(a version of this article appeared on The Tattooed Buddha)
In the late 1300s in Japan a court noblewoman became pregnant.
The rumor is that she was pregnant with the illegitimate child of Emperor Go Komatsu. It’s unknown if this is really true, but what is known is this: she ran away from her home, raised him until he was five, and then placed him in a Rinzai Zen temple called Ankoku-Ji, where he was raised by monks and trained in that path.
This was how the renegade Zen Master and poet Ikkyu came into the world. His birth was marked by forbidden passion and love. And it affected him his whole life.
Ikkyu is my personal hero. Telling his story will explain why.
(Note: I am going to call him Ikkyu throughout this story to avoid confusion. Be aware that his name was Shuken until he studied under Zen Master Kaso and was given the name Ikkyu, which means ‘One Pause’)
At Ankoku-Ji, he received a detailed education in Chinese language, culture, art and poetry, in addition to deep studies in Buddhist practice and history.
It’s said that as a child he met many famous political and spiritual leaders of the day and in many debates and situations he outsmarted them. This is almost certainly a myth, but is the subject of many stories that are still told (and broadcast as cartoons for children) in Japan to this day. It reminds me of the story of Jesus talking to the temple priests as a child.
At the age of 13 he took residence at a temple called Kennin-Ji in Kyoto where he studied with a well known poet and monk named Botetsu. He practiced writing poetry and found that he was skilled at it.
But, he didn’t like Kennin-Ji. What he encountered there was a political atmosphere. These Zen monks were competing with each other for positions in the hierarchy. He saw monks being promoted for political and social reasons rather than because of deep realization. This made him feel discouraged.
This is something that happens in institutional Zen, even still today.
He stayed at Kennin-Ji for three years, but when he couldn’t take the political atmosphere anymore, he left.
He moved into a small temple at a place called Lake Biwa, and studied with another monk named Keno. He was Keno’s only student there. This one on one study probably profoundly affected Ikkyu’s future. Keno was a strong believer that the most important part of Zen practice is seated meditation, which was really not emphasized that much in the temples that Ikkyu had studied in previously.
After five years together, (Ikkyu is 21 at this point) Keno died. Ikkyu fell into a great sadness.
One night, he looked at Lake Biwa and seriously considered drowning himself. Instead, he went and found another teacher.
Ikkyu studied under a teacher named Kaso at a temple called Zenko-an. Kaso was a renegade Zen teacher himself, who preferred rigorous practice and koan study to the political nature of institutional Zen practice.
Ikkyu studied koans deeply under his teacher. In 1420, at the age of 26, while meditating in a boat on the lake, Ikkyu heard the sound of a crow cawing and he attained Enlightenment. All at once he was one with the crow, the lake, and everything else.
Kaso confirmed Ikkyu’s realization and made him a lineage holder, but it’s said that Ikkyu burned his certificate of Enlightenment because he believed such things were unnecessary.
When Kaso died, Ikkyu didn’t take over his temple. He left and became a wanderer instead. He wasn’t happy with living in a temple and simply giving Zen to other monks. He wanted to spread the Dharma—to take Zen out to places where people really needed it. It’s said that he gave teachings in places that other teachers would never go, like bars and whorehouses.
He was given the nickname Crazy Cloud. This was because his passion (for the Dharma and for life in general) was considered unusual and because he wandered from place to place like a cloud.
He spent his time in places around Kyoto and Osaka, making friends with people from all walks of life. Many Zen teachers spent a lot of time with nobility and kept away from the lowest members of society. Ikkyu befriended everyone.
He attracted many followers, including a lot of poets and artists. He also took many lovers and was not interested in celibacy. He believed Zen shouldn’t be separate from the passion of life. So, he enjoyed music, art, poetry and sexuality. He believed things like passion, free love and joy were virtues, not vices.
And he was excited about the Dharma, wanting to spread it far and wide. He wanted to make Buddhism available to everyone, not just to the wealthy or polite members of society.
In this way, he was more like some of the early Zen teachers in China. Originally the Dharma was open and wild and free. Ikkyu tried to take things back to that.
In his old age he had an open and passionate relationship with a blind singer named Lady Mori. He wrote numerous love poems for her.
After a civil war in the 1460s, Ikkyu was part of a campaign to rebuild Zen temples that were destroyed. In this way, he supported the institutions that he had rebelled against.
He reluctantly became abbot of a temple called Daitoku-Ji, which still exists today.
He lived to be 87 years old.
He didn’t give Dharma Transmission to anyone, so there is no Ikkyu lineage. He had concerns that if he created a lineage it would become corrupt soon after he was gone. He decided his teachings could live on without that potential for corruption.
So, I can’t be part of Ikkyu’s lineage, but he’s touched me more than any other Zen teacher. I like to think that across all this time and distance, I am connected to him.
He called his teaching Far Out Zen.
And that’s what I call mine.