Mariko Sumikura   Official Site - Japanese Poet, Translator
 A Contemplation on Solitude
                                               --Nun Rengetsu --
Mariko Sumikura
At the beginning
    How many times have “loneliness” been dealt with in Japanese Waka (31 letters poetry) since ancient times? Taste of “loneliness” is different between men and women. It seems that the former loneliness can be described emptiness which comes from living out of “the world”, while the latter one connote vanity resulting from losing color of “living” itself. But both of them share same loneliness in that a person is separating from the circumstance where he was shining as indispensable existence.
    Among many women Waka composers, I love Otagaki Rengetsun. She creates unique poetry world by combining sharp observation about nature from woman’s susceptibility and emotion floating her inner world. I would like to think about “Women’s solitude” depicted in her works.
A woman under moonlight –Nun Rengetsu –
  We cross over Marutamachi-bashi, a bridge over Kamogawa river running in the center of Kyoto, without special attention. If you walk over it under moonlight, you will be possessed with the illusion that a nun is approaching to you. Short and stooped Nun Rengetsu always carries something in her hand. Sometimes, it is souvenir for acquaintance or gift for neighbors. Otherwise it may be a letter to close friend---.
    Yes, unexpectedly, she made the bridge.  In those days, people crossed a ford by placing boards. The boards were swept away when water level became high. To change such an inconvenience, she proposed to build secure bridge. She had no attachment to money. She saved money by selling burial figures and tanzaku (strips of fancy paper for writing a tanka or haiku on). Then she hired labor to transport soil, bought lumber from a market at Takase river and asked them to assemble the bridge. The bridge was far from a current magnificent one but it was safe enough for cows, horses and people to cross. It got rid of trouble to take detour to Sanjo-Ohashi and at the same time, people and cattle no longer have to get wet in the crossing of the river. Where does her vitality spring from in such a small body? Wasn’t a woman weak? Didn’t she take pity and feel sorry on herself when she contemplated her internal mind?
    Nun Rengetsu tried to live for others not for herself. She had devoted herself to Buddha. She didn’t spare compassion to others and in return, she gratefully accepted only “their gratitude” from others. And passion at the bottom of heart --- surprisingly --- can change even “loneliness” into energy, which is self-explanatory in her poetry.
Life of Nun Rengetsu
    Allow me to touch on her life briefly. She was a woman born and raised in Kyoto in Edo period. She was adopted into Otagaki family when she was small, but unfortunately her foster father died when she was young. She married 2 times and gave birth to 4 children who passed away earlier than she and as a result, she was left alone. She had no choice but selled tanzaku with a poem on or draw picture and write a poem on pottery in order to make ends meet. In Japan, from ancient times, it is not a rare case that women take the Buddhist vows. Especially those who live in upper society inevitably stand at the crossroads whether to marry again or stay in single life, when they lose their husbands. It is hard to tell what they were liberated from and what they gained by that. But it is easy to imagine that it is hard for a woman to support herself.
    My focal point is a process how she determined not to return to worldly life again. Religious percepts in a nun’s life are strict. There are about more than 300 articles of prohibition which refer to the smallest details. Also, we should not forget an implication from such a large number of articles is that a woman is deeply connected with this world in order to conceive and bring up children.  This precept teaches us the importance of taking a step forward after accepting that fact and recognizing that we are a trifling and fragile existence. Ultimately, this is to gain peace of mind under the wing of Buddha.
    One of such example is “should not wait for others”. Discarding expectation is also a training of Buddha. A human being usually sets some goals, makes effort to achieve them and is affected by the results. He makes an effort to exchange good impression in meeting others. Not so many people look hard at one’s solitude like her.
    If you look at her history, you will find she lived to the full in her latter life. She was an adopted daughter, a mother of 4 children and encountered misfortune of losing husband and children as well. However she lived her life out to the end, devoting her latter half of life to Buddha. She kept a young boy around her and took care of his after her husband passed away, But Nun Rengetsu did so purely from benevolence. The boy who studied hard and was good at drawing was the future Tessai TOMIOKA. Also among them is a friend of Akemi TACHIBANA in poem world…
Solitude of Nun Rengetsu
    I am thinking “what is a real nature of solitude?” Because I want to have an answer to the question “how far a person can persevere solitude?” I have a slight hope that I may be able to learn something by tracing back her life. As the same time, I want to know about her agony toward humane problems and learn the process how she gained mind peace in this world by breaking through dark clouds.
    I would like to read her works carefully. The works I am interested in is the ones written in her 30’s and 40’s. By reading this, I want to explore the process to overcome solitude, how she could change it into “love to poetry” in inner mind, and how she could change it into “love to human being” in outer world. I want to know her thoughts, secretly how she could change solitude, negative sense, into unfailing enthusiasm for poetic creation. Her poem frequently describes nature. For example, the lotus, moon and falling leaves appear repeatedly as a motif in “a woman diver gathering algae” (AMA NO KARUMO海女の刈藻), her collection of Waka poems. But there are works in which she expressed inner mind bluntly without through nature.

Living kept in poem
    Here is her poem composed by 31 letters, “Ware shirajise, kono tamoto no hokorobi wa hikishi hito koso nubekarikeru” (われ知らじせ このたもとの綻びは 引きしひとこそ 縫うべかりける) (Meaning:” Me, let him notice. That this open of sleev (of Kimono) should be sewn by him puling it at that time.) She must have been lost in her thoughts when she found the open seam in folding the kimono after a short rendezvous. While sewing, passionate part of her reproaches calm part of her in the opposite position.
   When I found this poem, I felt like peeking her brilliancy of living. Since then, I came to think that her solitude is not stubbornly blocked like misanthropy but more flexible ad humorous. To verify this, I have to learn more about her in true sense. It can only be done through relating poem and living, not only from her works nor her life.
    I am getting an idea that poetry is a alga gathered from sea called living. No other person set forth deep feeling so moderately than she. After affection to bereaved family….Observation to herself who have to live on the brink of solitude, nature looked through such filter ----her works remain silent as if they refuse to be picked up. I also wonder there must be many algae that have never reaped before.
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