here I am simply trying to get into your head
you think you were born you die what a pity

Zen masters are infamous as a group for their peculiarity and iconoclasm, so to set yourself off as peculiarly iconoclastic among them is quite a feat, and yet such was the attainment of Ikkyū Sōjun, the abbot of Kyoto’s Daitokuji Temple, who called himself “Crazy Cloud”.

sin like a madman until you can’t do anything else
no room for anything more

Ikkyū was born in 1394 A.D., the bastard son of Emperor Go Komatsu and his favorite lady-in-waiting2. When the Empress got word of the pregnancy, she banished Ikkyū’s mother to one of the poorest sections of Kyoto. At six he began his Zen training as an acolyte at Ankokuji Temple.3 He would strain sorely at the reigns of temple discipline for the rest of his life, but it was there that he began quickly mastering the dual arts of poetry and calligraphy. (The modern Western disconnect between composing verse and physically placing it on the paper would be as absurd to the medieval Japanese mind as dancing having nothing to do with choreography.)

I’ve burnt all the holy pages I used to carry
but poems flare in my heart

After his first master died, Ikkyū sought another in the legendarily severe abbot Kasō. His new master lived up to his reputation, leaving Ikkyū to wait outside at the temple gate for five days and then pouring a bucket of water on his head before admitting him. Some ten years later Ikkyū achieved enlightenment upon hearing a crow’s caw. He went to Kasō with the good news, but his master scorned: “This is only the enlightenment of an arhat. You are not a master yet.”

The disciple replied. “That suits me fine. I despise masters.”

Kasō barked out a laugh. “Yes! And with that, you are a master.”

one of you saved my satori paper I know it piece by piece you
pasted it back together now watch me burn it once and for all

Kasō died when Ikkyū was thirty-five years old.

my dying teacher could not wipe himself unlike you disciples
who use bamboo I cleaned his lovely ass with my bare hands

Astounded with grief, Ikkyū spend the next four decades of his life bouncing around from temple to temple, whorehouse to sake bar.

ten fussy days running this temple all red tape
look me up if you want to in the bar whorehouse fish market

a crazy lecher shuttling between whorehouse and bar
this past master paints south north east west with his cock

when I was forty-seven everybody came to see me
so I walked out forever

don’t hesitate get laid that’s wisdom
sitting around chanting what crap

At age seventy seven the fiery monk fell in love with a blind teen-age girl named Mori.

I was like an old leafless tree until we met green buds burst and blossom
now that I have you I’ll never forget what I owe you

your name Mori means forest like the infinite fresh
green distances of your blindness

I’d sniff you like a dog and taste you
then kiss your other mouth endlessly if I could white hair or not

Five years later, 2 years into his ninth decade of life, Ikkyū was appointed abbot of Daitokuji Temple, his beloved master Kasō’s old job. This particular Zen lineage would, 200 years later, produce the famous master Hakuin as just one of its important dharma heirs.

if there’s nowhere to rest at the end
how can I get lost on the way?

Ikkyū died at the age of 87.

long life
the wild pines want it too

It’s the keenly direct, contemporaneous feel of Ikkyū’s verse that stands out for me. Compared to him, other prominent figures in the Zen canon feel like constructs, mouthpieces-- important, but not intimate. Ikkyū is unquestionably a person, talking to you, not 600 years ago, right now.

don’t worry please please how many times do I have to say it
there’s no way not to be who you are and where

fuck flattery success money
all I do is lie back suck my thumb

all koans just lead you on
but not the delicious pussy of the young girls I go down on

why is it all so beautiful this fake dream
this craziness why?

stare at it until your eyes drop out
this desk this wall this unreal page

nature’s a killer I won’t sing to it
I hold my breath and listen to the dead singing under the grass

don’t wait for the man standing in the snow
to cut off his arm help him now

the crow’s caw was okay but one night with a lovely whore
opened a wisdom deeper than what that bird said

self other right wrong wasting your life arguing
you’re happy really you
are happy

only one koan matters

1All translations of Ikkyū’s verse are from Stephen Berg’s excellent Crow with No Mouth. If you’re at all intrigued, buy it. You’ll read it for the rest of your life.

2When his mother died, she left behind this brief note:

To Ikkyū:

I have finished my work in this life and am now returning to Eternity. I wish you to become a good student and to realize your Buddha-nature. You will know if I am in hell and whether I am always with you or not.

If you become a man who realizes that the Buddha and his follower Bodhidharma are your own servants, you may leave off studying and work for humanity. The Buddha preached for 49 years and in all that time found it not necessary to speak one word. You ought to know why. But if you don’t and yet wish to, avoid thinking fruitlessly.

Your Mother,
Not born, not dead.
September first.

P.S. The teaching of Buddha was mainly for the purpose of enlightening others. If you are dependent on any of its methods, you are naught but an ignorant insect. There are 80,000 books on Buddhism and if you should read all of them and still not see your own nature, you will not even understand this letter. This is my will and testament.

3Even as a young boy, Ikkyū exhibited some of Zen’s cagier instincts. His master owned a rare and precious antique teacup, which one day a fellow acolyte of Ikkyū’s happened to break. When the master showed up, Ikkyū took the pieces from the other boy and hid them behind his own back. Facing the master he asked: “Sensei, why do people have to die?

The master replied, “This is the natural way. Everything has to die having fulfilled its allotted time to live.”

Ikkyū showed his master the pieces of his precious cup: “Sensei, it was time for your cup to die.”


Berg, Stephen. Crow with No Mouth. Copper Canyon Press, 1989.

Stevens, John. Masters:A Maverick, a Master of Masters, and a Wandering Poet. Kodansha International, 1995.

Reps, Paul & Nyogen Senzaki. Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. Tuttle Publishing, 1985.

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