Retreating to the Monastery

An ascetic retreat.

An ascetic retreat.

Michitsuna no Haha, otherwise known as the author of the  “The Gossamer Years”, an account of her life as Kaneie no Fujiwara’s much ignored second or third wife, frequently sought respite from the misery and boredom of her sedentary aristocratic life in Buddhist monasteries in the mountains. Wives in Michitsuna’s time frequently lived at home with their parents, rather than in a new home with their husband, and their husbands would visit them. Irregular visits were common, and a total cessation of visits altogether was akin to a divorce. The strange, undefined marital customs of the time, which included polygamy and concubines, as well as affairs and discarded wives, meant a great deal of emotional turmoil and, at times, material hardship for noblewomen of Heian Kyo.

Unmarried aristocratic women generally had a fucking blast. Sei Shonagon and her fellow ladies-in-waiting were amusing themselves with idle chatter, bizarre wagers, constant travel and ceremonies, poetry contests and games of Go. Such was not the life of a married aristocratic woman in the capital. An unmarried woman  could discreetly have affairs, drink too much sake, gamble, or publicly deride powerful men for their crappy poetry. However, a married woman or daughter was expected to live a sedentary, indoor life, hidden away behind various screens and curtains, unseen. As such, boredom gave way to extreme introspection, as “The Gossamer Years” demonstrates.

Sitting alone in a room all day with little contact from Kaneie, all poor Michitsuna finds herself able to do is write and think about him, and wonder whether she will see him again. The only action that appeared to help her to feel better was to retreat to a Buddhist monastery in the mountains, to such a degree that her son, the only biological child she had with Kaneie, had to stop her from taking a nun’s vows multiple times.

Despite the glamor and enviable high culture of the period. there were many drawbacks for certain citizens, and that included aristocratic women.

….On the other hand, life in the palace for royalty and their attendants was essentially The Real World: Kyoto. I might take my chances.


1 Comment

Filed under buddhism, diaries, insularity

One response to “Retreating to the Monastery

  1. Roxana

    Frankly after reading The Gossamer Years I find myself with a sneaking sympathy for Kaneie – womanizer though he was – and a LOT of sympathy for poor Michitsuna, his situation was not unlike that of a child of divorce and neither parent seems to have felt any qualms about putting the ppor kid right in the middle.

    As Ivan Morris observes in his forword self pity does not have the same effect on 21st century Western readers as it did on Lady Kagero’s (if I may so style her) contemporaries. Surely I cannot be the only modern to find herself impatiently thinking the Lady should get herself a life! She seems to have had money, servants and a house of her own rather than being economically dependent on Kaneie. If the man makes you so unhappy send him about his business and find yourself another!

    Lady Kagero’s desire for a husband all to herself and present 24/7, however comprehensible to moderns, was unrealistic in her place and time and by entertaining such expectations she was only setting herself up for bitter disappointment. Nor did her habit of repulsing Kaneie in a fit of petulance when he tried to make up contribute to the stability of their relationship. Frankly in his place I’d have been inclined to avoid this neurasthenic lady myself!

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