Ikkyū and Sōgi on Art and Enlightenment: a koan


How can a thing be both path and obstacle at once?

The poet Sōgi said to Master Ikkyū, “I am vexed by the koan of the tree falling in the forest. It asks, if there is no one there to hear it, does it make a sound?

“Are you sure that’s a proper koan?” replied Ikkyū.

“I think so,” said Sōgi. “It’s a paradoxical riddle demonstrating the inadequacy of logical reasoning, right?”

“Whatever. Go on.”

“I fear I am that tree,” Sōgi said. “I have written many poems. I have offered them to the world but none have been accepted. The tree falls and none hear it. The poet writes and no one listens. It is as though I have not existed at all.”

“Congratulations, my friend.”

“Congratulations? For failure?”

Ikkyū sighed. “We understand that nothingness is the path to Enlightenment. So it must be for Art. A poem which calls attention to itself is a creature of ego, as is a poet who desires acclamation.

“Poetry can only be Enlightened if it goes unread. Or better, unwritten. Our greatest poets are Unborn.”

With his finger he traced in the dirt what may have been a Lotus flower, although it was hard to say, what with dirt being such a poor medium for fine detail.

Sōgi reflected on Ikkyū’s words. “So, that means if I write a poem and someone reads it…”

“Yes,” said Ikkyū. “You have impeded their path to Enlightenment.”

“Then all expressions of Art must be…”


“But,” said Sōgi, “Art is a way we refine and communicate the essence of Enlightenment. How can a thing be path and obstacle at once?”

“Perhaps,” replied Ikkyū, “that is a koan for you.”


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