Although Japan is a country suffused with rules and traditions meant to instill group harmony, the Japanese have a fascination with outlaws, rule breakers and other iconoclasts. Historically speaking, perhaps the most famous and beloved of these is the 15th-century Zen monk, Ikkyu Sojun, known popularly as Ikkyu, or Ikkyu-san.
A poet, painter, musician, wandering monk and eventually abbot of one of Kyoto’s most important temples, Ikkyu is best known in contemporary Japan for his rebellious spirit and wanton ways, as well as for his impact on Japanese literature and Zen Buddhism itself. From his books of poetry to a popular anime series based loosely on stories about his childhood, Ikkyu-san is beloved by children and adults, rebels and religious Japanese alike.
Born in 1394, the illegitimate son of the Emperor Go-Matsu and a low-ranking woman of the Imperial court, when he was five Ikkyu’s mother sent him to the monastery of Ankoku-ji. There he was raised by the monks, who gave him the name Shuken. Smart and talented, at 13 he was sent to Kyoto’s Kennin-ji temple, where he studied poetry. Many of his poems are still in print:
Like vanishing dew,
a passing apparition
or the sudden flash
of lightning—already gone—
thus should one regard one’s self.
But with a few exceptions, Shuken was not impressed by his fellow monks. Rebellious and opinionated, Ikkyu was irritated by the political nature of the Zen temples and the lack of Zen practice. His young poems mocked all of this, and led to his moving from one temple to another, until he ended up with a teacher on the shores of Lake Biwa, north of Kyoto. But his beloved teacher Ken-o died when Shuken was 21, and, deeply aggrieved, he moved to a new teacher, Kaso, who recognized his understanding of Zen koans, and gave him the name Ikkyu.
At 26, while meditating, Ikkyu heard the sound of a crow, which sparked his achievement of satori, or enlightenment. Despite being recognized by the Zen establishment, Ikkyu had earned a reputation as a drinker and troublemaker, so it was perhaps fitting that when he turned 33, his goal achieved, he began his wanderings. He would not have a home for the next 30 years.
During that violent and unsettled time in Japanese history, which culminated in the Onin War, Ikkyu drew many admirers, especially poets, musicians and other artists who wanted to accompany this kindred spirit. Indeed, he is known in Japan as a crucial contributor to Japanese arts as significant as sumi-e painting, calligraphy, music (he was a master flautist), and even as an influence on the tea ceremony.
A keen admirer of women as well as drink, many of Ikkyu’s poems reference brothels and the joys of sex, which he considered to be as fine a way to enlightenment as any, if done with perfect presence and awareness. He would, in fact, wear his monk’s black robes to brothels, since he considered sex a sacrament. In one poem, he wrote:
The narrow path of asceticism is not for me:
My mind runs in the opposite direction.
It is easy to be glib about Zen
I’ll just keep my mouth shut
And rely on love play all the day long.
During his wanderings he earned yet another name, Crazy Cloud, and one of the musicians he spent time with, a blind singer called Mori, became the love of his life. His many odes to her are among Japan’s greatest love poems.
Legends about his travels abound. One says that once, when out begging door-to-door in his mendicant’s rough clothes, a wealthy man gave him a small coin. When he returned later to the same house, wearing his Zen master robes, the rich man invited him in for dinner. But before sitting down at the table, Ikkyu stripped off his robes and left, saying that it was not he who had been invited to eat, but his fine clothes.
Such a delightfully authentic and amusing character was destined to live on. In addition to the many books of his poems still in print, the anime show Ikkyu-san ran on Japanese TV from 1975-82, and is still seen in reruns on DVD; this is how many Japanese remember him. In the show, a young Ikkyu cavorts in cartoon colors, more adorable scamp than rebel, outwitting grownups with glee. There have also been manga, movies and more recently, a video from the popular J-Pop trio Wednesday Campanella, as well as a brand of instant miso soup and even a walker for the elderly named after him.
Despite his lifelong distain for the Zen hierarchy, Ikkyu spent his eighties as the 47th abbot of the Daitoku-ji temple in Kyoto, from which he oversaw the restoration of the war-damaged temple Myosho-ji, located between Kyoto and Nara. The temple has since been renamed Shuon’an Ikkyu-ji, and it is the location of Ikkyu’s mausoleum. The temple happily claims Ikkyu as its own and draws many visitors every year. Ikkyu died in 1481, at the age of 87, but his stories, his poems, his music, his temples and especially his rebellious spirit, live on.