May 27 2011
The thief left it behind
English version by Stephen Mitchell
The thief left it behind:
at my window.
— from The Enlightened Heart: An Anthology of Sacred Poetry, by Stephen Mitchell
/ Photo by nagillum /
Ryokan had a reputation for gentleness that was sometimes carried to comical extremes. A famous story about him relates 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 this haiku, one of his best known poems.
The moon is a common metaphor, especially among the Zen poets, to represent enlightened awareness. In this haiku Ryokan is laughing at the absurdity of the theft. “The thief left it behind,” he foolishly couldn’t recognize the one great treasure the poor monk possessed — “the moon,” enlightenment — and, instead, took an armload of worthless junk. (To point out what a petty haul it was, Ryokan even ran after the thief with the missed cushion — perhaps a nudge toward meditation.) Any sort of theft of Ryokan’s possessions was a pointless act because, of course, who can take the moon from his window? Ryokan is amused and invites us to join in his laughter.
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, attested to in his own poetry.
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.