Ikkyu was born during the Ashikaga shogunate, during the time known as the Muromachi period, when the capital of Japan was restored to Kyoto from Kamakura. At the age of 21, he sought out Kaso, a well-regarded Zen monk. Under his tutelage in the seminal Daitoku-ji temple in Kyoto, Ikkyu came up against Yoso, a more senior student who eventually came to run the monastery. In Ikkyu’s poems, Yoso appears as a character unhealthily obsessed with material goods, who sold Zen to increase the prosperity of the temple.
After a falling out with Yoso and his materialistic methods, Ikkyu left the temple and gradually retreated into the countryside. He was not alone there, however, as he had a regular circle of notable artists and poets from that era. Around this time, he established a relationship with a blind singer Mori who became the love of his later life.
Ikkyu worked to live Zen outside of formal religious institutions. However, the Onin War had reduced Daitokuji to ashes, and Ikkyu was elected abbot late in life, a role he reluctantly took on. This firmly placed him in one of the most important Zen lineages. In 1481, Ikkyu passed away at the age of eighty-eight from acute ague.
Ikkyu is one of the most significant (and eccentric) figures in Zen history. To Japanese children, he is a folk hero, mischievous and always out-smarting his teachers and shogun. This is due to the very popular animated TV series “Ikkyu-san”. In Rinzai Zen tradition, he is both heretic and saint. Ikkyu was among the few Zen priests who argued that his enlightenment was deepened by consorting with pavilion girls. He entered brothels wearing his black robes, since for him sexual intercourse was a religious rite. At the same time he warned Zen against its own bureaucratic politicising.
Ikkyu wrote in classical Chinese, as did some of the literary men in Japan at the time. His verse is immediate and poignant, insightful and at times moving. He is renowned as medieval Japan’s greatest calligrapher. Additionally, Ikkyu painted with ink.
External links and references
- Ikkyu and the Crazy Cloud Anthology, Sonja Arntzen, 1987, University of Tokyo Press, ISBN 0-860083-40-3
- Unraveling Zen’s Red Thread: Ikkyu’s Controversial Way, Dr. Jon Carter Covell and Abbot Sobin Yamada, 1980, HollyM International, Elizabeth, New Jersey, ISBN 0-930878-19-1.
- Wild Ways: Zen Poems of Ikkyu, translated by John Stevens, published by Shambhala, Boston, 1995.
Ikkyu Sojun 一休宗純 Nhất Hưu Tông Thuần 一休宗纯