Goethe and Ryōkan as Exemplars of How to Live

Writing on compassion in early Buddhism, Anālayo notes that the primary form of compassion was teaching the Dharma, i.e., the Buddhist teachings on the cessation of suffering. But as Anālayo also notes, verbal instruction is not the only way to teach: teaching, “…can also take place through teaching by example” (Compassion and Emptiness in Early Buddhist Meditation, 16). Indeed, teaching and learning by example are extremely important, and often unconscious. We don’t always realize that others, especially children, learn by our example, nor that we learn from others’ example. One important question, of course, is who do we take as our exemplars of a well lived life? For the kind of person we choose as our life-well-lived-exemplar implies a choice about the kind of life we wish to lead.

It is in this context that I wish to examine the life of Johan Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 to 1832), who was an important German poet, playwright, novelist, philosopher, and scientist. —A person much praised by Nietzsche, as we will see. And I want to compare Goethe with the Japanese Zen monk, poet, calligrapher, and recluse, Ryōkan (1758 to 1831).

There are a number of things that make these two figures particularly interesting to me. First, they are both writers and poets. Second, though they have been influential in very different ways, both their lives and works have inspired many. Third, since they are both writers and poets, they both belong to that category of being, so to speak, that Nietzsche seems to hold in the highest esteem, namely, the artist, the creator. As Nietzsche writes in his Zarathustra:

“Creation—that is the great redemption from all suffering, and life’s glowing light. But that the creator may be, suffering is needed and much change. Indeed, there must be much bitter dying in your life, you creators. Thus are you advocates and justifiers of all impermanence.” (II, 2)

Fourth, Brian Leiter in a blog post on whether or not Ayn Rand’s work is properly conceived of as Nietzschean, makes a provocative remark that allows us to create a bridge between Goethe and Ryōkan. Commenting on the possibility of Beethoven being an altruistic Christian, Leiter writes:

“Virtue, art, music, dance, reason, spirituality”–all the things “for whose sake it is worthwhile to live on earth” (Beyond Good and Evil)–all demand such severe self-love, and for this reason, and this reason only, Nietzsche wanted to disabuse those capable of such excellences of their false consciousness about the morality of altruism.  He certainly did not think everyone ought to be selfish, or that the pursuit of material goods had any value, or that indulgence of selfish desires was a virtue.  What he did think is what is almost certainly true:  namely, that if someone like Beethoven had taken Christian morality seriously, and lived a Christian life, he would not have accomplished what the actual Beethoven did (one need only read the famous Maynard Solomon biography to see that Beethoven was no moral saint).  The “John Galts” of the world are just a more prosperous example of the “self-interested cattle and mob” Nietzsche always derided.

Leiter’s claim that Beethoven could not have been a Christian, at least a good Christian, bridges Goethe and Ryōkan, since for Nietzsche both Goethe and Beethoven represent paradigms of the higher, creative type. And both Buddhism and Christianity are more or less on par for Nietzsche, in terms of their altruism, condemnation of suffering, and insistence upon compassion as they understand it, i.e., compassion means ending the suffering of another as quickly as possible.

I assume that English readers are more familiar with Goethe than they are of Ryōkan. Because of this I want to quote extensively from two works on Ryōkan in order to give the reader a real feel for his character. There are number of recent very good books on Ryōkan. I am particularly fond of Eido Frances Carney’s Kakurenbo: Or the Whereabouts of Zen Priest Ryokan and Kazuaki Tanahashi’s Sky Above, Great Wind: The Life and Poetry of Zen Master Ryokan. Of Ryōkan’s life in general, Carney writes:

The story of Ryokan…, The beloved priest, poet, and calligrapher of Japan is sometimes embellished in folklore and myth, and sometimes is too sparse and lacking in detail to satisfy our wish for substantive information about his life. Much remains hidden that we just don’t know. Ryokan was not concerned about his own fame and whether or not his life story would resonate through history. He had no stomach for celebrity. It amused him to think that his calligraphy had gained enough notoriety that all the local people wanted were his works of calligraphy. He had no plan to publish his poems, to promote himself in any way or to encourage popularized stories detailing his uniqueness. He simply continued to live day by day, not as a unique figure, but as someone authentic to his vow, living the dharma somewhat hidden away as a hermit priest. There’s not much to tell in his daily life, no drama to speak of as he climbed up and down the slope of his mountain refuge bearing the cold in winter and enduring the mosquitoes in summer.… Yet nearly 200 years after his death, Ryokan is known globally and we hold him in high esteem. (4-5)

In Tanahashi we have the following poem and commentary:

Since residing in the Entsu Monastery,
how many winters and springs have passed?
In the neighboring town of one thousand houses,
did I know a single person?
When my robe got filthy, I washed it with my hands.
When food was gone, I went to the city to beg.
What I learned from biographies of accomplished monks:
remaining poor suits us seekers well.

Here Ryokan reveals his understanding that the desire for fame, status, and comfort contradicts the search for genuine freedom. He must have heard Dogen’s words: “Those who practice the way must be poor.” (24)

Indeed, Ryōkan as a reclusive hermit monk had almost nothing. Tanahashi writes:

Ryokan created his calligraphy without making any revisions, using only small brushes. As a result, all the lines he drew are thin. At times he had an ink stick to grind with water on an ink stone. Other times, he did not even have a brush. A short poem of his says:

No brush—
how pathetic I am!
This morning again,
I walk with a cane
and knock on the temple door.

            Unless some sheets have been donated, he usually had no paper. Ryokan admired Huaisu, an eighth-century Tang Dynasty Chinese monk renowned for his wild cursive script, and Tofu Ono, a ninth-to-tenth-century Japanese court poet and calligrapher versed in kana (phonetic writing). Ryokan borrowed books of stone rubbings from classical calligraphic masterpieces, studying them assiduously. Legend has it that he practiced his brushwork in the air.… Even in his own time, people forged Ryokan’s calligraphy and sold the pieces to others. (6)

Even though Ryōkan had no desire to become famous or publish poems, he was quite prolific, even while dealing with malnourishment and sickness (Tanahashi 35). Nevertheless, as prolific as he was, he conceived of himself as lazy and foolish. Tanahashi writes about a later, difficult but productive time in Ryōkan’s life:

It was during this time that he wrote:


When young, I learned literature but was too lazy to
become a scholar.

Still young, I practiced Zen, but I never transmitted
the dharma.

Now I live in the hermitage and guard a Shinto shrine.
I feel like half a shrine keeper and half a monk.

He said in another poem:

In my hometown, there are two brothers
contrary characters.
One is clever and eloquent,
the other foolish and silent.
The foolish one
seems to have all the time in the world.
The clever one
is always busy depleting his life.

            Apparently Ryokan had affinity with the one who was stupid and silent. Although there is no evidence that he ever used one of his Buddhist names, Daigu (Great Fool), he was indeed a great fool—having practiced Zen intensively and being well-versed in literature but showing no trace of his achievement.

Many of the hilarious stories included in Anecdotes portray Ryokan as overly trusting, forgetful, whimsical, and naïve. We could also see him as absurd, filthy, and disgusting. Yet he was always loving and joyful. These colorful episodes, along with his splendid artistry and devoted Zen practice, made Ryokan extremely popular after his death.

Although they may be exaggerated, some of the stories are often imbued with subtle teachings. While some may in the end simply be funny, how to interpret the stories is up to us. In any case, it is clear that Ryokan’s sincere Zen practice brought him to a point of nondiscrimination and nonattachment.

Renouncing the world, renouncing the body, I have
become a person of leisure.

Keeping company with the moon and blossoms, I
spend my remaining life.

So clear—rain, clouds, and spirit.
I am awake, as are all things in the world.

            Ironically, his diligence merged with total relaxation; his wisdom converged with seeming stupidity. Through his lack of possessions, comfort, and regular human contact, he found contentment in each moment. He expresses this in this tanka:

As long as I don’t aim,
I won’t miss.
With the catalpa bow,
I shoot an arrow
toward the open sky.

            Because he did not strive to become free, he was always free from attainment—even from attainment of freedom. (35-38)

We can see from these poems and our authors’ commentary about them and Ryōkan’s life that he did not strive to do or be anything. He simply did not strive—this even though he was most serious about Zen and the need to live an authentic life.

Ryōkan was a follower of Dōgen, as Tanahashi intimated above. The last two poems quoted above, having to do with renunciation and non-striving, “As long as I don’t aim, I won’t miss,” are nicely in line with the following verse from Dōgen:

Long ago a monk asked a master, “When hundreds, thousands, or myriads of objects come all at once, what should be done?”

The master replied, “Don’t try to control them.”

What he means is that in whatever way objects come, do not try to change them. Whatever comes is the buddha dharma, not objects at all. Do not understand the master’s reply as merely a brilliant admonition, but realize that it is the truth. Even if you try to control what comes, it cannot be controlled. (Shobogenzo, Tanahashi ed.)

We turn now to Goethe. A passage I came across in a German reader strikes me as indicative of Goethe’s overall attitude and his attractiveness to Nietzsche. Further, it stands in white to the black of the above passage from Dōgen. Goethe writes:

Probably man’s greatest merit is in determining conditions as much as possible and allowing himself to be determined by them as little as possible. The whole universe lies before us like a great stone quarry before the master builder, who only deserves his name when he can put together from these accidental masses of nature an archetype, originating in his mind, with the greatest economy, purposiveness and solidity. Everything outside of us is only element, indeed I dare say everything in us too; but deep within us lies that creative force which is able to create what ought to be, and does not permit us to rest and halt until we depicted it outside or in ourselves, in one way or another. (Quoted in First German Reader, Harry Steinhauer, 139.)

Earlier when Leiter was talking about the impossibility of Beethoven’s being a good Christian, he seemed to attribute that failure to Beethoven’s less than morally exemplary life—or at least his failure to be a “saint.” However, that is not the main source of tension between either Beethoven and Christianity or, in so far as there is tension, between Goethe’s and Ryōkan’s lives. Rather, we can see the stark contrast between Ryōkan’s renunciation of the world, his “aimlessness,” and Goethe’s explicit claim about “man’s greatest merit” being to determine conditions as much as possible and, as far as possible, not be determined by them. Indeed, I am tempted simply to quote once again the passage from Goethe, as every line of it is in tension with what we see in Ryōkan and Dōgen. This tension is, I think, increased when we turn to Nietzsche’s assessment of Goethe.

Nietzsche often has praise for Goethe; a prime example is from Twilight of the Idols:

…nothing could discourage [Goethe] and he took as much as possible upon himself, above himself, within himself. What he aspired to was totality; he strove against the separation of reason, sensuality, feeling, will…; he disciplined himself to a whole, he created himself…. Goethe conceived of a strong, highly cultured human being, skilled in all physical accomplishments, who, keeping himself in check and having reverence for himself, dares to allow himself the whole compass and wealth of naturalness, who is strong enough for this freedom; a man of tolerance, not out of weakness, but out of strength, because he knows how to employ to his advantage what would destroy an average nature; a man to whom nothing is forbidden, except it be weakness, whether that weakness be called vice or virtue…. A spirit thus emancipated stands in the midst of the universe with a joyful and trusting fatalism, in the faith that only what is separate and individual may be rejected, that in the totality everything is redeemed and affirmed – he no longer denies…. But such a faith is the highest of all possible faiths: I have baptized it with the name Dionysos. – (“Expeditions of an Untimely Man” 49)

Let’s take Nietzsche’s assessment of Goethe as more or less correct. Where Goethe  takes hold of his self, creates himself, perhaps too as a master builder, Ryōkan’s “self” is revealed, not by taking hold of anything, but by letting go of everything, including formal Zen practice, though, of course, Ryōkan still diligently practiced Zen.

What would Nietzsche make of Ryōkan? We should perhaps not be too quick to say. However, I imagine that just as I sense a fire in Goethe and a great ease and almost silliness in Ryōkan, Nietzsche would, too. Where Goethe seeks to be a great master builder, purposefully manipulating reality into his vision, Ryōkan goes about in ease and play, writing in spontaneous response to the situation at hand.

It seems clear, too, that Ryōkan is a poor candidate for a will-to-power enthusiast. Consider Nietzsche’s famous passage from the Antichrist:

What is good?—All that heightens the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man.
What is bad?— All the proceeds from weakness.
What is happiness?— The feeling that power increases — that resistance is overcome.
Not contentment, but more power; not peace at all, but war; not virtue, but proficiency….
The weak and ill-constituted shall perish: first principle of our philanthropy. And one shall help them to do so.
What is more harmful than any vice?—Active sympathy for the ill-constituted and week—Christianity. (§2)

While we might try to finesse Ryōkan’s life, art, and Zen practice in such a way that he can be seen as achieving a kind of power through the freedom he achieves through renunciation, it is hard to square the rest of the passage with anything having to do with Ryōkan. It is true that Ryōkan has, in a sense, overcome ultimate resistance through his Zen practice. That is, in his renunciation and aimlessness, he can be said to no longer be resisting anything, and to that extent has overcome the issue of resistance, which is so central to Zen practice. But, of course, that is not at all what Nietzsche means. And it is hard to imagine Ryōkan having anything but sympathy for the ill-constituted and weak.

I do not know enough about Goethe to say whether or not his character is in line with Nietzsche’s hyperbole, Nietzsche’s brand of philanthropy, but it seems clear that Goethe is a much better candidate for the will to power than is Ryōkan.

Much more could and should be said about all of the above. And I hope to do so at some later point. But for now, and before bringing this to a close, let’s note that neither Goethe nor Ryōkan are average sorts of people. Few of us have lives or characters like either of them. But that is likely why they are candidates for exemplars of how to live. If their lives resembled what most of our lives already looked like, we wouldn’t be very interested in them. I am not convinced that the tension between Goethe and Ryōkan cannot be worked out. However, it may be useful to leave the tension between them unresolved. As I have outlined elsewhere, I am currently confronted by a kind of midlife crisis. I have accomplished nearly all of the society imposed goals that I am supposed to, except for having children. At 41, almost 42, I am asking myself what comes next? Where do I go from here? I feel myself pulled in two directions: one, we might say, is Goethe’s and the other, Ryōkan’s. Which way to go?

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