Jul 13 2012

Ikkyu – inside the koan clear mind

Published by at 10:38 am under Poetry

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 (Ikkyu Sojun) poetry, Buddhist poetry Ikkyu (Ikkyu Sojun)

Japan (1394 – 1481) Timeline
Buddhist : Zen / Chan

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.

More poetry by Ikkyu (Ikkyu Sojun)

15 responses so far

15 Responses to “Ikkyu – inside the koan clear mind”

  1. Tom D'Evelynon 13 Jul 2012 at 12:38 pm

    What takes fierceness is the acceptance of each thing’s singularity, its once onliness, in light of the original other beyond the whole. Those gashes show me my edge of finitude, seen as gashes, abysses. The old Christian religion called that the ontological difference, the great distinction acknowledged, not the right word, in the Dao’s perception of the dark enigma, the fertile void. See my blog ecoku.
    Thanks for the thrilling, even fierce, presentation!

  2. yohannanon 13 Jul 2012 at 1:45 pm

    Powerful.Like it.Love it.thank you.

  3. Annaon 13 Jul 2012 at 2:04 pm

    What a very beautiful Reasings

  4. Jim Atwellon 13 Jul 2012 at 5:06 pm

    While you were sleeping a garden grew.
    Choose the flowers you want to keep.
    A Gardner knows and weeds the garden
    with detached indifference.

  5. Michael K'shatria Youngon 13 Jul 2012 at 5:38 pm

    There is something in Christianity called “fierce grace.” Perhaps it is not only the seeker who needs to be fierce. God sometimes awakens us out of the group trance we are in by grabbing us by the shoulders and giving us a good shake. It might be an illness, an accident or a seeming personal tragedy. We often equate “grace” with “love”, forgetting that there is sometimes “tough love.” So often we have to look inside what is happening in a seemingly negative way to find the grace necessary for a positive change. The fierceness of this grace is equalled by the fierceness of the seeker to surrender to the change that is possible. Staring at the abyss, yes, we might die. But “He who seeks save his life will lose it, and he who seeks to lose his life will find it.”

  6. MOHINDERon 13 Jul 2012 at 5:52 pm

    one must be true to oneself,only then you can face yourself and the world boldly.

  7. franon 13 Jul 2012 at 6:56 pm

    Wow, so powerful and healing !!! Ivan thank you for that call to fiercness and redirection inside. Also, reading all the previous comments were enlightening and touching, too. Thank you all
    for such an authentic community.

  8. marrobon 13 Jul 2012 at 8:44 pm

    Bravo! Fine timing too.
    Just when I was feeling dissatisfied by too many frothy
    frappucinos on the menu this summer ( but not able to find words
    for this malaise ) Ikkyu , the slant of his eyebrows ( ! ) and the crystal sharp commentary remind me of the fine sword of spiritual fierceness . Words are good. Now a prayer for all who need the
    strength to respond , in whatever way, to the message.

  9. Lindseyon 14 Jul 2012 at 4:41 am

    just the right slant/slice needed to open my mind today – thanks for this poem and your insight Ivan

  10. Pushparajahon 14 Jul 2012 at 7:22 am

    I am much obliged for sending this valuable message. Those who love have to be fierce to protect whom they love and to preserve what they value. Please send more.

    with kind regards.


  11. Bob Corbinon 14 Jul 2012 at 9:39 am

    Thanks for everything! The poem, the poet, the commentary, the comments.

  12. Samon 14 Jul 2012 at 2:41 pm

    Wow! Refreshing! (From Accra, Ghana.)

  13. Karim Ratansion 14 Jul 2012 at 10:06 pm

    Your commentary reminded me of what the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad said to his companions when they had returned in victory from a war. “You have fought only a minor battle. You still have to fight a major battle.” When they inquired what this major battle is, he replied “It’s the fight against your own vile instincts!” Yes, certainly without fierceness one cannot traverse the spiritual path!

  14. Carol Burnson 16 Jul 2012 at 4:15 am

    Thank you, Ivan. I was gone, could not partake of the poem till this morning. Wow!
    I agree great koan, wonderful commentary, and so many energetic and insightful
    comments. So great to be part of Poetry Chaikhana. We learn and move and be
    together – a true blessing.

  15. tubby dullardon 16 Jul 2012 at 4:38 am

    I have the book. ikkyu one of my mentors.
    just returned from a meditation retreat with interviews with the dharma teacher and koan practice.
    all i ask: is for you to come with clear don’t know mind.
    all else will be fine.
    the blind donkey.

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