Unlike some Chinese and Japanese chroniclers who wrote accounts of their hermit huts, the celebrated Japanese poet and Zen monk Ryokan did not compose anything so specific. Ryokan was a poet, not a chronicler, but in his poetry, his hut is the setting and context of his life and practice. This is hardly a coincidence for the little hermitage is an obvious metaphor for life itself:
I sit quietly, listening to the falling leaves–
A lonely hut, a life of renunciation …
this hut of sticks,
flimsy as the world itself.
Ryokan was born in the cold and isolated Chigo (now Nigata) province in the village of Izumozaki. His father was well off, a merchant and the village elder, who passed on to his son a love of poetry. Ryokan’s quiet childhood included both literature and religion, and his reticent nature rebelled at the notion of succeeding his father in business and politics. He became a Buddhist monk at the local Zen temple, and left to train twelve years with a master, cultivating as well the study of Chinese poetry and calligraphy. After the death of his master, Ryokan traveled as a pilgrim for five years, returning to his native village after his father’s death, and settling himself in a nearby mountain hermitage. He was now forty. Ryokan remained twenty years, leaving reluctantly upon bad health, moving to quarters close to town. However, he always remained a hermit.
Ryokan called his hermitage Gogo-an. A gogo is half a sho, the amount of rice necessary for daily sustenance. The word an means hermitage. He saw the poverty of his hut as a projection of his own voluntary station.
Gogo-an is so non-descript that we must glean clues from Ryokan’s poems to learn about it. The process is further complicated by the stylized imagery Ryokan inevitably borrowed from Chinese models. But we should expect a simple hut in any case, and are not disappointed.
The location of the hut is ideal:
My hermitage lies in a forest all around me,
Everything is thick and green
no one finds this place,
Only those who have lost their way.
No news of the affairs of men
Only the occasional song of a woodcutter.
A thousand peaks, ten thousand mountain streams
yet no signs of anyone.
The path to the hut is covered with thick weeds. From the foot of the mountain are “white peaks all around.” Ice, snow, and clouds [blended] together, such that winter isolates the hut both physically and visually. The village river nearby can be heard in summer, visible from a peak as it flows like “shimmering silk.” From somewhere near the source of the river tumbles a waterfall. A spring nearby provided Ryokan with fresh water. The rice fields of the villagers is not far.
Each season reveals the natural beauty of the landscape. In spring and summer the willows of Ryokan’s vegetable garden grow green, and water plants float in his pond. Ryokan can now witness “a thousand colors.” Chrysanthemums line the fence; wisteria and ivy border the path from the heights of the hut down to the mountainside. The house is surrounded by bamboo groves and sage covers the door.
There is a bamboo grove in front of my hut
Every day I see it a thousand times
yet never tire of it.
As autumn came, Ryokan grew reflective. He gathered more firewood, burned dried leaves in the hearth to economize, realized that his robe was covered with moss, and listened to the wind and rain.
If your hermitage is deep in the mountains
surely the moon, flowers, and maple trees [momji]
will become your friends.
Men of the world passing this way are few,
Dense grass conceals the door
All night in silence, a few woodchips burn slowly,
As I read the poems of the ancients.
With regard to the “poems of the ancients,” Ryokan explicitly mentions Kanzan, or Han-shan, the eccentric eighth-century Chinese hermit.
Listening to the evening rain in my hermitage
I have only the tranquility of the hermitage to offer.
This reflectiveness shows further Ryokan’s humaneness and potential for socialness. “It is on quiet fall evenings like these that he admits, “Now is the time I want to share my feelings, but there is no one.”
Several poems, addressing no one in particular, include the line, “Please come and visit” and Ryokan is honest in admitting the loneliness of his chosen life. But this is not only dispelled by his reassertion that “Truly, I love this life of seclusion,” but by the universal sentiment of the Boddhisattva: “When I think about the sadness of the people in this world, their sadness becomes mine. … O that my priest’s robe were wide enough to gather up all the suffering people in this floating world.”
Winter is inevitably harsh. The mountain path to the village became impassible, and Ryokan dependent upon his fixed stock of food. Sometimes the firewood was exhausted. Surely, he suffered hardships.
No flame in the lamp nor charcoal in the fireplace;
Lying in bed, listening to the sound of the freezing rain. …
Lying in my freezing hut, unable to sleep.
The hut itself Ryokan describes in one poem as a “three-mat hut,” but in another passage as “four-mat.” He refers to the same hut, not necessarily to the number of tatami mats as flooring but to the relative size of his “little grass hut,” what he sees as “little more than four bare walls.” We have already mentioned his one window. There is no apparent niche or divider; Ryokan speaks of “sitting along in my empty room.” On a wall several poems are written. On the bed and strewn on the floor are books of poetry. His possessions include one robe (probably two sewn as one but thin nevertheless), a walking stick, books. He employed a “solitary lamp” and a hearth that burned firewood or charcoal. Ryokan mentions a kettle and a rice steamer, plus his ubiquitous bowl. His food was procured from begging and he had a weakness for proffered sake. But guests could expect little more than “weak tea and thin soup.” Still, Ryokan wrote,
Don’t say my hut has nothing of offer
come and I will share with you
the cool breeze that fills my window.
Of course, a guest should come only “if you are not averse to solitude.”
The hermit hut is for Ryokan a microcosm of life and the universe: “last year a foolish monk, this year no different.” It is the setting for the cycle of being which he so sensitively portrays in his poetry.
My life is like an old run-down hermitage–
poor, simple, quiet.