Book Extract: Zen at Daitoku-ji by Dr Jon Covell & Abbot Yamada Sōbin
Daitoku-ji is the great training monastery founded by National Teacher Daito. In this extract we hear about Ikkyū, a maverick priest, who oversaw the re-building of the monastery after it had been burned down.
Throughout Daitoku-ji’s history, the weight of tradition has tended to crush individualism and only occasionally has creativity managed to flourish there. This constant conflict was dramatized in the fifteenth century in the relationship of two of its priests, Yōsō (1376-1459) and Ikkyū (1394-1481). Yōsō lived at Daitoku-ji for several decades, serving as its highest official, and he appears to have been a stable, conservative man who devoted himself to his institution and who was honored by it in return. Ikkyū, on the other hand, roamed all over the Kansai area in central Honshu, only visiting Daitoku-ji infrequently and then just for important ceremonies. He accused his Zen “brother,” Yōsō, of superficiality in his Zen and even of dishonesty. In his poetry he dared equate sex with the transcendental wisdom of Mañjuśri (the patron bodhisattva of Zen training halls), and even suggested that the sexual experience gives a wisdom not found within monastic walls. These attitudes were strikingly heretical at the time and indicate Ikkyū’s rebellious and at least superficially contradictory character.
Thus these two men appear to have been diametrically opposed in their lifestyles and personalities, and yet they studied with the same master, Kasō, who gave them both inka, certificates testifying to their enlightenment. Strangely enough it was these two priests who in turn were to be responsible for getting Daitoku-ji constructed again the two times it was ravaged by fire: Yōsō rebuilt it in 1453 and Ikkyū after its total destruction in 1467.
Today Yōsō is almost unknown except among the monks of Daitoku-ji. These count him as their spiritual forebear and it is in his spirit of orthodoxy that the temple’s chief abbots have been selected. In contrast Ikkyū’s name is familiar to virtually every Japanese adult and his influence is felt in almost all branches of Japanese arts. He affected the development of Nō drama, started the tea ceremony on its crazy climb to fame, and greatly stimulated ink painting, particularly of the Soga school so that it might be termed the Ikkyū school.
… The Spartan life they had shared as disciples under Kasō had been forgotten by Yōsō as he gave talks on Zen for money. Ikkyū felt that his vagabond life, sleeping in improvised shelters, was closer to the great Zen leaders of the T’ang dynasty. Ceremonial prostration, burning incense, “selling Zen” were not the way.
In 1439 Yōsō erected a sub-temple at Daitoku-ji in memory of Kasō, and put up a signboard reading “Daiyū-an,” which means “Hermitage of Great Works.” Ikkyū criticized the name, and suggested that another inscription be placed there instead. This should read:
The temple [Daitoku-ji] seems wealthy, but the Five Mountains [Gozan] are declining.
Its abbots are false masters; there exist no real masters.
How nice to take a rod and just go fishing.
Nowadays everything drifts toward degeneration.
(Zen at Daitoku-ji by Dr Jon Covell & Abbot Yamada Sōbin pub. Kodansha International Ltd. 1974)
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