“The autumn breeze of a single night of love is better than a hundred thousand years of sitting meditation.” ~Ikkyu
Ikkyu was an eccentric iconoclastic Zen monk and poet in the 1400s. He’s viewed equally as a heretic and a saint. Sometimes in Zen teachings these things aren’t quite as widely separated as one would think.
Buddhism sometimes has a reputation as being free and individualistic. At least, that’s how many of us wish it was. Often, this is not the case. The truth is Buddhism can sometimes be as rigid as other spiritual paths.
Ikkyu Sojun was the embodiment of iconoclastic Buddhism. He was wild and free.
Raised in a Rinzai Zen monastery, he was an illegitimate son of the emperor of Japan—so his mother put him in the monastery to make sure his life was spared.
The Buddhism he learned was strict and had a rigid hierarchy. He learned a lot about how to do rituals in exactly a certain way, but he didn’t feel like he was learning about awakening.
So when he reached adulthood and they offered him the certificate of enlightenment that would allow him to become a fully ordained Zen Monk, he refused. He left the monastery instead.
He hadn’t given up on the Dharma. He thought that the monks he met were just acting spiritual and focusing on the hierarchy instead of the Dharma. Some believed that enlightenment could only be found by breathing in incense and sitting in silent meditation for hours at a time. Ikkyu disagreed. He believed enlightenment was with us already and we could realize it just as easily by spending our time with poor people and prostitutes as we could with monks. So that’s what he decided to do.
He rebelled against many of the monks and Zen teachers of his time who had become corrupted by politics are greed. He called out the practice of selling Enlightenment certificates.
His Zen wasn’t held down by needless structure and tradition.
It was about just this moment, real ultimate reality. Mystical truth, not religion.
That’s what he’s known for. But he did something else as well. He took Zen teaching to places that had no experience of it. Most of his contemporaries gave teachings only to monks. Ikkyu wasn’t like that. Not content to live in a monastery, he took Zen into the world.
His temple was the street.
And he taught people that monks would never teach. He taught Zen practice to prostitutes, artists, homeless people and alcoholics. He brought the Dharma to the misfits and radicals, those who were looked down on by society.
He became a wandering monk and was given the nickname ‘Crazy Cloud’.
The point of Ikkyu’s life story is that the ‘sacred’ is nothing more than ordinary life experienced with mindfulness. His view was non-dualistic. He traveled the country doing things that we don’t associate with monks. There are a lot of stories about him traveling the country, drinking sake, and sleeping with women. He was freedom-loving and he didn’t really care what the religious authorities of the time thought.
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 because he thought the Dharma was for everyone, so he wanted to make sure that it was completely available.
But, at the same time, he expected a lot from his students. His ways taught that having a regular meditation practice was important.
His teaching was radical in its non-dualism. This version of Buddhism includes the entire world in its 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.
Is this bad? I think his story is a lesson. We shouldn’t be attached to what we think a good Buddhist should do and we certainly shouldn’t be attached to systems of authority. Good and bad are just labels. More than that, challenges to authority are important, especially religious forms of authority. Even if you think Ikkyu was wrong in his iconoclasm, it’s important that he was there to make the challenges.
Near the end of his life, a civil war caused many Zen temples to be destroyed. Ikkyu was a big advocate for rebuilding them. In old age his life’s mission was making sure that the religious structure that he had rebelled against would not be lost forever. In the end, Zen in Japan owes him a debt. He was an outsider who saved the teachings from destruction.
Ikkyu is a very important inspiration to me. It can be easy, on this path, to get caught up in dogma and ritual and really lose sight of what we’re trying to do. This path is about Enlightenment.
Nothing more or less than that.