During the month of October, we remember the women of the Nembutsu whose lives shine with the Buddha’s light of wisdom and compassion. One of the great Nembutsu poets of the late Edo Period was the Myōkōnin Okaru (1801-1856) who lived on the tiny island of Mutsure in Yamaguchi Prefecture.
As a young woman, Okaru was known for her strong personality and fiery temper. She married at age 19, but her husband travelled frequently for business and would stay away from home for long stretches at a time, causing Okaru to become frustrated and angry. When she eventually turned to the priest of the local Buddhist temple for counsel, he surprised her by saying that she should be grateful for this relationship trouble, because it was the karmic condition that led her to the Buddhadharma.
From that point on, Okaru visited the temple regularly, and her heart became settled in the peace and joy of the Nembutsu. People are often reluctant to let go of their preconceptions, so it took time for her fellow islanders to appreciate the change of heart she had experienced. With her mind always directed toward Amida Buddha’s Pure Land, Okaru showed little concern for worldly matters. To her neighbors, she appeared unkempt and peculiar.
The May 5th Children’s Day celebration was the only day of the year when the people of Mutsure were allowed to fish and harvest shellfish in the abundant waters that surrounded their island. Not only did Okaru join her fellow islanders on the beach, she was particularly zealous in gathering as many shellfish as she could. As the other islanders noticed the great trove of shellfish she had amassed, some people made snide remarks, saying “Okaru walks around all day saying ‘Namo Amida Butsu.’ If she’s such a devout Buddhist, how can she take the lives of so many living beings?”
That evening great mounds of empty shells piled up outside each home as families feasted on the day’s catch. When her neighbors noticed that no empty shells had been discarded outside Okaru’s house, some thought “That crazy old hag is eating her clams, shells and all.”
Around midnight, one of the islanders went down to the beach to collect fresh seawater for storing his uneaten shellfish, so they would stay fresh for the next day’s meal. Approaching the water, he noticed someone hunched over a basket, speaking softly. As he drew closer, he saw that it was Okaru carefully releasing the shellfish she had gathered back into the sea, saying “I’m sorry. I must have scared you when I took you away from your home today. I gathered as many of you as I could before the other islanders could get you. I’m sorry I couldn’t save more of your relatives. Now, return to your home, little shellfish! Namo Amida Butsu, Namo Amida Butsu.”
People would occasionally sneer at Okaru, but she did not pay any mind to what others thought of her. She enjoyed peace of mind in the Nembutsu, confident that the most important matter of her birth in the Pure Land of Amida Buddha was settled. In the words of one of her poems:
Though mocked (in this world)
As a crazy old hag,
In the Pure Land
I will be a radiant bride!
(Myokonin Okaru and Her Poems of the Shinjin, p. 47)
Namo Amida Butsu