Rengetsu — a Nun Poet Who Brought a Civil War to a Peaceful End

I recently encountered the story of Rengetsu (1791-1875) — a Japanese Buddhist nun with an extraordinary story.

She was the love child of a geisha and a high ranking samurai. At 10 days old she was adopted by new parents. As a teen she was called to serve as an attendant at Kameoka Castle, and during her 9-year stay she received a samurai education in deportment, calligraphy, painting, poetry, tea ceremony, flower arranging, dancing, and a thorough grounding in the martial arts. At age 16 her troubles began — she married, then her husband died, she married again — he died too. So did her brothers and all five of her children, about which she wrote a poem:

My children…
I used to stroke
their sleepy morning hair
laying loose upon my sleeve –
white dew on blossoms of pink.

So at age 33 she became a Buddhist nun, assuming the name Rengetsu which means “Lotus Moon.” After she was ordained, she settled into a hermitage on the grounds of her adoptive father’s temple. However, he died nine years later, which resulted in her being evicted.

So now she was faced with supporting herself (no nunneries at that time). Though she was excellent in martial arts and other sought-after skills, being a woman made the prospects of teaching those subjects poor. So she settled on pottery making, and not having time for the traditional twelve-year apprenticeship, she learned the basics and then inscribed her simple pottery with her poems. Her pottery turned out to be hugely popular — it’s believed she created 50,000 pieces in her lifetime (much of which is still appreciated in museums today). Her pottery sold well enough that she gave a substantial sum to famine relief and even financed the construction of a badly needed bridge.

Rengetsu is best known for her role in saving Japan from mass destruction during the Boshin Civil War (1868). The Shogunate was tottering toward collapse, and the Loyalists (agitating for the restoration of the Emperor) had amassed to attack Tokyo (population around one million). Rengetsu appeared before the General of the Loyalists and presented him this poem:

To those who strike
And to those who are struck
Keep in your heart
That we all are people
Of the same noble land.

The General took the message to heart and negotiated a peaceful end. Imagine — a poem from a 73-year-old nun saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

She died age 84, especially loved by the children of her village.

William Zeitler

Further reading: Rengetsu: Life and Poetry of Lotus Moon, John Stevens. This book is in three parts: a biography, translations of selected poems, and anecdotes about Rengetsu. This book is obviously a labor of love. The poem translations in this article are from this lovely book. Available on Amazon.

First published on SubStack

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