Rengetsu hit her stride at age sixty and went on to produce a huge corpus of work—poetry, calligraphy, pottery, painting, and collaborations–over the next twenty-five years.
In 1851, at age sixty-one Rengetsu took a break from her pottery making to spend the summer in retreat at Daibutsu (Hoko-ji), mostly studying the collected poetry of Ozawa Roan. The head priest at a nearby temple, Myoho-in, was Rakei Jihon. Jihon was a Tendai Buddhist savant as well as a poet and calligrapher himself. Rengetsu and Jihon became good friends. While at Daibutsu, Rengetsu also met Gankai Ajari, a marathon monk from Mt. Hiei. Rengetsu gave Gankei a teapot that he treasured the rest of his days. We can surmise that Rengetsu acquired a good knowledge of Tendai Buddhism when she was at Daibutsu, regularly attending the morning service or other ceremonies at the temple and talking with Rankei and Gankei.
After her time at Daibutsu, Rengetsu seems to have lived in or around Okazaki until 1856. At age sixty-six, Rengetsu moved to Shinsho-ji, a Soto Shu Zen temple in the Kita-Shirakawa area, at the invitation of the head priest Hara Tanzan. Young Tomioka Tessai, who had become Rengetsu’s protégé a few years earlier, moved there as well to look after her and help out with the pottery making. Eccentric Tanzan was one of the zaniest Zen masters of the day. Tanzan has been immortalized in modern Zen lore as the hero of this oft repeated tale:
Two novice monks, Tanzan and Ekido, were on a pilgrimage from one training monastery to another. A storm blew up, and the pair came to a flooded crossroad that had been transformed into a fast-flowing stream. A lovely young girl was stranded there. Tanzan inquired, “Do you need help?” When the girl replied, “Yes,” he lifted her up on his shoulders, carried her across the flooded road, and deposited her safely on the other side. After the two monks walked a bit farther, Ekido burst out, “How could you do such a thing? You know it is strictly prohibited for Buddhist monks to touch women!” (And on top of that, in those days, Japanese women did not use underwear.) Tanzan shot back, “What? Are you still carrying that girl? I put her down long ago.”
Rengetsu spent hours discussing Zen Buddhism with Tanzan, and most probably took part in some of Shinsho-ji’s temple activities including zen mediation.
Rengetsu lived at Shinsho-ji for a couple of years and then moved to Shogo-in Village. She lived in Shogo-in until 1863, and at age seventy-three she moved to Nishigamo, where she is believed to have loved in a hut near the family of Yoshida Yasu. (Yasu assisted Rengetsu with pottery making.)
Finally in 1865 Rengetsu settled down. After leaving Chion-in, Rengetsu had moved her residence more than thirty times—thirteen moves in one year—and she was nicknamed “Always on the Move Rengetsu.” At age seventy-five, Rengetsu moved permanently into the tea hut at Jinko-in.
According to legend, Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan, engaged in ascetic practices for ninety days on the spot where the temple now stands. In 1217, a Shinto priest at Kamigamo Shrine named Matsuhisa Norihisa saw a divine light shining on the mountain. He arranged to have a temple constructed there he called Jinko (“Divine Light”). Over the centuries Jinko-in became a center of Shingon Buddhism. Worship at Jinko-in was said to be especially efficacious for those suffering from eye-disease. The iris pond and the crimson maple leaves on the grounds of Jinko-in are famed for their beauty.
The head priest at Jinko-in was Wada Gesshin (1800-1870.) Gesshin was originally a professional painter under the name Gozan. At age forty-two after the death of his wife, Gozan, together with two of sons, took ordination as Shingon Buddhist monks. He took the religious name Gesshin, “Moon Mind.” While Gesshin primary remained an artist albeit as a painter of Buddha, Kannon, and Jizo images, his sons Kakuju (“Bodhi Tree”) and Chiman (“Full of Knowledge”) became important and influential figures in the history of modern Buddhism.
Chiman was living with his father at Jinko-in. Chiman was Rengetsu’s preceptor. She became a serious practitioner of the Tantric Buddhism of Japan. In her tea hut, an image of Fudo Myoo-o, patron saint of esoteric Buddhists, was placed in the alcove. She recited mantras throughout the day.
Gesshin and Rengetsu became close collaborators as artists, Gesshin doing the painting and Rengetsu adding the poetic inscription. Their joint pieces were not limited to religious subjects; their art covered the entire range of human affairs, historical events, and the world of nature. The pair produced many fine pieces.
At Jinko-in Rengetsu continued to make pottery, do calligraphy and painting, and collaborate with many other artists. For years, Rengetsu had been complaining of various ailments and lamenting how old and frail she was becoming. She wrote this poem, entitled “Upon Turning Age 77.”
Another year has arrived–
If I die, it is fine,
If I live, it is fine.
It is fine all the same.
I may go but spring comes once again.
In fact, Rengetsu’s seventies were by far the most productive of her life. Age seventy-seven was her peak year. Thousands of pieces in all media—clay, paper, and wood– are proudly signed, “Rengetsu, age seventy-seven.” During these years, Rengetsu’s calligraphy with a brush on paper or with a pick in clay is extraordinarily bold, powerful, and confident.
In her eighties, Rengetsu did slow down a bit but as she became weaker physically her work became stronger, particularly her tea bowls. Her tea bowls were made more slowly, with gravitas, and a deeper sense of wabi and sabi. Also, Rengetsu began doing more albums containing her own work and collaborations with other artists (mostly Tessai) plus many sketchbooks. Rengetsu continued creating art to the very end. Her final work, an album of her inscriptions on Tessai’s paintings, was finished two days before her death.
Although Rengetsu had no intention of publishing a collection of her poetry—and in fact opposed it–her friends were insistent. In 1868, when Rengetsu was age seventy-eight, Rengetsu Shikibu Nijo Waka Shu (Poems by Rengetsu and Shikibu) was published. Takabatake Shikibu was Rengetsu’s fellow poet and artist; they also collaborated on paintings. This collection had fifty poems by Shikibu and forty-nine by Rengetsu. In 1870, Ama no Karumo (A Diver’s Harvest of Seaweed) was published. This edition had 310 poems by Rengetsu alone. (All in all, there are around 900 extant waka collected in various editions of Rengetsu’s poetry.)
When Rengetsu was eighty-four, Tessai asked her to do a biography. It turned out two pages long. Rengetsu did not write much more than “I was born in Kyoto, as I child I was called Nobu, I lost my family, I became a nun in my thirties, I made pottery to support myself, and I am now old and frail.”
The biography consists primarily of poems:
Thirty years following my husband’s death
The evanescence of
This floating word
I feel over and over:
It is hardest to be
The one left behind.
Often I recall the love
Of my father;
When I visit his grave,
I can only
Sob and sob.
I have abandoned this
World of dreams,
But in my dreams
I cannot settle down
Thinking about these times of trouble.
This dew drop body,
[My life has been like]
A weather-beaten grass hut lying
In the shade of a mountain.
At day break,
I am off to gather clay
To make my pottery;
It is my way of
No more grime
Left in my heart;
All there is—
Today’s cloudless sky
In October of 1875, Rengetsu fell sick with typhoid fever. Near the end, Rengetsu spent most of her time in meditation, chanting the nembutsu, and reciting mantras. When people brought her medicine, she told them kindly, “My time has come. No need to waste medicine on me.” In last days, Rengetsu was lovingly cared for by her close disciple, the nun Mokujaku.
Rengetsu died in her tea hut at Jinko-in on December 10. She requested that her death be kept quiet with only Tessai to be informed. After Tessai arrived, her body was wrapped in a white funeral shroud and the weeping villagers carried Rengetsu’s coffin up the hill to her grave site on the grounds of nearby Saiho-ji. Rengetsu’s grave site is marked by a simple stone tucked away in the cemetery next to a huge cherry tree.
*Rengetsu left another death verse that is better known:
My hope for the afterworld:
To rest upon
A blooming lotus flower
Gazing at a full moon,
In a cloudless sky.
This is the poem, accompanied by a painting of a moon and lotus flower by Tessai, brushed on her funeral shroud.