Black robe, white mistArt of the Japanese Buddhist nun Rengetsu
8 September 2007 – 27 January 2008

Introduction | Lotus Moon | Ceramics and sake | Collaboration | Art of tea | Poetry and Buddhism | Publication | Events

Poetry and Buddhism

Otagaki Rengetsu 'Sudden autumn shower' poem sheet [tanzaku] 1840s calligraphy, ink on paper Unger family collection, Switzerland

Otagaki Rengetsu 'In the fields, in the mountains' poem sheet [tanzaku] 1868 calligraphy, ink on paper Private collection, Brussels more detail

Rengetsu studied waka – Japanese classical verse composed in a pattern of 5–7–5–7–7 syllables – while at Kameoka Castle as a child. The form was particularly popular with women during the Edo period, a time when women from all sections of society put ink to paper. Rengetsu used waka to communicate her emotions and observations. Inscribed in elegant, rounded calligraphy, Rengetsu’s words grace virtually every object she created, bringing an intimate presence to her works in clay and on paper. She wrote in her autobiography:

The day begins
I’m busy with my crafts
the day ends
I pray to the Buddha
and I have nothing to worry about.

(trans. Lee Johnson)

Rengetsu became a nun of the Pure Land sect of Buddhism at the age of 33, following the death of her second husband. It was then that she took the name Rengetsu, meaning Lotus Moon. After years of moving around the Kyoto area, she spent her final decade at Jinkoin, an esoteric Shingon Buddhist temple. Shaped by her faith, Rengetsu’s work combines the spiritual with the tangible but is rarely overtly Buddhist in its references.

No place at the inn;
human beings have a
hard time in life I feel
but sleeping beneath the blossoms
and the hazy moon consoles me.

(trans. John Stevens)
This floating world’s
dust and dirt
flows away
and all is purified
by the waves of Kamo River.

(trans. John Stevens)


Otagaki Rengetsu 'Night storm' tea bowl [chawan] 19th century glazed stoneware, incised calligraphy Private collection, St Louis

Otagaki Rengetsu 'Night storm' tea bowl [chawan] 19th century glazed stoneware, incised calligraphy Private collection, St Louis more detail

Rengetsu’s poetry, and the influence and importance of Pure Land Buddhism in her life, are discussed by John Stevens in two chapters of Black robe, white mist: Art of the Japanese Buddhist nun Rengetsu. Dr Chiaki Ajioka then explores the complexities of translating Japanese poetry in the final section of Black robe white mist.


Black Robe, white mist was on show at the National Gallery of Australia 8 September 2007 – 27 January 2008