Ancient Music

After ten years in the red-light district
how solitary a spell in the mountains
I can see clouds a thousand miles away
hear ancient music in the pines

– Ikkyu


Ikkyu, 1394–1481, was born in Kyoto, Japan. An iconoclastic Zen monk, he is famous for his poetry and his unconventionality.

Is he trying to shock us in these four lines? Perhaps he is making it clear that he is not a respectable person. There is a parallel, of course, with Jesus, who was acquainted with the ‘red light district’ too.

It is a place for the Bohemian lifestyle, for artists, misfits and poor people. Van Gogh comes to mind, and Toulouse-Lautrec.

Sydney’s notorious Kings Cross was the location of the Yellow House, a centre for creativity associated with Martin Sharp and Brett Whiteley, among others.

So it is natural for Ikkyu to stay there, for ten years, before ascending to the mountains. The contrast intensifies his appreciation of the vistas and the wind in the trees, the natural sounds of the mountain and the solitude, after the busy, crowded marketplace.

The master retains his composure, whether in the city or the mountains, respectable or not, rich or poor, and his poetry conveys the experience in a few well-chosen words which will resonate with anyone who has breathed that cold, crisp, clean mountain air.


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