Front and Back

Showing front,
Showing back,
Maple leaves fall.

By Ryokan Shonin(1758-1831)
(Translated by Rev. Gyomay M. Kubose)
うらを見せ おもてをみせて 散るもみぢ


This Haiku written by Ryokan(1758-1831) has been widely known in the world and quoted by various people for many years. Ryokan was a Soto Zen priest (1758–1831) during the late Edo period. Because Ryokan spent most of his life as hermit, living in a humble abode, he was not famous during his lifetime. But he left many great poems and calligraphies which made Ryokan well known, about 100 years later after his death.


Ryokan was born as a first son of rich landlord of Izumozaki, currently Niigata prefecture. But as he studied more about Chinese thoughts and Buddhism, he left his house to seek for the truth and became a priest. His Buddhist name was Ryokan Taigu which literally means “Good generous great fool” which was what Ryokan humbly wanted to be. He was also known as a priest who loved playing with kids.


Life of Ryokan and his great works were revealed and introduced through the writers of Taisho period such as Soma Gyofuu. Interestingly, Ryokan loved practicing Nenbutsu and left many poems related to Namu Amida Butsu while he was a Soto Zen priest.


This Haiku was one of Ryokan’s death poems called “Jisei no ku” or just “Jisei” in Japanese. “Ji” means to farewell and Sei means “this world.” So Jisei indicates a poem or short sentence to say good bye to this world through one of the forms of poetry. Jisei usually is written according to the author’s reflection of life. And in many cases, the essence of author's life is imparted in the short form of poem.


I have understood this Ryokan’s Haiku in two ways. The first understanding is to regard front as “vanity” which is one of our desires to show off our “goodness” to the people. If we did something good, we naturally want to tell people what we did. On the other hand, back is something that we don’t want to show to the public such as mistakes, shame and embarrassing things. So our life is, in a sense, to try to keep showing only front side and hiding back side.


However whenever there is light, there is shadow. There is no front side which does not have a back side. “Back” is our important part of life. You don’t need to make confession on your secrets or mistakes, but we cannot ignore “back” and need to face and work together. Back can be our suppressed desire or sometimes our feeling of hatred as opposed to love. By facing and working together with back and front, we can be tolerate and compassionate. Ryokan must have realized both our good and bad side of desires and lived harmoniously with both front and back.


Of course, whether it is front or back is just our temporary understanding depending on the viewpoint. It can be easily opposite. Front can be back and back can be front. Same is true to the idea of good or bad. Depending on the situation, good can be bad and bad can be good. Also another understanding that front and back as one is possible.


After all, Ryokan, wanted to express life as a falling maple leaf. Just like its showing both font and back, life is filled with duality such as good times and bad times, pleasure and suffering, happiness and unhappiness, peace and anger and so on. Ryokan saw this duality in life. (To be continued).