Red Thread Zen

Ikkyu Sojun is a Zen teacher that I’ve written about before.


I like him so much, I’ve decided to write about him again.

Ikkyu was a part of the sect of Zen in Japan that is called Rinzai. He studied with a few different masters, but he decided that their version of Zen was too strict, bureaucratic, and prudish. He refused inka, certification to become a Zen master.

He created his own version of Zen instead. He called it Red Thread Zen. The Red Thread represents passion.

His philosophy was non-dualist. He believed there was no difference between spiritual life and ordinary life.

Instead of staying in monasteries like most monks, Ikkyu gave teachings in places monks didn’t usually go. He taught in the streets and in brothels. His students were hobos, criminals, and prostitutes. A lot more of his students were laypeople than monks.

He taught that passion could be a road to enlightenment. He thought of sex as another form of meditation and his sexual adventures are legendary. He also had a great passion for the arts. He was very involved in calligraphy, poetry, theatre, and tea ceremonies.

But, at the same time, he expected a lot from his students. He always taught that having a regular meditation practice was fundamental to the spiritual life.

His students were people who were firmly dedicated to Buddhist practice, but in the context of secular life, in the real world instead of in monasteries.

Red Thread Zen was radical in it’s non-dualism. This version of Buddhism includes the entire world in it’s teaching, rather than being confined to sacred spaces. If all beings have Buddha nature, then enlightenment isn’t a matter of lifestyle, it’s a living experience. When his teachers tried to get him to stay in a monastery, he wouldn’t do it. He wanted to be in the world, working for the Dharma.

Red Thread Zen celebrates life and human experience.
Is there Red Thread Zen today?

No. Ikkyu didn’t name a successor, so he didn’t create a lineage. Rinzai Zen is still around, but the offshoot that Ikkyu created died with him. But, many in the Zen tradition do revere him today. It’s sad that he didn’t preserve his lineage, but he was probably concerned that after his death it might become another sect like the ones he had rebelled against.

Maybe we can try to practice Red Thread Zen anyway. What do you think?

One thought on “Red Thread Zen

  1. Sound like Red Thread Zen is a good fit for this modern day of Buddhism. Too bad it died off with him because it sounds like it would do a world of good.

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