Rengetsu: An Extraordinary Buddhist Nun

[Transcript to Curator Audio Podcast]

Otagaki Rengetsu was an extraordinary individual who managed to transform a tragic life into an inspirational one. After losing two husbands and all five of her children, she joined her adopted father at the Buddhist temple Chion’in in Kyoto. As a Buddhist nun, she studied the teachings of the Buddha, which emphasize the concepts of impermanence, non-attachment, and compassion; these teachings helped her to accept her great personal loss, live a life of serenity, and produce art works that contain valuable teachings for others.

After Rengetsu left the temple, she encountered many challenges as a woman living alone and as an artist, but faced them with dignity and compassion. Even with her shaved head and nun’s robes, Rengetsu was still a beautiful woman, and was said to have been constantly harassed by male suitors. According to legend, her solution was to pull out her teeth, since she had no attachment to her physical beauty. Her ceramics were apparently so popular that potters in Kyoto made copies of them and even asked her to inscribe her calligraphy on their pots, so that they could pass them off as her work. Instead of being outraged, she happily obliged, hoping that this assistance would help the potters to make a living. Rengetsu is also believed to have given much of the money she earned from her art to help the poor. She herself lived very simply, finding joy in the smallest details of life. Her poems, inscribed on scrolls and ceramics, celebrate the transformative power of mundane experience. For example:

Gazing up at
The cherry blossoms in spring
My mind is refreshed.
I can even forget
The ups and downs of life.

Text written by Meher McArthur
Audio produced by Julian Bermudez