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BOOK REVIEW: Crow with No Mouth: Ikkyu Translated by Stephen Berg

Crow With No Mouth : Ikkyu : Fifteenth Century Zen MasterCrow With No Mouth : Ikkyu : Fifteenth Century Zen Master by Ikkyu

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Ikkyū Sōjun was the Howard Stern of Zen masters. Born in 1394, he lived through most of the 15th century. Ikkyū served as a temple’s abbot for less than two weeks before he quit in disgust, vowing to move into a red-light district—apparently he wanted to live among people he found more honest and less hypocritical. The Zen master despised the corruption and snobbery of monastic politics.

Crow with no Mouth is a collection of Ikkyū’s verse, which is largely in the Zen tradition–featuring natural subjects and simple wisdom in a sparse style. Of course, as per my comments in the preceding paragraph, there are a few poems on topics such as cunnilingus and debauchery—so it’s not what one would call a child-friendly collection (unless one enjoys explaining the sexual exploits of a lecherous monk to one’s child.) The more explicit poems may seem like a diversion from the Zen path, but perhaps not. Maybe Ikkyū offered them as a way to train the mind, to observe one’s reaction to shocking commentary as a means of changing one’s way of thinking.

A few of my favorite lines of a more traditional nature include:

-“you can’t make cherry blossoms by tearing off petals to plant; only spring does that”

-“sometimes all I am is dark emptiness; I can’t hide in the sleeves of my own robes”

-“it’s logical: if you’re not going anywhere any road is the right one”

-“the edges of the sword are life and death; no one knows which is which”

-“even in its scabbard my sword sees you”

-“a flower held up twirled between human fingers; a smile barely visible”

-“in war there’s no time to teach or learn Zen; carry a strong stick; bash your attackers”

Here are a few of those jarring lines that I mentioned above:

-“that stone Buddha deserves all the bird shit it gets”

-“all koans just lead you on but not the delicious pussy of the young girls I go down on”

-“ten fussy days running this temple all red tape; look me up if you want o in the bar whorehouse fish market”

-“my dying teacher could not wipe himself; unlike you disciples who use bamboo; I cleaned his lovely ass with my bare hands”

-“don’t hesitate get laid that’s wisdom; sitting around chanting, what crap”

-“who teaches truth? good/bad the wrong way; Crazy Cloud knows the taste of his own shit” [Crazy Cloud was Ikkyū’s name for himself.]

When he left the monastery, Ikkyū shredded the certificate that served as his monastic credential. Some of his students found it, and pieced it back together. That led to the following verse:

-“one of you saved my satori paper I know it piece by piece; you pasted it back together; now watch me burn it once and for all”

Ikkyū’s verse asks us to reevaluate what it means to be sacred or profane. The orthodox view would be that Ikkyū fell from the sacred life of a monk. However, Ikkyū tells us that one can degrade what is important by raising the wrong things to sacred status. Conversely, some of what we believe to be profane is just rooted in habitual and ill-reasoned ways of thinking.

I’d recommend this work for those who love the spare form of Japanese poetry, and who don’t mind a hard jolt to their psyche occasionally.

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