A Sex-Loving Monk

A Zen monk embraces the red thread of passion

Ikkyu

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The literature of Zen is thronged—even overpopulated—with gritty eccentrics. Yet Japanese poet Ikkyu (1394-1481) stands out from the roster. I've wondered how the art & poetry of Buddhism, explicit throughout India and Tibet in the use of erotic imagery, came in Zen to rarely employ it. It isn't that China and Japan are reserved. Depictions of amorous exploits abound in East Asia, and much Chinese poetry got set to folk songs brought by rural girls into the pleasure quarters. Yet possibly alone among the poets of Zen, Ikkyu set erotic candor at the heart of both Zen and his own verse. Is it that he never divided the raptures and torments of love from his practice? He raged at Buddhist bureaucracy, reviling fame-and-fortune Zen, preferring his "whorehouse joy." At seventy-seven he took up with a young, blind attendant of the Shuon'an Temple at Takigi.

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