In May 2024, Mindfulness Northwest Executive Director and Guiding Teacher Tim Burnett co-led a 5-day retreat on the Buddhist inspired teachings on compassion. Tim deeply explored the life of the 18th century Japanese Zen priest and poet Ryōkan who lived a life of joy, compassionate engagement, and voluntary simplicity. We took much inspiration from Ryōkan’s poems and contemporary stories of his life in rural Japan.

The references Tim was studying for these talks were:

  • Kazuaki Tanahashi, Sky Above, Great Wind
  • Ryuchi Abe & Peter Haskell, Great Fool: Zen Master Ryokan (available as a PDF)
  • John Stevens, Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf and One Robe, One Bowl


Talk 1: Meeting Ryokan


Talk Notes

So the central figure for these talks I’m putting forward is an 18th century Japanese Zen poet named Ryokan.

Ryokan like most Japanese names is two Chinese characters here meaning “good and broad” but he was also given a second name by his first Zen teacher: Daigu meaning Great Fool. This turned out to be a name he would live into in middle age and to the end in a wonderful way. Here’s a poem he wrote about spending the day playing with children in the village:

Playing with children


a shrine forest.

Let this spring day

not turn into dusk!

He was born in 1758 in a coastal village the eldest son in the top family of the village. His father was essentially the mayor of the town and he was expected to succeed him. But it just didn’t suit him and he dropped out of the life he was expected to lead – anyone here do that too? drop out of the life you were expected to lead? – and at 18 ordained as a Zen monk.

Japanese Zen monks can have different trajectories. The most common is being pretty much like a local priest or pastor. You learn a complex set of rituals and chants. You learn how to take care of a temple and how to offer important ceremonies to the local parishioners. Everything in Zen has the mindfulness of exquisite attention to detail and a kind of entering into deep ritual space. Very spiritual we might say. Some of temple priests do regular meditation, but not all do.  (It was a surprise to me to learn that actually – meditation isn’t central in the average Zen temple? wah?! but it’s true I was just in Japan to see the 21st century version of that).

And that’s where Ryokan started out. Helping his first teacher run the local temple. He ordained at 18 and lives that way for 4 years. His version of our college years.

Then his teacher’s teacher came to do an ordination ceremony at the temple and young Ryokan was deep moved by his presence. A fellow named Kokusen. So Ryokan joined him at this monastery which was what they call a training monastery. There meditation is central but not just meditation. The monks do an intense daily schedule getting up very early, meditation, chanting, many rituals, lots of cleaning, plus all of the kinds of temple jobs and offerings to the community he’d done in the small temple. And these long days repeat. Day after day after day. What if instead of 5-day retreat we were doing a 1-year retreat? There’s some seasonal change in their routine with periods that are less intense but it’s basically this incredible immersion into a meditative type of life. It’s not always easy and it’s done in a tight group. In the most formal training centers the monks actually sleep, eat, and meditate all in the meditation hall.

So now you’re not just doing the retreat here every day for a year, when we say goodnight no one is going off to their private little cabins. We’d go file into the bathroom together – everything done together – brush our teeth and use the toilet – and then we’d file back here and spread out our mats pull up our blankets and sleep right here. Together. That kind of practice changes you!

Ryokan did this. From his early 20’s into his mid-30’s – a dozen years or so of this training.

He never wrote much directly about his years of Zen training but the spirit of renunciation – of letting go of a worldly life with stuff and jobs and family and a busy calendar shows up all the time in his poems. Here’s one:

Renouncing the world,

renouncing the body,

I have become a person of leisure.

keeping company with the moon, with the flowers,

I spend my remaining life so clear –

rain, clouds, and spirit.

I am awake – as are all things in the world.

There’s this deep sense of freedom of ease isn’t there? And that came party from a dozen years of intense structured living that looks from the outside like there was absolutely no freedom. Interesting no?

But that begs the question of what freedom really is? Is it the freedom to do whatever you feel like? Is what you feel like doing necessarily the best thing to be doing anyway?

We’ll work a bit in this retreat with letting go of our preferences as we were saying in the orientation, but we’ll still get our private time and rest time and maybe each in our own way we’ll all bend the “rules” a little bit according to our habits and desires. Oh…she seems to nice, it’d be okay to just whisper like, “thank you for being my neighbor in the meditation hall!” or “that’s a pretty shawl!”

But what if you had zero privacy ever 24/7? And we’re living in this one room together. There’s no whispering or sneaking in a bit of reading or, oh my, just checking in on the world with your phone for a minute. You couldn’t get away with anything like that. What a strong encouragement to release from any agenda of your own and make every moment a moment of practice – and of practice together. No choice in the matter in that setting. At all.

How does it change you? It varies like all human things but when it works well you come out the other side both very aware and awake but also kind, warm, and open. Accepting and deeply committed to taking the best care of your life and your world as you can. People like that can be so inspiring to spend time with. There’s a feeling to them that you pick up on. A warm deep presence.

And it can go other ways too. People can also come out of a dozen years of intense formal meditation training and present as stiff and rigid as a board. Grouchy and rule bound. Superior to normal people for accomplished the great feat of doing this intense training.

And yet others can come out sweet as a ripe persimmon.

The Japanese love persimmons and they are used as a Dharma metaphor a lot because they start out super bitter until they’re ripe, then they get sweet – so maybe the stiff as a board people are just still in the bitter stage.

Kaki is the Japanese name for persimmons. Some words in other languages I just like the word: kaki.

Ikkyu, a poet and lay person, writing in 15th century Japan a few centuries before Ryokan criticized the Zen monks around this danger that their practice can lead to stiffness and missing the point of our rich lives:

Every day priests examine the dharma

And endlessly chant complicated sutras

Before doing that, they should learn

How to read the love letters sent by the wind and rain, the snow and the moon.

But the surprising thing is endlessly chanting complicated sutras and all of the practices of formal Buddhism can also lead to insight, presence, openness, and deep kindness. To transformational change in who you are.

Modern Zen monks in the Zen school I’m part of, called Sōtō, do that kind of intense training for 2 or maybe 3 years.  I was just at one of the training monasteries myself. Beautiful place. And very austere. And then most of them go back home to the family temple to take care of it like Ryokan did in his first years as a monk.

But as we’ll see Ryokan ended up not returning to take care of a temple ever. He went on a multi-year pilgrimage and then he spent the rest of his days living as a hermit and wrote a lot of poetry. I’m grateful he did.

So why am I telling you all of this about Zen monastic training and this particular Zen poet monk from hundreds of years ago?

Well because all of this happens with us doing these practices too. Doing this form of training. It’s not the special province of Japanese Zen monks. It’s a human process this welcoming yourself deeply home to yourself we’re practicing here too.

And while we’re unlikely to live in a hut on Chuckanut Mountain across the water there – and anyway with West Coast real estate the way it is there aren’t empty huts hanging around like it seems there were in 18th century Japan – we can absolutely change how we relate to our busy lives. How we hold our calendar. How we show with each other at work, at home, with friends, on the bus and on the street. We can learn to be more like Ryokan cheerfully walking down to the village from his mountain hut to ask for a little bit to eat, to play with children, to give away a poem written in beautiful calligraphy. Well not literally but or our version of all of this. A sincere smile is an amazing gift.

I was riding my bike a few days ago in Bellingham and a woman in a car and I locked eyes for a moment – not sure why but we did – and she shared a beautiful smile with me. I’m actually surprised I remember that now but I do. I enjoyed the moment and kept riding. I didn’t try to flag her down and say hi. (maybe being happily married helps there). She gave me a Ryokan style gift and hopefully I responded with my own gift to her and the moment was complete.

Here’s another Ryokan poem:

Since I left the household,

throwing myself into the world as it is,

I have erased all dates.

Yesterday I lived on a green mountain;

today I play in town.

More than one hundred pieces patch my robe.

A single bowl knows no years.

Leaning on my walking stick, I sing into the clear night;

laying out a straw mat, I sleep under the moon.

Who says I don’t count?

This body of mine is just this.

Can’t you feel the sense of ease in himself? That he’s learned to welcome the moments of his life as they come? As one with a very full calendar do love the 3rd line: “I have erased all dates”. I was wondering if Google Calendar has a mass delete function – with one keystroke could I erase all dates in my calendar. And not just that all the events vanish but the lines and days of the week vanish too – all dates gone. Just a blank open life. How about that?

Ryokan spent the second half of his 30’s on pilgrimage. It helps to have a culture that already has some support for wandering monks. You could show up at many temples and the wealthier people’s houses as a monk and if you seem sincere you’re offered a place to sleep and probably a simple meal without question. And we know Ryokan and other wandering monks and poets of his time also slept out under the stars regularly. And did have to accept maybe quite a bit more discomfort that we are quite willing to accept. Backpacking maybe sounds a bit much but backpackers have tents and sleeping bags. Ryokan had robes that he could kind of wrap around himself at night and that’s it.

Here’s a poem with a note at the top of the page which says, “At a place called Ako I slept in the Tenjin Shrine forest. Chilling storm.” The poem reads:

Mountain storm!

Don’t blow so hard

at night on my journey.

I sleep on one sleeve

of my white robe.

Zen monks robes are black, not white. White is the color of death in Japan and only very special kinds of monks in special circumstances would ever wear white robes. So the white robe here is probably a blanket of snow. Funny how in English we say “blanket” of snow – not the most cozy blanket to sleep on or under.

I feel driven to make a side note here about poverty and social injustice. Ryokan did come from a privileged family – at least relative to their village in those times – and while he renounced the material wealth of that family he was born into some degree of security and then was able to develop powerful coping skills and a kind of transcendent understanding of this world. This could mean he could actually be pretty happy and content living in voluntary poverty. He had some tough moments and hard feelings too as he’ll share but he was blessed with the supports he needed to live in that way with grace and an underlying deep joy.

There were people then just as they are now who are not so lucky. People for whom poverty is not spiritual practice but deeply painful and difficult. Not there without good moments and days but we humans do have a way of creating an unfair and unjust world and people suffer when there’s actually plenty to go around. Thinking of the way or economy can create the mega billionaires while there are unhoused people living on the streets should make us mad. That ain’t right. Just wanted to be sure and say that. We’re not trying to valorize poverty here.

And yet to be amazed: it really is possible for us humans to transform into beings who are content with very little. And that’s also part of the solution. I’m not sure what happened to the voluntary simplicity movement – I’m sure there are plenty of people practicing that. I could certainly do better there myself.

A few more Ryokan poems and then that’s enough for today I think.

Another about sleeping out and it seems he was a bit bummed about it that night. Most of the poems are untitled but a few have either titles or little notes at the top. This one has the note, “The following day I arrived in a place called Karatsu. This evening I also had no place to stay.” So the cultural support network for wandering monks didn’t always work. He following poem says:

Did I expect this?

Tonight again

I sleep outdoors,

tamping down weeds

alongside the road.

These poems were all written during his “wandering period” after leaving the strict monastery where he did those dozen years of training wandering all around Japan. At least we assume so – he didn’t date his work so scholars later have tried to put them into some kind of order based on the topic and things like how his handwriting – his brush calligraphy – evolved over the years. That calligraphy is also quite famous. You won’t be surprised to hear that his writing has a kind of loose fluid elegance that calligraphers admire. Not technically perfect even kind of but the way’s he bends the rules just feel right in a deep and free way. I do a little calligraphy myself so I can kind of feel that but one of my books of translation of Ryokan was written by a renowned calligrapher and he explains how it moves him.

And here are a pair of poems to close that also show his humanity in that he would get a little homesick sometimes in these six years of wandering.

On a grass pillow,

my journey’s lodging

changes night by night.

Dream of my village



If anyone is going to my hometown,

send a message that

I have passed

Omi Province.

So as Catherine mentioned last night we keep track of the poems we share during the meditations and send you the list after the retreat. And I’m recording these talks and all of the Ryokan poems I just read you are in my talk notes which I post with the video recording. So it’ll all be there for you.

It is interesting to notice the mind that wants to hold onto this. I love how she said that, I want to remember that. I want a copy of that poem: I’ll read it every day for sure. Or in the negative direction: what an unhelpful thing to say I have to remember that so I can give them feedback later. And how we told you have to wait for the feedback form after the retreat so that mind has to really hold onto that memory tight. Not to say we don’t want to know if we mess up. We do.

I know I’m in a dominant position and that that can lead to trouble. You’ve got a white man who’s also hetero and cis and middle class up in front telling you how it is. That’s loaded. If I do say or project something that’s not inclusive or harmful or confusing in any way I want to know, I want to learn. I think my blind spots have shrunk a little over the years and I’m sure they’re there – obviously I can’t see what’s in my mental/cultural/emotional blind spots. Just know that my intention here is always to encourage you and support you. That’s why I’m here.

I do enjoy retreat! I’m here for me too. I felt a deep feeling of coming home as the bells were rung this morning and we all streamed over to the meditation hall here. A wonderful community of practice coming together early in the morning – devotion and structure just like our Zen monks! (if a couple of hours later than they would have gotten up!) – so wonderful. I’m so grateful that this part of my life, and the total jaw dropper that’s part of my work! Amazing to me.

But I wanted to remember to tell you my intension is welcome, support, inclusion of all bodies and minds and hearts regardless of what you’re like, how you talk, what your background is, who you love. If it seems like I’m excluding or judging or not welcoming than something’s going off in my conditioning. Maybe I’ll catch it and apologize maybe I won’t. I want to and I thank you for any kind feedback. Later on unless something really alarming arises that keeps swirling in the mind, then do leave me a note or come knock on my door.

Last point! I put out at our notes table the sign up for our group interview meetings. These will be in the early afternoon each day. A group of us coming together with me or Catherine to each in turn bring up a question or a noticing and from the teacher seat, from our own experience, we will offer some response, some answer, some encouragement. You get to listen to the other people in the group ask their questions and hear our responses but you won’t be speaking with each other in that. It’s an interesting and actually quite beautiful, way of being together and bringing up the practice together.

If you’ve been here when I’ve done individual interviews and find that way helpful this is a change. In this length of retreat with this many of us it’s hard to do those and I’m out of the room so much and can’t help Catherine lead things in here so I took this decision. 

So I hope you’ll sign up for a group but it’s totally optional. It’s an invitation.

Thank you for listening.

Talk 2: Wisdom and Compassion


Talk Notes

I learned a neat new word while preparing today’s talk. It’s so interesting how we can always keep learning isn’t it? We can forget this and think we know everything. As a native speaker of English who went to college blah blah blah without thinking about I do tend to believe I know all of the English words – at least all the ones that matter. Maybe obscure terminology in different disciplines I don’t know but whatever about that. And then comes a lovely poetic word that fits with my passions around nature and mindfulness and I remember that there’s always so much more to learn. So much more.

The word is: susurrus – it means a murmuring, rustling or whispering. Susurrus isn’t doesn’t that sound just like it means ….susurrus…. I had to remind myself the word for when words sound like their meaning which is onomatopoeia.

So lets listen for the susurrus all around us. The susurrus of leaves in the wind, or the wind itself, the susurrus of the tiny wavelets in Samish Bay. We’re all being so very thorough in our silence practice that we don’t hear much whispering. Susurrus. Isn’t that nice?

Anyway back to Ryokan. The first half of his name does have a sound not found in English particularly. Romanized as r-y-o  ryo.  So Ryokan. As I was saying his next period of life after the dozen years of intense Zen training was to go on pilgrimage for 6 years. From the ages of 33 to 39.

It’s interesting how we can hear stories of these great examples of the past and maybe we’re impressed by them but we kind of hold them at a distance too: it’s that nice but that was long ago and far away. We can hear them as kind of fairy tales. Maybe the images that come up are kind of line drawings in our mind. We hear them as inspiring perhaps not but very real in the way you and I and our children and our jobs and so on are real. This lovely kind of caricature of a sweet thoughtful monk floating around. Sleeping the woods. Dashing off poems on scraps of paper and giving them to passing children and farmers. Lovely yes but not so real.

And yet he was a real person, some great figures of the past we can’t be 100% sure they were real in a flesh and blood kind of way but there’s plenty of documentation that Ryokan was. And as a real person he had friends, he had parents and siblings, he had obligations and goals and hopes and dreams. And he left all of that behind. Maybe he didn’t know he would be wandering Japan for 6 years when he left but if that could end up happening he must have really committed himself to leaving. To going off to see what happens. No clear plan other than finding himself in the world and feeling into how his training so far would play out outside the monastery.

There was some cultural context for this – it wasn’t utterly strange, there are many stories of wanderers – but it was nonetheless quite rare. The vast majority of people stayed put. I’m sure most lived, and married, and worked, and had kids and eventually died within a dozen miles of where they were born. Until recently that was absolutely the norm all of the world.

So Ryokan’s people really didn’t know where he was for probably most of that time. Maybe traveling merchants would come through or government officials and they’d bring word of meeting Ryokan or hearing something of him, or probably most likely hearing of a monk on open ended pilgrimage who might have been – “well I heard about this guy, could that be him?” kind of thing. How would you feel if you were his mother or his best friend from childhood? You really wouldn’t know if you’d ever see him again. Or if he was at the moment alive or not.

There’s a recent example of this kind of thing, that helps make this more real for me. A Tibetan monk and teacher named Mingyur Rinpoche did the same thing in 2011 at a similar age – he was 36 years old. He’d grown up inside the Tibetan Buddhist world, his father an important teacher and he had been training as a monk and teacher since he was a child. He was very good at it all – a world class meditator who actually went on to participate in scientific studies where he blew the scientists away with what was happening in his brain when he practices. And by all accounts a good teacher and kind person. But he started to feel smothered and I guess a bit burned out. He was so protected inside that world. Treated as a Dharma treasure with many assistants and being treated with great respect and formality everywhere he went. So one day he left a note, slipped out of the monastery in the middle of the night and went out to live on the streets wandering and practicing for what turned out to be four years. And that whole time no one knew where he was or if he was alive or dead. And then he did eventually come back, having learned many lessons and deepened his practice in ways that he says were really crucial. It’s one thing to practice equanimity and open awareness in the protection of his monastery and a whole different thing to practice that on a crowded 3rd class Indian train or while begging for food on the street without anyone giving him special deference for being a monk or an important person in any way. To be perceived as a beggar and even spat on and abused, how does the practice unfold in those circumstances?

I remember when this happened because I was going a training 2011 down at Stanford University on teaching compassion and one of Mingyur Rinpoche’s students was there. A really energetic Mexican guy named Valentine. He talked about his teacher a lot: how worried he was but also how impressed: he really did it like the great monks of old: damn. And then back to worried again, is he okay? Will I ever see him again?

This is all very relevant to us isn’t it? We may feel into some degree of equanimity or clarity or softness here at Samish for these 5 days – well maybe if not today perhaps tomorrow or the next day you might feel that way? Anyway will it survive going home? It’s common to worry about that and I often get questions: how do I hold onto this feeling?

We’ll come back to that practical question later but a teaser is there’s a kind of problem within the question itself – how do I hold onto this feeling? – the issue is actually the “I” in there. You actually can’t hold onto that feeling. Feelings come and go. We’re subject to change and our state is conditioned by our circumstances. So the you at Samish isn’t exactly the same you as the you at work or home with your family or roommates or friends. There is something that shifts. When you’ve felt something deeply you won’t unfeel that. You might lose track of it for a while, but it’s there. It’s all more about trusting than trying. Trusting that you’re growing and learning and changing even if sometimes your mindset or mood or behavior seems like the same old tangled up “you.” 

Anyway, since Ryokan didn’t write a journal or anything and we just have a few poems from his wandering days we don’t know what he realized or learned. With the Tibetan, Mingyur Rinpoche, you can find out more by reading his book all about it called In Love with the World: A Monk’s Journey Through the Bardos of Living and Dying. We’re studying that book right now in a Mindfulness Northwest class I’m teaching called Going Deeper with Mindfulness. I do a kind of deeper dive class a couple of times a year.

But we do know that what the rest of Ryokan’s life looked like as we have a lot more poems but the 18th century was a very literary period in Japan it seems and he shows up in several accounts about the culture of the area. Plus word of Ryokan’s calligraphy spread and a famous calligrapher named Bosai from the capital came to visit him and wrote about him. He shows up in other bits and pieces of travel writing and essays from the time.

Here’s a sweet little bit written by someone named Sugae Masumi (1754-1829) writing about traveling through Ryokan’s area from the north and devoted a short chapter to meeting Ryokan he called “Ball-bouncing Saint”:

The Ball-bouncing Saint is a brother of Yoshiyuki of the House of Tachibana at Izumozaki. His name is Ryokan. He dwells in the hut Gogōl-an on Mount Kugami and lives his life composing poetry. He excels in the art of calligraphy, and even Bosai lauds his skills. When he goes out begging, he always keeps two or three balls in his sleeve, and whenever he finds children playing ball, he takes out the balls from his sleeve and plays with them as if he were just another child. Truly, his mind is as pure as that of a child.

And then he quotes one of the poems we read yesterday to explain Ryokan’s spirit.

A poem of Ryokan:

Spring day,

When I play with the village children

Under the trees at this shrine,

Don’t let the evening descend!

And then a full biography about his was written 15 years after his death by one of the children he played with in the village! (who was then in his mid-30’s).

So we know a lot about the life of this otherwise humble monk who lived in voluntary simplicity in a little hut writing poetry in lovely calligraphy, hanging out with anyone he encountered whether they were a famous calligrapher or an old famer – he did apparently enjoy his wine and wasn’t picky about it’s quality – and of course playing with children. A free spirit but clearly one who mattered to a lot of people.

And he wasn’t just hanging around goofing off it seems like I you read his poems. It looked that way maybe, or maybe it’s more that his style of practicing was just so fluid and free spirited in it’s expression. Here’s a poem from the 20 year period he was living in his hut on the mountain:

What was right yesterday

is wrong today.

in what is right today,

how do you know it was not wrong yesterday?

There is no right and wrong,

no predicting gain or loss.

Unable to change their tune,

those who are foolish glue down bridges of a lute.

Those who are wise get to the source

but keep wandering about for long.

Only when you are neither wise nor foolish

can you be called one who has attained the Way.

The word “fluid” comes back to me again. Don’t get stuck on right or wrong. Makes me think of a wonderful way we use fluid used these days, too: don’t get stuck on male or female. Don’t be so sure is a favorite expression of mine – may I keep trying to live into that more fully. I do find my mind is often pretty darn sure I’m right. Lately I’ve been trying to practice with that but questioning how important the view is.

Catherine and the other teachers in Mindfulness Northwest are very kind and patient with me as I can have strong views about tiny little details of how mindfulness is supposed to be taught – how the practices are supposed to be led. Say less of that. Say that that way. Don’t use that metaphor, this one is better. Give more space but be sure to give enough support. Catherine was even brave enough yesterday to ask for feedback. I thought about it for a minute and sure opinions had bubbled up a couple of times when she was leading but taking a step back I could see that her leading is so beautiful and has such integrity and is uniquely her own and is of course well within the container of mindfulness as I understand it. And when that re-clarified in my mind I actually couldn’t remember any micro opinions that might have arisen earlier.

So that’s me: it’s a bigger step to remind myself that there’s an inherent foolishness to all kinds of judgment but I can at least, on a good day, question the importance and urgency of my opinions.

And sometimes sure: I’ll make a request of my teaching partner around what to say and most often how much to say when leading our practices. If I do this having released the urgency the mind started with it usually goes over well and we learn together.

But sometimes I screw it up. There was a dramatic moment at an earlier retreat when I had some urgency around an opinion over how my teaching partner had just led a practice. A minor technical detail really – it had to do with how to show people to incorporate the breathing with a meditation phrase – say this half on the inhale, that half on the exhale – that kind of thing. She was repeating “inhale” and “exhale” a lot and I was reactive to that. Not that I quite realized it was reactivity yet. I thought to myself, “that really clunked, and it’s such a simple thing, just say before you teach the phrase “do the first half of these phrases on the inhale, the second half on the exhale” and then teach us the darn phrase without peppering all of those inhales and exhales in there for goodness sakes.

I also tend to forget to give people feedback, just slips out of my mind pretty quickly until months or years later when I hear that person doing the same darn thing – of course I’d never told them otherwise – and then my reactivity can be bad and then I’m more likely to hurt someone coming off too strong.

So in this case I thought to myself, his is no big deal and I don’t want to forget I’ll just tell her. It was at the end of the evening here and I whispered in her ear explaining. She nodded and said ok. And then an hour or two later there’s a knock at my door and there’s my teaching partner angry, upset and in tears. Feeling totally knocked down and disrespected at the end of a full week of teaching and working really hard. I felt terrible and I need to keep listening to Ryokan’s wise words about the root of this.

What was right yesterday

is wrong today.

in what is right today,

how do you know it was not wrong yesterday?

There is no right and wrong,

no predicting gain or loss.

Unable to change their tune,

those who are foolish glue down bridges of a lute.

Those who are wise get to the source

but keep wandering about for long.

Only when you are neither wise nor foolish

can you be called one who has attained the Way.

Do you get stuck on right and wrong and on your opinions? Do those opinions and that energy end up alienating others and isolating you? It happens.

And this is not to say at the same time there isn’t right and wrong, that there aren’t values that matter and things to stick up for and boundaries to hold firm. That’s true too. It’s the tricky work of practice that he calls here “attaining in the Way” to learn to discern what’s what. What really matters here? Am I really sure? And if I am how can I communicate this in a clear and kind way? In the height of reactivity or in a rush to just it done? Not so much.

Here’s another gem from this period:

Past has passed away.

Future has not arrived.

Present does not remain.

Nothing is reliable, everything must change.

You on to letters and names in vain,

forcing yourself to believe in them.

Stop chasing new knowledge.

Leave old views behind.

Study the essential

and then see through it.

When there is nothing left to see through

then you will know your mistaken views.

The practice plan of a lifetime right there.

These teachings poems are few really, I just picked those out. More of his works immersive. About a moment of his life. About being present with what is.

In an autumn field,

hundreds of grasses

burst into bloom.

Kneeling down,

a male deer cries.

And feelings. And he had hard days too.

Autumn advances

and I become

a bit sad

closing the gate

to my hut.

And he had good days:

Day by day, day by day, and day by day,

quietly in the company of children I live.

In my sleeves: tiny embroidered balls – two or three.

Useless, intoxicated by this peaceful spring.

With that last line it’s a bit ambiguous if he was drunk on the beauty of a spring day or had too much wine in his system. And I want to take another little aside moment to acknowledge the destructive power of alcohol too. It does seem Ryokan would drink himself silly when he had the change and that part I can’t celebrate quite so much having alcoholics in my family and in my sangha and I can feel the seeds of alcoholism in me. Japan actually has a long standing problem of denial of alcoholism that persists to this day. The standard phrase in Japanese as I understand is, “I think he likes sake a bit too much.” Gentle maybe, but missing the seriousness of the addiction by a country mile. Although his biographer does write, “The Master always loved to drink, yet I never saw him drink to excess.” let’s hope so.

Taking a step back in a different direction: so you signed up for a program called Roots of Compassion and these talks so far seem to be more about intensive mindfulness training and wisdom. We’ve seen a lot of warmth maybe in Ryokan’s writing and can imagine a lot of love in his days with children and his warm open connection to everyone he met but there’s nothing here so far about what compassion is and how to practice it. Ryokan didn’t do loving kindness meditation as far as we know.

I’ll probably say more later on this but why I wanted to bring up Ryokan in the Roots of Compassion retreat instead of saving him for the Roots of Mindfulness retreat in late August is the way his deep immersion in wisdom training – what Zen is known for – sure seems to have organically and beautifully led to a life lived with great tenderness and compassion for all living beings.

That there’s a deep interpenetration between wisdom and compassion. This is true in Buddhism and there are some compelling science studies about this too: where the study subjects do a straight up mindful awareness type training and then are put in situations where the researchers can assess their kindness, compassion and generosity and the two are so intimately linked. More mindfulness seems to lead quite organically to more compassion. And the reverse is true here.

And more directly there’s a story about Ryokan that was written down by his grown-up-child friend that has always touched me so deeply. It’s a kind of wisdom-compassion story I think with much depth to it. So let’s close today’s Musings on Ryokan with that:

Since Ryokan had stepped out of his family to become a monk the obligation to take over as headman/mayor of the village fell to his brother Hiroki who is sounds like struggled a good bit with the obligations and the need to always be perfectly respectable in local society.

Hiroki had a son and in the boys mid-teens he started acting out. Carrying on the various ways that can happen then and now and this was an extra problem for Hiroki and his wife given their position in the village. And boy just wouldn’t listen to them about behaving properly.

So Hiroki asked Ryokan to come and speak with the boy. So Ryokan came. They had dinner, Ryokan spent the night and through it all Ryokan didn’t say much of anything and especially didn’t speak to his nephew – not at all. Hiroki and his wife were hinting and gesturing away to no avail.

Then when it was time to go and preparing to leave his asked his nephew to tie his straw sandals. A respectful thing to do. As the boy was doing so he felt a drop of warm water on his neck.

Looking up he saw his uncle Ryokan gazing down at him with his eyes full of tears.

The story concluded quite tidily with: “Ryokan then returned home, and the nephew changed for the better.”

Isn’t that a sweet story. Somehow this story has always spoken to me of the heart of compassion. Compassion means to suffer with the one who is suffering. Ryokan feeling deeply the boy’s underlying pain and the difficulty of a family in divisiveness – feeling that sadness deeply – and expressing it like that. With a tear and a loving glance. So much more powerful than all of the well argued admonishments and explanations you can try giving a teenager.

And somehow these musing today made me think of a song. I’ve learned to trust that impulse. Feel free to sing along if you know this one.

Cat Stevens, If you Want to Sing Out, Sing Out

[Verse 1]

Well, if you want to sing out, sing out

And if you want to be free, be free

‘Cause there’s a million things to be

You know that there are

[Verse 2]

And if you want to live high, live high

And if you want to live low, live low

‘Cause there’s a million ways to go

You know that there are


You can do what you want, the opportunity’s on

And if you find a new way, you can do it today

You can make it all true and you can make it un – do

– You –  see, (ah ah ah) it’s easy, (ah ah ah) you only…..need to know

[Verse 3]

Well, if you want to say yes, say yes

And if you want to say no, say no

‘Cause there’s a million ways to go

You know that there are

[Verse 4]

And if you want to be me, be me

And if you want to be you, be you

‘Cause there’s a million things to do

You know that there are


You can do what you want, the opportunity’s on

And if you find a new way, you can do it today

You can make it all true and you can make it un – do

• You –  see, (ah ah ah) it’s easy, (ah ah ah) you only…..need to know

[Verse 1]

Well, if you want to sing out, sing out

And if you want to be free, be free

‘Cause there’s a million things to be

You know that there are


You know that there are

You know that there are

You know that there are

You know that there are

You know that there are

Talk 3: Working with Our Minds

Talk Notes

I appreciated Catherine asking us what our intention for the day is.

I noticed that soon after I’d forgotten all about it – well I guess I should reframe that: a little while later I remembered my intention and my busy mind said to me, “look you forgot your intention.”

I do appreciate the practice of being intentional and so soon our habitual ways of being drop that intention right out of the picture. It’s a process: forgetting and remembering. I’ve been working on this little project of transforming “I forgot, darn it!” into “I remembered, good” – I’m not even sure whether it’s accurate to call those moments: “moments of realizing I forgot something” or “moments of remembering.” But let’s not overthink this.

And then I was rowing our way towards that remembered intention. Wonderful.

Here’s another of Ryokan’s somewhat longer poems. This one has a lot of Buddhism in it but it’s worth decoding together. It starts out in the morning though – I found a morning poem kind of!

This one does have a title: “Takuhatsu” – which means “monk’s begging” which refers to a traditional practice from earliest Buddhism of the monks wandering into town with their bowls to invite the people in the village to make offerings of food. That would be their meal for the day – whatever people gave them. So Ryokan did his own version of this practice. He would have had a walking stick with ring on the end that jangle with each step in one hand and his bowl nestled in his other arm.

On the first day of the eight month

I walk into town, begging

White clouds follow my high-spirited steps.

Autumn wind rattles the jade rings on my stick.

A thousand gates open at dawn.

Bamboo and plantains paint themselves in front of my eyes.

House to house, east to west, I beg for food:

wine shop, fish market, it’s all the same.

Looking directly at the world,

one crushes hell’s mountain of swords.

Walking slowly evaporates the boiling cauldron.

Long ago the son of King Śuddhodana taught

and the Golden Ascetic immediately received transmission.

It has been more than two thousand seven hundred years.

I, too, am a child of the Shakya family.

One robe, own bowl – totally clear:

Old man Vimalakirti once said,

“Give and receive food as you would give and receive dharma.”

I take his point.

Practicing solidly, who will not reach the year of the donkey?

He starts the practice at home – it’s not just walking to town on his way to do this practice – the walk itself is also the practice.

On the first day of the eight month

I walk into town, begging

White clouds follow my high-spirited steps.

Autumn wind rattles the jade rings on my stick.

A thousand gates open at dawn.

Bamboo and plantains paint themselves in front of my eyes.

Arriving in town the practice is to bring up a kind of deep equanimity. Traditionally the Zen monk wear a deep round hat. You can’t really see their eyes and they can’t look around to pick the best places to go. Gaze in front of them and walk slowly down each street chanting softly.

House to house, east to west, I beg for food:

wine shop, fish market, it’s all the same.

There’s an early Buddhist teach of the Buddha chewing the monks out for going just to the rich houses in the village. His logic wasn’t just “don’t be greedy” though it was don’t deprive the rest of the people the opportunity to make offerings to the monks. The idea is there’s a kind of spiritual benefit to giving gifts to the monks.

So then the monks decided that that logical thing would be to just go to the poor people’s houses. Then there’s no way they, the monks, are being greedy and it’s being extra generous to the poor people to give them more opportunities to give and receive the spiritual benefit of giving.

And so the Buddha chews them out again. Don’t choose poor or rich. Let go of making those kinds of discriminations. Be even. Just walk through the town through all the neighborhoods. So Ryokan is practicing that way too.

Looking directly at the world,

one crushes hell’s mountain of swords.

Walking slowly evaporates the boiling cauldron.

These creepy references are from traditional descriptions of the Buddhist hells. There’s a hell where you have to walk over a mountain with swords poking up everywhere and slicing up your feet. And once you get over it you have to turn around and go back over it again. And there’s another hell were boiling water, or maybe boiling worse stuff than water, gets dumped on you over and over. The good news about the Buddhist hells is your aren’t there forever: they are impermanent too. More like a prison sentence for bad actions in past lives, eventually you serve your time and get reborn into a better situation hopefully.

This line about walking slowly is actually why I wanted to share this whole poem.

Looking directly at the world,

one crushes hell’s mountain of swords.

Walking slowly evaporates the boiling cauldron.

Looking directly at things are they are – acceptance and openness – and walking slowly and mindfully through life. That’s freedom from hell. That’s a Buddhist, or mindfulness, version of heaven on earth.

The next two stanzas are a reflection on lineage. On those who have gone before us. To me it’s deeply meaningful to read this and I invite you think about your own lineage as I read this part again:

Long ago the son of King Śuddhodana taught

and the Golden Ascetic immediately received transmission.

It has been more than two thousand seven hundred years.

I, too, am a child of the Shakya family.

One robe, own bowl – totally clear:

Old man Vimalakirti once said,

“Give and received food as you would give and receive dharma.”

I take his point.

The first line here is the historic Buddha – his full title is Shakyamuni Buddha. Shakya is a family and muni means sage. So Sage of the Shakya family Buddha.

Instead of just saying Buddha he says “son of King Śuddhodana” – King Śuddhodana was the Buddha’s father so invoking family lineage.

The Golden Ascetic is a kind of nickname for the Buddha’s first disciple according to the Zen tradition. His name was Kashyapa. So that’s another kind of family lineage. Buddha to Kashyapa to the next student to the next down through the ages thousands of year until Ryokan himself. And I’ve done special rituals to be included in that lineage too.

I can read this line truly in first person along with Ryokan

I, too, am a child of the Shakya family.

Then another he brings up the teaching of another Buddhist ancestor. A famous wise lay practitioner named Vimalakirti and thought of another teaching on receiving everything evenly as a teaching – as the truth.

One robe, own bowl – totally clear:

Old man Vimalakirti once said,

“Give and received food as you would give and receive dharma.”

I take his point.

So the food we receive from Laura, Kennedy, and Max isn’t just food to eat. Isn’t just fuel. It’s an offering to us. One time years ago I was here with my Zen community and we invited Laura and crew out to receive our applause and gratitude – big group of us hollering and cheering after a week in total silence – and someone asked her how she makes the food taste so good? She answered: “the first ingredient is always love.”

The last line is actually kind of a spiritual joke:

Practicing solidly, who will not reach the year of the donkey?

The years in Asian cultures rotate through the 12 signs of the Zodiac so there’s a year of the rat, a year of the tiger, ox, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.

We’re in the year of the dragon actually which is a year to be strong and awake – Dragons are strongly associated with awakening. This is a very auspicious year to be doing retreat practice actually! And baby’s born this year, born in the year of the dragon, are said to have those kinds of qualities too. Each sign also has it’s shadow sign to year of the dragon people can be a bit headstrong or a bit whacky too.

But you might have noticed there’s no donkey on that list. Horse is kind of close but there’s no donkey. So we’ll never reach the year of the donkey.

Meaning this steady practice is endless. We just keep practicing. Keep walking. Keep seeing clearly. Keep appreciating our ancestors (even if they had their flaws). And we keep recognizing that everything we receive is a deep gift. A deep gift of Dharma to use his term here, a deep gift of love to use Laura’s.

Here’s the whole poem again – I hope this isn’t getting to heady.

On the first day of the eight month

I walk into town, begging

White clouds follow my high-spirited steps.

Autumn wind rattles the jade rings on my stick.

A thousand gates open at dawn.

Bamboo and plantains paint themselves in front of my eyes.

House to house, east to west, I beg for food:

wine shop, fish market, it’s all the same.

Looking directly at the world,

one crushes hell’s mountain of swords.

Walking slowly evaporates the boiling cauldron.

Long ago the son of King Śuddhodana taught

and the Golden Ascetic immediately received transmission.

It has been more than two thousand seven hundred years.

I, too, am a child of the Shakya family.

One robe, own bowl – totally clear:

Old man Vimalakirti once said,

“Give and received food as you would give and receive dharma.”

I take his point.

Practicing solidly, who will not reach the year of the donkey?

And remember this is all being recorded so don’t worry about trying to remember things. Just let it all come in and go again. I also post my notes so all of the poems I’m quoting and more or less everything I say is written down for you to review later as well.

Here’s a short poem written at the end of such a day. As he left the village at dusk heading back up the mountain to his hut.

Blue sky; cold geese honk.

On a bare mountain, tree leaves flutter.

At dusk in the village, smoke billows from every house.

Alone with my empty bowl, I head home.

It’s really up to our interpretation whether that “alone” is lonely or content. He really doesn’t say. Being alone can be so many different things. Here we’re alone together and the experience of that can vary wildly can’t it? I enjoyed our group meeting yesterday and that was one of the themes: trying to unpack the experience of being with other, appreciating them, maybe being curious about them, but being restrained from hearing about their life stories. I could hear a sense of excitement and possibility and a sense of frustration and sadness, I could hear contentment and I could hear dis-ease in what we talked about around this alone together.

And Ryokan here practices alone alone deeply. I wonder how that was for him. Probably also a lot of rich experiences and much to learn from.

These poems make him sound more isolated than maybe he was though. He did have visitors and he did write letters – a lot of letters I learned. I checked and there was indeed no government sponsored postal service until about a 100 years after Ryokan but that letters were carried by private carriers. So I guess Ryokan would find out someone was going to the capital and give him a letter for a mutual acquaintance.

Plenty of poems about his life at the hut. Here’s another:

Rags upon rags,

tatter is my life.

I find my food on a country path.

My hut is buried in a tangle of weeds.

Looking at the moon, I hum all night;

deluded by blossoms, I forget to return.

Since leaving the monastery,

what a fool I have become!

And remember that his first teacher gave him that name to grow into: Great Fool. So he’s not just saying “what a dope I am” here – maybe that’s in there too but also he’s expressing joy and feeling acknowledged too I think. “That was a good name for me, teacher.”

But he didn’t just play with children and sit at his hut, there are stories of Ryokan’s activism too. Here’s one.

[Tanahashi p. 215]

[didn’t do the money story in this talk, moved it to talk 4:]

But mostly the stories are playful. Here’s one about taking things literally and seeing where that takes you:

Hearing people say, “It’s such fun to find money!” the Master threw some of his own coins on the ground and tried picking them up.

But it did not give him any pleasure. “They were just trying to trick me,” he thought. After throwing his coins away like this several times, the Master finally forgot where he’d dropped them.

Walking back that way later he found the coins, and then at last felt happy. “They weren’t deceiving me after all!” he exclaimed.

His beautiful calligraphy comes up a lot. I think that’s a dimension to who he was that doesn’t come across as well in translation. You weren’t just enjoying words on the page but a beautiful piece of art. He likes fine brush strokes in the loosest style of calligraphy called “grass script” – one of my Ryokan books is actually by a famous contemporary calligraphy and he does a bit of show and tell about how gracefully and wonderfully sort of wabi-sabi – deliberately breaking conventions – his work is. There are all kinds of rules about how the brush is used and the characters are shaped and arranged together and he’d be fluid with all of that in a wonderful way.

Here’s are three little stories:

[Tanahashi p. 210-11]

I dunno today’s talk feels a little more rambly to me, but maybe that’s true to Ryokan’s practice anyway. He enjoyed a loose ramble through the day and through the years. Letting himself go where the winds would take him, showing up fully and having fun with every situation he found himself in. So it’s kind of ironic that I would have the urge to make a tidy little talk about him with clear themes and take-homes and relevant quotations and comments and so on.

So much to learn here about freedom and discipline. About playfulness and acceptance. Mostly about just completely being yourself. Not getting caught up in what people expect you to be – or probably more accurately not getting caught up in our OWN IDEAS of what people expect of us.

What supports you in just being yourself? Just being real.

Here’s a quote from my own lineage. Shunryu Suzuki was the Japanese Zen priest who came to San Francisco in the 1950’s to work for the Japanese immigrant population there in Japan town and ended up becoming a Zen Master for Americans. The book made from his teachings Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind is a wonder that has been read by many. And actually part of what people loved about Suzuki Roshi as they called him was his bright spirit and ability to just be completely himself. He encouraged his students to do the same.

One of his famous expressions was: “when you are you, Zen is Zen”.

In our setting here maybe: when are fully yourself, mindfulness is already there. Or when you relax into your own wisdom mindfulness is easy. It makes me think of something people say sometimes after learning mindfulness: “I feel like myself again!”

So let’s be ourselves. In this setting in our companionable silence. Can you relax into just being yourself? Completely yourself? That’s my practice too. I just want to relax and be myself.

I hope these stories and poems of Ryokan are inspirational and a help. We’ll talk about his last years tomorrow.

And yes how about another song? Here’s a nice simple one probably many of us know. It’s written as a love song to someone but ancestors are there and the  spirit of it feels right.

There are places I’ll remember

All my life, though some have changed

Some forever, not for better

Some have gone and some remain

All these places had their moments

With lovers and friends, I still can recall

Some are dead and some are living

In my life, I’ve loved them all

But of all these friends and lovers

There is no one compares with you

And these memories lose their meaning

When I think of love as something new

Though I know I’ll never lose affection

For people and things that went before

I know I’ll often stop and think about them

In my life, I love you more

[Piano Solo]

Though I know I’ll never lose affection

For people and things that went before

I know I’ll often stop and think about them

In my life, I love you more

[Outro: John Lennon]

In my life, I love you more

Talk 4: Deep Kindness

Talk Notes

A rainy day is kind of nice in a way isn’t it? Makes you want to huddle up around the fire. Or gather with a group of friends in a quiet room and practice meditation for the day. Maybe we’ll be doing inside walking mediation more. That’s the form I first learned in Zen actually. Walking very slowly – more slowly than we’ve been doing here – a half step per breath – in a line with my fellow practitioners. In the 10 or 15 minutes we do this maybe you travel halfway around the room you’re in. Truly mindful walking going nowhere. One option in here is you can actually just walk the length of a yoga mat back and forth! Doesn’t that sound so limited and restrictive?! But it can be quite peaceful and contained actually.

As probably I’ve made all-too-apparent in these talks, a deep hope I have in my own practice is to understand my imperfections and flaws more fully, and, in the space of that increased awareness, do better.

I don’t mean to come of self-depreciating or self-condemning – that’s not it at all. A healthy practice though, is all about honesty, being honest with yourself.

At one point Catherine mentioned the negativity bias of our minds so we have to be careful to hold this stuff in balance with wise perspective.

We are all wonderful people, we really are, and it’s a practice to include yourself (and myself) in that list of wonderful lovely human beings. The teacher and researcher Shauna Shapiro talks about a practice her therapist gave her of saying, “Good morning Shauna, I love you.” and was surprised by how hard that was. Turns out she found this so rich she wrote a whole book about it.

We are lovely people and yet we can be narrow and foolish and petty too.

And that makes sense doesn’t it? We’re conditioned by this world! By our upbringing. By our culture. By systemic inequities of all kinds, many of which I personally haven’t been so impacted by. Stuff has happened that we’re messed up by. It goes deep! For one thing your parents give you many gifts and some are gifts that keep on giving in challenging ways.

But I do feel badly when I screw up. I work and live with tender humans, and I am a tender human myself, and I sometimes hurt people I care about. Not often, I don’t think, but with some regularity if I actually take a step back and let myself remember. Right! That time, and there was that time, and that other time – oof.

I say or do something sloppy that causes distress. Or I forget to consider something or someone and in that forgetting there can be harm by omission.

Some of these incidents, I guess, are relatively minor but they are real, there is harm, and they can loom so large in my mind. I’m grateful that mindfulness practice is so helpful with rumination as that does come. Why did I say that? How could I have forgotten that? I’ll never learn! Over and over again until it releases.

How about for you? Do you end up hurting others? How do you navigate that when it happens? How do you respond to them? How do you take care of yourself?

I love the phrase, “it’s not your fault but it is your responsibility.”  We each ended up the way we ended up, our choices had a role to play there sure, but it’s all so much bigger than us. “It’s not your fault” has a deep truth to it. But of course it’s your responsibility, my responsibility to learn and grow and do better. No one else can do that for us. Sometime we try to give over that responsibility to a teacher or a parent or a wise friend and while they may be able to help us, they can’t do the work for us.

And so we’re cruising along. Wonderful imperfect beings that we are. Doing our lives, interacting with people, and then – darn it – we cause some harm.

Or others cause harm to us! Just to acknowledge that’s part of this too, I’m just focusing for now on the harm I cause. Both are critically important to study and learn from and heal with.

In my case: when trouble happens I do my best to listen, to learn, to be humble, to resolve to do better. To listen more. To remember to tune into the depth and beauty of the people I get to be with more fully. Not to take them for granted which seems like is usually happening when there’s a misstep.

That feels like a commonality: these kinds of things happen when I’m less connected or aware of people. The person can be right in front of me: but I’m not fully tuned into them. And most especially in those moments I’m sure less aware of myself.

These feel like important things to notice and places to work for me.

I don’t find it super helpful to think about these things in term of the details of behavior: like what exactly we should or shouldn’t say or do in any given situation. Those lists get so long and your mind can’t sift through them in real time so well. They do matter, those guidelines – better not to use this word or that but “what should I have said?” usually isn’t the right question. We can end up going at this the wrong way ’round.

The real work, it seems to me, is connection. When I’m more deeply connected with myself and with others things naturally seem to be go pretty well. There’s more harmony, connection and love that can express it self pretty smoothly. My best self shows itself in a natural way.

And goodness there are SO many things that contribute to being out of connection with myself and others. Distracted by worries. Rushed or hurried. Carrying something that came up that I haven’t processed fully yet. Not fully here one way or another. Those things are important to notice but easily to get lost in.

Practice helps all of this doesn’t it? It helps deeply. And practice also peels away denial and you see more clearly the depth of the challenge of being human.

This makes me think of this deep and challenging poem by Naomi Shihab Nye called Kindness. If you’ve never heard this one before just a note of warning there is a troubling image in it of a death.

Before you know what kindness really is

you must lose things,

feel the future dissolve in a moment

like salt in a weakened broth.

What you held in your hand,

what you counted and carefully saved,

all this must go so you know

how desolate the landscape can be

between the regions of kindness.

How you ride and ride

thinking the bus will never stop,

the passengers eating maize and chicken

will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,

you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho

lies dead by the side of the road.

You must see how this could be you,

how he too was someone

who journeyed through the night with plans

and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,

you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.

You must wake up with sorrow.

You must speak to it till your voice

catches the thread of all sorrows

and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,

only kindness that ties your shoes

and sends you out into the day to mail letters and

    purchase bread,

only kindness that raises its head

from the crowd of the world to say

it is I you have been looking for,

and then goes with you every where

like a shadow or a friend.

That it’s not about having a long list of what to do and what not to do, but that deep kindness and connection – deep compassion is truly the only thing that makes sense.

And it’s hard when I act in ways that don’t make that deep sense. It happens. And we have to learn how to feel the pain of that, forgive ourselves, learn what we can, and get back in there I think. Back into the soup. Continue weaving the cloth with all beings. Willing to go to the depths of our hearts – and go there with other suffering-joyful beings. We’re on a journey together on this spinning blue marble. This wonderful, beautiful and broken world.

I think Ryokan appreciated all of this deeply. There are lots of goofy stories about him but I don’t think he was just “whatever!” in his social relations I think we was very deliberately practicing and exploring his own unique express of freedom and care for others both.

Hearing people say, “It’s such fun to find money!” the Master threw some of his own coins on the ground and tried picking them up.

But it did not give him any pleasure. “They were just trying to trick me,” he thought. After throwing his coins away like this several times, the Master finally forgot where he’d dropped them.

Walking back that way later he found the coins, and then at last felt happy. “They weren’t deceiving me after all!” he exclaimed.


At one time, the Master attended a formal tea ceremony, a so-called koicha.

[In this ceremony you take two sips from the tea bowl and then pass it to the next guest – not so hygienic from our point of view but that was the custom, you do ritually wipe the rim of the bowl with a cloth before you pass it on]

The Master drained the entire tea bowl, then realized that another guest was sitting next to him. So he spit the tea back into the bowl and offered it to the man. The guest, praying for the Buddha’s protection, drank the tea.


The Master was caught in a downpour and took shelter from the rain beside a stone Jizo? equipped with a straw rainhat. A passerby recognized the Master and brought him to his house, where he asked for a sample of his calligraphy. The Master then wrote out in large characters twelve copies of the “Alphabet Song.”

I do a calligraphy myself and people I’m sure expect me to write some important or wise poem or saying. Cute to just write a, b, c, d, e, f, g …..

And this wonderfully playful story:

On an autumn evening, Ryokan was playing hide-and-seek with children in the village as usual. Ryokan hid himself in new stacked straw. The children couldn’t find him and went home.

Early next morning, a farmer pulled some straw out of the stack and found Ryokan inside.

“Oh! Rev. Ryokan!” he said.

Ryokan said, “Shhhh….the children are looking for me!”

Oh, no discussion of Ryokan is complete without this story:

There was a thief who broke into the Master’s hut at Kugami. Finding nothing to steal, he pulled at the Master’s sleeping mat, attempting to remove it without waking him. Pretending to be asleep, the Master rolled over, allowing the thief to pull the mat out from under him and carry it off.

There’s another version where Ryokan gives the thief this clothes but that’s likely an exaggeration based on this story. Either way, Ryokan is said to have said as the thief walked down the path, “Poor fellow, I had so little to give him, I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

And when he wasn’t being that silly he was nonetheless light and relaxed – here from his biographer again:

The Master stayed several nights at our home. Young and old became harmonious, and a peaceful atmosphere filled the house for several days after his departure. Just one evening of talking with the Master made us feel that our hearts had been purified. The Master never held forth on the scriptures or classics or on the importance of ethics. Sometimes he would be in the kitchen tending the fire, sometimes in the parlor practicing meditation. In his conversation he never alluded to classical poetry or ethical teachings, and his manner was indescribably casual and relaxed. It was just his own innate goodness that naturally guided others.

To finish out Ryokan’s story. He lived in his hut on the mountain for 20 years. I think it was 7 or 8 miles from town until at age 59 that started feeling like a bit too much, especially in winter, he did have to come to town regularly if he wasn’t going to starve. Then he spent the next 10 years as the caretaker of a little Shinto shrine with a bit of shelter to sleep in. Then and now there are many many little shrines in Japan and people take care of them: sweeping, refreshing the altar, repairing the little building. This wasn’t a Zen place strictly speaking but Japanese spirituality tends to be less sectarian. And then even that became too much to handle and at the age of 69 he was invited to live with a family. Even then he refused the guest room and lives in a wood shed in the back. That deep commitment to living simply in a hut never left him.

But his last years had a lovely surprise for him, and for us. I’m going to read this straight from one of my sources of all things Ryokan – a book called Sky Above, Wind Below by Kazuaki Tanahashi. There will be a list of references in my notes on the website if you’re interested.

[Kaz p 38-44, don’t pause and comment too much!]

This concludes my talks for this retreat. Thank you so much for listening so kindly. I hope you found it helpful to meet Ryokan and I hope my own presentations of my conditioned mind were more helpful than confusing. If I did say anything confusing or harmful to you I deeply apologize, beg your forgiveness, and welcome your feedback. I guess my hope more than anything else with these kinds of talks is just to be real.

We’ll probably all share some thank yous tomorrow but while I have the floor still here are a few I want to make sure don’t get lost if we get a little busy cleaning and packing up tomorrow:

Thank you especially to Catherine for being such a wonderful teacher at retreat with me, with us, in every way. I especially appreciate how very present and grounded you are through everything you do and share with us. And the warmth and creativity you bring to guiding us is a wonder!

Thank you to the Community of Christ for sharing this space with us with such love and generosity.

And the most complex thank you that I’m not sure yet how to express: thank you to the Samish Nation. My European ancestors did horrible things, some through their own ignorance, yes, but horrible things beyond imagining and your village that was right here for thousands of years is just a memory now. And yet you’ve come here in good spirit and blessed our practice here. I don’t have the words to express how deeply that moves me.

And thank you to the other many beings that share this space as well. May all be happy, may all be well, may all grow in wisdom and understanding. May there be more peace and love in this beautiful and broken world.

Thank you.

And by the way: we’ll share later about tomorrow’s logistics please don’t worry think too much about that ahead. We’ve got it all organized and figured out. Let’s all see if we can be fully here until the moment we aren’t.