We cannot verify your location
Browse Book and Journal Content on Project MUSE

Great Fool

Zen Master Ryokan--Poems, Letters, and Other Writings

Ryuichi Abe

Publication Year: 1996

Taigu Ryokan (1759-1831) remains one of the most popular figures in Japanese Buddhist history. Despite his religious and artistic sophistication, Ryokan referred to himself as "Great Fool" and refused to place himself within the cultural elite of his age. In contrast to the typical Zen master of his time, who presided over a large monastery, trained students, and produced recondite religious treatises, Ryokan followed a life of mendicancy in the countryside. Instead of delivering sermons, he expressed himself through kanshi (poems composed in classical Chinese) and waka and could typically be found playing with the village children in the course of his daily rounds of begging. Great Fool is the first study in a Western language to offer a comprehensive picture of the legendary poet-monk and his oeuvre. It includes not only an extensive collection of the master's kanshi, topically arranged to facilitate an appreciation of Ryokan's colorful world, but selections of his waka, essays, and letters. The volume also presents for the first time in English the Ryokan zenji kiwa (Curious Accounts of the Zen Master Ryokan), a firsthand source composed by a former student less than sixteen years after Ryokan's death. Although it lacks chronological order, the Curious Account is invaluable for showing how Ryokan was understood and remembered by his contemporaries. It consists of colorful anecdotes and episodes, sketches from Ryokan's everyday life.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

pdf iconDownload PDF (70.4 KB)


pdf iconDownload PDF (62.2 KB)
pp. vii-viii

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (43.2 KB)
pp. ix

Particular thanks are due to the following individuals for their many helpful suggestions during the manuscript’s preparation: Professors Paul Anderer, Haruo Shirane, Robert A. F. Thurman and Philip Yampolsky of Columbia University, and Professors George Tanabe and H. Paul Varley of the University of Hawai‘i. ...

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (73.0 KB)
pp. xi-17

the fifteenth-century Zen monk whose eccentric life-style has inspired numerous folk stories in which he is depicted as a marvelously quick-witted child novice. Ryōkan is a singularly attractive figure. Minakami Tsutomu, the celebrated contemporary novelist, explains why, despite countless earlier works examining the minutest details of Ryōkan’s life, he could not escape the urge to write about the Zen ...


read more

Ryōkan of Mount Kugami

pdf iconDownload PDF (131.2 KB)
pp. 3-22

There, among the ubiquitous tabloids, the sex-and-violence comics, and the very latest Japanese and American bestsellers, you are likely to find several books devoted to the Zen master Taigu Ryōkan (1758–1831), a penniless monk whose life was spent in obscurity in Japan’s snow country, meditating, playing with children, and writing poems that vividly describe his world. He lived ...

read more

A Poetics of Mendicancy: Nondualist Philosophy and Ryōkan’s Figurative Strategies

pdf iconDownload PDF (279.9 KB)
pp. 23-75

Barthes’ proposal to understand text as the topos of incessant semantic production—rather than as the representation of fixed meanings outside of it—speaks eloquently of the seminal shift of emphasis in contemporary philosophical and literary theories in their approach to studying text. Such a reminder, however, seems unnecessary for Ryōkan, who, more than a century earlier than Barthes, articulated as follows the essentials of ...

read more

Commemorating Ryōkan: The Origin and Growth of Ryōkan Biographies

pdf iconDownload PDF (101.1 KB)
pp. 76-88

This brief survey identifies the key primary sources for Ryōkan’s biography, sketches the historical context in which the contemporaneous biographies of Ryōkan were composed, and illustrates the intertwining historical relationships that join these texts. Many of the sources exist only as unpublished manuscripts. In cases where there exist printed ...


read more

Translators’ Note

pdf iconDownload PDF (60.3 KB)
pp. 91-93

But to many ordinary Japanese, Ryōkan is above all a cultural hero, a teacher in the broadest sense of the word, one who has something to say not simply about poetry, but about life itself. This is the “Ryōkan san” familiar to millions of Japanese who may never even have attempted Ryōkan’s poems. Indeed, Ryōkan lived his life as a Zen Buddhist ...

read more

Curious Accounts of the Zen Master Ryōkan

pdf iconDownload PDF (124.9 KB)
pp. 94-106

Despite Ryōkan’s enduring reputation as a poet and calligrapher, it is above all the character of his daily life, its essential naturalness and simplicity, that earned him the affection of the men, women, and children of his native Echigo and continues to attract Japanese of all ages and backgrounds. Our principal firsthand source for Ryōkan’s ...

Kanshi (Poems in Chinese)

pdf iconDownload PDF (239.9 KB)
pp. 107-202

Waka (Poems in Japanese)

pdf iconDownload PDF (112.6 KB)
pp. 203-222

read more


pdf iconDownload PDF (126.5 KB)
pp. 223-239

Numerous letters by Ryōkan have survived. The majority of these are “thank you” notes for an assortment of foodstuffs, clothes, and household articles, as well as tobacco and medicine supplied by Ryōkan’s many friends and patrons. The following selection focuses on those letters that reveal the character of Ryōkan’s daily life and ...

read more

Reflections on Buddhism

pdf iconDownload PDF (121.2 KB)
pp. 240-254

With each passing year, the ways of the world grow more depraved. People’s hearts grow ever more unsettled, while the patriarchs’ teaching grows dimmer and dimmer. Teachers of Buddhism promote their particular schools, and their students parrot their example. Both stick together like lacquer and glue, stubbornly holding to their position, ...

read more

Finder’s Lists

pdf iconDownload PDF (66.1 KB)
pp. 255-258

Sources for the translations of Ryōkan’s kanshi are given below in the order in which the translations appear. Pages in the present work are given at left; the source of the text from which the translation was made appears at right. Unless otherwise indicated, numbers refer to poem numbers in Tōgō Toyoharu, Ryōkan Zenshū (Tokyo, 1959), ...


pdf iconDownload PDF (209.5 KB)
pp. 259-290

Select Bibliography

pdf iconDownload PDF (67.4 KB)
pp. 291-294


pdf iconDownload PDF (106.2 KB)
pp. 295-306

About the Translators

pdf iconDownload PDF (63.6 KB)

E-ISBN-13: 9780824862701
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824817411

Publication Year: 1996