May 18, 2011

The Rogue Yogis & Buddhists. ~ Sarah E. Truman

Photo: Sarah Truman

One shiny morning I came to the realization that many mystics, great teachers and yogis throughout history were rogues and rule-breakers.

They broke concepts, codes and vows, and were often condemned by the society around them or even by members of their own lineages. Yet hundreds of years later we esteem these rebels.

It makes me wonder what it would be like to have such people in our midst today. Would our enlightened middle class, western yoga and Buddhist culture admire such people if they existed now? Or would we condemn them just as our predecessors did? It’s easy to accept a wild mystic that was written into a book in the past, but it’s probably a lot more difficult to accept him or her in daily life.

In light of all this, I have decided to write about my favorite rogues and rule-breakers from history and mythology to remind me to keep an open mind about what it means to be on the spiritual path.

Ikkyu Sojun: Zen Master & Rogue




Ikkyu Sojun was a famous poet and Zen practitioner of the Rinzai School in Japan. He led an unconventional lifestyle, tore up his own certificate as a Zen master, preferred brothels to monasteries and extolled the virtues of wine and love.

He is also known for his profound understanding of Zen and for his criticism of the corruption in Japanese temples.

He lived as a hermit for much of his life. Even when he was appointed head abbot of a major monastery, he continued to live in a small temple and conducted life his own way—living Zen rather than following established rules.

Ikkyu loved a woman named Mori and lived with her for many years. She taught him about love:

Stilted koans and convoluted answers are all monks have,
Pandering endlessly to officials and rich patrons.
Good friends of the Dharma, so proud, let me tell you,
A brothel girl in gold brocade is worth more than any of you.

I wonder what would happen someone acted like this these days?

Maybe the fact that Ikkyu understood Zen allowed him to transcend societal norms? Or maybe it was because he wasn’t tethered by societal norms that he could understand Zen.

Delusion makes it appear that though the body dies, the soul endures—this is a grave error. The enlightened declare that both the body and soul perish together. “Buddha” is emptiness, and heaven and earth return to the original ground of being. I’ve set aside the eighty thousand books of scripture and given you the essence in a slim volume. This will bring you great bliss.

Photo: H. Koppdelaney

Ikkyu is one of the most refreshing writers I’ve ever read. All these books and volumes and lectures on how to save souls and get enlightened and live forever in enlightened bliss: and the reality is that we all perish. How liberating!

Long live Ikkyu’s poems and his love for Mori.

Quotes from: Wild Ways, Ikkyu. John Stevens, trans. White Pine Press, Buffalo NY, 2003.



Sarah E. Truman is an award-winning writer, and the author of Searching for Guan Yin (forthcoming November 2011, White Pine Press.) She teaches high school English literature and is a long-time practitioner of qi gong and meditation. She has an affinity for rogue yogis, Buddhists and mystics. (www.sarahetruman.com)

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