Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Stupid Thieves

My three favorite Japanese have always been Kūkai (aka, Kōbō Daishi), Dōgen, and Musō Soseki, with the order of their preference changing not only day-by-day, but hour-by-hour. If i could turn back the clock of time i would have gotten a PhD in Japanese history or religion with a focus on Mr. Soseki himself (but that's a topic for another life). He's a fascinating, fascinating character.

In addition to those three, though, i have to admit to days, weeks, and months lost in the writings of the likes of Ikkyū, Basui, Bankei, and Ryōkan. Especially that late 18th, early 19th century monk, poet, and kid at heart from Echigo Province, Ryōkan.

I have read, reread, reread again, and reread countless times again the book of his poetry One Robe, One Bowl, appropriately titled because that is just about all the material possessions he ever owned. By far my favorite poem from the book has always been:

How can we ever lose interest in life?
       Spring has come again
And cherry trees bloom in the mountains.

So simplistic yet containing a vast message. Here we see someone whose focus is on Life and not making a living, someone for whom the beauties of nature are far more valuable than any material possessions, no matter how beautiful or expensive. I'm not saying that making a living is bad, it's obviously something that has to be done, or that owning things is bad, that's obviously nonsense.

The point Ryōkan makes with his life is that even though we do have to make a living and we do buy and own "things," these should not be the focus of our lives. The real value in our lives is found when we stop and notice Life, when we listen to the message expounded by the cherry trees blooming in the mountains, or the day lilies blooming in the front yard, or the fullness of the September moon, or the smell of the freshly bloomed rose, or the chill of an early autumn evening.

What Ryōkan is trying to point out, i think, is that while it is easy to lose interest in "making a living" and wonder just what it is all about, how could we ever lose interest in Life, in all its variety, all its attractiveness, all its beauty, all its wonders? When understood for what it is, for what we are, that would be impossible, as pointed out by the blooming cherry trees each spring.

Ryōkan goes on to emphasize his point in my second favorite poem:

The thief left it behind—
       the moon
At the window.

Imagine coming home some night to find your house cleaned out, everything you owned having been taken by thieves in the night. Then imagine that the only thought that comes to mind is how the poor thieves had not been able to take the most prized possession in the house — the moonlight streaming in a window. Imagine that you didn't have to try to get over your anger, to try to feel sorry for the thieves, but that truly the only thoughts that came to mind were feelings of pity for their loss. How would this mindset affect your life? How would this attitude change the way your life looked from the outside? What would this frame of reference do for your mental health?

The thief left it behind—
       the moon
At the window.

No anxiety, no anger, no worrying, no sadness, no loss of sleep, no depression, nothing..... but look at that moon, oh how beautiful it is.

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