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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Religion, solitude, and nature in the poetry of the zen monk Ryōkan Yavorsky, Gregory Paul


The Zen monk Ryokan (1758-1831), who referred to himself by the self-depracating term taigu or Great Fool, is widely known in Japan through folktales which stress the eccentricities of his character. His extremely individualistic calligraphy, with its spidery unrestrained lines, is most highly valued, and new forgeries still appear frequently. He is less famous for his poetry of which there remain extant some 1,400 waka or Japanese poems and approximately 450 kanshi or Chinese poems. Although Ryokan's name has become known in the West through the Zen boom of the past twenty-five years, very little concrete work has been produced in either translation or criticism. It is my intent in this thesis to examine the concepts of religion, solitude, and nature, through a study of Ryokan's Chinese poems. I feel that these three elements are central to an understanding of Ryokan's life and poetry. As for religion, Ryokan was a Soto monk who studied under the Zen Master Kokusen of Entsu-ji in Bitchu in what is today Okayama Prefecture. After gaining enlightenment and receiving inka, the formal recognition of his spiritual attainment, he wandered for five years before returning to his native province where he eventually settled in a hermitage on Mt. Kugami. Unlike the majority of monks of his day, he continually maintained himself by means of takuhatsu or mendicancy. This aligns him with his poetic model Han-shan (Cold Mountain) and other illustrious Zen monks such as Shuho Myocho who lived under the Gojo bridge for twenty years before founding Daitoku-ji. Ryokan writes in one of his poems, "living in tranquility that is being a monk." The theme of solitude works in harmony with rather than in opposition to the idea of society in these poems. The religious seeker is trained by the sangha or community of monks, and supported by alms from the lay community, but the Zen Way relies most heavily on individual devotion, strength of discipline and self-power (jiriki). Nature is the unifying element of the poems for it represents to the poet, spontaneous existence, before contrivances and dualities: Mother Nature as a mirror for self-Nature. In addition to the study of these major thematic elements, this thesis includes some forty-five poems, the majority of which have not previously been translated.

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