Nov 11 2022

Ikkyu – Every day, priests minutely examine the Law

Published by at 10:13 am under Poetry

Every day, priests minutely examine the Law
by Ikkyu

English version by Sonya Arutzen

Every day, priests minutely examine the Law
And endlessly chant complicated sutras.
Before doing that, though, they should learn
How to read the love letters sent by the wind
and rain, the snow and moon.

— from Ikkyu and the Crazy Cloud Anthology: A Zen Poet of Medieval Japan, by Ikkyu / Translated by Sonya Arutzen

/ Image by Inebriantia /

So short and sweet, we almost don’t notice its deep cut into our pretenses.

If we want to be learned, then we can read the scriptures, memorize them, chant them. But if we want true knowledge, then we must do something much harder — walk outside and fall silent. When we can do that, and recognize the hidden touch behind it all, only then have we really understood what we’ve been studying all that time.

I think this short poem touches at something I’ve been revisiting in my own mind lately — how much “religion” do we bring to our spiritual pathways? Of course, that raises the question as to what we mean when we speak of religion. For some, religion is a call to God and community and communion, to help whoever we see in need, to selflessness and striving and joyous inner silences; while, for far too many, religion is about small mindedness, small circles of inclusion with limited parcels of compassion, willing blindness, suppression and control, us versus them, with lots of fear and hatred along the way. Those negative exemplars of religion can contaminate our thinking about religion in general or anything we might term to be spiritual.

So what does a spiritual path even mean when we’re not always clear in our own minds how much of this religious/spiritual stuff we really buy into? How do we sift through it all and arrive at a pathway that has integrity, that feels meaningful and right.

Here’s the solution I arrived at early on– The path is about energetics, not simplistic ideas of religion or spirituality. By that, I mean that the spiritual path — or perhaps we should call it the path of awareness or the path of awakening, the path of heart — is not about ideas of right and wrong. It is not about clinging to what is sacred and disdaining what is profane. It’s not about perfection. It’s not about harsh discipline. It’s definitely not about suppression. It is not about fitting some picture book idea of holiness. It is not about following the rules better than everyone else.

The path of awakening is about figuring out what works. That’s it, right there. It is experimental and supremely practical. What actually works? We figure it out step-by-step. We pay attention to our energies, our states of mind. How open is our heart? How settled is our mind? How often are we at peace? How much ego is at play? How much kindness and empathy do we feel? How well do our actions reflect our ideals? How clearly do we see outside the consensus mindset? We keep questioning. We keep feeling. We keep checking in.

To be effective, the path of awareness must always be from the inside out.

A reminder to us all to occasionally step away from the recitation of those complicated sutras, and to walk outside and receive the world’s love letters…

Recommended Books: Ikkyu (Ikkyu Sojun)

Zen Poetry: Let the Spring Breeze Enter Haiku Enlightenment: New Expanded Edition The Poetry of Zen: (Shambhala Library) Crow With No Mouth: Fifteenth Century Zen Master Ikkyu Zen and Zen Classics
More Books >>

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 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)

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4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Ikkyu – Every day, priests minutely examine the Law”

  1. rose peurrungon 11 Nov 2022 at 5:52 pm

    Thank you for your beautiful thoughts and insights on organized religion.

  2. isabelon 12 Nov 2022 at 5:41 am

    Beautifully said Ivan.The ending of your writing did wonders for my ever questioning mind.

    So true all of it .So hard to think of it and yet so simple to do.

    Have a blessed day, and thank you. Isabel

  3. S.Santhion 12 Nov 2022 at 6:38 pm

    Dear Ivan
    As always your selection of poems touches and amazes me. Being an old woman who has always lived and worked close to wilderness and indigenous people, my prayer is always to trees and rivers, mountains and forests, wind and rain…

    So I found so much beauty and meaning in the Ikkyu poem. Yes why chant complicated Sutras, if we can’t get the eternal message from living throbbing all encompassing life supporting nature all around us?

    Your short poem moved me deeply. Thank you Ivan. Please keep putting thoughts and concepts beautifully into words and let them fly to us who wait for poesy of comfort and healing in these challenging times.

    Love and all appreciation,

  4. Anna M.on 14 Nov 2022 at 9:25 am

    I got a love letter today
    from this rainy day…

    …water, water, water
    dark water

    emptiness-inside and outside
    swereling with thousand galaxies
    as a Star…

    thank you for the short poem…

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