I Have Said Enough About Moonlight
Ryonen’s story ranks among the most extraordinary in the history of devotion. I first heard it many years ago. Her story haunts me with visitations from the loviest spirit you can imagine.
Her story is told in the well-known book, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones: A Collection of Zen and Pre-Zen Writings, edited by Paul Reps and Nyogen Senzaki (Tuttle, 1957/1985).
Ryonen was born in 1797 in the twilight of the Shogun period, her own grandfather a renowned warrior. By the age of seventeen, her poetic talent and beauty had attracted the attention of the Japanese Court, and she became a lady in waiting to the Empress. When her beloved Empress died suddenly, however, the carefully laid plans for Ryonen’s life were shattered and she became deeply aware of life’s impermanence.
She wanted desperately to study Zen at this point, but her parents insisted that she marry. She acceded to their wishes with one condition: when she had borne three children for her husband, she would be permitted to leave the marriage and to pursue the life of a Zen nun.
Her family and her betrothed granted her wish, and she held her side of the bargain. After her third child was born, she took the name by which she would be known ever after, Ryonen (which means “to realize clearly”) and she began her journey into the life of Zen. But, entry into the life of Zen was much more difficult than she had imagined.
After shaving her head and taking her Zen name, she went to the city of Edo (modern day Tōkyō) and submitted herself to the Zen teacher Tetsugyu, requesting that he take her on as a disciple. He refused because she was too beautiful. Likewise when she approached another Zen master, Hakuo, she was refused. Her beauty would be a distraction and a source of trouble in his monastery.
Undaunted, Ryonen took a rod of iron, heated it in a fire, and burned her own face so that she would no longer be barred from pursuit of Zen discipleship. Presenting herself to Hakuo, her physical beauty burned away, she was accepted as a disciple. She wrote a poem about this experience in which she remarks upon trading her former life, perfumed by the burning of incense, to her life as a homeless mendicant by the burning of her skin.
The parallels between this story and the teachings of Jesus are as immediate as they are disturbing. In speaking of the reign of God in the heart of a disciple, Jesus warns us against anything that might be a barrier to that discipleship. “If your eye keeps you from the reign of God,” he says, “pluck it out.” Most commentators have tended to so spiritualize and moralize this teaching that it is hard to believe it has anything to do with us.
Readers of Kazantzakis’s Zorba, the Greek, however will remember the moment in that novel when Zorba is trying to point out something. The young man beside him notices only the fact that his hand has been mutilated. What happened to your hand? the young man asks. My hand? Don’t get distracted by my hand, Zorba says, look at what I’m pointing to. But your hand is missing a finger. Frustrated, Zorba says, I was molding pottery and my finger kept getting in the way, so I cut it off. Now look at what I’m pointing toward.
Ryonen removed that which prevented her from accomplishing her goal. She embraced the life of the Zen nun serenely, but with complete determination. I wish I knew more of her story. But there is one final piece of her story that is told.
As her death approached, she wrote a final poem. This is a hallowed tradition in Zen. In the poem we can sense the calm, the serenity, of the way of life she embraced, its clear realization of reality. Here is her final poem:
“Sixty-six times have these eyes beheld the changing scene of Autumn,
I have said enough about moonlight,
Ask no more
Only listen to the voice of pines and cedars when no wind stirs.”