Living deep in the mountains
I’ve grown fond
of the soughing pines—
On days when the wind is still
how lonely it becomes!

— Otagaki Rengetsu (1791-1895)

I came across this poem and instantly recognized myself in it. When a poem can do that, it’s a very significant moment. So I went searching, especially because Reiki has made me fond of all things Japanese. I found gems like this one:

In the morning breeze
a riverbank willow
scatters its leaves
into the flowing waters—
so autumn begins…

According to information available online:

“Otagaki Rengetsu, best known as a famous Japanese poet, was also a calligrapher, potter, and painter. She was born in 1791 into a samurai family with the surname Todo, but was soon adopted by the Otagaki family and given the name Nobu. Having lost her mother and brother at a young age, she served as lady-in-waiting at Kameoka Castle (in present-day Kyoto Prefecture) from the age of 7, until she returned home at the age of 16 to marry. In 1823, after the death of her husband and three young children, she became a Buddhist nun, adopting the name Rengetsu, which means “Lotus Moon.”

Rengetsu moved to Chion-In temple in Kyoto to be with her father, a Buddhist priest. She remained there for ten years until her father’s death, at which time she moved to the countryside. To earn a living Rengetsu wrote Japanese poetry and also produced clay teapots which she often decorated with carved inscriptions or calligraphy of her poems.”

For example the above piece of her teaware has this poem of hers inscribed on it:

Coming and going
I feel neither
beginning nor end…
what a strange thing
this heart of mine!

She is best known for her waka poetry. According to Wikipedia:

Waka (和歌, literally “Japanese poem”) or Yamato uta is a genre of classical Japanese verse and one of the major genres of Japanese literature.The term was coined during the Heian period, and was used to distinguish Japanese-language poetry from kanshi(poetry written in Chinese by Japanese poets), and later from renga.

 

The term waka originally encompassed a number of differing forms, principally tanka (短歌, “short poem”) and chōka (長歌, “long poem”), but also including bussokusekika, sedōka (旋頭歌, “memorized [head repeated] poem”) and katauta (片歌, “poem fragment”). These last three forms, however, fell into disuse at the beginning of the Heian period, and chōka vanished soon afterwards. Thus, the term waka came in time to refer only to tanka.

 

Japanese poet and critic Masaoka Shiki created the term tanka in the early twentieth century for his statement that waka should be renewed and modernized. Until then, poems of this nature had been referred to as waka or simply uta (“song, poem”). Haiku is also a term of his invention, used for his revision of standalone hokku, with the same idea.

 

Traditionally waka in general has had no concept of rhyme (indeed, certain arrangements of rhymes, even accidental, were considered dire faults in a poem), or even of line. Instead of lines, waka has the unit (連) and the phrase (句). (Units or phrases are often turned into lines when poetry is translated or transliterated into Western languages, however.)

Here’s an example of her calligraphy, inscribed with one of her poems:

In the paddies

between the hills

on a misty path

a human from takes shape:

a scarecrow.

Otagaki Rengetsu was prolific; her poems here are a mere handful. When you read her bio, it’s obvious that she actually lived real human challenges. Her poetry and art doesn’t come from some idyllic existence.

That’s why I bow to her spirit, for it remained light as a feather, and gracefully inspirational. I’ve fallen head over heels in love with her creative spirit and humility.

I leave you with two more for her poems.

Waiting
beneath a maple
its colors still unturned—
so happy this morning
with the first rain of winter!

And finally for a spiritual healing focus:

Won’t you open
the lotus inside
and turn
those demons
from your heart?

— Otagaki Rengetsu

Gassho!

All material used with the kind permission of The Rengetsu Foundation Project


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The Lotus Inside—Otagaki Rengetsu’s Poetry