Looking the part

There’s a Zen story about a woman that was very determined to become a nun. Quoting the story from 101zenstories.org:

The Buddhist nun known as Ryonen was born in 1797. She was a granddaughter of the famous Japanese warrior Shingen. Her poetical genius and alluring beauty were such that at seventeen she was serving the empress as one of the ladies of the court. Even at such a youthful age fame awaited her.

The beloved empress died suddenly and Ryonen’s hopeful dreams vanished. She became acutely aware of the impermanence of life in this world. It was then that she desired to study Zen.

Her relatives disagreed, however, and practically forced her into marriage. With a promise that she might become a nun after she had borne three children, Ryonen assented. Before she was twenty-five she had accomplished this condition. Then her husband and relatives could no longer dissuade her from her desire. She shaved her head, took the name of Ryonen, which means to realize clearly, and started on her pilgrimage.

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.

Ryonen obtained 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.

I’m not certain of the effect sought by Zen Buddhists while meditating on this story (called Ryonen’s Clear Realization). Perhaps something about making a difference between what is real and what is an illusion, to get rid of the superfluous while searching the essential. Usually Zen Buddhist monks and nuns search for this, among other actions, by shaving their hair – source of vanity. It’s interesting to see that for Ryonen this was not enough as apparently her beauty would be a cause of distraction to the other monks. So in other to prove her determination and willingness to follow the same path as her male counterparts she had to render herself unattractive. One would think that control should be exerted by the person feeling the desires to suppress them (in this case, the man to control his impulses) and not to the person bearing a physical attribute over which they have little control to conceal them (as women had and continue to be forced to do in many contexts).

On another reading level, I like this story because it illustrates the enormous capacity of  a determined woman (and the human in general) to overcome any hurdle in their way to pursue their passion. In many contexts, there’s an expectation to conform to certain visual codes, implying for women to tone down feminine traits. Sometimes I wonder if it was easier during Ryonen times to choose vocation over looks. Nowadays, in a “you can have it all” attitude, you are expected to look and act professional while at work, cool and detached in casual settings, glamorous for special occasions and sexy for racier ones. I wonder if men ever feel the pressure to look their best (and different) in every occasion.

I can think of fairy tales of girls having to fit into tiny shoes, trading voice for a pair of legs, donning on a donkey skin to hide their beauty, even falling in love with beasts. As for boys in tales, I only remember now one about a wooden boy whose nose grew bigger and bigger without control. Go figure.


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