His life grew progressively more unconventional with time, just the opposite of most. Beginning as a classicist in the finest Kyoto tradition, he had gone on to become a spiritual recluse in the mountains under a harsh meditation master. After all this training he then took the road, becoming a wandering monk in the traditional T'ang mode.
Well, almost in the traditional mode. He seemed to wander into brothels and wine shops almost as often as into Zen temples. He consorted with high and low, merchant and commoner, male and female. Our record of these explorations, both geographic and social, is in his writings, particularly his poetry. He also harbored a vendetta against the complacency and corruption of Japanese Zen and its masters, particularly the new abbot of Daitoku-ji, an older man named Yoso who had once been a fellow disciple of his beloved Kaso.
When Ikkyu was forty-six he was invited by Yoso to head a subtemple in the Daitoku-ji compound. He accepted, much to the delight of his admirers, who began bringing the temple donations in gratitude. However, after only ten days Ikkyu concluded that Daitoku-ji too had become more concerned with ceremony than with the preservation of Zen, and he wrote a famous protest poem as a parting gesture—claiming he could find more of Zen in the meat, drink, and sex traditionally forbidden Buddhists.
For ten days in this temple my mind's been in turmoil,
My feet are entangled in endless red tape.
If some day you get around to looking for me,
Try the fish-shop, the wine parlor, or the brothel.17
Ikkyu's attack on the commercialization of Zen was not without cause. The scholar Jan Covell observes that in Ikkyu's time, "Rinzai Zen had sunk to a low point and enlightenment was 'sold,' particularly by those temples associated with the Shogunate. Zen temples also made money in sake-brewing and through usury. In the mid-fifteenth century one Zen temple, Shokoku-ji, furnished all the advisers to the Shogunate's government and received most of the bribes. The imperial-sanctioned temple of Daitoku-ji was only on the fringe of this corruption, but Ikkyu felt he could not criticize it enough."18
... Ikkyu used his poetry (later collected as the "Crazy Cloud Poems" or Kyoun-shu) as a means of expressing his enlightenment, as well as his criticism of the establishment. It also, as often as not, celebrated sensual over spiritual pleasures. ... When Ikkyu was in his seventies, during the disastrous civil conflict known as the Onin war, he had a love affair with a forty-year-old temple attendant named Mori. On languid afternoons she would play the Japanese koto or harp and he the wistful-sounding shakuhachi, a long bamboo flute sometimes carried by monks as a weapon. This late-life love affair occasioned a number of erotic poems, including one that claims her restoration of his virility (called by the Chinese euphemism "jade stalk") cheered his disciples.
How is my hand like Mori's hand?
Self confidence is the vassal, Freedom the master.
When I am ill she cures the jade stalk
And brings joy back to my followers.22
Ironically, the real-life Ikkyu spent his twilight years restoring Daitoku-ji after its destruction (along with the rest of Kyoto) from the ten-year Onin war (1467-77), by taking over the temple and using his contacts in the merchant community to raise funds. He had over a hundred disciples at this time, a popularity that saddened him since earlier (and, he thought, more deserving) masters had had many fewer followers. Thus in the last decade of his life he finally exchanged his straw sandals and reed hat for the robes of a prestigious abbot over a major monastery. His own ambivalence on this he confessed in a poem:
Fifty years a rustic wanderer,
Now mortified in purple robes.26
From: The Zen Experience by Thomas Hoover