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A Spiritual Almanac: “I Hate Incense”

Feb 19, 2021

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Ikkyu Sojun was a Zen Buddhist monk who had no patience for hypocrisy and false piety. At one point, he was appointed the head priest of a temple in Kyoto, but he quit after just nine days because he couldn’t tolerate his peers. After he resigned, he told his fellow monks they could find him at the local brothel.

As you might expect, Ikkyu Sojun’s criticism of religious formalities carried into his writing. But his poems also reveal a depth of insight that is essential to the Zen tradition.

Like most Zen poetry, Ikkyu’s poems are short. So, today we’re looking at three of Ikkyu’s works — and all of them offer a critique on the religious establishment. To kick things off, we’re starting with a poem titled, “I Hate Incense.”



By Ikkyu Sojun

A master’s handiwork cannot be measured
But still priests wag their tongues

explaining the “Way” and babbling about “Zen.”
This old monk has never cared for false piety
And my nose wrinkles at the

dark smell of incense before the Buddha.





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.


Studying texts and stiff meditation can make

you lose your Original Mind.
A solitary tune by a fisherman, though,

can be an invaluable treasure.
Dusk rain on the river, the moon peeking

in and out of the clouds;
Elegant beyond words, he chants

his songs night after night.

More nuggets for today:

On this day in 1881, Kansas became the first state in the nation to ban alcoholic beverages.

Kansas’ anti-alcohol stance made it the national center of the temperance movement and attracted the likes of Carrie Nation, who moved there in 1889. Nation was one of the most controversial and aggressive temperance activists. She saw it as her God-ordained mission to destroy bars and described herself as:

“… a bulldog running along at the feet of Jesus, barking at what he doesn’t like.”

The prohibition of liquor lasted until 1948, and Kansas continued to restrict general on-premises alcohol sales until 1987.

Even today, Kansas has some of the strictest alcohol laws in the nation. Three Kansas counties still prohibit the sale of liquor, but permit the sale of 3.2% beer. And Kansas remains one of eight states that have yet to ratify the 21st amendment repealing nationwide prohibition.

On this day five years ago, we lost the celebrated American novelist, Harper Lee.

Lee was born in 1926 in Monroeville, a small town in southwest Alabama. Her father was an attorney and state legislator, and Lee herself attended law school, but withdrew six months before graduation.

In 1961, she won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel, To Kill A Mockingbird. Some aspects of the book were autobiographical — many of Lee’s experiences as a child growing up in Alabama were reflected in the experiences of the novel’s young narrator, Scout Finch.

In addition to confronting racism and prejudice, To Kill A Mockingbird addresses the coexistence of good and evil — even within religion. Through the voice of the character Miss Maudie, Lee voiced her criticism of what she called “footwashing Baptists.” She wrote:

“Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand of (another) … There are just some kind of men who — who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.” 

Lee died in her sleep on the morning of February 19, 2016. She was 89 years old.

Finally, our word of wisdom for today come to us from A.A. Milne, the writer behind Winnie the Pooh. He said:

“You can’t stay in your corner of the forest waiting for others to come to you. You have to go to them sometimes.”

The COVID pandemic has kept all of us in our corners of the forest for almost a year now. Maybe today’s a good day to pick up the phone or send a text to someone you haven’t seen in a while. Let me know how it goes.

And that’s today’s Spiritual Almanac.

Download today’s episode of “A Spiritual Almanac” at Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, iHeart and everywhere else you find your favorite podcasts.

For additional reading, see Having Once Paused: Poems of Zen Master Ikkyu. There’s a link above.

Thanks for listening. If you have a minute, don’t forget to subscribe, share, like or comment. Until next time, be kind and take good care.

“Albert Schirding” by Edgar Lee Masters. Public domain.

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