Ryonen and the Hot Iron

There is a Zen story which I think people find hard to digest now. I think you will see why. It goes like this:

There was a young woman born in 1797 who would one day become the nun known as Ryonen. She was a grand daughter of the famous Japanese warrior Shingen. This status, her poety skills, and her alluring beauty made it possible for her to become one of the Empress’s Ladies of the Court at the young age of 17. She expected to lead a life of great fame. 

One day, the beloved Empress died suddenly and Ryonen’s hopeful dreams vanished. She became acutely aware of the impermanency of life in this world. It was then that she made new plans to become a nun and study Zen. 

Her relatives disagreed with her new plans and forced her into marriage instead, with a promise that she could become a nun after she had borne three children.

Before she was twenty-five she had accomplished this. Her husband and relatives kept their promise and allowed her become a nun. She shaved her head, took the name of Ryonen, which means ‘to realize clearly’, and started on her pilgrimage to find a teacher. 

After some time she came to the city of Edo and asked Tetsugya to accept her as a disciple. At one glance the master rejected her because she was too beautiful. 

Ryonen went to another master, Hakuo. Hakuo refused her for the same reason, saying that her beauty would only make trouble within the temple. 

Ryonen made a decision. 

Now at that time it was the custom for Japanese women to use hot irons to straighten their long hair.  Ryonen obtained such a hot iron and placed it against her face. In a few moments her beauty had vanished forever.

Hakuo then accepted her as a disciple. 

Ryonen wrote a short poem afterwards:

“In the service of my Empress I burned incense to perfume my exquisite clothes,

Now as a homeless mendicant I burn my face to enter a Zen temple.”

There are two reasons I can see this story sticking in people’s throats.

Firstly, that someone would disfigure themselves, destroy their beauty. We live in an age where people worship beauty, obsess over it in many cases. The thought that someone would renounce it in such a permanent manner will seem extreme to many. But we must remember that Buddhism teaches there are many things more important than physical beauty. Ryonen did what she needed to do, and she knew she was more than just her looks. 

The second reason modern people might find this story unpalatable is Hakuo’s insinuation that her beauty may cause trouble within the temple. I imagine what he meant by this was that some of the monks may be tempted by her. And this is the one that I find difficult to reconcile, especially in this age of renewed gender equality activism.

It brings to mind stories of teenage girls being asked to cover themselves up at school, or being sent home, rather than the teenage boys being taught not to oversexualise shoulders and legs. And this feels the wrong way round. 

Should the monks not have embraced the situation as an extra challenge in their practice? Should Ryonen have had to resort to covering her beauty to be allowed into the temple?

The bottom line is that, in a Temple, practice comes first and anything making it more difficult should be overcome if possible to allow everyone the best chance to achieve their spiritual goals. Ryonen seemed to appreciate this and took it upon herself to renounce her beauty in order to embrace the spiritual life fully. And that she did. 

When Ryonen was close to dying she wrote another short poem which really showed, when compared with her earlier poem, how far she had come in her practice:

“Sixty-six times have these eyes beheld the changing scenes of autumn.

I have said enough about moonlight, and still waters reflections.

Ask no more.

Only listen to the quiet voice of pines and cedars when no wind stirs.”

If you enjoyed this post you might find others you like in the Bite-Size Dharma archive!

Author: Bite-Size Dhamma

I'm a Buddhist layperson, trying to live well and skilfully with compassion, generosity, and discernment. I work in the field of housing law and homelessness casework. I have a beautiful kind wife, a very cute dog, and two loveable but surly cats.

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