Oct 09 2013
Autumn’s first drizzle
English version by John Stevens
Autumn’s first drizzle:
The nameless mountain.
— from Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryokan, Translated by John Stevens
/ Photo by twbuckner /
I can’t say exactly why, but I’ve always felt an especial aliveness in autumn. Perhaps it is the clarity of the light on the coloring leaves. The crisp mornings and the way twilight lingers late over the land. That feeling of transition, change, teetering at the edge of winter’s cold, between activity and inturning — a secret threshold in the seasons when new pathways can be discovered.
It seems with every autumn my body takes on a ritual fever or influenza, and I have to admit that I find the state rather comforting. It feels strangely right when autumn comes, to feel a slight flush, to be slow of movement and thought, to view the new world through glowing eyes, not quite free from the dream state. Autumn is a season that invites visions, that gives us glimpses of the strangeness of the world we think so familiar, and in that strangeness we discover new possibilities, new ways of being, new ways of seeing. Things lose their familiar forms and names in autumn’s half-light, and we ourselves can seem small and wraithlike amidst the shifting unknown. I’ve always seen in this season a window into the great Mystery, frightening and exhilarating, melancholy and delightful. Is anything substantial in this magical season? No, not really. Except, perhaps, for the life and light of awareness that burns so bright within us.
It’s a good season to see a nameless mountain.
Have a beautiful autumn day.
Much love to everyone!
Like Han-shan in China, Ryokan is loved in Japan as much for his antics as for his profound poetry.
Ryokan became a priest at age 18 and took to a life of wandering. He eventually met his teacher, Kokusen Roshi, and settled down to study Zen practice, ultimately becoming his most esteemed student. When Kokusen Roshi died, Ryokan inherited his temple. But the duties and regularity of being temple master didn’t suit Ryokan, and he resumed his itinerant life.
He next settled in a small hut he called Gogo-an on Mt. Kugami, where he lived by begging.
Ryokan’s love of children and animals is legendary. He often played games with the local children, as reflected in his own poetry.
His reputation for gentleness was sometimes carried to comical extremes. A tale is told that, one day when Ryokan returned to his hut he discovered a robber who had broken in and was in the process of stealing the impoverished monk’s few possessions. In the thief’s haste to leave, he left behind a cushion. Ryokan grabbed the cushion and ran after the thief to give it to him. This event prompted Ryokan to compose one of his best known poems:
The thief left it behind:
at my window.
When Ryokan was 70 and nearing the end of his life, he met a young nun and poet named Teishin. Though Teishin was only 28, they fell in love. They exchanged several beautiful love poems.
As Ryokan was dying, Teishin came to him and held him at his moment of death. It was Teishin who collected and published Ryokan’s poetry after his death.