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Buddhadharma : Winter 2007
winter 2007| 38 |buddhadharma Buddhist practitioners might be sur- prised to discover that a nineteenth- century Zen nun, Otagaki Rengetsu, is probably the most successful female artist in history. Even during her lifetime (1791– 1875), her art enjoyed broad appeal, and there has been a steady “Rengetsu boom” up to the present day. What is it about Rengetsu-ni that has made her so popular? Her pottery, inscribed with her poems, has a down-to-earth appeal coupled with Hear Them Roar The lives of Buddhism’s women ancestors are too often whispers of a forgotten past. This special collection of essays, stories, and poems helps bring their lion’s roar back to life. Grace Jill ShireSon iS the founder and head teacher of empty neSt Zendo in north fork, california. She received dharma tranSmiSSion from SoJun mel WeitSman in 2005. C Under the Autumn Moon D Grace Jill ShireSon on the life, art, and poetic inspiration of the Zen nun Otagaki Rengetsu, a woman “humbled by life’s blows as well as its beauty.” make sense of this impermanent life. After she was ordained, she settled into a hermit- age on the grounds of her adoptive father’s temple. However, he died nine years later, which resulted in her being evicted. Being forced to leave her hermitage after so many losses must have hit her hard. Without a place to live, and without a means of support, Rengetsu decided to make and sell pottery inscribed with her poems, as well as calligraphies and draw- ings on scrolls. She went on to produce more than fifty thousand pieces of art. For her, art was much more than simply a way to make a living; it offered a way to make sense of her life. Her enlightened effort became tangible. Rengetsu was ordained in the Pure Land Buddhist tradition, but she studied and integrated Zen and Shingon Buddhism into her practice. Her poetry especially leans into the Zen teachings of self-inquiry, a sublime beauty. Her elegant calligraphy, done in the curvaceous women’s script known as hiragana—more emotionally accessible than classical Chinese charac- ters—touches us through its simplicity. But it is Rengetsu herself, her vulnerability and ability to express her enlightenment in very human terms, that has kept people connected to her art, and her dharma, for more than one hundred and fifty years. Rengetsu was adopted as an infant, widowed twice, and had several children who died very young. Her personal life was a relentless teaching on impermanence, and her decision to become ordained as a Buddhist nun was a heartfelt effort to TheArTArchive/SylvAnBArneTAndWilliAmBurTocollecTion,ref:AA424872