Ryōkan, English summary

Ryōkan/Ryookan (1758–1831) was a wandering zen monk who begged his food and liked to keep company with simple country people and children. But he was also a noted poet and a very famous calligrapher, who also was well versed in Chinese and Japanese classics. What a paradoxical and interesting figure!

Kai Nieminen has translated Ryōkan’s poems into Finnish. Surprisingly Nieminen’s own life in Finland carries some resemblances to Ryōkan’s. While Nieminen has translated Japanese literature, both classical and modern for almost half a century he also writes poetry of his own and lives almost like a hermit in the countryside. At the moment he is giving the final touches to his long term project of translating Genji monogatari into Finnish.

So far two volumes of Ryōkan´s poems have been published in Finnish: the first one in 2000 (Ryōkan. Suuri hupsu. Basam Books.The picture above on the right side) and the second in 2022 (Ryookan. Huoletta ja hölmänä. Basam Books. The picture above on the left side). The 2022 collection contains 221 poems written in Chinese, some of them same as in the previous collection but most of them new. The 2000 collection contains more than 300 poems, some of them waka poetry written in Japanese. The latter contains a charming collection of poetic correspondence between Ryōkan and the nun Teishin. The two soul mates found each other during the last years of the recluse monk.

Ryōkan was born into a wealthy and influential family, but like all other family members, he also was more interested in an alternative life style. Already at the age of seventeen he decided to enter priesthood. He never settled permanently in any temple, though, but instead he wandered from place to place finally to settle down in a small hut in his native region of present day Niigata.

Ryōkan is praised for his poetry, but he himself did not even call it poetry. He rather saw his writings like notes or records of his daily life in his search for enlightenment. His poems reveal a deeply sensitive human being but also a learned and educated man with a truly enlightened mind.