28. Ryokan Taigu

April 20, 2021Roger W. Lowther

I’d like to introduce you to a little poem. It’s kanshi, which literally means “Chinese poem.” Although, actually it’s not Chinese at all. It’s a Japanese poem, which uses only Chinese characters, in this case five per line. It’s almost like a puzzle, where Japanese take Chinese letters and work within quite a few rules to say something as beautifully as possible.

This poem is by Ryokan Taigu, who lived in the late 1700s and early 1800s, and is one of the most popular figures in Japanese history, known for his poetry, calligraphy, and a very unique way of looking at the world. But more than that, he’s really known for the way he cared for the small and the weak. “Taigu” is a name he gave himself, and anyone who can read Japanese will immediately recognize the meaning. It means “big fool” or “great fool,” so Ryokan called himself “The Great Fool.” In this short poem about food, Ryokan asks a very basic, and seemingly very foolish, question. And that is “Why do people eat?”

I translated this poem with the help of my Japanese teacher, and so I would like to read it to you now. Here is the poem:

誰家不喫飯 Everybody eats
為何不自知 but does anybody know why?
伊余出此語 I ask and
寺人皆相嗤 everybody mocks me.
爾与嗤我語 Instead of mocking me
不如退思之 think about it!
思之若不休 And then think about it some more.
必有可嗤時 There will be a time for laughing.

誰家不喫飯 Everybody eats
為何不自知 but does anybody know why?
伊余出此語 I ask and
寺人皆相嗤 everybody mocks me.
爾与嗤我語 But, hey, in mocking my words
不如無自欺 you fool yourself.
若得無自欺 I’m telling you,
始知我語奇 try to see the wisdom of these words.

誰家不喫飯 Everybody eats
為何不自知 but does anybody know why?
伊余出此語 I ask and
寺人皆相嗤 everybody mocks me.
寺人嗤尚可 Actually, I don’t mind if you laugh.
我亦欲嗤之 I want to laugh too.
嗤々倘不休 Laughing, laughing, with everyone laughing
直到弥勒時 the time of Miroku will come.

Okay, so I’ve taken a little liberty with the tone of the English, but I’ve haven’t changed the meaning. Personally, I think Ryokan would have really liked my English translation.

I want to especially talk about this last line, because those of you do not know Japan are probably not familiar with this figure Miroku. Here are the last two lines again:

嗤々倘不休 Laughing, laughing, with everyone laughing
直到弥勒時 the time of Miroku will come.

Miroku is a bodhisattva, which is believed to be an enlightened being that has chosen not to pursue nirvana, in order to rescue people from cycles of rebirth. He is seen as beings of compassion. Whereas Buddha has renounced all ties with this world, Bodhisattva is still connected to this earth in order to save us. I’m not a scholar of Buddhism, so I shouldn’t say more than that, but what I find particularly interesting about this poem is how asking a question about food led Ryokan to this being, who will come at the end of the world to save us.

Why does food, or more specifically, the need to eat, lead Ryokan to this figure? Isn’t that interesting? Ryokan suggests that there is something to this question. That food is not just about food. It’s not something we just eat in order to give us enough energy to get through the day. That there is more to it.

As a Christian, I can’t help but think about Christ. Christ tells us that food is never just about food. That there is something fundamental about our dependence on food that points to God. That the infinitely diverse and creative and beautiful foods of all the nations of the world throughout time actually reveal something about Christ and how he works in this world. That God is speaking to us through all of creation, including our food. That it’s not merely stuff. Christ even says that he is the “bread of life” and that “whoever comes to me will never go hungry” (John 6:35).

I find it fascinating that a poet in 18th century Japan, one hundred years after the last Christian was killed or kicked out of Japan, who had never met a Christian, had never seen a Bible, probably had never even heard the name of Jesus, wrote about how food leads us to a savior who will come and save us all.

Isn’t this a great case for foreign missions? How can someone know the gospel unless someone tells them? How can someone know that Jesus claims to be the bread of life unless they hear it from the Bible? There are so many pointers to Jesus and his gospel in Japanese art and culture, Japanese food and Japanese poetry, because God put them there. The next step is for some Christian, missionary or Japanese Christian, to come along and talk with them about it. And isn’t this the secret of contextualization, to show how God has already been working in Japan since before the first missionary set foot here and letting the Holy Spirit do the rest.

Christianity is not a foreign religion. Christ is not a foreign figure. He has been in Japan all along. May more and more people come to know him.

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