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From The Asian Reporter, V16, #26 (June 27, 2006), page 12.

In full bloom

Lotus Moon: The Poetry of Rengetsu

Translated by John Stevens

White Pine Press, 2005

Paperback, 128 pages, $14.00

By Josephine Bridges

To forget the chill of

The frozen hearth

I spend the night

Dreaming of gathering

Violets in a lush field.

Rengetsuís poem "Winter Dreams" tells us a great deal about the Buddhist nunís strategy for not just coping with but celebrating her own life. That life, begun in 1791 in the pleasure quarters of Kyoto, was long and full, yet Rengetsu, writes Bonnie Myotai Treace, spiritual director of the Zen Center of New York, "experienced more heartbreak and loss than most of us will know in a lifetime." That didnít stop her from creating more than fifty thousand works of art ó pottery, paintings, and poetry ó as lovely as the violets in her dreams.

John Stevens not only deftly translates Rengetsuís poetry, he writes an outstanding introduction ó brief and dense at the same time ó to this remarkable womanís life and work. Born "the illegitimate offspring of a high-ranking samurai and a young geisha," Rengetsu was adopted by Otagaki Teruhisa, a lay Buddhist priest who taught her martial arts, literature, calligraphy, and the game of go. A force to reckon with, "Rengetsu was just as capable of disarming intruders and subduing annoying drunks as she was at making poetry and performing the tea ceremony."

Rengetsuís young adulthood was as tragic as her childhood was enviable. By the age of 33, she had lost two husbands and three children. It was at this time that she took orders as a Buddhist nun, adopted the name Rengetsu (which means "Lotus Moon") and moved with her surviving two children to her adoptive fatherís home on the grounds of the temple where he served. Within the next eight years death claimed those two children and the man who raised her. "With Teruhisa gone she was obliged to leave the temple and carry on alone," choosing pottery from among her many skills as a way of making a living.

Rengetsuís pottery, which she inscribed with her own poetry and paintings, was so popular that she began "moving from place to place to avoid the crush of customers Ö in one year alone she moved thirteen times." When one of a number of kilns producing imitations of Rengetsuís pottery asked her to inscribe their fakes, she "not only agreed to do so, but also gave the kiln a few genuine pieces to help them do a better job of copying her."

In addition to Rengetsuís waka, classical verse with a 5-7-5-7-7 syllable pattern, Lotus Moon contains reproductions of her pottery, paintings, and calligraphy. While some of the poetry here is indeed, as John Stevens writes, "understated and evocative," the sort of thing you would expect from a Buddhist nun, some of it is both sensual and eccentric. "As a Nun, Gazing at the Deep Colors of Autumn" doesnít hold back:

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 todayís crimson maple leaves?

Rengetsu is said to have made tea for a "misdirected thief" who entered her spare little hut. Perhaps he inspired her to incorporate one of his colleagues into "When a Thief Came":

If the mountain bandit

Came to my place

To steal away

Golden oak leaves

He struck it rich!

Rengetsu "died peacefully at the age of eighty-four on December 10, 1875 in the tea room of Jinkoin Temple." Knowing Rengetsu, she was probably not disappointed, even if this was not exactly what she had wished for in her "Death Verse," written years earlier, in her late seventies, and placed in the casket she prepared for her own funeral:

How I hope to pass away

While gazing at a round moon

In a cloudless sky that

Shines over lotus flowers

In full bloom.

To buy me, visit these retailers:

Powell's Books

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