, he was not afraid of incurring official censure for airing
his opinions. To preface the reading of one of his poems, Ikkyu tells a
Zen teaching story of an old woman who decided to test the realization
of a monk she supported by sending a young woman to embrace him. The monk
acted as if even during the embrace he didn’t feel a thing. When the old
woman heard this, she exclaimed, “Twenty years wasted feeding a phony layman!”
In affirmation of the old woman’s evaluation of this monk the poet responds:

    Old Grandmother tried to give that rascal a ladder.

    To provide the pure monk with a nice bride.

    If tonight I were made such a proposition,

    A withered willow would put forth fresh Spring growth.

Because of his adamant convictions concerning the spirit
of Zen, for much of his life Ikkyu stood on the periphery of temple life,
often angrily criticizing the elected Zen abbots for their ascetic and
politically motivated actions. Ikkyu’s criticism, however, was underscored
by his compassionate and creative approach of bringing authentic Zen to
a growing populace of those inerested. His eerie and imaginative prose
masterpiece, Skeletons, seems to express his tormented compassion for the
sufferings brought on by war and social chaos, as well as the need of the
power of Truth to obviate this suffering. In the story, the narrator goes
to a temple for rest, and when he wakes up, instead of seeing people, he
sees skeletons performing all the actions that humans animate. The point
is that one should really see what is going on and wake up! Thus, through
the medium of art, as well as through his personal instruction, Ikkyu worked
to enliven the tradition of Zen in his generation.

Ikkyu lived as a simpk monk and layman, but his fame came
from his practice of “Bodily Buddhahood” (sokushin jobutsu), a tenet of
Shingon Buddhism in which the great Buddhist doctrine “Nirvana and samsara
are the same” was given a radically concrete interpretation—thus his free
demonstration of this Realization in taverns and brothels as well as temples.
In Japan, where he is popularly regarded as a witty sage, there is even
a modern-day cartoon serial about his life. Sanford’s study presents a
balance between Ikkyu’s more exaggerated displays and his high Dharma,
as well as providing copious and helpful notes on his sophisticated and
classical style of poetry. In short, it is a well-rounded, in-depth portrait
of a seminal figure in mankind’s spiritual heritage.

Michael Harings,

in The Laughing Man Vol. 6, No. 3 “The Wound of Love”


The Da Love-Ananda Samrajya Pty Ltd., as trustee
for The Da Love-Ananda Samrajya,

claims perpetual copyright to all photographs
and the entire Written (and otherwise recorded)

Wisdom-Teaching of Avatar Adi Da Samraj and the Way of the Heart.

©1999 The Da Love-Ananda Samrajya Pty Ltd.,
as trustee for The Da Love-Ananda Samrajya.

All rights reserved.

Used in DAbase by permission.

note to the reader


Zen-Man Ikkyu

James H. Sanford
Published 1981
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