Lafy Nijo, Travel, Exile and Wandering

It’s a bit of a shock to me when I reflect that it’s been nearly three years since I graduated from college. What exactly have I been doing for the past three years? The standard for most is to find a job, settle down and eventually get married. But ever since spending so much time in Budapest when I was younger I’ve felt the restless urge to travel, see new things, and keep moving. I think that cycling for me was a way of keeping my wanderlust at bay, and once I abruptly quit cycling after graduating college, I set out. Brief stint in Prague, a few months at home, a few months wandering in the Balkans, Georgia, and now Istanbul.

I often wonder what this wandering is all leading towards. Is there a path that I’m on? A direction I’m going? I couldn’t say. I also couldn’t answer the question for why I want to keep wandering. It can be difficult. Sometimes it’s isolating, lonely, melancholic. But at the end of the day, it’s always new, and I try to let myself be carefree about it (as much as my nature will allow me to be, anyway). As my dad told me on the golf course this past summer when I was home for a few months, Sven, if you can make a livable paycheck and can live abroad without being tied down anywhere, do it for as long as you can, because you’ll be the envy of fifty year old men everywhere. If I ever get a bit down about things, I try to think of the alternative. At the end of the day, I’m glad for the life I’m able to live and wouldn’t trade it.

This nervous wandering, this nomadic existence is the human story. We see it everywhere in literature. Gilgamesh was horrified at Enkidu’s death and wandered the globe in search for immortality. Dante finds himself in a dark wood in the middle of life’s journey. Denied entrance to Canaan, the Israelites wander the desert. Christ wanders the desert battling his demons. Siddhartha Gautama escapes the palace one day and discovers suffering. Those eternal questions of where am I? how did I get here? where am I going? have always perplexed us, and we find in literature different ways people have tried to deal with them. As Rumi writes, whoever brought me here will have to take me home.

One of these stories is The Confessions of Lady Nijo, a memoir of a 13th century Japanese court lady turned wandering Buddhist nun. Apart from its value as a historical record from the time, it also offers keen insight into the human story of ignorance, exile, and eventually, growth. I read this recently, and in an effort to not let my brain atrophy after 3 years of being out of school, decided to write what would be a “course essay” on it, which follows. Read along, if you so please:

Nijo was taken into the palace at a young age to be a concubine of the former Emperor, GoFukakusa. By tracing her dynamic relationship with GoFukakusa, we can see parallels with her spiritual journey, as well as with the journey we all embark upon.

Nijo grew up in the palace, and while she lived a sheltered life, she also experienced genuine suffering. Though life in the court was filled with parties, clothing and vast wealth, she never knew her mother (who died when Nijo was two), and her father died when she was but fourteen. From her lovers at the palace she had three children, two of whom died in infancy, and one of whom was taken to be raised elsewhere. One of the last stories of her days in the palace is about her grief over one of her lover’s deaths. Thus, while she lived a sheltered life in the palace, she still faced much grief and sorrow.

Her father had given her advice on his deathbed which was valuable to her later in life. He said that the ways of the world can be unexpected. If she were to find herself in ill favor with GoFukakusa or with the people, she should not switch allegiances to another Lord, for that would be disgraceful. She should enter holy orders, for only by withdrawing from society can one devote oneself to a righteous path without causing further suffering. (25)

Through circumstances beyond her control, she was cast out of the palace, and had to enter the real world. While in the palace, she had often longed for the strength to abandon her life and wander the earth, to escape from her grief and instead go wherever her feet led her (52, 121), but lacked the strength. She says: “although I could never endure a life of ascetic hardship, I wished that I could at least renounce this life and wander wherever my feet might lead me, learning to empathize with the dew under the blossoms and to express the resentment of scattering autumn leaves, and make out of this a record of my travels that might live on after my death.” (52) As she was suddenly thrown into the void, into the chaos and suffering of life outside of the palace, she embarked on a series of travels.

We follow Nijo in her exile, as she wandered to different shrines and pilgrimage sites. While it was normal for others in her position to devote their lives to holy orders, it was unusual for women to travel alone extensively. She justified her wandering, however, by explaining that it enabled her to endure the grief that she had suffered. At one point she debated entering religious orders like so many other former court ladies before her had done, but she knew that her time was not yet right due to the grief still in her heart. (204) Wandering, then, her exile, while imposed upon her by the cruel vicissitudes of fate, was not entirely forced. It was also voluntary, on the grounds that she wandered to put her grief behind her.

In her travels, she met GoFukakusa occasionally. Through their conversations, we see Nijo’s spiritual transformation. While in the palace, she had known there was a bond between her and GoFukakusa but had never understood it. When she first met him in her travels, she was surprised that he could recogniz her, given her humble attire. GoFukakusa reassured her, saying: “I recognized you easily. You must realize that even though many months have passed, I have never forgotten you.” (207) At their next meeting, after she continued to wander, we can see that much had changed in her mind. She discussed her realizations about the bond between her and GoFukakusa, saying “under your tutelage, the sorrow of being orphaned gradually disappeared, and I grew up and received your favor. Why did I not value it fully?” They parted ways again, and GoFukakusa continued to send messages of care. She was touched by the enduring care that GoFukakusa showed her, and was able to come to a better understanding of the feelings that he always had for her.

This was a turning point for Nijo. The next time we see her is nine years later, and the grief that had so overwhelmed her earlier in her wanders has calmed. In the years since we saw her last, she had taken vows to copy sutras. She had become more at peace and had recognized the debt of love she owes to her parents and GoFukakusa. Following her father’s words, she entered holy orders, for only in withdrawing from society can one embark on a righteous path. She was no longer in a state of exile, but one of willful devotion to the holy orders.

She heard that GoFukakusa had fallen ill, and tried to visit him once more before his death. She suffered much at his passing, but we again are able to see how she has grown. She wished that she could offer her life so that his could be spared. (247) We can see that she has recognized her debt and her own insignificance, and has become selfless in her efforts to repay her debts. She has also learned to part with the things of this world. As she completed copying and dedicating sutras at various shrines, she needed to fund these efforts. She was able to do this by selling her few possessions, which at this point were only a few reminders of her parents and GoFukakusa. By releasing these possessions, she cast aside all worldly connections and arrived on the holy path.

We can see, then, that as her relationship with GoFukakusa, as well as her spiritual journey follow the same path of ignorance to exile, and eventually, end with peace and understanding. She is thus able to set out on the holy path, allowing her “aimless passions” to join the “wisps of smoke from Fuji, yield themselves to the wind and lose themselves in the sky, in emptiness.” (note to p184) and, following the words her father gave to her in a dream, sow all the words she can, for in a better age, men shall judge the harvest by its intrinsic worth. (252)

We all exist in a state of exile and wandering; Nijo’s story is familiar to us all. As she is about to embark on a journey at sea, she says: “I listened to the waves lapping beneath my pillow and felt the full force of autumn’s melancholy. Acutely aware that my destination really made very little difference, I saw myself as the ‘boat vanishing behind an island in morning mist.’” (227) The destination is irrelevant; the point is the journey. If clarity and growth are to come, they are byproducts of the journey. This is a comfort to those of us aimless wanderers, unsure of where we are going. We can’t know out destination at the outset; otherwise, what kind of journey would it be, and how could we expect to come through our exile into salvation?

The Confessions of Lady Nijo. Karen Brazell, trans. Stanford University Press. Stanford, CA. 1973.

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