Tuesday, May 24, 2005

I spent five and a half hours this evening typing laboratory analytical data into a spreadsheet and then playing around with different graphical presentations of the data, and I needed to exercise the right-hand side of my brain for a while. So I picked up a copy of "Zen Masters" by John Stevens that I had borrowed from the Center, with the intention of just breezing through it for the poetry, and if a Zen lesson didn't exactly jump out at me, at least I got another glimpse of the interesting relation between Zen and sexuality.

According to Stevens, the Chinese master Lin-chi used to admonish his disciples not to "love the sacred and disdain the profane." He taught that if they did so, they would never escape from the "whirl of samsara." Ikkyu Sojun (1394-1481), a maverick Japanese master, took Lin-chi's advice a step further, and taught "if you are thirsty, you dream of water; if you are cold, you dream of a warm coat; as for me, I dream of the pleasures of the boudoir - that's my nature." Ikkyu considered himself to be one of Lin-chi's true heirs and called his favorite hermitage "Blind Donkey Hut" after Lin-chi's prophesy that his teaching would be transmitted by "blind donkeys" - stubborn, uncompromising followers of Zen who were not dazzled by fame and wealth.

Ikkyu was sent to be an acolyte at a Zen temple in Kyoto at the age of five. Given the tendencies in the temples at the time, Ikkyu likely was initiated into shudo, the way of the young, but soon lost interest in that sort of thing. However, he became fascinated by the opposite sex, and when he later took a wife he wrote:

Exhausted with homosexual pleasures, I embrace my wife;
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 day long.


One day, Ikkyu was traveling in an isolated area when he happened upon a woman preparing to bathe in a river. Ikkyu stopped, bowed reverently toward her, and continued on his way. Several passersby who witnessed this unusual scene ran after Ikkyu for an explanation of his strange behavior. "An ordinary man would have ogled that naked woman," they said. "Why did you bow to her?" Ikkyu explained, "Women are the source from which every being has come, including the Buddha and Bodhidharma!" He later wrote:

Follow the rule of celibacy and you are no more than an ass.
Break it and you are only human.
The spirit of Zen is manifest in ways as countless as the sands of the Ganges.
Every newborn is a fruit of the conjugal bond.
For how many eons have the secret blossoms been budding and fading?

With a young beauty, I am engrossed in fervent love-play;
We sit in the pavilion, a pleasure girl and this Zen monk.
I am enraptured by hugs and kisses
And certainly do not feel as if I am burning in hell.



For Ikkyu, the passions were the anvil on which true enlightenment is forged:

A sex-loving monk, you object!
Hot-blooded and passionate, totally aroused.
But then lust can exhaust all passion,
Turning base metal into gold.

The lotus flower
Is not stained by the mud;
This dewdrop form,
Alone, just as it is,
Manifests the real body of truth.


The great Zen poet Ryokan (1758-1831) would beg for food in front of the village brothel. In fact, if the girls were not busy, they would come out and play marbles with Ryokan. When his brother heard of this, he teased Ryokan with a poem:

The black-robed monk
Sports with
Pleasure girls -
What can be
In his heart?

Ryokan replied:

Sporting and sporting
As I pass through this floating world
Finding myself here
Is it not good
To dispel the bad dreams of others?

His brother was still not satisfied:

Sporting and sporting
While passing through this world
Is good, perhaps,
But don't you think of
The world to come?

Ryokan's conclusion was:

It is in this world,
With this body
That I sport.
No need to think
About the world to come.


All of this relates back to the famous Zen story about the old Chinese woman who supported a monk. She had built a little hut for him, let him live there for over 20 years, and fed him while he was meditating. Finally, she wondered just what progress he had made in all this time. To find out, she obtained the help of a beautiful young girl. "Go and embrace him," she told her, "and then ask him suddenly, 'What now?'"

The girl called upon the monk and without much ado caressed him, asking him what he was going to do about it. "An old tree grows on a cold rock in winter," replied the monk, somewhat poetically. "Nowhere is there warmth."

The girl returned and related what he had said. "To think that I fed that fellow for 20 years!" exclaimed the old woman in anger. At once, she went to the hut of the monk and burned it down.

When Ikkyu heard this story, he reportedly said, "If a beautiful girl were to embrace this monk, my old tree would spring straight up!"

1 comment:

Mumon said...

Very good post.

Should be read synoptically with Pai Chang's Fox, though.