Ikkyu without a Mouth

Last night, I ran across the work of Zen Master Ikkyū. He was a notable figure in zen in the 1300s because of his unorthodox behavior. He was controversial and often obscene. I won’t pretend to have a comprehensive understanding of him but I want to offer a few of my favorite poems from Ikkyu: Crow With No Mouth (Stephen Berg):

“nobody told the flowers to come up nobody
will ask them to leave when spring’s gone”

“that stone Buddha deserves all the birdshit it gets
I wave my skinny arms like a tall flower in the wind”

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

“my friend’s funeral this morning
burns inside me like my own death
and it breaks my heart how so easily
smoke rises tonight like the thought of him”

“her mouth played with my cock
the way a cloud plays with the sky”

His unorthodox behavior reminds me of Seung Sahn’s koan:

“Somebody comes into the Zen center with a lighted cigarette, walks up to the Buddha statue, blows smoke in its face, and drops ashes on its lap. You are standing there. What can you do?”

The heart sutra reminds us that everything is empty, with no eyes, no ears, no mouth, and so on. So while we know that everything is empty – empty of substance, empty of reality, empty of value – we also live in a world of substance, reality, and value. If we meet someone desecrating something we value, how do we approach them?

Anyways, it’s not common to see such a well-known master that visits whorehouses and writes about sex. If you have the opportunity, I recommend his poetry.