“One pleasure of discovering the teachings of the rare women we find in the history of Buddhism,” says Bonnie Myotai Treace about the Japanese nun and poet Rengetsu, “is how they take up the tragedies in their lives and transform them. They remind us of the freedom no circumstances can take from us.”
A scent of woodsmoke and incense, wind wrapping itself around a small hut, the quiet presence of a settled, generous spiritual friend: to sit with the poems of the Buddhist nun Rengetsu is to allow a teacher into the depths of one’s mind. Over the winter, this has been my practice, taking up a few of Rengetsu’s winter-inspired verses from the John Stevens’ translation, Lotus Moon (Weatherhill, 1994), and staying with them, committing myself to let them inform whatever teaching happens during this time.
Keeping that commitment open hasn’t always been easy. Some of Rengetsu’s writing is so strong that it is immediately engaging, and stirs the sense of trust and humility that comes so naturally when excellence takes hold of one’s attention. Nothing truer or finer beckons; restlessness slips away. But some of her verses, like many of the classic koans in the collections used in Zen training, lie a little flat initially and take more work to open up. Since commitment to any practice means not moving to something easier when it gets difficult, the challenge has been to stay with them and give even her harder-to-appreciate poems time to work on the heart and soften the impulse to reject them and move on.
Born in the late eighteenth century, Rengetsu lived what could have easily become a tragic life. She was the daughter of a courtesan and a samurai, but her natural father had her adopted by a lay priest serving at Chionji, Japan’s head temple of the Pure Land sect of Buddhism. Rengetsu’s adopted father, Teruhisa, seems to have been devoted to her. He taught her martial arts, calligraphy and an appreciation for art and literature that later—in a certain way—would save her life. For several years she served as an attendant to the lord of Kameoka, a city near Kyoto, and was fortunate in being able to continue her classical education while there. Stevens writes, charmingly, “Rengetsu was just as capable of dismantling intruders and subduing annoying drunks as she was at making poetry and performing the tea ceremony.”
But then the challenges began to roll in: she was married off, had three children who died in early infancy, and separated from a husband who abused her, and who also died shortly thereafter. She married again, and while she was pregnant with their second child, her husband became ill and passed away. Try to imagine, if you will, this woman’s life: 33 years old, with two small children, having experienced more heartbreak and loss than most of us will know in a lifetime. If ever there was an excuse for feeling overwhelmed and depressed, her life certainly offered one.
One pleasure of discovering the lives and teachings of the rare women we find in the history of Buddhism is seeing how they take up the tragedies in their lives and transform them. They remind us of the freedom no circumstances can take from us. Because their stories are generally less accessible—and because the luxury of serious religious training was less available to them—finding someone like Rengetsu is a great gift. She faced this moment in her life when despair could have taken hold, when impermanence had pretty much whipped her to the bone, and somehow her heart sparked. She was ordained, taking her children with her to live on the grounds of Chionji with Teruhisa, and practiced in earnest. Still, death kept coming, and by the time she was 41, her remaining children and the adoptive father she had loved since childhood were all gone. Not allowed to remain at Chionji, she then had to find her way alone.
She walked into a world that attempted to limit her on the basis of her gender. It’s said she considered whether she could make a living as a teacher of the game of Go, at which she excelled, but recognized that few male students would be able to muster student-mind with a female teacher. She soon realized that art would be her path, and began making pottery as a kind of moving meditation, inscribing each piece with a bit of poetry.
Over time her work became immensely popular, so much so that she found it necessary to never stay long in any one place, or crowds would begin to gather around her. Likening herself to a “drifting cloud,” she was still incredibly prolific, with her work becoming one of the most generous, sustained offerings of deep spiritual practice in Buddhist history. Reputedly, she was able to raise large sums of money for disaster victims because of her ability to be as at ease intermingling with statesmen and great artists of her day, as she was meditating or making pottery alone in her hut. When she died in 1875 at the age of 84, she left a legacy of more than fifty thousand pieces of pottery, calligraphy, paintings and poetry. She is remembered not as a tragic figure, but as one of those rare human beings who drew from a seemingly bottomless well of strength and love.
The three Rengetsu winter poems that I’d like to introduce to you have a straightforward, unadorned quality, as does most of her writing. And although she did not organize them into the sequence in which they appear in Stevens’ book, their progression struck me as expressing a spiritual journey itself.
I recently advised a friend of mine with writer’s block to try the device novelists sometimes use to provide a frame for their stories: “Chapter 1—in which a man goes in search of a whale.” So now I will give my own advice a try: “Three Poems of Rengetsu—in which a spiritual journey is indicated, though never baldly named; in which what is subtle and intuitive is immediate and uncomplicated; in which what is interior and private is also the exterior condition, the public expression.”
Winter Confinement in Shigaraki Village
Last night’s storm was fierce
As I can see by this morning’s thick
blanket of snow
Rising to kindle wood chips in lonely
Shigaraki Village is where Rengetsu would go to get the clay for her pottery. This is such a beautifully simple poem—a woman enters a hut, she’s come some distance, she’s worked all day. Darkness comes. At dawn, she sees snow blanketing the hills and knows that there must have been a fierce storm in the night. She kindles the fire. In its thusness, it is just thus.
But as we stay with the poem, we might find ourselves reflecting on the journey we make to find the clay for our own vessel. We might begin to wonder about leaving home and coming to dwell alone. During our ango—our summer retreat—at the temple, each of us, for instance, is asked to leave our familiar patterns and intensify practice: to dwell peacefully in each moment’s sufficiency, making our home there. When monastics ordain, it’s the same deal: we become unsui, “clouds and water,” letting go of the activities in our life that are self-securing, and giving ourselves to the journey that is itself our home. So when the poet makes her pilgrimage to Shigaraki, to go with her is to take that journey as well. Will we go, gather the clay for our real work and settle into the moment?
In Shigaraki Village, the poet is waking up. She’s inferring from the evidence the realities of a night’s storm. It’s interesting that in the Buddhist tradition, night is often used to point to total intimacy, the reality of oneness, of not separating the self from things. In the night, or “darkness,” there is no distinction, no separation between seer and seen. In the words of the Heart Sutra, it is the time of “no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body, mind.” What is that night? Of course, when many of us begin to sense the “fierce storm” of night in spiritual life, we may yearn for nothing but to be elsewhere. On the edge of it, we pull back, trying to hold on to something of ourselves.
Haven’t you felt the resistance that thrives right on the cusp of breaking through? There, on the edge, most of us have some kind of argument. “I can’t sit another minute,” we say. Or, “I can’t see this koan.” Or, “I don’t know how to love this person.” The poem points to a kind of sweet constancy, the kindling of the fire. Just take care of the moment. Stoke the flame when it falters. The poet stirs the wood chips; we stir our life to find the warm center of things. What is that center?
Master Dogen writes, “When the dharma does not fill your whole body and mind, you think it’s already sufficient. When the dharma fills your body and mind, you understand something is missing.” What is needed? The world has never depended more than it does now on those who will genuinely ask that question. Always encourage each other to go deeply into that inquiry. How might you serve? What remains to be seen?
Dogen continues, “To study the Buddha way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be confirmed by the ten thousand things. To be confirmed by the ten thousand things is to cast off body and mind of self as well as that of others. No trace of realization remains, and this no trace is continued endlessly.”
The fire of our freedom will always warm the hut, but somehow we won’t feel it unless we kindle it. And that kindling of the fire continues. It’s not on the clock, like a workday we can’t wait to see end. It’s loving, and essentially timeless. Practically, getting this point means we’re relieved of feeling we’re behind or progressing too slowly in our training, or that we’re spiritually talented and should set our sights on becoming teachers. It’s just time to kindle the woodchips: get over yourself.
In the hut where she’s come to make the vessel, responsible for the fire, awake to the night’s storm as it was revealed only in the light, the poet faces the day.
A Day of Hail
Will the paper
On my makeshift little window
Withstand the assault of the hailstones?
A poem in which a woman, alone in a hut, wonders if her small window made of fragile paper will be strong enough not to be ripped apart by a long day of pelting hail. Simple enough: the sound of heavy stones of solid water hitting and hitting and hitting, the paper window pocking with each hit, quivering, providing such a thin barrier against the storm.
What is this makeshift window—this temporary point of view, if you will? The poet takes us into a day in which the essential vulnerability of our position is a visceral reality. She invites us to feel and hear and taste the aliveness of right now. How do we live with impermanence? By adding another layer to the window? By praying for sunnier days? We cannot stop the hail, Rengetsu seems to whisper, but we can be awake. Awake and at peace.
How do you find that peace?
Be yourself. Be yourself, and live that boundless reality intimately, generously, freely. Usually, if you ask someone who they are, you’re likely to get the list: “I went to this college, I’m married to this person, I know how to make soup, I’m good at this, I’m bad at that, I can do this, I can do that.” We list all the aggregates, all the things that change, all the makeshift identities. But what is the real nature of the self? Noticing the thinness of the seeming barrier between inside and out, just experience that permeability. What are we protecting?
A monk asked Master Dongshan, “When cold and heat come, how can we avoid them?” How do we live in this world of trouble, of suffering, of horror, of change, where we can’t hold on to what’s pleasant or completely get away from what’s unpleasant? How can we avoid the heat and cold? Dongshan replied, “Go to where there is no heat or cold.”
The monk then implored, “But how do I get to that place where there is no heat or cold?” Dongshan said, “When it’s cold, the cold kills you. When it’s hot, the heat kills you.” In other words, kill the separation. Quit living in fear of what might be, and dwell in this.
But what about the assault of the hailstones? When what hits is not just weather but something that arrives with intent to harm, what then? I find it inspiring that Rengetsu spends none of the precious moments in her poem cursing the sky, or dissecting the cause of precipitation.
Why are so many people trying to kill so many people? Why is there such enormous greed? Why is there evil? Why did this happen to me? We should consider how a day of hail might be simply, utterly that: a day of hail. Not to be denied, not feared, not hidden from.
There’s a story told about an old fisherman out on a very foggy day. Suddenly, this other boat comes and crashes into him. He spends the next couple of hours battening down his own boat where it’s leaking, and cursing about how this sailor, who shouldn’t even be on the water, ruined his day, ruined his catch, ruined his family’s meal and his livelihood. Enraged, he works through the morning cursing as, gradually, the fog begins to lift.
Suddenly he sees that what hit him wasn’t another boat—it was a rock. All at once, he regrets the hours wasted in such anger, the birds he didn’t hear, the enjoyment he didn’t feel.
Mountain Retreat in Winter
The little persimmons drying outside
Under the eaves of my hermitage
Are they freezing tonight in the winter storm?
This last of our three poems brings us into the hermitage again, with a feeling of the life under its eaves. Entering the hermitage, in a sense we enter the heart of Buddhism. We stop waiting for company. We stop needing others to show us what’s normal, to know what we should do. We sit alone. That’s the first teaching gesture of the Buddha: he stopped deferring and referring and looking for an authority. He just sat down—in his own life, in his own mind, in his own condition, with his own karma—and aloneness was transformed. The whole world wasn’t excluded; when he sat, the dividing wall between his life, mind, condition and karma and that of the world was dropped. This is the hermitage heart that beats in each of us. We just need to stop being too afraid to trust it.
Practice is the journey to that trust. It begins when we stop waiting for someone to say: here’s the plan, here’s the right thing to do, here’s the act of courage, of attention, of kindness, of wisdom that you can make. Each of us has that wisdom. Each of us, in fact, is that wisdom. Each of us can leap thoroughly into that hermitage heart and get on with it. We don’t need another life, a different condition, a greater wisdom, a better personality. We just need to take care of the life under the eaves of this measureless hermitage.
How? In asking, we begin the journey home.