A MILLION QUESTIONS
TWO MILLION MYSTERIES
Port Townsend, Washington
UTAGAWA KUNISADA II
Subject: Jigoku Dayū
Role: The Courtesan
Date: 1865, 3rd Month
Size: 13 3/4"
x 9 1/4"
There is another copy
of this print in the collection of Waseda University.
THE HELL COURTESAN
There is a story about the fifteenth century Zen monk Ikkyū (一休
about posing puzzling questions to anyone who would listen. The questions
which probably were completely unanswerable were meant to edify and to lead
eventually to Buddhist enlightenment. Nearly two hundred years after Ikkyū
died an apocryphal tale claimined that the monk had encountered a
famous courtesan who referred to herself as Jigoku Dayū. The two traded poems.
In time the legend was expanded and took on a life of its own. By the
nineteenth century it held a particular fascination.
In 1809 Santō Kyōden (山東京伝
さんとうきょうでん) published Honchō sui bodai zenden
which dealt with this encounter between what ordinarily would be viewed as
the sacred and profane. Kyōden's work
inspired a number of later fine artists including Kuniyoshi, Kunisada II,
Kunichika and Yoshitoshi. (1) It is not surprising that
Kyōden would treat such a subject because that was the genre which
dominated his works. (2)
もくあみ), who was one of the most
prolific and popular playwrights of the mid-nineteenth century, wrote
Jigoku Ikkyū-banashi which debuted on New Year's 1865. (3)
"Let me tell you
something, let me tell you something. A lot of those that you see in the
stories is not true,
but at the same time,
I have to tell you that I always say, that wherever there is smoke, there is
fire. That is true."
Quote from Arnold Schwarzenegger (アノルド
running for governor on October 2, 2003.
(1394-1481) actually lived, but I can't be so sure about that particular
courtesan. However, the stories that developed around his encounters with
Jigoku Dayū make a lot of sense historically.
claimed to be the son of an emperor of Japan. This may or may not be true.
What we do know is that he was never an imperial prince. Donald Keene
acknowledges this, but adds: "...there is evidence in Ikkyū's poetry
that he believed himself to be of imperial stock, and he often visited
the palace to see the emperor." (4)
At the age
of five his mother sent him to a temple to study to be a priest. Over the
years he became well known for his keen mind, devotion and piety. Various
stories are told of his unconventional nature and how that won him fame.
Like Siddhartha in Hermann Hesse's novel Ikkyū spent years of religious
adherence and abstinence only to give that up for the pleasures of the
flesh. Not only did he seek out women, but boys too. (5) One of his more
famous poems, The Brothel, describes the embraces of an
elderly Zen priest and a prostitute. His peers expressed shock and
abhorrence at his behavior., but he countered by charging them with
hypocrisy. His counterclaim is more believable. (6)
1. Demon of Painting: The Art of Kawanabe Kyōsai, by Timothy Clark,
British Museum Press, 1993, p. 100.
2. In World Within Walls: Japanese
Literature of the Pre-Modern Era 1600-1867 by Donald Keene the author
gives a thorough description of Kyōden's work. On page 407 Keene
describes an early collection of short stories describing forty-eight
different ways of procuring a courtesan. One sincere male guest describes
his enormous financial debt because of his love for this one woman. When she
blames herself he tells her that he would rather wear rags than be without
her. Awwwwwwwwwwwwwwwww, ain't that sweet.
3. Clark, p. 101.
4. Some Japanese Portraits, by
Donald Keene, Kodansha International Ltd., 1983, p. 19.
5. Ibid., p. 23.
6. Ibid., pp. 22-3. Ikkyū excoriated
many of his peers, but saved the best for his description of Yōsō, the
twenty-sixth abbot of the Daitoku-ji. Keene tells us that he referred to him
as "...a poisonous snake, a seducer and a leper." Don't hold back Ikkyū.
Tell us what you really think. He also parallels the railings of Martin
Luther who criticized the papacy for its selling of indulgences. Important
Zen religious figures extorted money out of patrons with the promise of
The Greeks believed
that when a person died the boatman Charon would ferry the soul of the
deceased across the river Acheron to Hades.(1) In Japan Charon's near
counterpart was Datsueba (奪衣婆
だつえば), the Old Hag of Hell, seen above.
(2) While the Old
Hag does not ferry the souls to Hell she does sit by the river which flows
into it, i.e. Sanzu no kawa(三途の川
さんずのかわ), and strips the damned of their robes
which she hangs on a tree before their descent into the depths.
(1)There was one proviso
before Charon could transport a soul across the river. Upon death and proper
burial or cremation a coin called an obol was placed under the tongue. When
the soul reached the riverbank the coin acted as payment to the ferryman for
the crossing. No coin, no transportation! --- at least not yet. Souls who
failed to pay had to wander the shoreline for what some sources say was one
hundred years before the crossing could be made.
Although I seriously
doubt that there is any connection this is not totally dissimilar to ancient
Chinese practice of placing a jade cicada in every orifice of a corpse. The
Chinese believed that the cicada would die only to be reborn years later and
these jade pieces would aid the soul of the deceased in their re-birth
or resurrection in the afterworld.
"O, be thou my Charon,
And give me swift transportance to those fields
Where I may wallow in the lily-beds.."
Troilus to Pandarus, Act III, Scene II of
"Troilus and Cressida" by William Shakespeare.
Edna St. Vincent Millay, that ever upbeat
poetess, also wrote about Charon
in her "Sappho Crosses the Dark River into
There are a number of
versions of a famous painting by Arnold Böcklin, a late nineteenth century
Swiss artist. Most people know this painting by the title "The Isle of the
Dead." It portrays a picture of an oarsman, presumably Charon, delivering a
totally swathed, mysterious standing figure seen from the back to an equally
mysterious island. I am not a Böcklin scholar and have no idea what the
artist intended, but what I do know is that the this is not Böcklin's title
for the painting, but rather one chosen for it by an art dealer sometime
later. The name stuck.
One other thought: when
we are children we can ask one of our parents "What is that?" It could be
about almost anything and unless the parent doesn't know the answer the
child becomes just that much more informed. As we grow older, if we are
still curious enough, we can look things up for ourselves --- that is, if
the information is out there and is readily available. That is the major
problem: so much remains unanswered. I do not know much about Datsue-ba, but
would like to know more. If anyone can assist me it will be greatly
The information on
Datsueba comes from a great catalogue, The Demon of Painting: The Art of
Kawanabe Kyōsai by Timothy Clark, pages 87-9. People who are interested
in Japanese culture do not have to be interested in Kyōsai to want to own
this book. This book is a font of information. I recommend it highly.
(2) While researching Datsueba I found that there were two alternate
readings of the kanji for her name: 奪衣婆
Furthermore, I ran across the fact that
脱衣 means "to undress" or
"taking off of one's clothes" and that a "dressing room" or "bathhouse" is a
脱衣所. All of these are certainly
appropriate relationships linguistically to role played by the Hag of Hell.
Fresh information on Datsueba
shown above of an enshrined image of Datsueba by Kuniyoshi.
31, 2004 we asked our Internet visitors if anyone out there could provide
more information about Datsueba. That day A.K., a frequent correspondent
and contributor to this site, wrote to tell us of a web page posted by the
Institute of Medieval Japanese Studies at Columbia University which
summarized recent research on this figure. The main points stated that
1) Datsueba is first mentioned in a spurious Chinese sutra which deals with
Bodhisattva Jizo and the Ten Kings of Hell. Along with a elderly, demonic
male companion she punishes a thief, ties his head to his feet, strips him
of his clothes and send him off to his final judgement. 2) In a 13th century
work she skins the sinner if they arrive without clothes. 3) The Old Hag may
also function as a goddess: At birth she may provide the newborn with their
skin which she will remove at their death.
Datsueba and her connection with the Blood Pool Hell
chi no ike jigoku
According to some sources there was a special torment reserved for
certain women called the Blood Pool Hell. It is closely related to a belief
systems dealing with pregnancies - both successful and failed. Here
Datsueba played a different role and evolved into "a guarantor of safe
childbirth." At birth she provides each child with a "placental cloth" which
must be returned at the time of death.
For those who are
easily made queasy, disturbed or are just plain prudish: Do not read the
entry shown immediately below.
The most blatant
case of Buddhism's relentless enforcement of the blood taboo is the
propagation of the Sūtra of the Blood Bowl (...Jap. Ketsubongyō
[けつぼんぎょう]). The short apocryphal scripture of Chinese origins opens with the
arhat Mulian... descending to hell in search of his mother. Upon discovering
a blood pond full of drowning women, Mulian asks the hell warden why there
is no man in this pond, and is told that this hell is reserved for women who
have defiled the gods with their blood. Having found his mother, Mulian is
unable to help her. In despair, he returns to the Buddha and asks him to
save his mother. The Buddha then preaches the Sūtra of the Blood Bowl.
This scripture first explains the cause of women's ordeals: women who died
in labor fall into a blood pool formed by the age-long accumulation of
female menses, and are forced to drink that blood. This gruesome punishment
is due to the fact that the blood was spilled at the time of parturition
contaminated the ground and provoked the wrath of the earth god."
Quoted from: The
Power of Denial: Buddhism, Purity, and Gender, by Bernard Faure,
published by Princeton University Press, 2003, p. 73.
Mulian in Japanese
is Mokuren (目連 or もくれん). In the Chinese version of the story of his mother
she is a terrible woman who is not only greedy, but refuses to offer food to
monks. And these are only two of her sins. In the Japanese version, the
Mokuren no sōshi,
she has morphed into a model mother. (Ibid., p. 146) "Yet, she is reborn as
a hungry ghost as a punishment for her obsessive maternal pride. The 'sin of
motherhood,' based on blind love of a parent for a child, is expressed by
the topos of the 'darkness of heart' (kokoro no yami) of the mother."
(Ibid., p. 146-7) Kokoro no yami = 心の闇 or こころのやみ.
There is another
story of a living woman descending to the Blood Pool to rescue her mother.
Like Mulian she is willing to drink from the pool. Her willingness alone
transforms the Blood Pond into the Lotus Pond and all of the suffering women
are rescued. "In a version of the ritual inspired by this scripture, and
still performed today in Taiwan, the children of a dead woman, at the time
of the funeral, redeem their mother's sin by symbolically drinking the blood
that was spilled during their childbirth. ¶ The Blood Bowl
seems to have spread in Japan during the medieval period. The fact that the
Japanese commentaries emphasized menstrual blood rather than parturition
blood has led to the somewhat misleading translation of the scripture's
title as 'Menstruation Sūtra.'" This becomes a sin damning all women.
"Because they were born as women, their aspirations, to buddhahood are weak,
and their jealousy and evil character are strong. These sins compounded
become menstrual blood, which flows into two streams in each month,
polluting not only the earth god, but all the other deities as well."
(Ibid., p. 76)
Faure continues by
giving examples of ghost possession which can cause a female to descend to
hell, but he also gives remedies to correct this injustice. One sect would
Sūtra of the
Blood Bowl into a woman's coffin to help bring about her salvation.
(Ibid., p. 77)
"The Blood Pond
Hell also appears in a text related to Tateyama, a place believed to be the
gate to the other world..." Women were not allowed to climb the mountain,
but they were allowed to ritually change themselves into men. However, to be
careful, they were still banned from making the pilgrimage. Instead they
would acquire copies of the
Sūtra of the
Blood Bowl which they would then give to monks who would carry them to
the top and throw them into "...an earthly replica of the Blood Lake."
(Ibid., pp. 77-8)
Faure notes that
Buddhism considers menses natural, but still give it a sexist twist by
giving it a karmic meaning. Hence, females defile their world because of
past transgressions. While it may be considered natural "At the same time
that it reinforces female guilt, Buddhism claims to offer absolution. By its
magic power, the
Blood Bowl Sūtra
allowed women to avoid the ritual pollution of menses and childbirth to come
into the presence of the gods and buddhas." Now the sutra wasn't just used
for funerary purposes, but also as talismans for the living. On one hand
Buddhism seemed to be condemning blood pollution while on the other praising
motherhood. This concept of Buddhist salvation "...is based on male
superiority, exploiting female fears, more than on compassion." (Ibid. p.
injustice of the Blood Pond Hell was accepted by women as just another 'fact
of life' (or rather, of death) - a woman's life of toil and trouble."
(Ibid. p. 79) In another account a nun describes a woman's life of grief:
The husband has total control. "After they are married she necessarily
suffers the pain of childbirth, and cannot avoid the sin of offending the
sun, moon, and stars with the flow of blood." By the time of the Heiki
monogatari (平家物語 or へいけものがたり) pregnancy and childbirth were described as
"pure hell" and 90% of women were thought to die giving birth. This, of
course, was an exaggeration. (Ibid., p. 80) In a text called 'The Path to
Purification' a description of the child in the womb makes it sound as
disgusting as disgusting can be. This is as far from being reborn on a lily
pad in the Western Paradise as one can get. 90% would be a
shocking figure if it were true, but odds are, while the numbers were great,
it couldn't have been that high. Faure relates a couple of other
possibilities for the death of the mother after a long and torturous
pregnancy and birth: 1) In the case of Māya, Buddha's mother, who passed
away one week after giving birth, she died to avoid sexual intercourse in
the future. Obviously a willful death. Or, 2) she died heart-broken knowing
that Buddha, her beloved son, would be leaving soon. There are even accounts
that say that the mothers of all of the Bodhisattvas died for the same
reason seven days after their deliveries. "the could not escape the grief of
motherhood." Māya's sister adopted the new born child, but she became blind
from weeping when he left home. Her sight was restored when he returned.
(Ibid., pp. 148-9)
The exclusion of women
from sacred sites in Japan due to blood pollution is referred to as
nyonin kekkai (如人結界 or にょにんけっかい). We have noted elsewhere that women
were prevented from making pilgrimage climbs up mountains. This made sense
in the Japanese mind for both the traditional association of the mountains
with kami and the Buddhist concepts of pollution. "The mountain and
the temple are symbolically equivalent. Therefore, the most extreme purity
was required in both the temple's inner sanctuary and on the sacred peak.
This contrasts with the profane impurity that rules at the bottom of the
mountain or outside the urban temple's gate." Faure does cite the belief
expressed by Abe Yasurō (阿部泰郎 or あべ.やすろう) that if a woman does defile a
Buddhist site it is miraculously purified anyway. (p. 238)
In the 2008 translation of the
Tale of Heike by Watson and Shirane it states in footnote 8 on page 161:
"According to Buddhist belief, a woman may not become (at least directly) a
Brahma, an Indra, a devil king, a wheel-turning king, or a buddha. She is
expected to submit to and obey her father in childhood, her husband in maturity,
and her son in old age when she is widowed."