The thief left it behind -
At the window.
Counting days is like snapping
One's fingers -
Every May passes like a dream.
Have you forgotten the way to my hut?
Every evening I wait for the sound of your footsteps
But you do not appear.
The moon is a common metaphor, especially among the Zen poets, to represent enlightened awareness. In this haiku Ryokan is laughing at the absurdity of the theft. "The thief left it behind," he foolishly couldn't recognize the one great treasure the poor monk possessed -- "the moon," enlightenment -- and, instead, took an armload of worthless junk. (To point out what a petty haul it was, Ryokan even ran after the thief with the missed cushion.) Any sort of theft of Ryokan's possessions was a pointless act because, of course, who can take the moon from his window? Ryokan is amused and invites us to join in his laughter.
The Zen poet Ryokan was born in 1758 in the remote and snowy province of Echigo, located in northern Honshu, bordering the Sea of Japan. His father was the village headman and a haiku poet of some note, and Ryokan received a thorough education in the classics of China and Japan. Shy and studious as a boy, Ryokan was the local Don Juan for a brief period in his youth. Following a spiritual crisis around the age of twenty, however, he renounced his patrimony and entered a Zen monastery.
Ryokan wrote thousands of poems and poem-letters, both Chinese and Japanese style, and scattered them about. These were treasured by the local folk and later lovingly studied and collected by scholars. The first edition of Ryokan's poems, titled Hachisu no Tsuyu ("Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf") and compiled by Teishin, appeared in 1835. Expanded collections of Ryokan's work have continued to be published over the years, and he is likely Japan's most popular and beloved Zen poet. As mentioned in the tale above, Ryokan's delightful brushwork, totally unaffected and free-flowing, is also highly esteemed, and Ryokan is venerated as one of the greatest calligraphers of all time in East Asia.
The practice of Zen and the appreciation of Zen art is now universal, and Ryokan's life and spirit speak to lovers of poetry, religion, and beauty everywhere. The selection of poems presented here reflects the range and depth of Ryokan's Zen vision. He focused on "things deep inside the heart," and his poems cover the spectrum of human experience: joy and sadness, pleasure and pain, enlightenment and illusion, love and loneliness, man and nature. Like those of his counterpart Cold Mountain (Han-shan), the legendary Zen poet of T'ang China, Ryokan's poems reveal the full, rich texture of Zen.
Ryokan lived a very simple, pure life, and stories about his kindness and generosity abound. On his deathbed, Ryokan offered the following poem to the person who was nursing him:
"showing their backs
then their fronts
falling maple leafs" (1758 - 1831)
If we are to learn from Ryokan, who is Japan's most famous and beloved poet, our premises about poetry must shift radically from technique to inspiration.
If poetry is to breathe vitality, to offer an authentic and passionate voice that is nevertheless insightful and reflective, then Ryokan is a preeminent model. True poetry, like life itself, presents the entirety of what is in the mind and heart.