Ryokan, too lazy to be ambitious

This is my favourite of Ryokan’s kanshi or Chinese poems. My translation was used in the front matter of World of Dust on the dedication page. – JB


Too lazy to be ambitious,

I gradually left it all up to fate.

In the sack, three handfuls of rice.

By the stove, one bundle of firewood.

Who cares about delusion and enlightenment?

What use is fame and wealth in the world of dust?

Inside my hut, the evening rain on the thatch,

Both legs stretched out in idleness.


I used this poem to show the use of the phrase ‘world of dust’, referring to ‘this world’, in Chinese and Japanese hermit poetry. In the sixth line the character chen 塵, ‘dust’, appears on its own, but it is synonymous with chenshi 塵世, ‘world of dust’ or ‘dust of the world’. It means the world has no stability, it is a transient illusion, everything will return to the dust and so it is only so much dust right now.

The original inspiration to title the book this way came from a line in the verse of trigraph #41 in the Lingqijing: ‘Gathering edible roots and pine nuts, I cut off the world of dust’ (采蕨餐松絕世塵). Here the two characters ‘world’ (世) and ‘dust’ (塵) appear the other way round. The ‘edible roots’ are literally ‘bracken’, but it was the rhizome that was eaten. Pine nuts and edible roots were the main source of sustenance for mountain hermits. Trigraph #41 concerns ‘the four white-haired old men of Mount Shang’, four sages who fled the despotic rule of Shi Huangdi, the ‘First Emperor’. They lived as hermits on Mount Shang, cutting off the ‘world of dust’ of their former life as government officials.

The original use of ‘dust’ with this connotation appears to be in Daodejing 4 (and 56, which has the same phrase). Speaking of the dao itself, this chapter says it ‘softens the light, and becomes one with the world of dust’ (和其光同其塵). The believed-in world, when it loses its harsh glare and is seen in a softer light, is none other than the ever-changing appearance of the unchanging dao.

In Ryokan’s poem, the ‘three handfuls’ of rice is three litres or three standard scoops, but as Ryokan obtained his rice by villagers and farmers putting small amounts in his begging bowl I imagine the rough measure is more like what he could hold by cupping his hands to draw some from his storage sack. Three of those. Ryokan’s hut was on Mount Kugami, where he lived alone for 26 years. Many of his poems describe both his joy and his loneliness in living there, where in the winter he was cut off for months by deep snow and found it hard to find enough food, since he could not get down the slopes to beg nor could wellwishers bring food to him.