Ryokan Interpreted

Ryokan Interpreted

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Authors: Shohaku Okumura and Tonen O'Connor

Publisher: Dōgen Institute (2021)

The Japanese poet Ryōkan (1758–1831) is known throughout the world for his deep and delightful lyric verses, evoking the beauty of nature and the precious and transitory nature of everyday life. In his new book, the internationally-known Zen Buddhist commentator and author Shohaku Okumura newly translates poems by Ryōkan and provides commentary on Ryōkan’s life and works, for the enjoyment of lovers of poetry and for Buddhist practitioners alike.

Ryōkan spent many of his adult years living alone on a mountain in his childhood home province. But, as we discover in this book, Ryōkan’s life was much more complex than the simple picture of a kind, and perhaps bumbling, hermit-poet. Ryōkan was also a deeply committed Buddhist practitioner, an accomplished calligrapher, and sophisticated in his understanding of Buddhist and Daoist thought. He interacted with all segments of the Japanese society of his time, from poor farmers to the wealthy merchants and literati. To all, he displayed his deep faith in Buddhism, holding in his heart a particularly deep respect for Dōgen Zenji, the founder of the Sōtō school of Japanese Buddhism.

Now, in this volume, we may read of the many facets of Ryōkan’s life through the eyes of Shohaku Okumura, a contemporary Zen Buddhist teacher and internationally known translator and commentator on the works of Dōgen. A disciple of Kōshō Uchiyama Rōshi, a grand-disciple of Kōdō Sawaki Rōshi (“Homeless Kodo”), Okumura Rōshi brings fifty-plus years of dedicated practice and study to these essays, introducing the varied aspects of Ryōkan’s life and practice for us to consider as a reflection on our own contemporary issues. Okumura Rōshi has also provided his own translations of verse by Ryōkan, and reflects on his own journey of life and practice.

This handsome volume commences with an essay by Tonen O’Connor, Resident Priest of Emerita of the Milwaukee Zen Center, and is enhanced with the inclusion of photography of Roykan’s beloved “Snow Country” by Hoko Karnegis, Vice Abbot of Sanshin Zen Community. Tomon Marr, a disciple of O’Connor, has graced the cover and chapter headings with contemporary works of mixed media in response to Ryōkan.

The book will be cherished by readers for its physical beauty as well as its wise and insightful commentary. Whether you are a fan of Ryōkan, or because you are familiar with Buddhism and Zen, a fan of poetry, of photography, or of art, this will be a book to return to, again and again.

"A rich and comprehensive elucidation of the genuine Zen life of Ryōkan and his poetry, Ryōkan Interpreted reflects Shohaku Okumura Rōshi’s lifelong love of and dedication to the sublime masters Dōgen and Ryōkan. The beautiful portraits of Ryōkan and photographs of places where he lived along with the text will delight readers."

–Kazuaki Tanahashi

"The treasure of this book is that our love of Ryōkan grows wider and deeper through the clear honesty of narrative and explication of Ryōkan’s life and poetry through Shohaku Okumura Rōshi’s study, translations, and personal life experiences in relationship to Zen Master Ryōkan and Dōgen Zenji’s teachings."

–Rev. Eidō Frances Carney

"Okumura Rōshi flings open the windows in Zen poet Ryōkan’s ramshackle hermitage. These commentaries on Ryōkan’s poems bring art, Zen practice, and joy together, allowing the scent of incense and breeze of dharma to flow freely. I was privileged to be present at Berkeley Zen Center for the lectures that comprise Okumura Rōshi’s book. To have them before me, printed on a page, is a great pleasure."

–Hozan Alan Senauke