Despair and the Road to the Bamboo Gate


Master Ikkyū sits by the well plinking at his lute. Sōgi waits patiently for a tune to emerge but none does. Finally he clears his throat.

“Yes, Sōgi?”

“Good morning, Master. I have a request.”

The Master continues at the lute, to no end Sōgi can discern. “Go on.”

Sōgi sits on the packed earth before Ikkyū.

“They say you are the wisest here.”


Sōgi gestures vaguely toward the shrine.

“Ah. They are generous. Anyway?”

“Yes. It is said your wisdom arises from the path you walked before arriving at the Bamboo Gate.”

Ikkyū sighs and sets his lute in its case, then returns his attention to Sōgi. “You want to hear the sordid tale of my failed life, do you?”

“I’m sorry if I gave offense, Master. No one has suggested it was sordid.”

Ikkyū arches an eyebrow. He rises and draws a cup of water from the bucket by the well. He takes a sip, replaces the cup, and returns to his seat.

“The road to self-immolation is slick with the paving stones of secrecy. What would you hear?”

Sōgi furrows his brow. “They say you were worldly, with credentials and status. But you fell. Were you undone by desire, Master?”

Ikkyū chuckles with, to Sōgi’s ear, an echo of irony. Hmmm. Irony is the yang of Enlightenment? Ooh, that’s good, he thinks, making a mental note to write it down before he forgets it.

“In a way,” begins Ikkyū. “As a young man I pursued a career in the markets, a career for which I was unsuited.”

“Did you lack sufficient training, Master?” asks Sōgi?

“I had training. I was unsuited to…” He pauses for a moment. “I was unsuited to the world. I enjoyed the comforts and entertainments money afforded, but I detested the pursuit of wealth. I was clever enough but success required more effort than I was able to invest.”

“They say you had a wife,” says Sōgi.

“Three, actually.”


“All of them hated me. One chased me around our home with a knife one night.”

“Mmmm.” The younger monk nods. “When seeking a life partner you chose poorly.”

“That’s one theory,” says the Master. “There are others.”

“Like what?”

“It has been suggested that I chose well, but in the end I was…vexatious.”

Sōgi bites his lower lip in an attempt to stifle a laugh.

The Master watches silently. “You have some blood trickling down your chin, Sōgi.”

“Ummm.” [sngrk] “I’m startled by the idea of you as ‘vexatious.’ Just the other night at vespers we were all saying no, of all the Masters here, you were easily the least vexa-”

“If you’ll compose yourself I’ll continue.”

Sōgi wills his laughter into submission. He wipes the tears from his cheek. “I apologize, Master. You were saying?”

I lost three wives. I lost my job. I fell into grave debt. I developed a strange affliction of the nerves the doctors could not heal. I drank. My life was a failure by all the standards of society. It felt as though there were a rulebook for success and everyone had a copy save me. My struggle for self-awareness, which is rare among humans, was hindered by self-pity, which comes naturally to all.”

Ikkyū scribbles in the dirt between them. “I despaired.”


“Your story is a sad one, Master.”

Ikkyū shrugs. “I found the road to the Bamboo Gate.”


The next day Sōgi again finds Ikkyū at the well tormenting his lute.

He bows. “Greetings, Master.”

“Greetings, Sōgi. Is your lip healing?”

Sōgi laughs. “Yes, Master. It’s much better now.”

Ikkyū plinks.

“Master Ikkyū, I have been meditating on our conversation yesterday.”



“Hm. Didn’t see that coming. But good. What have your meditations revealed?”

Sōgi sits. “You explained how you, as Master Steve might put it, hit rock bottom.”

“Master Steve’s tongue is like the nightingale in Spring.”

“Yes. So, your marriages failed, you had no money, you were sick.”

Ikkyū interrupts. “I didn’t have ‘no money.’ I had a mountain of debt. ‘No money’ would have been a welcome improvement in my fortunes.”

“I see. So, when you attained this state, what did you do?”

The Master studies the dirt between them. “I took account of my ‘assets and liabilities.’ I read books by wealthy people. I finally realized I was – let me employ another Master Steve-ism – a ‘hot mess.’ There was literally no road back. I would never be able to repay the debt. As my knife-wielding ex-wife explained, I was aging and thrice-broke – body, soul, and wallet. In her view, I was not a ‘catch.’

“I was at an end. I had failed utterly. And accepting this…” Ikkyū leans back and looks beyond the sky. “If there is no hope of victory, there is no obligation to strive. I was free.”

The silence sits uneasily between them. Sōgi gets up and fetches a cup of water from the well. He sits back and clears his throat.

“It is as I suspected,” begins Sōgi.

Ikkyū cocks his head. “How so?”

“The Buddha teaches that desire is the root of suffering, yes?”

“Well, that’s the 50-characters-or-less version, but sure, let’s go with it.”

Sōgi draws a deep breath and looks Ikkyū in the eye. “I believe the Buddha was wrong.”

Sōgi waits while the Master composes himself.

“Very well. How is the Buddha wrong, young Sōgi?”

“Desire is certainly an impediment to Zen. But your light flickered on and you set out for the Bamboo Gate when you abandoned hope. It is attachment to hope that is the root of suffering, Master Ikkyū.

“Despair is the cradle of Enlightenment.”

Having endured enough youthful insight for one afternoon, Ikkyū sends Sōgi to the gardener to seek wisdom in the art of pulling weeds.

That night he dreams of the Buddha and Nietzsche seated beneath a cherry tree….


Kanji symbols: Life, crossroads, death


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