Seth Balthazar

Forgetting the Moon: The Poetry of Ryōkan

One evening Ryōkan returned back his simple little hut at the base of the mountain after a walk through the woods to find that his home had been forcibly broken into and his only possessions stolen. His calligraphy pen, begging bowl, and one blanket he used to sleep with were all stolen. Ryōkan sat down and gazed out the window. Reflecting on what he had, what he had not and what could be taken away from him, he composed this haiku:

The thief left it behind:
the moon
at my window.

Ryōkan, 良寛 (1758-1831) was a Japanese Sōtō Zen Master. He is best known for his poetry. But as he says, his poetry is not the type of poetry we are accustomed to. His words in their unadornment and direct simplicity are not poems, but are poetry itself – the living poetry of existence.

Who says my poems are poems?
These poems are not poems.
When you can understand this,
then we can begin to speak of poetry.

His name, Ryōkan Taigu means “broad-hearted generous fool”. Ryō means “good”, kan means “broad”, and Taigu means “great fool”.

Yes, I’m truly a fool
Living among trees and plants.
Please don’t question me about illusion and enlightenment —
This old fellow just likes to smile to himself.
I wade across streams with bony legs,
And carry a bag about in fine spring weather.
That’s my life,
And the world owes me nothing.

Entering a Zen monestary and becoming a priest at the age of 18, he took to a life of wandering.

Late at night, listening to the winter rain
Recalling my youth —
Was it only a dream? Was I really young once?

Finding a teacher, Kokusen Roshi, he practiced under Kokusen’s guidance and became his favorite student. Upon Kokusen’s death Ryōkan inherited his temple. But the duties and confines of monastic life soon were left behind for his love of wandering.

Down in the village
the din of
flute and drum,
here deep in the mountain
everywhere the sound of the pines.

Wild peonies
Now at their peak in
Glorious full bloom.
Too precious to pick.
Too precious not to pick.

He traveled as a pilgrim for five years before settling in simple hut and lived as a hermit, alone in the woods in the snowy country of Mt. Kugami.

Slopes of Mount Kugami—
in the mountain’s shade
a hut beneath the trees—
how many years it’s been my home?
The time comes to take leave of it—
my thoughts wilt like summer grasses,
I wander back and forth like the evening star—
till that hut of mine is hidden from sight,
till that grove of trees can no longer be seen,
at each bend of the long road,
at every turning,I turn to look back
in the direction of that mountain.

Ryokan with his bowl. Tsukioka Yoshitoshi 1839-1892

Refusing to live the monastic life and take on students, Ryōkan’s poetry reveals the utter simplicity of his life.

My house is buried in the deepest recess of the forest
Every year, ivy vines grow longer than the year before.
Undisturbed by the affairs of the world I live at ease,
Woodmen’s singing rarely reaching me through the trees.
While the sun stays in the sky, I mend my torn clothes
And facing the moon, I read holy texts aloud to myself.
Let me drop a word of advice for believers of my faith.
To enjoy life’s immensity, you do not need many things.

Ryokan shofuku “Sakura no uta” “Song of the Cherry” hanging scroll with calligraphy by Ryokan

His life consisted of doing calligraphy and writing poems, sitting in zazen meditation, walking in the woods, and drinking rice wine.

Midsummer —
I walk about with my staff.
Old farmers spot me
And call me over for a drink.
We sit in the fields
using leaves for plates.
Pleasantly drunk and so happy
I drift off peacefully
Sprawled out on a paddy bank.

Ryokan temari no zu
A painting of Ryokan bouncing the temari ball

Ryōkan lived a life of deep trust in existence, hoarding nothing he depended on the kindness of strangers for his food. He traveled with his begging bowl into the towns and was not always successful.

No luck today on my mendicant rounds;
From village to village I dragged myself.
At sunset I find myself with miles of mountains between me and my hut.
The wind tears at my frail body,
And my little bowl looks so forlorn —
Yes this is my chosen path that guides me
Through disappointment and pain, cold and hunger.

Often Ryōkan would forget to ask for food because he was having so much fun playing with the children and it is said that in his presence people felt “as if spring had come on a dark winter’s day.”

First days of spring
the sky is bright blue, the sun huge and warm.
Everything is turning green.
I carry my monk’s bowl and walk to the village
to beg for my daily meal.
The children spot me at the temple gate
and happily crowd around,
dragging at my arms till I stop.
I put my bowl on a white rock,
hang my bag on a branch.
First we braid grasses and play tug-of-war,
then we take turns singing and keeping a kick-ball in the air:
I kick the ball and they sing, they kick and I sing.
Time is forgotten, the hours fly.
People passing by point at me and laugh:
“Why are you acting like such a fool?”
I nod my head and don’t answer.
I could say something, but why?
Do you want to know what’s in my heart?
From the beginning of time:
Just this! Only this!

He is well known for his love of children and animals, and wrote some beautiful poems of lament for children killed in a smallpox epidemic.

When spring arrives
From every tree tip
Flowers will bloom,
But those children
Who fell with last autumn’s leaves
Will never return.

Ryōkan’s teaching was simple and direct.  In his poems he talks of not becoming lost in the world, and the importance of finding ones true nature.  That the only way to find yourself, is to lose yourself.

This world
A fading
Mountain echo
Void and







The rain has stopped, the clouds have drifted away,
and the weather is clear again.
If your heart is pure, then all things in your world are pure.
Abandon this fleeting world, abandon yourself,
Then the moon and flowers will guide you along the way.

His great insight was into the great joy in the naturalness of life, the extraordinary ordinariness of enlightenment.

With no mind, flowers lure the
With no mind, the butterfly visits
the blossoms.
Yet when flowers bloom, the butterfly
When the butterfly comes, the
flowers bloom.

At the age of 70 Ryōkan met a young female Zen student named Teishin. Although she was only 28 their bond was deep and they wrote several love poems to each other. As Ryōkan lay dying Teishin came to him and held him until he died

Was it really you
I saw
Or is this joy
I still feel
only a dream?

The moon, I’m sure
Is shining brightly
High above the mountains
But gloomy clouds
Shroud the peak in darkness

You must rise above
The gloomy clouds
Covering the mountaintop
Otherwise, how will you
Ever see the brightness?

Ryōkan had no desire for recognition and did not seek to publish his poems, which were only collected and published after his death.

Empty and fleeting My years are gone
And now, quivering and frail,
I must fade away.

My legacy…
What will it be?
Flowers in spring,
The cuckoo in summer,
And the crimson maples of autumn…

Ryōkan’s Grave

Thank you for reading.

I, Seth Balthazar, am a philosopher-poet who shares liberating insight and inspirational guidance in our human journey to wake up, re-member ourselves, end the illusion of separation, and return to our innate nature as divinely powerful creator beings.

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