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Buddhadharma : Winter 2007
ongoing effort, and enlightenment rather than visions of the “Western Paradise” usually associated with Pure Land practice. Her pottery expresses the Zen aesthetic of wabi-sabi, plain and lonely. My own Japanese Zen teacher, Fukushima Keido Roshi, described Kyoto tea cakes deco- rated with his calligraphy in this way: “Eat the cookie and taste my mind.” Drinking tea from one of Rengetsu’s cups inscribed with her poetry, one could say: “Drink the tea and feel her heart.” Like other female Buddhist practitio- ners, Rengetsu had needed to support her- self, and this led her to offer the dharma through hands-on encounter rather than through books or lectures. Similarly, Zen tea ladies have offered their teachings while serving tea and cakes. Those who encountered Rengetsu’s work could hold and touch her enlightened mind and pon- der her poems while doing something as ordinary as sipping tea. What are now pre- cious pieces of art were once just kitchen teacups. Imagine a tired woman in her kitchen holding a cup, sipping tea, and reading this poem inscribed by Rengetsu: From dawn to dusk Spending the day Gathering clay: Surely the Buddha would not Think this a trifling matter. Ordinary work life is uplifted. Whatever your position, your life is not trifling; the buddha mind holds all effort in the steady gaze of compassion. Rengetsu’s musings did not portray an inscrutable, conquering Zen heroine; instead, they reveal a woman humbled by life’s blows as well as its beauty, a woman who exposed her longings and the steady view with which she accepted these longings. My own first encounter with Rengetsu came just before my priest ordination, when I read her poem titled “As a Nun Gazing at the Colors of Autumn”: Clad in black robes I should have no attractions to The shapes and scents of this world: But how can I keep my vows Gazing at today’s crimson maple leaves? How happy I was to hear feelings and longings expressed by a Zen woman! I knew I couldn’t inhabit ordination through imitating my male teacher. But this ongoing gaze, this steady acceptance of my feelings and shortcomings, this is something I could understand and prac- tice authentically as a female Zen priest. She did not mystify herself or her path through her poetry and art; on the con- trary, her work welcomes us into her spa- cious view of herself—and of ourselves. It shows how she embodied Zen just as she was. For Westerners, the experience of enlightenment may seem mysterious or unreachable, but through Rengetsu’s example, we see a path illuminated by effort and inquiry breaking through self- limiting mind: Ice in the Mountain Well Yesterday I shattered the ice To draw water— No matter, this morning Frozen just as solid. No matter what we have done before, each day we face ourselves. We hear Rengetsu’s calm acceptance of this condi- tion, the persistence of neurotic patterns, and a steady commitment to keep break- ing up the ice, to keep working on stuck places. We also observe how this calm, steady, and effortful practice opens up to awakening: Autumn Evening In a mountain field Enthralled, so enthralled Returning all the way home Accompanied by the Autumn moon. Viewing the self with a steady medita- tion practice yields the freedom and joy of enlightenment. The autumn moon—the moon that rises after the sun has peaked, after the letting go of attainment—this moon follows us into our own home, into our own life. This moon will not fade for us; it makes itself at home, no matter where we live. We, too, follow this moon alongside the lovely Rengetsu. n Hazy Evening Moon, 1867 Verse and painting by Otagaki Rengetsu TheArTArchive/SylvAnBArneTAndWilliAmBurTocollecTion,ref:AA424872