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By Gaurav Manandhar at

Ikkyu - Buddhist Monk

Ikkyu was an eccentric, iconoclastic Japanese Zen Buddhist monk and poet. He is still remembered for the work he has done. He actually infused Japanese art and literature with Zen attitudes and ideals.

Biography of Ikkyu


Ikkyu was born in 1394 in the suburb of Kyoto. It is believed that his father was Emperor Go-Komatsu and his mother was a low-ranking court noblewoman. Therefore, his mother was forced to flee with the Saga. He then was raised by servants and placed in a Rinzai Zen temple in Kyoto at the age of five. There, he learned Chinese culture and language as part of the curriculum which is known as Gozan Zen. During the monastic life, he was named as Shuken.

Monastic life and Zen Buddhism learning

At the age of thirteen, Ikkyu entered Kennin Ji temple in Kyoto with the purpose to study Zen. He studied under the priest by the name of Botetsu. In this temple, he learned and began to write a nontraditional form of poetry. He frequently criticized the Kennin ji's leadership in his poetry and also mentioned his disheartened with the social stratum and lack of zazen practice. Therefore, in 1410, he left Kennin Ji temple and then entered the temple Mibu-dera. He learned about Buddhism under Seiso, abbot of Mibu-dera. But unfortunately, he didn't stay there for long.

Later he entered Saikin ji temple in the Lake Biwa region where he was the sole student of an abbot named Ken'o. Reaching this temple, Ikkyu felt that he finally found the master that would teach him true Rinzai Zen. But unfortunately in 1414, at the age of 21, Ikkyu's master died. Ikkyu performed funeral rites and fasted for seven days. The event breaks down Ikkyu seriously that he even tried to kill himself by drowning himself in Lake Biwa. But he was saved by the servant of his mother.

After overcoming the circumstances,Ikkyu found a new teacher at Zenko-an temple, a branch temple of Daitokuji. His new master's name was Kaso. He had the similar style to that of Ken'o. Therefore, it was easy for him to adjust to his new master. It wasn't easy for him to stay in the temple since there were the cases of jealousy. It is recorded that he was quite jealous of the senior student of the temple, Yoso who later lead the monastery. Ikkyu has clearly mentioned his jealousy towards Yoso in his poems. Yoso appears as a character who is unhealthily obsessed with the material goods. He has appeared as the character who sold Zen to increase the prosperity of the temple.

Ikkyu as a wanderer

As Inka was given to Yoso and made him Dharma heir, Ikkyu left the temple. He lived as a wanderer for many years. However, he was not alone throughout the period while he was wandering. Notable artists and poet from that era accompanied him. During this period, he also established a relationship with a blind singer, Mori. She later became Ikkyu's wife.

Ikkyu's life as a wanderer concluded when he was elected abbot later in his life. This act placed him in one of the most important Zen lineages. Ikkyu died at the age of eighty-seven from acute ague in 1481.

Influence of Ikkyu on Zen Buddhism

Ikkyu is one of the most significant figures in Zen Buddhism. For Japanese children, he is folklore hero who is mischievous and always smarting his teachers.

As per Rinzai Zen tradition, he is believed to be heretic as well as the saint. He was among the few Zen practitioners who argued that the enlightenment was deepened by consorting with pavilion girls. Therefore, there are cases of Ikkyu entering brothels. He also warned Zen against its own bureaucratic politicising.

He is also renowned as one of medieval Japan's greatest calligraphers and Sumi-e artists.

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