Skip to content

Ryokan Helps His Nephew

February 3, 2013

by Stephen Damon

Ryokan devoted his life to the study of Zen. One day he heard that his nephew, despite the admonitions of relatives, was spending his money on a courtesan. Inasmuch as the nephew had taken Ryokan’s place in managing the family estate and the property was in danger of being dissipated, the relatives asked Ryoken to do something about it.
Ryokan had to travel a long way to visit his nephew, whom he had not seen for many years. The nephew seemed pleased to meet his uncle again and invited him to remain overnight.

All night Ryokan sat in meditation. As he was departing in the morning he said to the young man: “I must be getting old, my hand shakes so. Will you help me tie the string of my straw sandal?”

The nephew helped him willingly. “Thank you,” finished Ryokan, “you see, a man becomes older and feebler day by day. Take good care of yourself.” Then Ryokan left, never mentioning a word about the courtesan or the complaints of the relatives. But from that morning on, the dissipations of the nephew ended.

Before we get into our story, I’d like to say a few words about the poet-monk Ryokan (1758-1831). Although he is generally regarded as one of the three greatest poets of Japan, along with Basho and Ikkyu, he repeatedly refused to be honored as a poet or as a Buddhist priest. Instead of heading a temple he chose to live alone in a simple hut in the mountains, supporting himself by begging in the local villages. His poems are a collection of his impressions of the hermit life as well as his daily activities of chores, lonely snowbound winters, begging expeditions, meetings with friends, and romps with the village children. He referred to himself as a “great fool.”

Listen to the way he tells the story of his life:
In my youth I put aside my studies
And I aspired to be a saint.
Living austerely as a mendicant monk,
I wandered here and there for many springs.
Finally I returned home to settle under a craggy peak.
I live peacefully in a grass hut,
Listening to the birds for music.
Clouds are my best neighbors.
Below a pure spring where I refresh body and mind;
Above, towering pines and oaks that provide shade and brushwood.
Free, so free, day after day —
I never want to leave!

Although Ryokan never wanted to leave his idyllic solitary life, he immediately went to help his young nephew whom he hadn’t seen in many years. As a Zen monk his practice was to help all sentient begins and to respond wholeheartedly to whatever appeared before him. Sometimes it was a crying child in a nearby village who needed some playful attention and sometimes it was a wandering traveler who needed counsel.

One day it was his nephew who was squandering the family’s fortune. We can imagine how difficult it was for the old man to leave his idyllic surroundings and make the difficult journey down from the mountains, but the story does not indicate that it was hard for him to make the decision. Just like Kanzeon, the Bodhisattva of compassion, he heard a cry and he responded. Our Zen practice is about listening to the cries of the world and responding as best we can, even if we have to leave a life we “never want to leave.” In a sense, we are always asked to leave the life that we are used to living.

Although Ryokan didn’t have disciples and didn’t give public Dharma talks, he was able to transmit the dharma not only with his poetry but with his actions and his presence. In our story he was able to help his nephew not by lecturing or giving him advice but simply by being himself. This was skillful means, the practice of tactfully transmitting the dharma in a way best suited to a particular situation. Although Ryokan was strong enough to make the long walk from his mountain hermitage he made his body look old and frail as a way of expressing impermanence, as a way of expressing the first of the Four Signs given to the Buddha when he left the palace. Seeing his uncle’s physical feebleness the nephew was able to see his youth in the context of a much wider reality. He was able to see that time was much more of the essence than he had previously thought.

On a deeper level, I suspect that Ryokan’s meditation during the night may have influenced the young man during his sleep. He may have woken up with a greater degree of sensitivity and openness to his uncle. From my own experience I have learned that being near a person who is deep in meditation affects my own state. I have noticed this over and over again during group sittings. Meditation “changes” not only the person who is meditating but also her surroundings. Tibetan Buddhist literature has stories about how even the weather can change when a person is in deep meditation.

Beyond all this I would say that Ryokan’s body, whether it shook too much to tie his own sandals or was strong enough to make a long trek, expressed the dharma. I recall reading a student’s account of how watching his teacher moves across a room he was able to see enlightenment “itself.” In this regard, there is an old Jewish saying, “If you want to learn what your teacher knows, don’t listen to what he says. Watch how he ties his boots.” Or in this case, watch as he asks you for help in tying his sandals.


From → Zen Buddhism

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: