May 02 2014

Ryokan – Even if you consume as many books

Published by at 9:27 am under Poetry

Even if you consume as many books
by Ryokan

English version by John Stevens

Even if you consume as many books
As the sands of the Ganges
It is not as good as really catching
One verse of Zen.
If you want the secret of Buddhism,
Here it is: Everything is in the Heart!

— from Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf: Zen Poems of Ryokan, Translated by John Stevens


/ Photo by guillermocarballa /

I was an academic sort of kid. As I entered high school I was part of a college-oriented program that attracted some truly brilliant students. And in my own oddball social circle, we were early 80s computer nerds. Since we were not athletes or at the top of the adolescent social pecking order, we had to find our own outcast sense of pride, our own currency of superiority — and ours was knowledge. Our conversations were stuffed with (often unnecessary) information about anything and everything, from scientific advances to computer programming shortcuts to pop culture trivia.

We thought of it as knowledge but, you know, it wasn’t. It was just data. Valuable, perhaps, in the right context, but it was not actual knowledge.

This is a particularly difficult thing for headblind modern society to really understand: Accumulated information is not the same thing as knowledge. By the time I left high school, I came to this unsettling conclusion. I had witnessed the brilliant and the information-saturated among my peers, and I felt that something crucial was still missing. I didn’t want to acquire information, I wanted to know.

That’s a serious dilemma to be wrestling with as you begin your university years. My grades plummeted as I questioned the very nature of learning and academic institutions in general. I dropped out of college — twice. In many ways, that’s when my real education began.

Even if you consume as many books
As the sands of the Ganges
It is not as good as really catching
One verse of Zen.

Especially in the spiritual realm, if we don’t understand this tension between information and knowledge, we run into serious problems with terrible repercussions for religion and culture. When we confuse knowledge of scripture with divine truth, we imagine that the letter of the law is the same as the spirit of the law. When the letter of the law is all we acknowledge, it becomes brittle, fragile, threatened by every social change and new perspective. Its greatest threat becomes the spirit of the law itself, for that stays active in the changing world, while the letter stays rigidly fixed. We stop looking deeply, living deeply, afraid of seeing a disconnect between the information of the written “truth,” and our knowledge of the living truth. This happens in the sciences as well as in religion.

Here’s a way of understanding that helps me to personally keep perspective: Any information that can be written in a book, stored in a computer, or committed to memory may be a hugely valuable tool — spiritual or practical — but it is only a tool, not real knowledge. It only gains its meaning through use. The meaning comes from what we create in the world and in ourselves with that information. The real value in every action and thought is discovered as it leads us back to the center of centers, for only there is true knowledge found.

If you want the secret of Buddhism,
Here it is: Everything is in the Heart!

Ryokan, Ryokan poetry, Buddhist poetry Ryokan

Japan (1758 – 1831) Timeline
Buddhist : Zen / Chan

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:
the moon
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.

More poetry by Ryokan

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Ryokan – Even if you consume as many books”

  1. Pegon 03 May 2014 at 6:06 am

    Thank you Ivan. This is beautiful knowledge.

    I sent a prayer that your financial needs will be met.

  2. kathystewarton 03 May 2014 at 1:15 pm

    Wonderful truth in this sweet poem, and in your story of college years. I wonder if we all know something is missing in “education”, and seek it in the heart… <3

  3. Joey Connollyon 04 May 2014 at 10:23 pm

    knowledge, questions, consumption, centers

    That is a nice little verse by Ryokan. However as an educator on a remote island in the Pacific for more than a quarter of a century I have encouraged and continue to encourage all my students to read, read, and read some more. They will find the ‘center’ of centers on their own as they take that life long journey toward it by reading and reflecting.

    to question? qui vive?
    the quid nunc and the quid pro quo, the quirks and quarks,
    the quixotic and the quizzical, the quaff and the quack,
    the quotient and the quotidian, the quagmire and the quality,
    the quitter and the quest, the quietus and the quiet

    Joey Connolly, on Teacher Appreciation Day

  4. Joey Connollyon 05 May 2014 at 3:28 pm

    Ivan, thanks for the brief bio. Time for you to hit the road .To enhance your perspective on proportion and balance get out and see the world. Travel in all directions sans cell phone, computers, and car. Use public transportation that is available in the places where you go, busses, trains, planes and your feet.
    Bon Voyage!

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