Poetry 42: One Robe, One Bowl – The Zen Poetry of Ryokan

Ryokan

First days of spring – blue sky, bright sun,
Everything is gradually becoming fresh and green
Carrying my bowl, I walk slowly to the village,
The children, surprised to see me,
Joyfully crowd about, bringing
My begging trip to an end at the temple gate,
I place my bowl on top of a white rock and
Hang my sack from the branch of a tree,
Here we play with the wild grasses and throw a ball,
For a time, I play catch while the children sing;
Then it is my turn.
Playing like this, here and there, I have forgotten the time,
Passers-by point and laugh at me, asking,
“What is the reason for such foolishness?”
No answer I give, only a deep bow;
Even if I replied, they would not understand
Look around! There is nothing besides this.

Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

About Barry Daniel

I live in the Lake District in the UK where I run a guesthouse with my partner Kate and my cat Manuel. I enjoy painting, hillwalking, reading, visiting and entertaining friends, T’ai Chi and playing the guitar. I’m engaged to a certain degree in the local community, as a volunteer with Samaritans and I’m a fairly active member of the local Green party. I’ve had a relatively intuitive sense of the Middle Way most of my adult life but it found a greater articulation and a practical direction through joining the society. It’s also been interesting and great fun engaging with other people with a similar outlook. My main contribution to the society is conducting the podcast interviews, something that gives me a lot of satisfaction and that I’ve learnt a lot from.

10 thoughts on “Poetry 42: One Robe, One Bowl – The Zen Poetry of Ryokan

  1. There’s something about the poem that I find disturbing, hard to put my finger on. I think perhaps it’s the monk’s suggestion – in the last two lines – that the passers-by don’t deserve a reply to their question because they wouldn’t understand the reply he had formulated in his mind: “Look around. There is nothing besides this!” This statement, withheld from the passers-by but articulated in the poem struck me as – not exactly arrogant – but condescending or patronising, although I acknowledge that the monk responded to the passers-by with a deep bow intended to communicate respect?

    To try to unravel this I turned to Robert’s disquisition on Linguistic Idealism (Middle Way Philosophy 3: The Integration of Meaning pp 116-122), and I’m going to have to read this several times to get the gist of it, although I can sense its relevance to the poem. I’d be interested to have Robert’s further comment on this, especially some help with untangling what feels like the paradox of the monk’s description of his answer as beyond understanding, yet his conviction that he himself understands it.

    Is this just an assumption that the others are (in this particular sense) dumb, and destined to remain dumb? If so, there’s something about that notion that reminds me why I never quite overcame my resistance to fully ‘signing up’ to Buddhism, although I had – and still have – some confidence in its practical utility shorn of its apparent claims to absolute authority.

  2. Hi Peter,
    The key feature of linguistic idealism (which is an umbrella term for representationalism and its opposite, expressivism) is the setting of bounds of sense. I agree that Zen does often reinforce the idea of bounds of sense by going on tediously about inexpressibility. However, I can’t personally see any sign of that in Ryokan’s attitude in this poem. He just says that there’s no point trying to explain how he feels to the passers-by because they wouldn’t understand. One could feel this in many similar cases (e.g. there’s no point in explaining the theory of relativity to a three year old, because they wouldn’t understand), and these cases could be justified by experience. I don’t think they necessarily have to imply that what one would like to explain is inexpressible with the associated assumptions about bounds of sense. It’s only when he says “there is nothing besides this” that he seems to be holding onto some sort of metaphysical certainty: perhaps an idealisation of the value of immediate and spontaneous experience, and a belief that this experience is of such supreme value that there can be no justified values beyond it.

    What I like about Ryokan is precisely his lack of patronage or dignity, his straightforwardness, simplicity and openness to beauty. This poem speaks to me mainly of his ability to scandalise social assumptions about how a monk ought to behave, and thus challenge people’s preconceptions!

    1. Thanks, Robert, I can see the sense in what you say. I don’t well understand the principles of linguistic idealism, but your illustration dispels some of my confusion.

      However, I’m not entirely convinced by your analogy of the three-year-old children and the theory of relativity. I would imagine an experienced (or even an inexperienced monk) might have the wit to engage with adults on their own ground, so to speak, and make a point about innocence. Jesus did this when he admonished grown-ups who didn’t want their children to pester him, saying “Suffer little children, and forbid them not, to come unto me: for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” I can imagine that this may have made an impression on those who heard him. And I think the monk was wrong to assume that the passers-by “wouldn’t understand”, when he clearly thought that his readers would (you seemed to).

      Perhaps the monk was only comfortable talking to people who visited him in the temple, on his own ground, where he could set the agenda, and control the audience around it; and uncomfortable when challenged by vox populi, on their own territory.

      Altogether, I’m not impressed. There’s a hint of grandstanding in the verses. But to each his own. I’m a bit of a grandstander too, and – as the old saying goes – it takes one to know one!

  3. Dear Robert

    Re-reading and reflecting on my last comment, I see that it seems to make indirect (but discernible reference) to the question of spontaneity raised elsewhere. In other words, I seem to have cast you, Robert, or perhaps the slightly opaque (to me) philosophy you teach, as the monk. And myself, as the intellectually uncouth passer-by whose question “What foolishness is this?” disguises discomfiture, anxiety, at the clever man playing easily with children, enjoying himself – perhaps too self-consciously – in innocent sport, while not deigning to respond to his dubious observers other than with an ironic bow.

    This analogy is perhaps unkind and undeserved, because I’ve never known you dismissive of me or anyone else. So it is an expression of my residual uncertainty and the anxiety that goes with it. But I want to make it known how I felt, as my disclosure may help others whose own doubts may be assuaged by my revealing my own, and the form they take, and the part the Middle Way can help in supporting integration.

    Thanks and best wishes

    Peter

  4. Hi Peter,

    I think that there is a distinction that can be made here.

    In this poem, the problem does not seem to be that the monk feels that his detractors would not understand his point; the problem (for me) is that he is unwilling to even try to explain, thereby denying any opportunity/ chance for any development of understanding.

    While Robert may feel that some might not understand his points, he is always willing to give others the chance. We all understand some things that others don’t (and are perhaps incapable of). Conversely, there are things that others understand that we don’t, and perhaps never will – but we all deserve the chance to try and understand.

    Another interpretation might perhaps be that the monk doubted his own abilities to explain his understanding! Could his actions then be seen as a kind of modesty?

    Rich

    1. Hi Rich

      I appreciate your comment. I also challenge his apparent unwillingness to try to answer the question he heard uttered. It may well be that modesty did inhibit his response, or a sense of his inadequacy. These are common human traits.

      But if he did experience these, he cloaked them in his poem, and this is what I dislike about it, especially as his dissembling (as I perceive it) required him to summon up a spurious insight into the ineffability of his personal experience: “This is all there is!” or some such nonsense.

      I agree with you about Robert’s generosity of spirit towards people who are struggling towards integration, like me. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be doing him a service if I didn’t challenge his very proper perspective once in a while, as I’ve done here, in what is my best effort at even-handedness.

      Peter

      1. Postscript to my last comment:

        I say that the monk’s claim that “This all there is….” is flawed because “all there is” manifestly includes his involvement with the children, the grasses, and the ball-play, but conveniently excludes the inopportune questioning of the passers-by, who might properly be included in “all there is”. One might think this a selective take on the whole experience by the monk, perhaps to suit his ideology?

      2. Hi Peter and Rich,
        I think that when we do not understand a phrase or question or whatever the query, we can request an explanation, a enigmatic bow or silence is not a sufficient response, it implies secret knowledge held only by a few, even so I like and admire the monk because he becomes a child again and is happy to be seen by other adults enjoying the innocent fun of play, leaving seriousness aside for a while.
        I have been struggling, you may have noticed, with the question of positive and negative metaphysics, absolutes in general, how to avoid them and how the language required to serve them needs adaption to reach a philosophical response, I have found it difficult to adapt everyday language to fit the bill, although I understand the reasons for doing so, absolutes are to be avoided. I expect I will tie myself up in confusion again and again, philosophy is not easy for me.

  5. Hi Norma
    For me it’s not so much about philosophy as trying to cultivate a sensibility of enquiry and an openness to modifying what I’m thinking if better evidence comes along. I agree that’s challenging. However, for example,when on occasion I am able to couch things in provisional terms (like Peter’s Africa example), I find I get less stuck or it gives me more room to manoeuvre. I think Ed Catmull summed it up really well in his Migglism endorsement :

    “The middle is the chaotic and confusing place between the extremes. While the extremes are simpler and more attractive, it is the mess in the middle where the interesting and creative activities occur – it is where we should be”

    I’ve not heard anyone on this site say the Middle Way is easy. Maybe that’s why you’re feeling a bit uncomfortable? But according to the above perspective, the middle can be the place where creativity (and spontaneity) can flourish rather than be stifled.

    1. Hi Barry, Robert, Peter and Rich,
      I agree, the middle way is just like a cumulus cloud, it sails across the sky looking tranquil yet the interior is a swirling ferment of movement, enter with care!
      I will give the passage of time a chance to bring me to a better understanding, avoiding certainties such as metaphysical belief can be as dogmatic as accepting them I suppose, in the middle we have provisionality, where I agree Barry we can be creative.
      Thank you all for your help. I’ll get back to my drawing now.

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