Sex, Zen, and Poetry. The Life of Ikkyu Sojun

When we think of monks, we think of bald guys sitting around praying and studying all day long. Monks shirk women, booze, and other worldly pleasures. Back in the 15th century, one Zen monk turned this tradition on its back. Ikkyu Sojun decided to be true to himself and that meant regular trips to brothels. Ikkyu decided to challenge the established practices of Zen by doing the opposite.

Ikkyu was born into the imperial household in1394 as the unrecognized child of the Emperor Gokomatsu. For reasons we don’t know, his mother fled the court before Ikkyu was born. We know little about her. In her only surviving letter, written shortly before her death, she urged Ikkyu to become such an outstanding priest that he might consider Shaka and Daruma, fathers of Zen Buddhism, his servants (Keene, 1966; Qui, 2001). In a postscript, she added a line that reveals a hint of her personality:

The man who is concerned only with expedients is no better than a dung-fly. Even if you know by heart the 80,000 holy teachings,unless you open to the full the eyes of your Buddhist nature, you will never be able to understand even what I have written in this letter.

His mother sent him to Ankokuji in Kyoto as an acolyte at the age of 5. For the next 10 years, he trained in Buddhist scriptures and Chinese classics. Ikkyu developed a reputation as a master of Chinese poetry, some of his earliest surviving poems dates to when he was between 12 and 14 years old.  In his teens, he grew tired of the status seeking of the temple and left to become a disciple of Ken’o Soi, an eccentric Zen master who refused to accept his seal of transmission, a document that certified his enlightenment and status as a Zen master. Ikkyu stayed with Ken’o until Ken’o’s death in 1414.

A surviving example of Ikkyu’s handwriting. 15th century. Tokyo National Museum.

After this, Ikkyu joined another hermitage under the harsh master Kaso. Kaso appears to have soured Ikkyu to the Zen establishment.  In 1420, Ikkyu had an enlightenment experience at the age of 26. During a late summer night, as the rain clouds hung low over a lake, Ikkyu sat in meditation in a small boat when he heard crows call. He suddenly cried out as realization struck him. After this experience, he became a Zen master in his own right; however, when Kaso presented the seal of transmission, Ikkyu refused it like his previous master did. This began his crazy career as a brothel regular and protester of established Zen.

Ikkyu believed in the Zen idea of the unity of opposites, the idea that light and dark were one. Despite his antics, Ikkyu took Zen seriously and attacked anyone he deemed lacking in sincere Zen spirit. In his poems, he loved to contrast the practice of Zen with explicit descriptions of sex. During his lifetime, Ikkyu saw the superficial Heian period end and the beginning of the Kamakura period. The Heian period’s flashiness rubbed off on the Zen establishment, troubling Ikkyu. One day, Ikkyu lost a favorite ink stick and became so upset he became sick. He used this to point out the superficial focus of his age (Qiu, 2001):

Aah, in today’s world, people are all crazy about treasures and wealth; to them an ink stick would be no more than a broken straw sandal. But I almost lost my life over a missing ink stick. I wonder if those who have many desires would feel a little shame when they heard this poem.

The transition between the Heian period to the Kamakura marked a time of violence. Ikkyu lived through wars between samurai families, peasant rebellions, and the destruction of Kyoto, the city of the Emperor. This time of upheaval explains why he tried to use pleasure and poetry to get through to people. Most of his poetry sliced at established Zen for allowing corruption to shape their purpose:

From the world of passions,

I return to the world beyond passions,

A moment of pause.

If the rain is to fall, let it fall;

If the wind is to blow, let it blow.

Ikkyu favored brothels over temples as places to meditate. It’s likely brothels provided a more receptive audience than monasteries for his teachings. Ikkyu taught sexual desire was a natural need, like the need for water. Denying sexual desire broke the purpose of Zen, which is to help a person discover their true nature. Sexual desire, according to Ikkyu, was a part of a person’s nature. In the poem titled “Fisherman” he denounces the values of Zen communities:

Learning the Way and studying Zen, one loses the Original Mind.

A fisherman’s song is worth a thousand pieces of gold.

Evening rain on Xiang River, the moon amid the clouds of Chu—

It’s boundless furyu to chant poems night after night.

Ikkyu not only ignored the practice of celibacy, but he also ignored grooming practices, sporting hair and a beard instead of the bald, clean shaven practices require of monks. A portrait drawn by his disciple Bokusai shows his unseemly appearance–to the eyes of other Zen priests Ikkyu looked unseemly (Keene, 1966). On New Year’s Day, Ikkyu would parade through the streets with a staff topped with a human skill to drive home the impermanence of life. Shock served Ikkyu well.

Ikkyu’s Furyu

A shunga painting based on one of Ikkyu’s pieces.

Furyu is a hard concept to define, and it stands at the heart of Ikkyu’s erratic behavior as a priest. The concept changed across the various periods of Japan. During the Heian period, furyu referred to the sensuous beauty of artificial objects and art. During the Edo period, long after Ikkyu’s death, the word came to focus on eroticism. Sex and sensuality remained attached to the word. Ikkyu’s furyu is best considered “an aesthetic of unconventionality celebrates the freest mind, which, to the orthodox point of view, is crazy and eccentric (Qiu, 2001).” This idea explains why Ikkyu frequented brothels. His antics tried to shake up the thinking of the time, breaking everything thought to define Zen Buddhism.  Ikkyu’s furyu retained its attachment with sexuality when he used the word in his poetry:

Furyu of the age, a fair lady;

Love songs, delicate feast, melodies exceptionally novel.

Singing a new song, I lot my heart to her lovely face and dimples,

As the flowering haitang [Chinese crabapple tree] of the Tianbao time, Mori, you are a sapling in the spring.

“Seeing My Beautiful Mori Taking a Nap,” uses furyu to equate Mori’s beauty as the peak of sensuousness. The Chinese crabapple tree was a symbol for beautiful women in Chinese poetry. Ikkyu used the word in both the expected way of the period and in his own way, adding to the complicated understanding of the word.

Ikkyu’s poetry reveals this complication through contrast. One moment he expresses doubt toward the value of the pleasure district:

Ten years in the gay quarters, and still I couldn’t exhaust the pleasures;

But I broke away and am living here in empty mountains and dark valleys.

In these favorable surroundings clouds blot out the world.

Then he turns around and writes as if he had no doubts about his way of life being compatible with Zen:

To sleep with a beautiful woman?

what a deep river of love!

Upstairs in a tall building the old Zen priest is singing.

I’ve had all the pleasure of embraces and kisses

With never a thought of sacrificing myself for others.

Ikkyu’s life acts as a koan. Despite his dislike for establishment, he became an abbot in 1474 of Daitokuji and managed to ease the conflicts between Daitokuji and Myoshinji schools of Zen. But his feelings about being an abbot remained mixed as his bitter poems from this period shows. He leaves the position shortly after taking it and returned to his previous lifestyle. In his final years, Ikkyu wrote erotic poems about a blind singer named Mori. He died in 1481 at 87 years old.

Ikkyu’s Legacy

Ikkyu lived a life of contrasts. He knew the austere life of a traditional monk at an early age, and he knew the life of indulgent pleasures to be had at brothel and bar. Even for his time, his eccentricities were hard to understand. He spent his life slicing at establishment, showing how the extreme withdrawal from sexual desires was the same as indulging in them. He advocated for a balanced view by showing sexual desire was no different than thirsting for water.He denounced how the great Zen temples focused on increasing their wealth and power.

His messages strangely resonate with modern Christians. Christianity today focuses upon traditional purity and appearance while wealth and power corrupts churches. Ikkyu, in his crazy way, points out how religion labels everything in a ritualistic way, creating artificial divisions. These artificial divisions get in the way of understanding reality.

Ikkyu’s poems and prose capture a time of change and a complicated, eccentric figure in Japanese history.

I’ve left in the temple the things I’ve always used,

My wooden spoon and bamboo plate, hung up east of the wall.

I don’t want your useless furniture around me;

For years a peasant’s hat and cloak have been enough.

References

Keene, Donald (1966) The Portrait of Ikkyu. Archives of Asian Art. 20. 54-65.

Qiu, Peipei (2001) Aesthetic of Unconventionality: Furyu in Ikkyu’s Poety. Japanese Language and Literature. 35 (2). 135-156.

Sojun, Ikkyu and James Sanford (1980) Mandalas of the Heart. Two Prose Works by Ikkyo Sojun. Monumenta Nipponica. 35 (3). 273-298.

Living a Wabi Sabi Life

Wabi-sabi doesn’t have an equivalent English word. The phrase itself is rather fun to say: wabi-sabi. The phrase describes an aesthetic, a feeling, that underlies our experiences of art and landscapes. The phrase contains two words that, though similar, work together to describe what we in the West would call nostalgic tragedy.

Wabi can mean melancholic, unassuming, solitary, calm, still, impoverished, or unpretentious. The classic scene of wabi is a landscape with an abandoned fisherman’s shack. Sabi can mean ancient, mature, lonely, solitary, and melancholic. It focuses on wear, age, and patina. It’s best to think about a wooden tool or piece of wooden furniture that has been worn smooth from use (Covello, 1995).  The words combine to describe the feeling of humble dignity some objects possess due to their age and state of being forgotten.

I’ve felt wabi-sabi long before I’ve encountered the word. I love ruins, and I don’t use the word love lightly in that statement. I feel a deep attraction for the forgotten and overlooked and broken perfection of a crumbling shack in the woods or a hammer left in a field or a moldering book forgotten in a bookstore. The mix of sadness and sweetness and respect fills me with joy. That’s the thing about wabi-sabi, its a mix of contradicting emotions and appreciation. Sadness toward the isolated forgetting of a once-appreciated object. Joy toward its beautiful, broken perfection. Calmness toward its solitude.

Wabi-sabi comes from Zen’s fusing of opposites, removing the distinction between the beautiful and the ordinary (Kondo, 1985).  Wabi-sabi is best considered as the realization that nothing lasts, nothing is finished, and nothing is perfect. At the same time, the realization also builds the opposites: everything lasts in its unlasting, everything is finished in its unfinishing, everything is perfect in its imperfections. A house may crumble, but its memory and its unseen impact lasts; the house’s change is never finished as it crumbles and changes form. A crumbling house is perfectly imperfect–it is what it is. At its core, wabi-sabi is the acceptance and appreciation of reality as it is. It doesn’t seek to change the nature of reality or deny the truth of impermanence. Instead, it embraces it.

Living a Wabi-sabi Life

Although wabi-sabi is an aesthetic, we can apply its idea to our lives. After all, we are all broken, crumbling shacks buffeted by ocean winds. You see, modern life has taught us that we have to be painted, polished, shiny, young, and new. But that message denies reality. We are aging, breaking, scarring, wrinkling, failing, and imperfect. Modern messages also deny the fact that we are constantly changing in viewpoints as we experience life. Flip-flopping is the negative political term, but wabi-sabi embraces change. It’s okay to change your mind, just as a shack will crumble under the rain. Yet, the end jumble is a step closer to what is true. Changing your mind results from living.

So what would a wabi-sabi life look like? Much like your life now, only with a little more awareness. Okay, I know that isn’t helpful. That’s the thing about any idea from Zen, it’s more about paying attention than forcing change. After all, we can’t change something without first seeing what needs change. And often just seeing what needs changed, changes it. I’ve seen that with myself. I’ve changed without making an effort to change. In fact, that’s how we all work. Change happens on its own without our effort. Of course, this undirected change isn’t always beneficial. That’s where awareness comes in. It allows us to direct the process of change.

In any case, a wabi-sabi life entails:

  • Realizing your imperfections as perfections
  • Embracing solitude
  • Cultivating calmness
  • Accepting the reality of aging
  • Accepting melancholy

You are perfect as you are. It sounds saccharine, but just as the rust spot on a hammer is perfectly imperfect, you too are the same. The concept of perfect isn’t rooted in reality. It is some idea, some “should,” that some other person came up with. Society eventually agreed that perfect constitutes a certain “this” that rarely matched reality,

Solitude is something that many people struggle with accepting. After all, modern society has a bias toward extroversion. However, it is only through solitude that you can come to truly know yourself. If you are with other people, they will color your view. In fact, they will continue to color your view even when you are alone until you learn to quiet them and sit with yourself. Too much solitude isn’t healthy either, but right now, people skew toward too much socialness. Cultivating calmness ties together with solitude too. You can only be calm when  you accept yourself and know yourself.

Media makes us believe we should always be young and happy. Reality, well, is different. Yeah this sounds obvious but acceptance is different from knowing. You and I have to die. We will have good days and bad days. We will feel depressed and sad. That is reality. Feeling melancholy doesn’t mean you have to suffer. Suffering happens when our ideas of how things should be clashes with how they truly are. Accepting reality helps curb suffering by throwing away our ideas of “should.”

Simplicity sits at the core of the wabi-sabi aesthetic. Simplicity centers on perspective more than possessions. Having less stuff does tend to create a simpler life, but so does wanting what you already have. Simplicity doesn’t mean you throw out what you own. Rather, it means you appreciate what you own and accept how objects age and break. It means doing less and striving for less. When you appreciate objects, you need fewer. Of course, I’ve read old Japanese accounts from tea masters lamenting how their patrons collected wabi-sabi teapots and miss the point of wabi-sabi in the first place.

Wabi-sabi isn’t a life style like Zen. It’s an aesthetic, a feeling. But it can be a perspective that helps you live a more appreciative, peaceful life. The most important aspect of wabi-sabi is the realization that imperfection is perfect. Imperfection–never meeting anyone’s “shoulds”–characterizes life. Accepting this goes a long way to making life better, and wabi-sabi encourages us to see the beauty in this. It works against media messages and the messages of advertising. Next time you see a broken hammer, rusting car, or a crumbling house, stop for a moment and pay attention to it. Notice the feelings it generates in you.  Appreciate its patina and take the experience of wabi-sabi with you.

References

Covello, Vincent (1995). The Japanese art of stone appreciation: suiseki and the aesthetic pursuit of wabi sabi, shibui, and yugen. Arts of Asia. 25 (1). 95-100.

Kondo, Dorinne (1985) The Way of Tea: A Symbolic Analysis. Man. 20 (2). 287-306.

Otaku Language Dictionary

Every group has its own language, words that show who’s a part of the group and who’s not. American football fans speak with words like lineback, down, and line of scrimmage. Anime fans–who refer to themselves by the word otaku–have their own language too. Otaku language mixes slang, transliterated Japanese, and acronyms. Fans lift Japanese from the shows they watch and mix it with their slang. Otaku jargon overlaps with the jargon of other fandoms, such as trekkies. Fanfiction, while not necessarily an otaku hobby, uses much of the same terminology.

This collection of otaku jargon isn’t conclusive. Fan languages, like any living language, change over time. Words fall out of favor and new words are added. This post isn’t directed to members of the fandom. Rather, I target those who are interested in otaku culture and parents. After defining the words, I’ll provide a little background information when available. Pronunciation uses the International Phonetic Alphabet.

The terms are in alphabetical order.

Anime  /ə ni me/ (noun). Alternative: japanimation. Japanese term for animation. Among fans, the term refers to animation produced in Japan rather than the generic meaning of animation.

Baka /ba ka/ (noun/adjectival noun). The transliteration of the Japanese word that means stupid, dumb, fool, or idiot. This word appears often in anime dialogue and anime fan dialogue.

Chibi  /tʃi bi/ (noun). An expressive animation technique that involves large heads, small bodies, and simplified, exaggerated features. At times, these traits appear as sudden deformations from the original character design to express humor or the character’s emotions.

Cosplay  /kɒs pleɪ/ (noun). Short for costume play. The practice of dressing up as fictional characters. Read this article for more information.

Dandere /dan de re/ (noun). A type of character who is normally reserved or emotionless until they are alone or with other character they trust. In such situations, the character opens up.

Desu /de su/ (verb). Japanese verb form that translates to “is, be, are, am.” Otaku fans attach the word to the end of sentences to appear cute or express their fandom.

Doujinshi /do jɪn shi/ (noun). Alternative: fan fiction, fan fic. Fan-created stories that use existing manga and anime characters.

Dub /dʊb/ (verb/noun). Replacing Japanese dialogue of an anime with a different language. The noun version refers to the English language version of a film.

Ecchi  /i tʃi/ (noun). A branch of manga and anime that contains nudity, sexual humor, and mild sexual situations. Lacks the explicit sexuality of hentai.
Related: hentai.

Erogi /e re ʃi/ (noun). Alternative: h-games. Video games that can contain sex or many instances of fanservice.

Fanservice (noun). Alternative: fan service. Scenes present in manga and anime designed to titillate fans. Scenes may include swimsuits, nudity, or camera pans of vehicles or outfits.

Filler (noun). An episode in an anime series that doesn’t appear in the storyline of the manga the anime is based upon. These episodes pad out a series to allow the original author time to produce more work or make the anime last longer.

Hai  /hi/ (noun). Japanese term for an affirmative response.

Hentai  /hen ti/ (noun). A genre of manga and anime that involves explicit sexual imagery.
If you want to learn more about this genre, you can read my article about its history.

Hikikomori /hi ki koʊ moʊ ri/ (noun). Japanese word which translates to “pulling inward, being confined” that is used to refer to people who withdraw from all aspects of society, including work, school, and social ties.
synonym: NEET.

We have an article if you want to learn more about hikikomori. NEET is an acronym: Not in Education, Employment, or Training that isn’t exactly the same as hikimori because many NEETs still engage with society in limited ways.

Honorifics (noun). A part of speech in Japanese language used to denote social standing and relationship between people. This article explains the basics of honorifics.

Iie /ie/ (noun). Japanese term for a negative response.

Japanophile (noun). Old term that refers to someone who has an intense interest in Japanese culture.

Josei / dʒoʊ sə/ (noun). A category of manga and anime that targets women aged 18 to 40. Often involves more realistic situations and portrayals of life and romance.

Kawaii /kɑ wɑi i/ (adjective). Japanese transliteration that translates to cute or adorable. The word denotes other traits including vulnerability, innocence, appeal, helplessness, and other traits associated with infants. See this article for more information.

Loli /loʊ li/ (noun). Alternative: Lolita. Refers to a young-appearing girl or a cute prepubescent character. The full term Lolita derives from a novel of the same name written by Vladimir Nabokov about the pedophile Humbert Humbert.

Lolicon /loʊ li c ɒn/ (noun). Alternative: Lolita Complex. A person who is romantically and/or sexually attracted to young or young-looking girls. Related: Siscon.

Magical Girl. (noun). A branch of anime and manga, specifically of shojo, that involves a teen or preteen girl who has a secret identity that involves magic powers.

Mangaka /mɑn gɑ kɑ/ (noun). Japanese term for manga authors.

Mecha /me ka/ (noun) 1. A genre of anime and manga that involves the use of human-piloted giant robots. 2. A giant robot typically piloted by a character.

Megane /me ga ne/ (noun). Japanese for glasses. Refers to characters with glasses and often involves an attraction by the audience for such characters.
Related: meganekko.

Moe /moʊ i/ (noun). Protective and affectionate feelings a person feels toward a character. This is sometimes confused with character archetypes designed to illicit such feelings. See this article on moe for more explanation. Related: kawaii.

Nekomimi /ni koʊ mi mi/ (noun). A transliteration  of a Japanese phrase that literally means “cat ear.” The word refers to people who dress as human cats, that is, with cat ears and a tail. This is a type of cosplay.

Oneesan /oʊ neɪ sɑn/ (noun). Japanese term for older sister.

Oniisan
/oʊ ni sɑn/ (noun). Japanese term for brother. Related terms: oniichan, oniisama.

Otaku  /o ta ku/  (noun). 1. A western fan of Japanese animation. 2. Someone who obsesses over an activity or interest; a derogatory term in Japanese.

OVA /oʊ va/ (noun). Alternative: OAV. Acronym that stands for Original Video Animation (or the alternative Original Animation Video). These are anime episodes made exclusively for home release and are not released on television or theaters.

Panty Fetish (noun). Alternative: pantsu. A subtype of fanservice that focuses on women and girl’s underwear. This fetish resulted from American cultural influences post World War II.

Seinan /si nən/ (noun). A branch of manga and anime that targets older teens and men. Characterized by action and political plots with more mature themes then shonen.
Related: josei.

Seme /se me/ (noun). Refers to a character in anime and manga, particularly the branches of shonen-ai, yaoi, and hentai, that takes the dominate role in a relationship.
Related: uke.

Uke /u ke/ (noun). Refers to a character in anime and manga, particularly the branches of shonen-ai, yaoi, and hentai, that takes the submissive role in a relationship. Related: seme.

Senpai /sen pī/ (noun). Alternative spelling: sempai. 1. A person who belongs to a higher social rank than the speaker. 2. (slang) A person who the speaker admires and generally ignores the speaker.

Honorifics like senpai, chan, and kun are an important part of the Japanese language. Otaku fans imitate these parts of speech. This word is often misspelled as sempai. Romanji, Japanese written using Roman letters, lacks a standalone m. “M” sounds include mi, ma, mo, mu, me. “N” is the only standalone consonant. せんぱい is how senpai is written in hiragana, with ん being “n.” However, some people pronounce the word in a way that sounds like an “m” instead of an “n.”

Ship / ʃip/ (verb). Short for relationship, this word expresses the approval of the speaker for a romantic relationship between two characters or people.

Shojo  / ʃoʊ dʒoʊ/ (noun). Alternative: shoujo. A category of manga and anime that targets young girls. Characterized by a flowery, romantic style and plots that focus on relationships and relationship conflicts.

Shonen / ʃoʊ nen/ (noun). Alterative: shounen. A category of manga and anime that targets boys and young men. Characterized by action-filled plots.

Siscon /sis c ɒn/ (noun). A person who is attracted to their sister. This term can refer to a type of fictional character.

Sub (noun). Alternative: fansub. Fan-produced translations and subtitling of anime. These subtitled episodes often lack official releases from companies. This may also include official releases.

Tsundere /sun de ri/ (noun). A character type with a cold and indifferent outer personality that hides a warm, affectionate interior.

Visual Novel (noun). An interactive method of telling a story that allows a reader to make decisions that direct the course of the story. This story telling method uses graphics similar to how comic books use graphics to tell a story.

Waifu  /wī foo/ (noun). Fictional character a person feels affection toward. 2. fictional character considered one’s spouse. 3. Japanese word derived from the English word ‘wife.’
synonyms: husbando, mai waifu I wrote an article tracing the development of waifu.

Weeaboo /wi a bu/ (noun). An anime fan who ignores social boundaries and exhibits an ignorance toward Japanese culture despite proclaiming an obsession with the culture.
synonyms: weeb I wrote an article outlining the characteristics and reasoning behind this definition.

Yandere /jan de re/ (noun). A type of character who is romantically interested in another character to the point that interest becomes their identity. This often results in the character becoming violent or insane.

YAOI /yaʊ i/ (noun). Alternatives: BL, Boy’s Love, 801. Stories written by women for women that involve romantic relationships between males.

YAOI is an acronym that stands for yama nashi, ochi nashi, imi nashi (no climax, no point, and no meaning), a phrase coined by Osamu Tezuka.

Yuri  /j ʊəʳ i/ (noun). Alternative: Shoujo-ai, Shojo-ai, girl’s love. Genre of anime and manga that focuses on a romantic relationship between two female characters.