Green Mountains Walking

a Dharma blog

   Feb 16

#15: Nothing to Prove – Learning from Zen Master Ryokan

My goodness, it’s been a long time since I posted here. I had intended this blog to be a going concern, but nearly three months have passed since I updated it. What a hoot that my last post was about Dogen’s take on time and space, considering I’ve let so much of both slide by like an eye blink! It’s rather appropriate that the topic of this post is about having nothing to prove, inspired by Zen Master Ryokan who, from all accounts, never seemed to feel as though he had to prove a thing and, as a result, lived what I would consider to be quite a liberated life in his heart and mind.

buddhism, dharma, zen, ryokan, nothing to prove

If you’ve never heard of Ryokan: he was a hermit Zen monk, poet, and calligrapher. As an artist, I find him incredibly inspirational. In our materialistic world, art is predominantly thought of as “product,” and as a result, artists of all stripes feel pressure to prove ourselves by receiving a tremendous amount of external validation for our artistic efforts and accomplishments.

This can result in considerable mental and emotional anguish. Artists who labor in obscurity, whose work does not become well-received in the popular sense, can develop a sense of purposelessness in their lives and even feel driven to despair. Even artists whose work does become well-received feel tremendous pressure to keep producing and have each subsequent project be more highly-esteemed by the public than the one before. Pressure, pressure. It can be tough, to say the least, to go with the creative flow when you feel as if you’re living in a pressure cooker of expectations, whether from yourself, friends and family, the public, or all of these.

When artists get caught up in the desperate need for external validation, they can become their own worst enemies. Self-doubt and anxiety can stop the flow of creativity, leading to a kind of artistic paralysis. Add to this the fact that many artists’ families don’t understand why the artist spends so much time on art, especially if the art in question isn’t earning much money. Many people believe that a thing isn’t worth doing unless you’re making money. I disagree. Don’t get me wrong. It would be a great thing if more artists could make a living solely from their art. I’m all for that. But it’s pretty rare.

I don’t know about you, but I hate the word failure. Well, it’s just a word, isn’t it? The connotations of the word are what I most loathe, since they’re wrapped up in the notion that success equates to money and/or public approbation. Which is, to my mind, a load of horse puckey. Yes, there are plenty of people who make piles of money and who have attained celebrity status. Some of them create music, books, works of visual art. But do they love what they do? Or are they schlepping through a daily grind, churning out product to keep the wheels of their consumer machine turning? I can’t make that judgment on anyone else. But I can speak for myself when I say that I feel the most joy when engaged in creative activity that comes from my heart, not from what I believe are other people’s expectations – or my own, for that matter.

I’ve always been a person who questions society’s definitions of “success.” It would seem that my friend Ryokan (how can I not see him as a friend, when I’ve grown so fond of him?) felt the same way. Though he was an incredibly talented poet and calligrapher, he detested “professional” poems and calligraphy. He saw pretense and artifice in artwork that tries to conform, to fit into the popular taste. He wrote a poem about how his poems aren’t poems. What on earth did he mean by that? I believe he meant that he didn’t write his poems to conform to external expectations and standards. He created his poems – and his calligraphy – out of a deep impulse to create, to bring beauty into the world, to express his true nature and original face, and he did it in much the same way a wildflower in the deep wilderness high up on some mountain where nobody ever goes, brings beauty into the world. In Zen, we call this realized activity. If someone stumbles onto the flower, sees it, and is brought to his knees by its loveliness, then that’s that. But if nobody sees the flower, it will continue to bring beauty into the world simply because it is what it is.

And again, that’s that.

The flower high up on the mountain and deep in the wilderness has nothing to prove. So too did Ryokan, high up on a mountain and living in a thatched hut, have nothing to prove.

My Zen practice has helped my attitude toward my art. These days, I’m much more present with what I do, and I pour the lion’s share of my creative energy into my musical and literary projects themselves than into worrying, “Will this sell?” or “What if nobody likes this?” Those and similar questions point to things nobody can predict, much less control, and Ryokan knew that the only thing an artist – a person – can control is his or her choices in every present moment. We can’t control people’s reactions to what we do; we can only control our actions, our reactions, what WE do. In other words, there’s nothing to prove. We aren’t here to prove our worthiness to be alive or to create, as measured by how much money we make or how popular we are, whether as artists or as people. In my opinion, when we struggle to conform to outside standards or create under pressure of desperation for external validation, our creations lose something. When art is produced by committee, it’s often diluted and loses much of what could have been its power and vitality.

Struggling so hard to prove ourselves with everything we do, we waste precious energy that could be put to much better use in living, appreciating, doing, seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, experiencing. When we feel we have something to prove, a big part of us is projected forward, into the future, which means it isn’t with us now, living our lives. And inevitably what we expect turns out to be something different. No matter how much we might plan, or think we know what will happen, things turn out differently. We seek security; we seek assurance. But what happens when we stop seeking and start living, with the awareness that in each moment, we’re creating our future? Then we’re really here: living, creating, experiencing.

That’s how Ryokan lived. He had nothing to prove to himself or anybody else. He was an incredibly compassionate and kind person. Just because you live without anything to prove doesn’t mean you don’t care. Quite the opposite, really. When we release ourselves from the pressure of always having to prove ourselves and thereby feeding our egos, we free ourselves up to care more about ourselves, about other people, about what we’re doing at any given moment, whatever it might be, from washing dishes to cooking a meal to composing a piece of music. We open ourselves to life and all its possibilities instead of putting on blinkers and only allowing ourselves to fixate on this rigid outcome or that rigid expectation. In this way, we create – we live – from a powerful place of liberation that doesn’t hinge on the ebbs and flows of circumstance.

Ryokan said “There’s Nothing to Prove” in so many ways, but here’s one of my favorites:

I don’t regard my life
as insufficient.
Inside the brushwood gate
there is a moon;
there are flowers.

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  1. Liz says:

    Awesome outlook! I aspire to nevermind what others think; but am not always successful in that effort. Nonetheless, I applaud those who are able to just be.
    Excellent post, much to think about.

  2. Thomma Lyn says:

    Thank you so much for your kind words, Liz! This is something I’ve struggled with for many, many years, and I think that’s a big reason I’ve embraced Ryokan and his wonderful poetry the way I have: he reminds me of the preciousness of “just being.” And I’m reminded of a poem by another Zen poet / hermit, Stonehouse, who lived in the 14th century and who likewise inspires me:

    “This body’s lifetime is like a bubble’s
    may as well let things go
    plans and events seldom agree
    who can step back doesn’t worry
    we blossom and fade like flowers
    we gather and part like clouds
    earthly thoughts I forgot long ago
    withering away on a mountain peak.”