Ryōkan Taigu is described as,

Ryōkan Taigu (良寛大愚?) (1758–1831) was a quiet and eccentric Sōtō Zen Buddhist monk who lived much of his life as a hermit. Ryōkan is remembered for his poetry and calligraphy, which present the essence of Zen life. He is also known by the name Ryokwan in English.

I'm reading this poem and am puzzled by it.

In A Dilapidated Three-Room Hut

In a dilapidated three-room hut 
I’ve grown old and tired; 
This winter cold is the 
Worst I’ve ever suffered through. 
I sip thin gruel, waiting for the 
Freezing night to pass. 
Can I last until spring finally arrives? 
Unable to beg for rice, 
How will I survive the chill? 
Even meditation helps no longer; 
Nothing left to do but compose poems 
In memory of deceased friends.

One of the things that puzzles me is the last line ("memory of deceased friends").

I thought (I'm probably mistaken again :-) that Buddhists are advised to "live in the present" and to avoid living "in memory", and to deconstruct the self instead of thinking "I feel" and "I suffer" and "I last".

Can you say what Ryōkan's intention might have been in writing this poem?

Wikipedia says, of Sōtō,

The meditator strives to be aware of the stream of thoughts, allowing them to arise and pass away without interference.

Perhaps that's what this poem is doing: simply awareness of a stream of thoughts? What's the difference between that and, I don't know, any other ordinary unenlightened mode of thought or life?

  • 1
    Buddhists are people, they have memories. "Living in the present" (being mindful and aware of one's surroundings, and not getting carried away with one's thoughts and feelings) is important - but that doesn't mean we cannot pay attention to memories. To answer your question: Given that this appears to be a poem written by a Zen Buddhist monk, I'd say yes - this is a Buddhist poem. And given that this is prose, written by a Zen Buddhist monk, which deals with his specific circumstance as a human being and not so much with the teachings of Buddhism - I'd say no, this is not a Buddhist poem. :-) Commented May 8, 2015 at 12:36
  • +1 for asking a question about my favorite poet!
    – user698
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 17:28
  • IMHO, Ryokan isn't a really good example of a buddhist person. Take for instance, his liking of alcohol and being drunk.
    – DLV
    Commented May 9, 2015 at 2:06
  • @enenalan It's a great poem. sfaik a poem (even a tiny-sized haiku) is supposed to include within itself three elements: the time of day and/or season of the year; the place (location or landscape); and something of the observer (a reference to something heard or felt or remembered).
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 31, 2015 at 1:36

3 Answers 3


My heart goes out to him. I wish I could sit with him. There'd be no need to meditate. Maybe I could make him a cup of tea.

  • Hi Jasper and welcome to Buddhism.SE! We are looking for answers to questions. Something other than an actual answer may be posted as a comment. We've put together some useful information on getting started here: meta.buddhism.stackexchange.com/questions/1502/…?
    – Robin111
    Commented May 11, 2015 at 21:42
  • 2
    My apologies. At the time I wrote this, I felt very strongly that it contained a quite precise answer to the question: 'Is This a Buddhist Poem?'. But I do understand there have to be limits on the way these things are expressed, here.
    – user5129
    Commented May 11, 2015 at 22:05

I think you are confounding Buddhist principles with Japanese culture - of which veneration of the dead is an important part. If there is one thing you can say about Buddhism, it's that it doesn't exist in a vacuum and often takes on the cultural customs of its practitioners.

Besides, it's a poem. He's trying to capture a moment for an audience, not make a statement about the dharma. ;-)

  • Even gaijin might remember deceased friends (though whether skillfully or unskillfully, that I don't know). But "to capture a moment", yes: that does sound like a characteristic/intention of Japanese poetry (e.g. haiku).
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 12:56
  • Still, I don't think it's helpful to investigate how Ryokan's poem lines up or doesn't with Buddhist ideals. I think we tend to ascribe a certain intent to famous folks and are often confused when their actions or words don't line up with the monolithic caricature history has made of them. I mean seriously. The man used to dress up as a woman and sneak into town. Are we supposed to view that as a statement on impermanence using gender fluidity as a medium?? The poem just is. If there's any Zen in it, it's simply that.
    – user698
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 13:17

I've read that Ryokan strived very hard to be identified neither as a poet, nor as a monk nor as anyone special. I wonder if an examination of his intentions isn't slipping away from this moment into judgment of the unknown. How can anyone know what he thought or meant - I can hardly comment on the intentions of people I meet everyday in my life, let alone of someone I've never met.

Sometimes I read things I wrote a few years ago, and I wonder to myself, what was I thinking, and I say, it doesn't really matter.

Does anyone stand up to an examination of all their utterances?

Where beauty is, then there is ugliness; where right is, also there is wrong. Knowledge and ignorance are interdependent; delusion and enlightenment condition each other. Since olden times it has been so. How could it be otherwise now? Wanting to get rid of one and grab the other is merely realizing a scene of stupidity. Even if you speak of the wonder of it all, how do you deal with each thing changing?


  • 1
    I asked about intent because this article about Right Speech said, "Notice the focus on intent: this is where the practice of right speech intersects with the training of the mind." Wikipedia claims that, "his poetry and calligraphy present the essence of Zen life": so maybe his poetry is on-topic. I don't mean this is a criticism of him or his poem. It's that I don't even know enough about Zen (or Soto) to identify a difference between Zen and non-Zen: especially how his dharma might inform his "memory of deceased friends".
    – ChrisW
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 15:07
  • 1
    Even a professional cook will burn a dish from time to time. Nothing in the human experience is perfect or incapable of failure. Even someone inhabiting the no mind state may drift into thoughts but they won't be stuck in it, just like the pro cook knows burning one dish doesn't mean he's forgotten how to cook. It's no big deal, if thoughts of old friends arise, it has nothing to do with his attainment.
    – Buddho
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 15:51
  • 3
    And let's keep in mind that enlightenment is not identical with callousness. Recollecting deceased friends is perfectly human. Turning your mind toward them once in a while doesn't mean you're any less of a monk. It's when these thoughts become obsessive that they become problematic.
    – user698
    Commented May 8, 2015 at 17:28
  • @Buddho - I feel very happy to read your answer. Perfectly reasoned. Thank you! Commented Sep 11, 2015 at 20:05

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