[Site editor’s note: The following is an excerpt from the new Disinformation title 50 Things You’re Not Supposed To Know: Religion, authored by Daniele Bolelli.]
Most Westerners who become fascinated with Zen Buddhism are intrigued with its reputation as an anti-authoritarian, freedom-loving, individualistic tradition. Books by excellent writers like Alan Watts popularized an image of Zen as a very relaxed, go-with-the-flow type of religion. But even a brief visit to a typical Zen temple is enough to make us painfully aware of the difference between hype and reality. Life in real Zen temples, in fact, is often so structured, regimented and heavily regulated as to quickly dispel the romanticism created by much of the literature about it. Far from being a hippie rendition of Buddhism, Zen discipleship can be demanding and severe.
But sometimes even misguided stereotypes are born from seeds of truth. Enter 15th century Japanese monk Ikkyu Sojun, who was truly as free, wild and allergic to authorities as advertised.
For Ikkyu, Zen was not a spontaneous calling. Rather, he stumbled upon it as an alternative to being murdered in infancy. Given that choice, Zen training didn’t seem so bad after all. Ikkyu, in fact, was the illegitimate son of the emperor of Japan, and the object of several conspiracies aimed at thinning out the ranks of potential candidates to the throne. In an effort to have his life spared, his mother entrusted him to a Zen monastery when he was only 5 years old: not the most fun-filled scenario for a little boy, but clearly more appealing than having angry assassins slicing you to pieces.
His early life was extremely tough since the training he received from the Zen monks was brutally stern. Despite some serious bouts of depression in this joyless environment, it became quickly clear to his teachers that Ikkyu possessed an amazing intellect, and that his grasp of Zen was unparalleled. But the fact that he excelled in this setting didn’t mean he felt at home in it. Despite genuinely loving Zen (or perhaps because of it), he was less than thrilled with the spiritual bureaucracy of the temples. Also, many of the priests bugged him: too many political games and too much time spent courting the favor of rich patrons. And so when the day came when his master presented him with a certificate of enlightenment—which was both a great honor and the necessary document to begin climbing the Zen hierarchy—Ikkyu promptly decided to wave goodbye to a monastic career and burned it.
This doesn’t mean he had given up on Zen. Far from it. In his thinking, it was the entire Zen establishment that had abandoned real Zen by turning it into a dogmatic parody of what it was supposed to be. Life in the temples was stifled by too many rules and not enough fresh air. The so-called professionals of Zen were in Ikkyu’s eyes a bunch of posers—too busy acting “spiritual” to be able to really taste spirituality in its rawest forms. Some people believed Zen enlightenment could only be found among clouds of incense in silent meditation. Ikkyu, on the other hand, found sake-drinking and wild sex more to his liking. As he put it in his poems, “The autumn breeze of a single night of love is better than a hundred thousand years of sterile sitting meditation.” Or, even more bluntly, “Don’t hesitate: get laid—that’s wisdom. Sitting around chanting sutras: that’s crap.” Driven by an uncompromising thirst for life, Ikkyu became a wandering monk, testing his Zen insights far away from the seclusion of the monasteries, and earning the nickname of “Crazy Cloud.”
The point of his erotic escapades and wild adventures was to suggest that the “sacred” is nothing other than regular life experienced with 100 percent awareness. Or perhaps, sake-drinking and inordinate amounts of sex didn’t need any justification at all other than the fact that they were a hell of a lot of fun. Ikkyu didn’t give a rat’s ass about what the religious authorities of his day thought of him anyway. But in the course of his travels, Ikkyu managed to influence great numbers of artists, poets, calligraphers, musicians, and actors in such a way that his ideas left a deep mark on the development of several Japanese art forms for centuries to come. Even his love life came to be celebrated through the ages, since his relationship with Lady Mori ended up being among the most famous romances in Japanese history.
But since good old Ikkyu was a man who loved paradoxes, when a civil war had destroyed most Zen temples in the country, he came to the rescue of the very institutions he had ferociously criticized. Just when the future of Zen seemed in peril, he was able to enlist the help of the many acquaintances he had met during a lifetime of travels and mobilized them into rebuilding some of the key temples throughout the country. So, oddly enough, much of modern Zen owes a huge debt for its existence to a man who preferred the company of hookers to that of monks.
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