Fūryū of the Fisherman: Finding the Original Mind

“Fūryū of the Fisherman” by Marie Rō

“Finding the Original Mind” is somewhat of an oxymoron – one cannot find what is never lost. And yet, the statement succinctly describes what fūryū is all about.

But what is fūryū, you ask?

According to Qiu (2001), the term fūryū first evolved in medieval Japan as a way to describe elegance, or a “penchant for courtly romance”. It essentially alludes to a sense of refinement, though it later evolved to represent the sort of poetic sensibility innate to Zen contemplation. One such proponent of the term was Ikkyū Sōjun, an iconoclastic Zen master known for revolutionary acts such as burning his seal of transmission. In his poems, Ikkyū often uses the concept of furyū to set the scene for his romantic or erotic verses.

“Seeing My Beautiful Mori Taking a Nap”

Furyū of the age, a fair lady;
Love songs, delicate feast, melodies exceptionally novel.
Singing a new song, I lost my heart to her lovely face and dimples,
As the flowering haitang [Chinese crabapple tree] of the Tianbao time, Mori, you are a sapling in the spring.

While Ikkyū compares Mori’s beauty to a “flowering haitang“, the concept of furyū transcends any one comparison: “love songs, delicate feast, melodies exceptionally novel” also work to contextualize Mori’s loveliness. In nature, a crabapple tree stands out against a backdrop of lush greenery due to its unique essence. The lovely rose hues of a crabapple tree are instantly memorable; a cascade of rose petals enrapturing. Such natural beauty imbues the scene with its fragrant aesthetic. In this sense, furyū is not only the aesthetic sensibility but the libidinal charge that results from his poetic appreciation of Mori’s beauty. Fūryū allows the poet to transcend the physicality of his muse to “sing a new song”, or appreciate the present moment with a fresh, original mind (for a solid introduction to the concept of “Original Mind”, see Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki).

The idea of fūryū as a vehicle for regaining the Original Mind is also seen in the poem “Fisherman”:

Learning the Way and studying Zen, one loses the Original Mind.
A fisherman’s song is worth a thousand pieces of gold.
Evening rain on Xiang River, the moon amid the clouds of Chu—
It’s boundless fūryū to chant poems night after night.

In the first verse, Ikkyū laments the loss of the Original Mind by “Learning the Way”. During Ikkyū’s time, many of his Zen contemporaries used their status to wield power and influence in political circles, and so he frequently criticized the hypocrisy of their ways. There is also grief in his criticism of the establishment, as he states in “Everyday, Priests Minutely Examine the Law”:

Every day, priests minutely examine the Law
And endlessly chant complicated sutras.
Before doing that, though, they should learn
How to read the love letters sent by the wind
and rain, the snow and moon.
(Ikkyū as translated by Arntzen, 1986)

Through his poetry, Ikkyū encourages his contemporaries to regain their Original Mind; to learn “how to read the love letters” sent by Nature. Like the Fisherman, he sings about the Zen inherent in the natural rhythms of life. Absorbed in the moment, the Fisherman is not deterred by the elements but charged by them. His fūryū is that of a fish as it swims the nightly currents with his natural, unified mind.


Arntzen, S. Ikkyū and the Crazy Cloud Anthology, a Zen poet of medieval Japan, translated and introduced by Sonja Arntzen with a foreword by Shūichi Katō.Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press (1986).

Kincaid, C. (n.d.) Sex, Zen, and Poetry: The Life of Ikkyu Sojun. Retrieved from: https://www.scienceandnonduality.com/article/sex-zen-and-poetry-the-life-of-ikkyu-sojun

Qiu, P. (2001) Aesthetic of Unconventionality: Fūryū in Ikkyū’s Poetry. Japanese Language and Literature, 35(2): 135-156.





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