Ikkyu, Zen Rebel.

“The autumn breeze of a single night of love is better than a hundred thousand years of sitting meditation.” -Ikkyu

Ikkyu was an eccentric iconoclastic Zen monk and poet in the 1400s in Japan.

Buddhism sometimes has a reputation as being anti-authoritarian, free, and individualistic. At least, that’s how many of us wish it was. Often this is not the case. Buddhism can sometimes be as rigid as other paths, but we should try to avoid this.

Anyway, Ikkyu was the embodiment of freedom-loving, anti-authority Buddhism.

Ikkyu was raised in a monastery. He was an illegitimate son of the emperor of Japan and his mother put him in the monastery to make sure his life was spared.

The Buddhism he learned was very strict. Japanese Zen has a reputation for being very rigid and hierarchical.

Ikkyu had bouts of depression growing up in the monastery, but his teachers could see that he had both an amazing intellect and a really good grasp of the Dharma.

Ikkyu really loved the Dharma, but he was not a fan of the hierarchy. He felt that it was political, which the Dharma should not be. So, when he reached adulthood and they offered him the certificate of enlightenment, that would allow him to become a fully ordained Zen Monk, he refused. He left the monastery instead.

He hadn’t given up on the Dharma. In his opinion the Zen establishment in Japan had given up on the Dharma. He thought that most of the monks he had met were like a bunch of hipsters, too busy acting ‘spiritual’ to really be involved in the spiritual life. Some believed that enlightenment could only be found by breathing in incense and sitting in silent meditation for hours at a time. Ikkyu disagreed. He believed enlightenment was with us already and we could realize it just as easily by spending our time with poor people and hookers as we could with monks.

He became a wandering monk and was given the nickname ‘Crazy Cloud’.

The point of Ikkyu’s life story is that the ‘sacred’ is nothing more than ordinary life experienced with mindfulness. He travelled the country doing things that we don’t associate with monks. There are a lot of stories about him travelling the country, drinking sake, and sleeping with women. He was freedom-loving and he didn’t really care what the religious authorities of the time thought. He left a mark on Japanese art, inspiring a lot of music, poetry, and stories. One of the most celebrated romances in Japanese history is Ikkyu’s relationship with Lady Mori.

Is this bad? I think his story is a lesson. We shouldn’t be attached to what we think a good Buddhist should do and we certainly shouldn’t be attached to systems of authority.  Good and bad are just labels. More than that, challenges to authority are important, especially religious forms of authority. Even if you think Ikkyu was wrong in his iconoclasm, it’s important that he was there to make the challenges.

Near the end of his life, a civil war caused many Zen temples to be destroyed. Ikkyu was a big advocate for rebuilding them. In old age his life’s mission was making sure that the religious structure that he had rebelled against would not be lost forever. In the end, Zen in Japan owes him a debt.

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About Daniel Scharpenburg

Daniel Scharpenburg is an independent dharma teacher living in Kansas City. He gives online teachings through the Open Heart Project, the largest virtual mindfulness community in the world. His writing has appeared in Lion's Roar, Patheos, Tattooed Buddha, and Elephant Journal.

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