The Story of Ikkyu: Founder of Red Thread Zen Buddhism.
An Iconoclastic Monk: Enlightenment Through Real Living
“The autumn breeze of a single night of love is better than a hundred thousand years of sitting meditation.” ~Ikkyu
Ikkyu was an eccentric iconoclastic Zen monk and poet in the 1400s.
Buddhism sometimes has a reputation as being free and individualistic. At least, that’s how many of us wish it was. Often, this is not the case. Buddhism can sometimes be as rigid as other paths, but we should try to avoid this.
Ikkyu Sojun was the embodiment of iconoclastic Buddhism.
Raised in a Rinzai Zen monastery, he was an illegitimate son of the emperor of Japan—so his mother put him in the monastery to make sure his life was spared.
The Buddhism he learned was strict and had a rigid hierarchy.
Ikkyu really loved the Dharma, but he was not a fan of the hierarchy. He felt that it was political, which the Dharma should not be. So when he reached adulthood and they offered him the certificate of enlightenment that would allow him to become a fully ordained Zen Monk, he refused. He left the monastery instead.
He hadn’t given up on the Dharma. In his opinion the establishment in Japan had. He thought that the monks he met were just acting spiritual and focusing on the hierarchy instead of the Dharma. Some believed that enlightenment could only be found by breathing in incense and sitting in silent meditation for hours at a time. Ikkyu disagreed. He believed enlightenment was with us already and we could realize it just as easily by spending our time with poor people and prostitutes as we could with monks. So that’s what he did.
He became a wandering monk and was given the nickname ‘Crazy Cloud’.
The point of Ikkyu’s life story is that the ‘sacred’ is nothing more than ordinary life experienced with mindfulness. His view was non-dualistic. He traveled the country doing things that we don’t associate with monks. There are a lot of stories about him traveling the country, drinking sake, and sleeping with women. He was freedom-loving and he didn’t really care what the religious authorities of the time thought.
Instead of staying in monasteries like most monks, Ikkyu gave teachings in places monks didn’t usually go. He taught in the streets and in brothels. His students were hobos, criminals and prostitutes. A lot more of his students were laypeople than monks because he thought the Dharma was for everyone.
He created his own version of Zen. He called it Red Thread Zen. The Red Thread represents passion. He taught that passion could be a road to enlightenment. He thought that Zen should be life affirming and positive. He didn’t believe that the renunciation that many monks practiced was helpful. He had a great passion for life and said that we should too.
But, at the same time, he expected a lot from his students. His ways taught that having a regular meditation practice was important.
His students were dedicated to Buddhist practice, but in the context of secular life, in the real world instead of in monasteries.
Red Thread Zen was radical in its non-dualism. This version of Buddhism includes the entire world in its teaching, rather than being confined to sacred spaces. If all beings have Buddha nature, then enlightenment isnt a matter of lifestyle, it’s a living experience. When his teachers tried to get him to stay in a monastery, he wouldn’t do it. He wanted to be in the world, working for the Dharma.
Is this bad? I think his story is a lesson. We shouldn’t be attached to what we think a good Buddhist should do and we certainly shouldn’t be attached to systems of authority. Good and bad are just labels. More than that, challenges to authority are important, especially religious forms of authority. Even if you think Ikkyu was wrong in his iconoclasm, it’s important that he was there to make the challenges.
Near the end of his life, a civil war caused many Zen temples to be destroyed. Ikkyu was a big advocate for rebuilding them. In old age his life’s mission was making sure that the religious structure that he had rebelled against would not be lost forever. In the end, Zen in Japan owes him a debt.
Is there Red Thread Zen today?
No. Ikkyu didn’t name a successor, so he didn’t create a lineage. Rinzai Zen is still around, but the offshoot that Ikkyu created died with him. But, many in the Zen tradition do revere him today. It’s sad that he didn’t preserve his lineage, but he was probably concerned that after his death it might become another sect like the ones he had rebelled against.
Maybe we can try to practice Red Thread Zen anyway. What do you think?
Asst. Editor: Edith Lazenby
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