Ikkyu: Zen & Manga

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This classic manga is only available online, on a web page that translated it for free.

I honestly couldn’t believe it, because I read it in the Glénat Spanish version and really, really thought it was a classic every Manga lover in America had heard of. No such luck. The man who wrote it died in 1995 and was not very known. His name was Hisashi Sakaguchi.

Born in 1946, in the Saitama Prefecture, Japan, Sakaguchi worked in television at Osamu Tezuka’s study, working in the animated versions of Astroboy and the Saphire Princess. He quit his job to write/draw manga and wrote three great works: Version, Ikkyu and Stone Flower. He was barely 49 years old when he died.

Ikkyu is a four-tome story following the life of the Zen Buddhist monk of the same name. An eccentric man, a poet, he was famous for his attitudes and writings, for his questionings of traditional Buddhist thinking and for having achieved enlightenment through humor and humility.
The first tome talks about his childhood. He is believed to be the son of Emperor Go-Komatsu and a court noblewoman. At the age of five, Ikkyu was separated from his mother and placed in a Rinzai Zen temple in Kyoto called Ankoku-ji. The manga is great depicting the abandonment he felt, and the harsh environment where he learned his first letters.
The second tome talks about his Zen training at different temples. His poetry there criticizes the lack of zazen practice he saw around him. He did not stay long in each place, soon finding himself at Saikin-ji, where he was the sole student of an abbot named Ken’o. Ken’o was a strong believer in the supremacy of zazen, he died in 1414, when Ikkyū was 21.
The third tome follows the deep transformation of Ikkyu, not only from boy to man, but from traditional practitioner to vagabond. He walked a lot, sleeping rough and being friendly to every human being around him. He was a trouble maker, drank and slept with women. This was frowned upon by other monks, but, somehow, he achieved enlightenment.
The fourth tome sees him as an old man. He is happy, and continues to live Zen outside of formal religious institutions. When the Ōnin War is over, Ikkyū is elected abbot himself. This firmly placed him in one of the most important Zen lineages, and ensured we get to know him. He died in 1481. The conversations he holds in this manga are wonderful, and show that Sakaguchi had a deep understanding of human life and Zen itself.

A saint to some, and heretic to others, Ikkyu is very known in Japanese popular culture. He is a folk hero, always out-smarting his teachers and the shogun. The manga is a great homage to his life and findings, and I’m really glad it is finally available to English readers, even if it’s only on digital form.

Featured images by Hisashi Sakaguchi

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