Ikkyu Quotes

Ikkyu Sojun is my favorite historical Buddhist teacher.
He was an iconoclastic and eccentric Zen monk and poet from Japan in the 1400s. He challenged the authority of other Buddhist teachers and challenged preconceptions at every turn.

Here are some Ikkyu quotes:

“Every day, priests minutely examine the Law
And endlessly chant complicated sutras.
Before doing that, though, they should learn
How to read the love letters sent by the wind and rain,
the snow and moon.”

“Like vanishing dew,
a passing apparition
or the sudden flash
of lightning — already gone —
thus should one regard one’s self.” 


“Look at the cherry blossoms!
Their color and scent fall with them,
Are gone forever,
Yet mindless
The spring comes again.” 

“Many paths lead from the foot of the mountain, but at the peak we all gaze at the single bright moon.” 

“don’t wait for the man standing in the 
to cut off his arm help him now” 

“fucking flattery, success, money.
I just sit back and suck my thumb.” 

“Studying texts and stiff meditation can make you lose your Original Mind.
A solitary tune by a fisherman, though, can be an invaluable treasure.
Dusk rain on the river, the moon peeking in and out of the clouds;
Elegant beyond words, he chants his songs night after night.” 


“don’t hesitate get laid that’s wisdom
sitting around chanting what crap” 


“Watching my four year old daughter dance
I cannot break free of her.” 

Bones of the Buddha Statue, an Ikkyu story

Once Ikkyu was staying in a temple. The night was very cold and there were three wooden Buddhas in the temple, so he burned one Buddha to warm himself. The priest in charge of the temple woke up and noticed something was going on, so he looked to see what Ikkyu was doing.

The Buddha statue was burning and Ikkyu was sitting there warming his hands over the fire.

The priest got angry.  He said, “What are you doing? Are you a madman? — and I thought you to be a Buddhist monk, that’s why I allowed you to stay in the temple. And you have done the most sacrilegious act.”

Ikkyu said, “But the Buddha within me was feeling very cold. So it was a question whether to sacrifice the living Buddha to the wooden one, or to sacrifice the wooden one to the living one. And I decided for life.”

The priest was so angry that he couldn’t listen. He said, “You are a madman. You simply get out of here! You have burned Buddha.”

So Ikkyu started to poke the burned Buddha with a stick.  There were ashes, the Buddha was almost consumed by the fire. .

The priest asked, “What are you doing?”
Ikkyu said, “I am trying to find the bones of Buddha.”

So the priest laughed and said, “You are either a fool or a madman. And you are absolutely mad! You cannot find bones there, because it is just a wooden Buddha.”

Ikkyu laughed, he said, “Then bring the other two. The night is still very cold and the morning is still far away. I haven’t burned the Buddha. I’ve burned a wooden statue. And you called me the crazy one.”




What can we take from this? Is it just a funny story? Maybe.


I think it represents iconoclasm. The priest is, in a sense, worshiping this Buddha statue. We shouldn’t worship it. We shouldn’t worship anything, really, but we especially shouldn’t be attached to an icon. 

When we give a statue of the Buddha that much respect we are doing what the Buddha said not to do. He said that the Dharma is what really matters, not him. 


Historically it seems that the Buddha rejected the Guru/disciple teaching method. He often said, “You should think for yourselves.” And I think that is important to remember. 

After his death, many branches of Buddhism did adopt the Guru/disciple method. They would probably do well to read stories like this one.

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?