Posts Tagged ‘Ryokan’

Enjoy some of the Zen Poetry of Ryōkan

July 3, 2016

Zen Poet RyōkanA friend loaned me a copy of Dewdrops on a Lotus Leaf, Zen Poems of Ryōkan, translated by John Stevens. A delightful little book, his poems are deceptively simple, yet go straight to the heart. A Zen master, Ryōkan was also considered one of the greatest calligraphers of all time in East Asia. Living as a hermit, he spent much of his time writing poetry, doing calligraphy, and communing with nature.

The Translator’s Introduction ends with this sage advice from the poet:

Good friends and excellent teachers—
Stick close to them!
Wealth and power are fleeting dreams
But wise words perfume the world for ages.

Ryōkan’s poems are pure, honest, direct. Here are a few beauties that caught my attention as I read them aloud to Sali.

It’s a pity, a gentleman in refined retirement
……….composing poetry:
He models his work on the classic verse of China,
And his poems are elegant, full of fine phrases.
But if you don’t write of things deep inside your own
What’s the use of churning out so many words?


In the stillness by the empty window
I sit in formal meditation wearing my monk’s surplice.
Navel and nose in alignment,
Ears parallel with the shoulders.
Moonlight floods the room;
The rain stops but the eaves drip and drip.
Perfect this moment—
In the vast emptiness, my understanding deepens.


At night, deep in the mountains,
I sit in meditation.
The affairs of men never reach here:
Everything is quiet and empty,
All the incense has been swallowed up by the endless
My robe has become a garment of dew.
Unable to sleep, I walk into the woods—
Suddenly, above the highest peak, the full moon


When all thoughts
Are exhausted
I slip into the woods
And gather
A pile of shepherd’s purse.

Like the little stream
Making its way
Through the mossy crevices
I, too, quietly
Turn clear and transparent.


The Lotus

First blooming in the Western Paradise,
The lotus has delighted us for ages.
Its white petals are covered with dew,
Its jade green leaves spread out over the pond,
And its pure fragrance perfumes the wind.
Cool and majestic, it rises from the murky water.
The sun sets behind the mountains
But I remain in the darkness, too captivated to leave.



The thick bamboo grove near my hut
Keeps me nice and cool.
Shoots proliferate, blocking the path,
While old branches reach for the sky.
Years of frost give bamboo spirit;
They are most mysterious when wrapped in mist.
Bamboo is as hardy as pine and oak,
And more subtle than peach or plum blossoms.
It grows straight and tall,
Empty inside but with a sturdy root.
I love the purity and honesty of my bamboo,
And want them to thrive here always!


Leave off your mad rush for gold and jewels—
I’ve got something far more precious for you:
A bright pearl that sparkles more brilliantly than the
……….sun and moon
And illuminates each and every eye.
Lose it and you’ll wallow in a sea of pain;
Find it and you’ll safely reach the other shore.
I’d freely present this treasure to anyone
But hardly anyone asks for it.


Keep your heart clear and transparent
And you will never be bound.
A single disturbed thought, though,
Creates ten thousand distractions.
Let myriad things captivate you
And you’ll go further and further astray.
How painful to see people
All wrapped up in themselves.


I watch people in the world
Throw away their lives lusting after things,
Never able to satisfy their desires,
Falling into deep despair
And torturing themselves.
Even if they get what they want
How long will they be able to enjoy it?
For one heavenly pleasure
They suffer ten torments of hell,
Binding themselves more firmly to the grindstone.
Such people are like monkeys
Frantically grasping for the moon in the water
And then falling into a whirlpool.
How endlessly those caught up in the floating world
Despite myself, I fret over them all night
And cannot staunch my flow of tears.


Even if you consume as many books
As the sands of the Ganges
It is not as good as really catching
One verse of Zen.
If you want the secret of Buddhism,
Here it is: Everything is in the Heart!


Chanting old poems,
Making our own verses,
Playing with a cloth ball,
Together in the fields—
Two people, one heart.

The breeze is fresh,
The moon so bright—
Let’s dance until dawn
As a farewell to my old age.

See some of Ryōkan’s quotes at goodreads. Here’s one I liked:

“In all ten directions of the universe, there is only one truth. When we see clearly, the great teachings are the same. What can ever be lost? What can be attained? If we attain something, it was there from the beginning of time. If we lose something, it is hiding somewhere near us.”

Here is a goodreads description of his life introducing Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan.

Takumi is not ‘lost in translation’ in this beautiful film about Japan’s diverse artisan tradition

March 8, 2012

Takumi: Japan’s Artisan Tradition

I think you’ll find this beautiful video both informative and fascinating. It’s a documentary about traditional Japanese artisans hosted by Robert Yellin, an American living in Japan who’s become a ceramics expert.

Some of you may know Steven Yellin. Robert happens to be one of his brothers. And you probably remember hearing their father, Jerry Yellin, talk about his WW II experiences as a young fighter pilot who, years later, would make peace with his enemy after one of his sons, Robert, had gone to Japan for a year and ended up marrying a Japanese girl, whose father had also been in the war. See Jerry Yellin: Healing the Hidden Wounds of War and Jerry Yellin discusses Operation Warrior Wellness.

Robert Yellin has been living in Japan since 1984. He fell in love with the art of Japan, especially Bizen pottery, and the concept of Wabi-sabi, the aesthetic of things in life being imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete, yet each with their own unique natural beauty captured in a work of art. His passion and broad knowledge of Japanese pottery led him from collector, to columnist and author, to ceramics art gallery owner.

The Robert Yellin Yakimono Gallery offers some of the finest works available in Japan online at or at his gallery located near the Silver Pavilion (Ginkakuji) in a magnificent old Sukiya-style home in Kyoto. You can read some of his articles on Japanese pottery in various magazines, including a ceramics column in The Japan Times.

Robert also authored a beautiful book about sake utensils that was later translated into English as Ode to Japanese Pottery. Read the rave reviews listed on his sister website from the Clay Times and Ceramics Today, and check out his Japanese Pottery Blog.

When Steve Jobs came to Japan and wanted to learn about Japanese pottery, he asked for Robert Yellin to be his guide. With this video, Robert inspires thousands of viewers about Japan’s cultural treasures.

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Takumi: Japan’s Artisan Tradition is one of five short episodes in a series called Japan: Fascinating Diversity. Five presenters—well-known foreign specialists with extensive knowledge and insight on Japan—guide viewers to intriguing destinations, introducing them to Japan’s fascinating culture and heritage along the way.

They also take viewers to the Tohoku region of northeastern Japan, which was devastated by the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 11, 2011. The people of Japan are continuing their tireless reconstruction efforts, which shows every sign of recovery. The film’s goal is to help viewers around the globe rediscover the appeal of Japan.

In this episode of the series, Robert explores the diverse forms of Takumi with veteran artisans, savoring samples of Japan’s pottery, indigo dyeing and lacquer ware traditions. His tour also includes a visit to a museum, a tea house, and ends in a Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn.

For an American, Robert knows a lot about Japanese culture. He even speaks and moves like a native; his intonations and mannerisms are Japanese—refined and respectful.

With his expertise in Japanese ceramics, Robert acts as a cultural ambassador, helping to give a boost to Japanese tourism for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs by inspiring people from all over the world to visit.

I truly enjoyed watching this beautiful short documentary film. I think you will too. Robert sums it up nicely when he says, “It’s been an amazing journey. Every place we visited there’s been something new to learn. It’s been a joy to see how people still create handmade beauty in different regions. All the beauty in Japan—it’s all based on this spirit of craftsman, or Takumi. And that really is the foundation—what Japan has to offer the world.”

Japan: Fascinating Diversity (Takumi: Japan’s Artisan Tradition) (17:48)
© 2012 Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan

Related post: kintsugi: japanese pottery inspires poetry.

This interview was streamed live on Aug 11, 2020: Deep-Dive Into Appeal of Japanese Pottery with Robert Yellin. Also join Robert on an online tour he gave for Kyoto Journal of Japanese ceramic art in Kyoto at the Robert Yellin Yakimono Gallery. Follow him on Instagram @ry_yakimono_gallery_kyoto.

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