Like Han-shan in China, Ryokan is loved in Japan as much for his antics as for his profound poetry.
Ryokan became a priest at age 18 and took to a life of wandering. He eventually met his teacher, Kokusen Roshi, and settled down to study Zen practice, ultimately becoming his most esteemed student. When Kokusen Roshi died, Ryokan inherited his temple. But the duties and regularity of being temple master didn’t suit Ryokan, and he resumed his itinerant life.
He next settled in a small hut he called Gogo-an on Mt. Kugami, where he lived by begging.
Ryokan’s love of children and animals are legendary. He often played games with the local children, attested to in his own poetry.
His reputation for gentleness carried sometimes to comical extremes. One tale is told that, one day when Ryokan returned to his hut he discovered a robber who had broken in and was in the process of stealing the impoverished monk’s few possessions. In the thief’s haste to leave, he left behind a cushion. Ryokan grabbed the cushion and ran after the thief to give it to him. This event prompted Ryokan to compose one of his best known poems:
The thief left it behind:
at my window.
When Ryokan was 70 and nearing the end of his life, he met a young nun and poet named Teishin. Though Teishin was only 28, they fell in love. They exchanged several beautiful love poems.
As Ryokan was dying, Teishin came to him and held him at his moment of death. It was Teishin who collected and published Ryokan’s poetry after his death.