Lessons from a 19th century Japanese nun on becoming a creative force in the world

Clay sake cup inscribed in black with a Japanese waka poem by Otagaki Rengetsu

Born the daughter of a courtesan and a samurai, Itagaki Nobu was put up for adoption shortly after her birth. A lay priest who worked at Chionji Temple in Kyoto raised her and taught her martial arts and calligraphy. At the age of seven, Nobu was sent to serve the lord of Kameoka Castle. Fortunately, she was allowed to continue her classical studies. By all accounts, she excelled at everything she undertook.

Unfortunately, early nineteenth century Japan was not supportive of gifted young servant girls. She was married off at sixteen to a young samurai who abused her. She had three children who all died at an early age. When her husband died, she was married again.  By the time Nobu was thirty-three, her second husband had died as well.

She returned to live with her adoptive father on the grounds of Chionji Temple.  There she found a measure of peace, became a Buddhist nun, changed her name to Rengetsu (meaning Lotus Moon), and devoted herself to meditation. Fate would not let her rest however. When her adoptive father died eight years later, Rengetsu was forced to leave Chionji.

In order to support herself, Rengetsu began making pottery and writing poetry. On each piece she would inscribe in exquisite calligraphy one of the poems she had written. Soon her work became so valued that crowds would gather around her wherever she went.

In order to escape the crowds and find time for meditation, she began going on long pilgrimages about the country. Despite her unsettled life, she was a prolific artist. Most of the money she earned she gave away to the poor. There is a story that when a robber entered her home one night, Rengetsu lit a lamp so he could see better and then fixed the thief a cup of tea.

By the time of her death at age eighty-four in 1875, Japan had declared her a patron saint of the arts and she had created over 50,000 pieces of pottery, poetry, calligraphy and paintings and was beloved by people from every social class in Japan.

Where had Otagaki Rengetsu, who had experienced so much tragedy in her life, found such a wellspring of strength, creativity, love and compassion?

Here’s another story, this one from the book One Hand Clapping.

A nun, Rengetsu by name, was on a pilgrimage when she stopped in a small town seeking shelter for the night. It had been a long and difficult jouney, and she was very tired. She went from door to door asking for a place to stay, but no one would let her in.

It was sunset now and getting darker by the minute,
so she finally made her bed for the night
in a field under a cherry tree.

In the middle of the night she awoke
to find the cherry tree in full blossom
beneath a beautiful silvery moon.
The sight was breathtaking!

Awed by this unexpected beauty,
she turned toward the village, bowed,
and uttered this little prayer of thanks:

Through their kindness in refusing me lodging,
I found myself beneath the beautiful blossoms
on the night of the misty moon.