Love Letters Sent by the Wind

“A single night of love is better than a hundred thousand years of sterile meditation,” he wrote. The life and poetry of Ikkyu, translated by John Stevens.

By John Stevens

Photo by Colin Campbell.

Ikkyu, born as the sun rose on the first day of 1394, was rumored to have been sired by the emperor Gokomatsu. His mother, a member of the influential Fujiwara clan, had been one of Gokomatsu’s attendants at court, but she had been slandered by the empress and subsequently ousted from the palace prior to Ikkyu’s birth.

Being in such difficult circumstances, Ikkyu’s mother was obliged to send him at age five to Ankoku-ji, a Rinzai temple in Kyoto, to be raised by the monks. The precocious little acolyte quickly distinguished himself at the monastery, attaining renown at an early age for both his keen mind and his impish behavior.

Ikkyu may have been mischievous, but even as a teenager he was deadly serious about Zen. When Ikkyu was fifteen, he overheard the sub-abbot boasting about his family background and important connections. “Filled with shame,” Ikkyu abandoned Ankoko-ji and went to train under Ken’o, an eccentric old-time master who lived in a shack in the hills.

As a poet, Ikkyu was at his finest when writing about what he loved most: the unfettered Zen life and the joys of sexual intimacy.

Ikkyu remained with Ken’o until the master’s death, in 1414. Despondent, the troubled Ikkyu contemplated suicide for a time and then sought admission to the community of monks training with Kaso, another no-nonsense Zen master of the old school. The regimen at Kaso’s retreat consisted of heavy work, meager food, little sleep and endless hours of meditation.

Ikkyu’s struggle for awakening was long and arduous, but one midsummer night in 1420, as he was meditating in a boat on lovely Lake Biwa, the caw of a crow brought the twenty-six-year-old monk out of his stupor. Ikkyu’s enlightenment verse:

For twenty years I was in turmoil
Seething and angry, but now my time has come!
The crow laughs, an arhat emerges from the filth,
And in the sunlight a jade beauty sings!

When Kaso presented Ikkyu with an inka, a seal of enlightenment, Ikkyu hurled it to the ground in protest and stomped away. Despite this and other difficulties between master and disciple, Kaso said, “Ikkyu is my true heir, but his ways are wild.”

After Kaso died in 1428, Ikkyu indeed went his own wild way, calling himself a “crazy cloud.” He spent much of his life as a vagrant monk, wandering here and there in the environs of Kyoto, Nara, Osaka and Sakai. Ikkyu mingled with all manner of people, from the highest (he had several meetings with the retired emperor Gokomatsu) to the lowest (he often traveled in the company of beggars). Ikkyu was the darling of merchants, who loved his antic style, yet at the same time he was a defender of the poor against greedy landlords. On occasion Ikkyu played Robin Hood—taking money set aside for a rich man’s funeral and spending it on the homeless, for example.

Once, Ikkyu, clad in his customary shabby robe and tattered hat, went to beg at the door of a wealthy family’s home. He was roughly ordered around to the back of the estate and given scraps. The following day he appeared at a vegetarian feast sponsored by the family, but this time Ikkyu was decked out in the brocade robes of an abbot. When the large tray of food was placed before him, Ikkyu removed his stiff robe and arranged it in front of the tray. “What are you doing?” the startled host asked. “The food belongs to the robe, not to me,” Ikkyu replied as he got up to leave.

Ikkyu interspersed his travels with lengthy retreats deep in the mountains, where he grew vegetables and meditated. He counted many artists among his wide circle of acquaintances, and his own dynamic art had a profound impact on the development in Japan of poetry, painting, calligraphy, tea ceremony, flower arranging and Noh drama.

Periodically, Ikkyu was summoned to serve as chief priest of a temple, only to quickly grow disgusted with the hypocrisy of fame-and-fortune Zen. He wrote:

Who among Rinzai’s descendants really transmits his Zen?
It is concealed in this Blind Donkey.
Straw Sandals, a bamboo staff, an unfettered life—
You can have your fancy chairs, meditation platforms, and fame-and-fortune Zen.

Throughout his life, Ikkyu wanted his Zen to be raw, direct and authentic. For Ikkyu, part of being authentic was to be totally up front about sex: “If one is thristy, he dreams of water; if one is cold, he will dream of a thick robe. It is my nature to dream of the pleasures of the bedchamber!” After initial experiences with homosexual love in the monastery, Ikkyu turned to women as a constant source of inspiration and unbridled joy. There were also difficult periods of deprivation and intense sorrow in his love life, which he accepted as being equally valid Zen experiences.

Following eight decades of wild ways, in 1474 Ikkyu was asked to become head abbot of Daitoku-ji, perhaps the most important Zen temple in the cultural history of Japan. Daitoku-ji had been destroyed in the senseless Onin War, and in seven years Ikkyu succeeded in having it completely rebuilt. The effort exhausted him, however, and he passed away while seated in the lotus posture in 1481, at age eighty-seven. Not long before his death he told his disciples:

After I’m gone, some of you will seclude yourselves in the forests and mountains to meditate, while others may drink rice wine and enjoy the company of women. Both kinds of Zen are fine, but if some become professional clerics, babbling about “Zen as the Way,” they are my enemies.

Ikkyu began composing poetry in his early teens, and more than a thousand poems are contained in the Crazy Cloud Anthology (Kyoun-shu) compiled by his disciples. Just as in everything else, Ikkyu totally ignored the rules of composition, and his poems come in all styles and forms. Much of his verse rants against the pervasive hypocrisy of the Buddhist establishment and decries the corruption of the imperial court and its officials. Such criticism was entirely justified, but even Ikkyu himself felt that he often went too far: “How many have I slain with my barbed words?” He ranted against himself as well, bemoaning his lack of self-control and his inordinate love of poetry. In addition to poems on standard religious subjects, Ikkyu composed a number of poems on koan phrases (usually his poems are more difficult to understand than the koans themselves).

As a poet, Ikkyu was at his finest when writing about what he loved most: the unfettered Zen life and the joys of sexual intimacy. The selection presented here consists of verses centering around those two themes. It may seem ironic that a Buddhist monk is best remembered for his love songs, but we also have the example of the sixth Dalai Lama, who once chanted:

If the bar-girl does not falter,
The beer will flow on and on.
This maiden is my refuge
And this place my haven.

~John Stevens

One Short Pause

One short pause between
The leaky road here and
The never-leaking Way there:
If it rains, let it rain!
If it storms, let it storm!
If your meditation cannot work in the Hall of Life and Death,
Fame and fortune will captivate you completely.
Human beings have a mixed bill of fare to be sure:
Sometimes tasty meat stew, sometimes weak citrus-rind tea!

My Hovel

The world before my eyes is wan and wasted just like me.
The earth is decrepit, the sky stormy, all the grass withered.
No spring breeze even at this late date,
Just winter clouds swallowing up my tiny reed hut.
Crazy Cloud is a demon in Daito’s line
But he hates the hellish bickering.
What good are old koans and faded traditions?
No use complaining any more, I’ll just rely on my inner treasures.
My real dwelling
Has no pillars
And no roof either
So rain cannot soak it
And wind cannot blow it down
Every day priests minutely examine the Dharma
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.

My Mountain Monastery

A thatched hut of three rooms surpasses seven great halls.
Crazy Cloud is shut up here far removed from the vulgar world.
The night deepens, I remain within, all alone,
A single light illuminating the long autumn night.

A Fisherman

Studying texts and stiff meditation can make you lose your Original Mind.
A solitary tune by a fisherman, though, can be an invaluable treasure.
Dusk rain on the river, the moon peeking in and out of the clouds;
Elegant beyond words, he chants his songs night after night.

Poem Inscribed on a Painting of Bodhidharma

He does not lie down, he does not get up,
He does not think about things.
He does not know,
And if you ask he will say mu!
Even if you do not ask
He will give you mu!
Question or not,
He does not have a word to say.
Honorable Bodhidharma—
What should we keep in our hearts?

A Meal of Fresh Octopus

Lots of arms, just like Kannon the Goddess;
Sacrificed for me, garnished with citron, I revere it so!
The taste of the sea, just divine!
Sorry, Buddha, this is another precept I just cannot keep.
Exhausted with gay pleasures, I embrace my wife.
The narrow path of asceticism is not for me;
My mind runs in the opposite direction.
It is easy to be glib about Zen—I’ll just keep my mouth shut
And rely on love play all the day long.


The Buddha died just when nature was coming back to life:
One sword cleaves cleanly soul and body.
It is hard to obtain buddhahood that is not born and does not die—
Flowers appear and disappear seamlessly in spring.

Enlightenment and Delusion

No beginning, no end, this one mind of ours.
The Original Mind cannot become buddhanature.
Original Buddhahood is Buddha’s mischievous talk;
The Original Mind of sentient beings is nothing but delusion.

The Dharma Master of Love

My life has been devoted to love play;
I’ve no regrets about being tangled in red thread from head to foot,
Nor am I ashamed to have spent my days as a Crazy Cloud—
But I sure don’t like this long, long bitter autumn of no good sex!
Follow the rule of celibacy blindly and you are no more than an ass;
Break it and you are only human.
The spirit of Zen is manifest in ways countless as the sands of the Ganges.
Every newborn is a fruit of the conjugal bond.
For how many eons have secret blossoms been budding and fading?

A Gentleman’s Wealth

A poet’s treasure consists of words and phrases;
A scholar’s days and nights are perfumed with books.
For me, plum blossoms framed by the window is an unsurpassable pleasure;
A stomach tight with cold but still enchanted by snow, the moon, and dawn frost.

To My Daughter

Even among beauties she is a precious pearl;
A little princess in this sorry world.
She is the inevitable result of true love,
And a Zen master is no match for her!
Rinzai’s disciples never got the Zen message,
But I, the Blind Donkey, know the truth:
Love play can make you immortal.
The autumn breeze of a single night of love is
than a hundred thousand years of sterile sitting meditation.
Monks these days study hard in order to turn
A fine phrase and win fame as talented poets.
At Crazy Cloud’s hut there is no such talent, but he serves up the taste of truth
As he boils rice in a wobbly old cauldron.

Three Poems on Love and Longing

Day and night I cannot keep you out of my thoughts;
In the darkness, on an empty bed, the longing deepens.
I dream of us joining hands, exchanging words of love,
But then the dawn bell shatters my reverie and rends my heart.
Women, lovely flowers that bloom and quickly fade;
Flowery faces, in full flush, lovely as dreams.
When flowers burst open they grow heavy with passion
But once they fall, no one speaks of them again.
Even if I were a god or a Buddha you’d be on my mind.
I sit beneath the lamp, a skinny monk chanting love songs.
The fierce autumn wind nearly bowls me over
And my heart is choked with thick clouds.
The wise heathens have no knowledge;
They just keep their mind continually set on the Way.
There are no big–shot Buddhas in nature
And ten thousand sutras are distilled in a single song.
I’d like to
Offer something
To help you
But in the Zen School
We don’t have a single thing!
A sex-loving monk, you object!
Hot-blooded and passionate, totally aroused.
Remember, though, that lust can consume all passion,
Transmuting base metal into pure gold.
Coming alone,
Departing alone,
Both are delusion:
Let me teach you how
Not to come, not to go!
Of all things
There is nothing
More congratulatory
Than a weather-beaten
Old skull!
Typhoons and floods make everyone suffer,
And tonight there will be no singing and dancing.
The Dharma flourishes and decays, ages come and go:
So right yet so sad—the bright moon sets behind the Western Pavilion.
Bliss and sorrow, love and hate, light and shadow, hot and cold, joy and anger, self and other.
The enjoyment of poetic beauty may well lead to hell.
But look what we find strewn all along our Path:
blossoms and peach flowers!

From “Love Letters Sent by the Wind,” the poetry of Ikkyu translated and introduced by John Stevens. Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, Winter 2004.

Reprinted from Wild Ways: Zen Poems Of Ikkyu, translated by John Stevens (White Pine Press, 2003), the first volume in the Companions for the Journey series.