A face burning for enlightenment
Updated: Aug 11
The allure of female beauty, car-boot sales, and zen.
Last weekend I joined a friend at a car-boot sale the likes of which I haven't experienced since the 1980s. The likes of which I didn't know had existed since the 1980s!
A sprawling collection of ragtag relics, tarnished trinkets and hidden treasures displayed without care or concern. Eccentric sellers vied with hopeful seekers amongst keys without locks, locks without keys, family portraits (of other people's families) and in amongst the rough, purchased for a pound... Zen Flesh, Zen Bones
Having paid almost nothing I was expecting even less, so was delighted to find the stories were short, digestible, confounding, and an illuminating insight into the world of Japanese Zen.
One I found particularly intriguing was Ryonen's Clear Realisation. In 1797, a granddaughter is born to a famous Japanese warrior who grows to become possessed of "poetical genius and alluring beauty." Already by age 17 she is amongst the court retinue of the Empress. "Even at such youthful age fame awaited her."
But then quite suddenly her dreams are dashed when her beloved empress dies. At that moment, she "becomes acutely aware of the impermanence of life" and a burning desire ignites to go study zen.
Her relatives are aghast and practically force her into marriage. They promise her she may become a nun only after bearing three children, probably imagining she would forget the whole thing. But they underestimate her resolve, and by age 25 leaving three children behind, there is nothing her husband or relatives can say to dissuade her.
She shaves her head, takes the name of Ryonen, and embarks in search of a teacher.
Arriving at the city of Edo she asks Zen Master Tetsugyu to accept her as a disciple. At one glance the master rejects her - she is too beautiful. Undefeated, Ryonen goes to another master, Hakuo. Hakuo refuses her for the same reasons, saying her beauty would only make trouble.
So Ryonen takes a hot iron, lifts it from the fire and places it against her face.
In an instant, her "beauty vanished forever."
Hakuo then accepts her as a disciple.
Ryonen would later write a poem on the back of a little mirror:
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 the temple of Zen.
Inspired by the emptiness of form, "practise like your hair is on fire" has become a Zen aphorism, and Ryonen enacts this very literally.
She gives her beauty no more value than a soap bubble, yet two Zen masters reject her because of it and in so doing they surely acknowledge its power.
I find myself both repelled and inspired by this story, and provoked to question: What does an integrated awakening look like that acknowledges both the emptiness and power of form?
I wonder also if the Zen Masters would have rejected a beautiful man, or if I would I feel differently about a man leaving his three young children. I like the sound of enlightenment, but I'm not sure I would shave my head, let alone burn my face in its pursuit.
What's your opinion? Do you resonate more with the Zen masters, with Ryonen or with her family? Send me a note, or better yet express your perspective in the comments here. The more perspectives the prettier!
In a strange twist of fate, this was only the first story in a matter of days about a face-burning and spiritual awakening. But I'll leave that tale for the next email.
Meanwhile, you can lose all concern for having any face whatsoever this Saturday evening, at the Headless Way Workshop with Richard Lang. Coming up we've also got:
I hope to see your face very soon, no hot iron required!
Keep enquiring, with love,