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Fast Facts
Other Names and Nicknames: 
Ikkyū, Ikkyū Sōjun
Zen Buddhism
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Date of Birth: 
Place of Birth: 
Kyoto, Japan
In His/Her Body ("alive"): 
Date Left His/Her Body: 
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Ikkyū was an eccentric, iconoclastic Japanese Zen Buddhist priest and poet. He had a great impact on the infusion of Japanese art and literature with Zen attitudes and ideals.

Ikkyū was born in 1394 in a small suburb of Kyoto. It is generally held that he was the son of Emperor Go-Komatsu and a low-ranking court noblewoman. His mother was forced to flee to Saga, Japan, where Ikkyū was raised by servants. At the age of five, Ikkyu was separated from his mother and placed in a Rinzai Zen temple in Kyoto called Ankoku-ji, as an acolyte. The temple masters taught Chinese culture and language as part of the curriculum, a method termed Gozan Zen. He was given the name Shuken, and learned about Chinese poetry, art and literature.

When Ikkyū turned thirteen he entered Kennin-ji in Kyoto to study Zen under a well known priest by the name of Botetsu. Here Ikkyū began to write poetry frequently that was non-traditional in form. He was openly critical of Kennin-ji's leadership in his poetry, disheartened with the social stratum and lack of zazen practice he saw around him.

In 1410, at the age of sixteen, Ikkyū left Kennin-ji and entered the temple Mibu, where an abbot named Seiso was in residence. He did not stay long, and soon found himself at Saikin-ji in the Lake Biwa region where he was the sole student of an abbot named Ken'o. It seemed Ikkyū had finally found a master that taught true Rinzai Zen as Ikkyū saw it. Ken'o was sporadic in his teaching style and was a strong believer in the supremacy of zazen. In 1414, when Ikkyū was 21, Keno died. Ikkyū performed funeral rites and fasted for seven days. In despair Ikkyu tried to commit suicide by drowning himself in Lake Biwa, but was talked out of it from the shore by a servant of his mother.

Ikkyū soon found a new teacher in a master named Kaso at Zenko-an, a branch temple of Daitoku-ji. Kaso was much like Ken'o in his style. For years he worked hard on assigned koans and made dolls for a local merchant in Kyoto.

In 1418 Ikkyū was given Case 15 of the Mumonkan, Tozan's 60 Blows. One day a band of blind singers performed at the temple and Ikkyū penetrated his koan while engrossed in the music. In recognition of his understanding Kaso gave Shuken the Dharma name Ikkyu, which roughly means One Pause.

In 1420 Ikkyū was meditating in a boat on Lake Biwa when the sound of a crow sparked satori. Kaso confirmed this great enlightenment and granted Ikkyu inka. Ikkyū came up against the jealousy of Yoso, a more senior student who eventually came to run the monastery. In Ikkyū's poems, Yoso appears as a character unhealthily obsessed with material goods, who sold Zen to increase the prosperity of the temple.


Ikkyu could sometimes be a troublemaker. Known to drink in excess, he would often upset Kaso with his remarks and actions to guests. In response, Kaso gave inka to Yoso and made him Dharma heir. Ikkyu quickly left the temple and lived many years as a vagabond. He was not alone, however, as he had a regular circle of notable artists and poets from that era. Around this time, he established a relationship with a blind singer Mori who became the love of his later life.

Ikkyu worked to live Zen outside of formal religious institutions. However, the Ōnin War had reduced Daitokuji to ashes, and Ikkyū was elected abbot late in life, a role he reluctantly took on. This firmly placed him in one of the most important Zen lineages. In 1481, Ikkyū died at the age of eighty-seven from acute ague.


Ikkyū is one of the most significant (and eccentric) figures in Zen history. To Japanese children, he is a folk hero, mischievous and always out-smarting his teachers and the shogun. In addition to passed down oral stories, this is due to the very popular animated TV series "Ikkyū-san". In Rinzai Zen tradition, he is both heretic and saint. Ikkyū was among the few Zen priests who argued that his enlightenment was deepened by consorting with pavilion girls. He entered brothels wearing his black robes, since for him sexual intercourse was a religious rite. At the same time he warned Zen against its own bureaucratic politicising.

Usually he is referred to as one of the main influences on the Fuke sect of Rinzai zen, as he is one of the most famous flute player mendicants of the medieval times of Japan. The piece "Murasaki Reibo" is attributed to him.

He is credited as one of the great influences on the Japanese tea ceremony, and renowned as one of medieval Japan's greatest calligraphers and sumi-e artists.


Ikkyū wrote in Kanbun style classical Chinese, which was employed by many contemporary Japanese authors. His verse is immediate, poignant, insightful, and at times moving. For instance, the "Calling My Hand Mori's Hand" poem.

My hand, how it resembles Mori's hand.
I believe the lady is the master of loveplay;
If I get ill, she can cure the jeweled stem.
And then they rejoice, the monks at my meeting


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