japonisme: courtesans, prostitutes & whores: Part IIIC Courtesans

05 February 2008

courtesans, prostitutes & whores: Part IIIC Courtesans


Lafcadio Hearn

There was once a very pious and learned priest, called Shôku Shônin, who lived in the province of Harima. For many years he meditated daily upon the chapter of Fugen-Bosatsu [the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra] in the Sûtra of the Lotos of the Good Law; and he used to pray, every morning and evening, that he might at some time be permitted to behold Fugen-Bosatsu as a living presence, and in the form described in the holy text. 2

One evening, while he was reciting the Sûtra, drowsiness overcame him; and he fell asleep leaning upon his kyôsoku.3 Then he dreamed; and in his dream a voice told him that, in order to see Fugen-Bosatsu, he must go to the house of a certain courtesan, known as the "Yujô-no-Chôja,"4 who lived in the town of Kanzaki. Immediately upon awakening he resolved to go to Kanzaki; — and, making all possible haste, he reached the town by the evening of the next day.

When he entered the house of the yujô, he found many persons already there assembled — mostly young men of the capital, who had been attracted to Kanzaki by the fame of the woman's beauty. They were feasting and drinking; and the yujô was playing a small hand-drum (tsuzumi), which she used very skilfully, and singing a song. The song which she sang was an old Japanese song about a famous shrine in the town of Murozumi; and the words were these: —

Within the sacred water-tank5 of Murozumi in Suwô,
Even though no wind be blowing,
The surface of the water is always rippling.

The sweetness of the voice filled everybody with surprise and delight. As the priest, who had taken a place apart, listened and wondered, the girl suddenly fixed her eyes upon him; and in the same instant he saw her form change into the form of Fugen-Bosatsu, emitting from her brow a beam of light that seemed to pierce beyond the limits of the universe, and riding a snow-white elephant with six tusks. And still she sang — but the song also was now transformed; and the words came thus to the ears of the priest: —

On the Vast Sea of Cessation,
Though the Winds of the Six Desires and of the Five Corruptions never blow,
Yet the surface of that deep is always covered
With the billowings of Attainment to the Reality-in-Itself.

Dazzled by the divine ray, the priest closed his eyes: but through their lids he still distinctly saw the vision. When he opened them again, it was gone: he saw only the girl with her hand-drum, and heard only the song about the water of Murozumi. But he found that as often as he shut his eyes he could see Fugen-Bosatsu on the six-tusked elephant, and could hear the mystic Song of the Sea of Cessation. The other persons present saw only the yujô: they had not beheld the manifestation.

Then the singer suddenly disappeared from the banquet-room — none could say when or how. From that moment the revelry ceased; and gloom took the place of joy. After having waited and sought for the girl to no purpose, the company dispersed in great sorrow. Last of all, the priest departed, bewildered by the emotions of the evening. But scarcely had he passed beyond the gate, when the yujô appeared before him, and said: — "Friend, do not speak yet to any one of what you have seen this night." And with these words she vanished away, — leaving the air filled with a delicious fragrance.

The monk by whom the foregoing legend was recorded, comments upon it thus: — The condition of a yujô is low and miserable, since she is condemned to serve the lusts of men. Who therefore could imagine that such a woman might be the nirmanakaya, or incarnation, of a Bodhisattva. But we must remember that the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas may appear in this world in countless different forms; choosing, for the purpose of their divine compassion, even the most humble or contemptible shapes when such shapes can serve them to lead men into the true path, and to save them from the perils of illusion.

1 From the old story-book, Jikkun-shô.

2 The priest's desire was probably inspired by the promises recorded in the chapter entitled "The Encouragement of Samantabhadra" (see Kern's translation of the Saddharma Pundarîka in the Sacred Books of the East, — pp. 433-434): — "Then the Bodhisattva Mahâsattva Samantabhadra said to the Lord: . . . 'When a preacher who applies himself to this Dharmaparyâya shall take a walk, then, O Lord, will I mount a white elephant with six tusks, and betake myself to the place where that preacher is walking, in order to protect this Dharmaparyâya. And when that preacher, applying himself to this Dharmaparyâya , forgets, be it but a single word or syllable, then will I mount the white elephant with six tusks, and show my face to that preacher, and repeat this entire Dharmaparyâya." — But these promises refer to "the end of time."

3 The Kyôsoku is a kind of padded arm-rest, or arm-stool, upon which the priest leans one arm while reading. The use of such an arm-rest is not confined, however, to the Buddhist clergy.

4 A yujô, in old days, was a singing-girl as well as a courtesan. The term "Yujô-no-Chôja," in this case, would mean simply "the first (or best) of yujô."

5 Mitarai. Mitarai (or mitarashi) is the name especially given to the water-tanks, or water-fonts — of stone or bronze — placed before Shintô shrines in order that the worshipper may purify his lips and hands before making prayer. Buddhist tanks are not so named.

from this story ruth st. denis created her "dance drama" O-Mika. inspired by seeing sado yacco's work, and by studying noh theater, she created a japanese dance illustrating, interestingly, the true nature of the courtesan. i am not completely certain these all come from that one ballet, but most of them did. most of the images are from the nypl.

O-Mika means "New Moon."

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Blogger Diane Dehler said...

This is a very interesting post, Lotus. Sorry that I have not been around much. I think of you....

05 February, 2008 23:34  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

thanks princess--welcome back

06 February, 2008 18:46  
Blogger Diane Dehler said...

I see that you have been busy. I have so many posts to catch up on and blogs to visit. The virtual world never stops of course even though one might pause to dream.

07 February, 2008 22:09  
Blogger Delphine R2M said...

How beautiful!

08 February, 2008 05:23  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

indeed, princess. on the other hand, it also stays where you put it.

thank you delphine.

08 February, 2008 18:25  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Interesting and the pictures are incredible ... thank you !

13 February, 2008 00:46  
Blogger Roxana said...

This legend reminds me of Ikkyu, who combined satori with heavy-drinking and brothel-visiting... And the pictures are hauntingly beautiful!

13 February, 2008 12:04  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

thank you again, butterfly

roxana--i'll have to look that up, but it reminds me of one time i saw Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche--he was lecturing--and someone asked him if it was true he drank alcohol. he smiled, nodded his head, and raised his glass.

14 February, 2008 18:36  
Blogger Terry said...

A wonderful story. I enjoy the way you use images throughout your posts. I do the same, but not in such an organized fashion. I also found a presentation that is flexible so it fits the whole screen. I like that better myself, because it makes my posts look shorter. :-)
The images are great! Together with the stories, you make this a very interesting place to visit.

19 February, 2008 10:11  

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hi, and thanks so much for stopping by. i spend all too much time thinking my own thoughts about this stuff, so please tell me yours. i thrive on the exchange!

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