Monday, June 15, 2015

What Would I Do for the Dharma? Thinking about Ryonen

Susan Moon

Image 1: Calligraphy
by Ryonen Genso
Ryonen was a woman Zen teacher in 17th century Japan. A story about her has been cooking inside of me ever since I read it some years ago.

As a young woman, Ryonen Genso was an attendant to the empress, and was known for her beauty and intelligence. When the empress died, she felt the impermanence of life, and she went in search of a Zen master with whom she could practice.

She traveled to the monastery of Master Hakuo Dotai, who refused her because of her beauty, saying her womanly appearance would cause problems for the monks in his monastery.

Afterward, she saw some women pressing fabric by a river, and she took up a hot iron and held it against her face, scarring herself. Then she wrote this poem on the back of a small mirror:
To serve my Empress, I burned incense to perfume my exquisite clothes.
Now as a homeless mendicant I burn my face to enter a Zen temple.
The four seasons flow naturally like this.
Who is this now in the midst of these changes?
She returned to Hakuo and gave him the poem. Hakuo immediately accepted her as a disciple. She became abbess of his temple when he died, and later founded her own temple. Before her death she wrote the following poem:
This is the sixty-sixth autumn I have seen.
The moon still lights my face.
Don’t ask me about the meaning of Zen teachings—
Just listen to what the pines and cedars say on a windless night.


When I first read this koan, I was horrified—as a woman, as a feminist. How could we celebrate the wisdom of a woman who would be so self-destructive as to burn her own face in order to keep men from being distracted by her beauty? Wasn’t it the monks’ problem that they found her beauty distracting? Wasn’t Ryonen reinforcing Hakuo’s and the monks’ deluded belief that an attractive woman doesn’t belong in a monastery?  Wasn’t she giving in to the extreme sexism of the time?

The story also made me think of the increasing number of adolescent girls who cut themselves in our own time. A completely different situation, of course—and yet, isn’t any deliberate self-harm a terrible thing by definition? How could such a thing ever be spiritual?

But looking at the following lines that are juxtaposed in Ryonen’s poem, I see that she was not expressing self-hatred. And she was remarkably calm.
Now as a homeless mendicant I burn my face to enter a Zen temple.
The four seasons flow naturally like this. 
I have come to admire Ryonen for her courage. She put herself through unimaginable pain in order to study the dharma. I see her standing among the washerwomen by the river, suddenly lifting the iron from the coals and pressing it to her flesh while they look on in astonishment. Holding it with her own arm to her own face, not dropping it at the first sensation of heat. There’s a sizzling sound, and the smell of burning flesh. Did she drop the iron then, and fall to the ground in a faint? Did the laundry women give her herbal compresses? Burns are famous for causing intense pain. How did she deal with that?

She was taking a risk. She could have been spurned again by the abbot, who might have said, “Now your scar will be an even greater distraction to the monks than your beauty was.” As to that, maybe her scar was distracting, but maybe her beauty or lack of it was no longer the point.

Did Hakuo accept her the second time because she was no longer beautiful? Or did he accept her because he realized the depth of her commitment to the dharma, and he realized that such commitment could not be turned away? I think she had moved the matter beyond the question of beautiful or ugly.

I suspect that if Ryonen had first come to Hakuo’s door as a plain woman, with a face pitted by acne, for example, Hakuo might still have turned her away. A beautiful woman would have been distracting because she was beautiful, and an ugly woman would have been distracting because she was ugly.

Image 2: Woodblock book Kinsei meika shogadan depicting the face burning act.

In scarring her face, Ryonen held up a mirror to Hakuo, literally and metaphorically. Look what you made me do. Now are you satisfied? Of course she didn’t say this to him, but he might have thought: Oh dear, what have I done? Or he might have understood the narrowness of his own judgment.

And how perfect that she wrote her poem on the back of a mirror. I imagine her holding the mirror up in front of her to read the poem, with the mirror side facing Hakuo, so he couldn’t help looking at himself as she read. Perhaps he asked himself: “Who is this monk who rejected a sincere practitioner?”

I wouldn’t have the physical courage to hold a hot iron to my face in order to practice. The very terribleness of what Ryonen did is what makes the story a teaching for me. I look in her mirror, too, and I ask myself: What would I do for the dharma?

How brave would I be if the one thing that mattered to me more than anything else in this life was to wake up in the dharma? Wait! Is this what matters to me most?

What if my bodhicitta vows demand courage as big as Ryonen’s? Can I vow to save all sentient beings and expect to be relatively comfortable at the same time?

I’m fortunate that I didn’t have to hold a hot iron to my face in order to go to a practice period at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center 20 years ago. I did have to get a leave of absence from work and make many arrangements for my busy life and my family relationships. Challenging, but not scary. I didn’t really have to let go of self-clinging. I was pretty comfortable at Tassajara. I had to get up very early in the cold of the mountains, but I loved my cup of tea in the starry winter mornings. Would I have awakened more fully if the practice period had come at a higher price? I don’t know.

Image 3: Ryonen's calligraphy

Ryonen made a great sacrifice in order to enter the monastery. The word sacrifice has a bad connotation in modern psychological terms, suggesting unwholesome martyrdom. But it comes from the Latin, sacer—sacred, and facere—to make. To make sacred. So Ryonen made something sacred by what she did. Herself, her face, her intention, the abbot of the monastery, all became sacred.

A sacrifice is a gift, a letting go, and an offering up of oneself. Now I practice in a sangha of lay people, people with families, living and working in the world. Our lives are pretty comfortable. We don’t have to go to extremes to practice.

It seems I can fit my formal practice in around the edges of my life; without giving up my commitments to family and friends, to writing and editing and collaborating; without even giving up going to the movies quite often; and certainly without having to burn my face with a hot iron. So what does Ryonen’s story have to do with me?

The thing is, dharma practice is the most important thing in my life. And for me, practice includes family and friends and work. (Maybe even movies?!?) So I bring Ryonen along with me, as I move through my comfortable everyday life. I hold as a treasure the question she raises. How do I find courage as powerful as hers in my life? What can I let go of to wake up? How do I offer myself a hundred percent to saving all sentient beings?

[Ryonen’s story comes from a Japanese biography of Ryonen and has appeared in various English translations, including Reps and Senzaki, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones. See also the Hidden Lamp: Stories from 25 Centuries of Awakened Women (Caplow and Moon, 2013) for the story and a contemporary commentary on the story.]


Image credit:
Image 1: courtesy of http://www.earlywomenmasters.net/, web address:
Image 2: courtesy of Terebess Online, web address: http://terebess.hu/zen/mesterek/RyonenGenso.html
Image 3: courtesy of Terebess Online, web address: http://terebess.hu/zen/mesterek/RyonenGenso.html


Susan Moon: Writer, editor, lay teacher

Susan Moon is a writer, editor, and lay teacher in the Soto Zen tradition. For many years she was the editor of Turning Wheel, the Journal of Socially Engaged Buddhism. Her books include This Is Getting Old: Zen Thoughts on Aging with Humor and Dignity [http://www.shambhala.com/this-is-getting-old.html] , and most recently The Hidden Lamp: Stories from 25 Centuries of Awakened Women, with co-author/editor Florence Caplow. [http://www.wisdompubs.org/book/hidden-lamp]  She lives in Berkeley, California. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this sharing Susan. Intense and beautiful. My love for the Dharma, for my indigenous spiritual and healing path, for the mending of the sacred hoop of humanity, for the healing of our Ancestors, is worth so much to me so I can feel into the depths of her sacrifice. I think these times require a similar sacrifice and courage in facing our history and standing beside one another, and having challenging, sometimes uncomfortable yet transformative conversations so that we can create a new path forward. Grateful to be a part of the East Bay Meditation Center Sangha, where we are walking this path together. In peace and metta, Brenda Salgado