Background about the Poet
Ryōkan Taigu (1758–1831) was a quiet and eccentric Sōtō Zen Buddhist monk who lived much of his life as a hermit. Ryōkan is remembered for his poetry and calligraphy, which present the essence of Zen life.
Ryōkan was born as Eizō Yamamoto in the village of Izumozaki in Echigo Province (now Niigata Prefecture) in Japan to the village headman. He renounced the world at an early age to train at nearby Sōtō Zen temple Kōshō-ji, refusing to meet with or accept charity from his family. Once the Zen master Kokusen visited the temple, and Ryōkan was deeply impressed with his demeanor. He solicited permission to become Kokusen’s disciple. Kokusen accepted, and the two returned to Entsū-ji monastery in Tamashima (now Okayama Prefecture).
It was at Entsū-ji that Ryōkan attained satori and was presented with an Inka by Kokusen. Kokusen died the following year, and Ryōkan left Entsū-ji to embark on a long pilgrimage. He lived much of the rest of his monastic life as a hermit. His decision to leave Entsū-ji may have been influenced by Gentō Sokuchū, the abbot of the temple. At the time, Gentō was aggressively reforming the Sōtō school to remove perceived ‘foreign’ elements, including kōan. The scholar Michel Mohr suggests Ryōkan may have been in disagreement with Gentō’s efforts.
He was originally ordained as Ryōkan Taigu. Ryō means “good,” kan means “broad,” and Taigu means “great fool”; Ryōkan Taigu would thus translate as “broad-hearted generous fool,” referring to qualities that Ryōkan’s work and life embodies.
Ryōkan spent much of his time writing poetry, doing calligraphy, and communing with nature. His poetry is often very simple and inspired by nature. He loved children, and sometimes forgot to beg for food because he was playing with the children of the nearby village. Ryōkan refused to accept any position as a priest or even as a “poet.” In the tradition of Zen, his quotes and poems show he had a good sense of humor and didn’t take himself too seriously.
Ryōkan lived a simple life, and stories about his kindness and generosity abound. In 1826, Ryōkan became ill and was unable to continue living as a hermit. He moved into the house of one of his patrons, Kimura Motouemon, and was cared for by a young nun called Teishin. “The [first] visit left them both exhilarated, and led to a close relationship that brightened Ryōkan’s final years.” The two of them exchanged a series of haiku. The poems they exchanged are both lively and tender. Ryōkan died from his illness on the 6th day of the new year 1831. “Teishin records that Ryōkan, seated in meditation posture, died ‘just as if he were falling asleep.'” [Adapted from Wikipedia]
by the thief—
the moon at the window
– Ryōkan Taigu
The story behind this haiku is that one evening, a thief visited Ryōkan’s hut at the base of a mountain only to discover there was nothing to steal. Ryōkan returned and caught him. “You have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return empty-handed. Please take my clothes as a gift.” The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away. Ryōkan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could have given him this beautiful moon.”
I feel this haiku refers to the fact that a thief cannot take away what is truly valuable: our spiritual growth. The moon in Buddhist poetry often symbolizes enlightenment. So, Ryōkan maybe saying he wished the thief sought for his enlightenment instead of material things.
Ryōkan could also be referring to the fact that the thief had forgotten the beautiful, serene moments of life, such as a viewing the moon without a thought of trouble. When we do wrong things, our minds are clouded with guilt. In this case, the haiku takes on a more melancholy mood, with a sad compassion for the plight of the thief.
The greatest thing about this haiku, in my opinion, is that it leaves readers in a state of awe and sense of spirituality that is hard to express. I think with this haiku, even in translation, Ryōkan has achieved the highest that a haiku can give its readers: an awakening.
– Nicholas Klacsanzky