John Stevens, the author of numerous books and translations of O Sensei, Aikido and Japanese Arts, has written a gem about the life of life of Otagaki Rengetsu (1791-1875).
Rengetsu was a love child from a courtesan and a “high ranking retainer of Iga Ueno Castle.” She was adopted into a family and by the age of six was being schooled not only in literature, poetry, but swordplay. (She, according to the author, also became a skilled go player.)
At age eight she went to serve at another Castle (Kameoka). During her nine-year stay there besides learning calligraphy, flower arranging, literature and poetry, she also continued her martial arts training.
“Nobu [the name she was given by the family that adopted her] became exceptionally adept in the use of jujutsu and handling the halberd, the sword and also the kusarigama (sickle and chain). She may have also practice ninjutsu…by the age of 17, Nobu was held to be the level of menkyo-kaiden) (teaching license) in the martial arts.”
She then suffered the first of many tragedies with both her stepbrother and her stepmother dying. She married and her first and second daughter’s died. She separated from her husband who apparently was rather a profligate. She was happily married to a second husband but he also died. She then shaved her hair and took vows as a “Pure Land Buddhist.”
She took the name, “Rengetsu,” or “Lotus Moon.” She lived with two of her surviving children and her father “in a small sub-temple.” Then her children died followed by her father. Stevens states, “At age 42, Rengetsu was alone.”
She then moved to Kyoto where her luck changed when she began making poetry. Stevens writes, “Rengetsu only learned the rudiments of pottery making—all her training was informal, which had probably consisted of trying her hand at pottery making when she was living at Makuzu-an and later from an amateur grandma potter in the Awat kiln district—she could not compete on a technical level.”
She apparently began writing poems on her pottery to help them stand out in the marketplace. She wrote, “my pottery was poorly crafted and unskillfully made, but I did my best to make each piece unique.”
An early poem read:
Taking my amateur,
Rough little things
How forlorn they look
In the marketplace.
However, those who saw her pottery thought different.
More to follow in Part II about what happened next to this remarkable woman.
A Note: This writer has viewed and held pottery by Rengetsu. Each feels to have a life of their own.
“Rengetsu – Life and Poetry of Lotus Moon,” Translation and Biography by John Stevens, Echo Point Books & Media, LLC, $14.99, ISBN 978-1-62654-931-9