Jul 13 2012
inside the koan clear mind
by Ikkyu (Ikkyu Sojun)
English version by Stephen Berg
inside the koan clear mind
gashes the great darkness
— from Crow With No Mouth: Fifteenth Century Zen Master Ikkyu, Translated by Stephen Berg
/ Photo by Phil South /
This is a startling poem. It feels almost violent. Perhaps a better word is “fierce.” There is a fierce impulse behind enlightenment.
I had a fascinating discussion with a few friends last night about the necessity of fierceness on the spiritual path. This isn’t something people acknowledge often enough. Don’t misunderstand me, our spirituality should be healing, to ourselves and to others. It should awaken understanding and compassion and profound love. It should help us to recognize balance, and to live with a deepening sense of harmony.
But let’s be blunt: Such things are not achieved through passivity. Every single person with a dedication to the life of the heart must be a fighter.
We humans are creatures of shared trance. Every time we step into a room of people, we choose whether or not to join the reality that has spontaneously formed within the group. Most of the time we join it without realizing we’ve even signed up.
Depending on the group, joining the collective mindset is not always a bad thing. But joining in without awareness or will is.
On the spiritual path, first we must learn to rebel. Without that instinct to reject what feels wrong or limiting, we stay stuck. Despite the insistence of our institutions, no great soul has ever been an unquestioning follower of rules or assumed reality.
But this form of rebellion can quickly become a trap. In rejecting things, it’s easy to become isolated and to let the heart cool to those who do not meet the ideals we’ve fought for. We have plenty of lost, lonely rebels in the world.
This is where the spiritual aspirant truly needs fierceness. To continue to open, we must recognize that real rebellion is directed against those habits within ourselves that snag us, that make us vulnerable to being hooked unawares by the shared trance around us. We so cherish those addictive secret aspects of ourselves that we imagine we will become unlike everything we assume we are… surely we will die.
It is easy to fight against others, but it is terrifying to struggle against painful qualities within ourselves. Can you imagine anyone moving through this phase without fierceness?
Instead of violently trying to “fix” the world around us — and failing — we polish, polish, polish ourselves. To transform from the inside out takes fierceness. To see takes fierceness. To know what we know, and to know we know it, takes fierceness. To feel fully takes fierceness. To speak takes fierceness. To be present, well, that takes the greatest fierceness of all.
That’s when we no longer need to reject or control the world; we glow in its midst.
|Ikkyu (Ikkyu Sojun)|
Ikkyu Sojun’s poetry is irreverent and iconoclastic, bitingly critical of false piety, hypocrisy, and formalistic religion. His poetry is often frankly erotic, sometimes humorously so. Yet his poetry manages to reach an immediacy and insight that is the essence of Zen practice.
Ikkyu Sojun was appointed to be the head priest of the great temple at Kyoto, but he renounced the position after just nine days, denouncing the hypocrisy he saw among the monks around him. In a famous line from one of his poems, he told his fellow monks they could find him in the local brothel instead.
Though clearly not of an ascetic temperament, Ikkyu was a poet, calligrapher, and musician who viewed the world with a deep insight that permitted no pretense, favoring direct truth over religious and social facades.
He founded what became known as the Red Thread (or erotic) school of Zen.