beyond form: the story of Ryonen


This morning opens with a chapter from Sallie Tisdale’s Women of the Way:Discovering 2,500 years of Buddhist wisdom.  It’s the story of Ryonen Genso.  Born into a noble family, she longed for life as a monastic.  Her family’s demands however lead her to a marriage to a man 16 years her senior.  Somewhat craftily, she negotiates her release from the marriage if she gives him an heir, which she does.  She had a life long relationship of the deep intimacy with Yoshi, her childhood friend and companion.  When Yoshi dies, Fusa finally enters the monastic life, is given the name Ryonen Genso, and begins her life of commitment to the Dharma.

Searching for a teacher, Ryonen encounters painful barriers ostensibly because of her physical beauty.  One teacher refuses to take her because she would be a distraction to his monks who, he feared, would not be able to control themselves.  Have we become more subtle in three centuries since, I wonder?  Another teacher, Hakuo, sees her inner beauty but still is compelled to refuse her because of his fears of his own vulnerability to her, of the damage to his reputation, and of what the neighbours would think.



I can only imagine what she must have felt, returning to the inn, looking at herself in whatever reflected her image.  “This face, this body, this form is not me.”  Did she think that, say it, cry it out?  Did she realize that in any form, she would have been seen as a threat to the undisciplined or the emotionally unaware?

Whatever she thought, her pain seemed unbounded; she disfigured her face with hot coals.  And, you guessed it, the teacher admits her to his school.  Interestingly, I don’t think it would have been because she was now less beautiful.  Hakuo had looked deeply into her heart and knew who she was.  I like to think he was awakened to his own entrenchment in form.  It makes me reflect on the many times we are willing to burn away who we are for the sake of true intimacy.  Such is the mystery of relationship.

Ryonen wrote these poems after she burned her face:

When I was a girl, we played in court, burning incense.
Now I burn my face, to study Zen.
Each season flows easily into the other, and
I do not know who writes this in a world of change.


This is the living world,
but my face has been burned away.
I would be a sorry thing if I didn’t know
it is the firewood that burns up my delusion.

Thank you for practising,


2 thoughts on “beyond form: the story of Ryonen

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