Reading: “Sky Above, Great Wind” by Kazuaki Tanahashi

Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan
by Kazuaki Tanahashi
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I have liked Ryokan since I first read “First days of spring— the sky” in Stephen Mitchell’s anthology The Enlightened Heart when I was in college in the mid-1990s.  So I was glad to get this biography and accompanying poetry collection recently, after more than twenty years of general familiarity. Because Ryokan was not a court poet, eschewed attention and fame, and was so poor as to often not have ink and paper, less is known about him than about other poets. Though, the biographer here, who is a calligrapher, does a good job of bringing the anecdotes and other ephemera into a cohesive narrative that introduces the collection.

I hadn’t known much about Ryokan – the man who wrote one of my favorite poems – in part because there isn’t much to know. Like many brilliant creatives, he had an opportunity at a normal kind of success early in life, but found himself unsuited for it. So, thus, he went into a life of austerity that allowed him the freedom to be himself, to be a Zen fool. Some of the stories are bittersweet, showing a man who starved and froze in a hut on a mountainside but who also accepted those discomforts as part of the life he wanted to lead. The first half of the book reads more like literary criticism than biography, but that nonlinear form, along with a substantial array of poems in the latter half, does a good job in bringing the poet to life.


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