More than Zen and pickled radish

Takuan Soho was the prototypical early Edo monk scholar with a sharp, witty, and untamed spirit. Dressed in a monk’s robe he pursued erudition in the broadest sense. He not only studied Buddhist texts but also the Chinese classics. Takuan also excelled in various arts. He was a painter, poet, writer, calligrapher, gardener, and a tea master. And he was the advisor, confidant, and the teacher of noblemen, among them the famous swordsman Yagyu Munenori and, some say the legendary Samurai Miyamoto Musashi. And on top of that he is widely credited with the invention of the Takuan pickled radish.


When Takuan Soho wrote this letter he was at a crossroads of his life, he was undecided, and he was sick. A risky situation for a good decision. Anything could have gone wrong.

Takuan Soho (1573-1645) was in his late twenties had reached a critical point of his biography. He was staying in a Ryokan somewhere in the backlands of Sakai, he looked back on many successful years of monastic studies – and he was sick. He looked back on years of studies in numerous monasteries with numerous teachers most of them are primarily known today for having been Takuan’s teachers. After ten years of monastic training in Izushi, Takuan’s rural hometown, the promising acolyte was taken to Daitoku-ji in Kyoto. “At the time Daitoku-ji was the center of tea culture in Kyoto, a monastery taken up with worldly pursuits and imbued with the secular spirit of the age – not exactly the environment in which one could touch the inner core of Zen”, as Dumoulin describes it his history of Zen Buddhism. And apparently Takuan Soho did not like this environment and thus left Kyoto for Sakai with the intention to study in Nanshu-ji with Itto Shoteki (1533-1606), who “lived a harsh, rigid Zen life” (Dumoulin). Takuan lived in Nanshu-ji only for a rather short time. Shoteki did not accept him as a disciple which obviously was a deep disappointment, may be the deepest Takuan went through so far. Takuan left Nanshu-ji temple and planned to become a student of Monsai Tonin, “a Zen scholar and master from the Gozan movement” (Dumoulin). Fatigued by the experience of rejection and weakened by his sickness – Takuan Soho writes this letter to his friend, “The Keeper of Scriptures” at Nanshu-ji Temple.

I’m glad to hear that you are doing well. I have stayed here for too long. And the inn might be concerned about my long sojourn. I have been thinking every day that this may be the day of my departure, not realizing that time was flying by. I was surprised that the mountains here were already covered with snow for Choyo festival [ninth day of the ninth month of the lunar calendar, the Double Yang-Festival]. I once looked at a Mukuge flower [i.e., Rose of Sharon] on the fence of Shinpo-an [i.e., a tea house on the temple grounds of Nanshu-ji] and wrote a poem. The poem was better than usual, and unexpectedly touching. It was composed of words which came along when talking to ordinary people. I have learned a lot here and I should return to Nanshu-ji temple. But since I got this strange illness, my return is difficult. I originally wanted to go to Gozan [i.e., Monsai Tonin] but I can’t even think about it. I should have gone to Kyoto instead to find a doctor and ask for medicine; however, I did not have any introduction. Then an old monk friend came and consulted me. It is really a wonder how life works. Having been sick, I am ashamed that I said that “there is nothing to be ashamed of when we accomplish an ambition”. – It is my youthful thoughtlessness. At this moment, even if I went to study with Gozan, I would not achieve anything.” But Takuan changed his mind and went to “Gozan”. And Takuan was wrong when he wrote that he “would not achieve anything”. His time with Monsai Tonin was most crucial in the shaping of his personality; he achieved everything there, I would say. Monsai Tonin lived in Daian-ji and was the head of a small school where he taught Confucianism, poetry, and calligraphy. Takuan soon distinguished himself among the school’s many illustrious students and was therefore allowed to take up residence on the temple grounds. And after Tonin’s passing in 1603 he inherited his valuable library – and was finally accepted in Nanshu-ji Temple by abbot Itto Shoteki. In the following year Takuan reached enlightenment, and even climbed the abbot’s seat in 1606, when his master died. This marked the end of Takuan Soho’s formative years.

Takuan Soho (1573-1645) Letter to his friend, The Keeper of Scriptures Late 16th century In on paper 15.9 x 30 cm (6¼ x 11¾ in.) Mounting 105 x 40 cm (41¼ x 15¾ in.) Box with a Kohitsu certificate Inv.no. 2596 sold

0 comments