Full blossoming peonies in a swirl of scrolling arabesques is one of the pattern motifs adopted by Buddhism. The motif decorates textiles, architecture, and Buddhist implements. Peony scroll patterns are often woven into the iconic garment of a Buddhist prelate, the kesa or kasaya. Kesa come in various forms, but all are based on patching together rectangular pieces of cloth to form a garment that is draped over one shoulder. In the Zen sect, the master would pass on a personal kesa to his chosen successor as a sign of tranmission. In the Rinzai Zen sect, the transmission kesa tends to be the most elegant style kesa worn for formal rituals, which is constructed of nine or more panels. These Rinzai Zen sect kesa are not rectangular, but have a distinctive dip in the middle.
Here we look at the peony scrolls on two medieval nine-panel kesa associated with important historic nuns. Both nuns, Mugai Nyodai 無外如大 (1223-1298) and Chisen Shintsū 智泉聖通 (1309-1388), were founders of convents that numbered among the Five Mountain Convents (ama gozan) that functioned as religious and cultural centers for women during the Muromachi period (1336/1392-1573).
Mugai Nyodai founded the Keiaiji 景愛寺convent complex, which grew to have fifteen subtemples and supported a nexus of convents where women could take the precepts and deepen their Zen practice. Among the subtemples of Keiaji, three remain today, all amamonzeki: Hōjin Imperial Convent, Hōkyōji Imperial Convent, and Daishōji Imperial Convent. Mugai Nyodai’s final retreat, Shōmyakuan, was converted into Shinnyoji temple.
Mugai Nyodai received her training and transmission from the Chinese Zen monk Wuxue Zuyuan (J. Mugaku Sogen 無学祖元； Bukkō Kokushi 仏光国師 1226-1286), when he was at Engakuji in Kamakura. According to the Bukkō Kokushi Goroku, she received a self-inscribed portrait and a kesa as symbols of his passing on his dharma transmission to her. These were then passed on to the successive abbesses of Keiaiji in a formal induction ceremony. The kesa lineage chart ends with Abbess Jishō who passed the garment on for safe-keeping to Shōmyakuan (Nyodai’s retirement retreat and mortuary temple for her teacher Mugaku Sōgen) in 1455. A yellow gauze-weave kesa preserved presently at Shōkokuji (a temple associated with Shōmyakuan/Shinnyoji) bears Nyodai’s name on its box and tag. It has peony scrolls, as does a yellow five-panel kesa associated with her mentor Mugaku Sōgen. They are also both woven with the same structure three-end gauze weave.
Here is the peony scroll on Nyodai’s nine panel kesa
Peony design on Mugai Nyodai’s kesa
Only parts of the peony scroll appear on her mentor’s rakusu (work-style five-panel kesa) because the material is cut into small pieces and the pattern is large.
Mugaku Sogen’s rakusu
Still, there is some similarity in the curled leaves, though the flowers on Nyodai’s kesa are somewhat simpler
Chisen Shintsū founded Tsūgenji Convent around a hundred years after the founding of Keiaiji. Tsūgenji became the fifth temple of the Kyoto Five Mountain Convents and survives today under the name of one of its subtemples, Donkein Imperial Convent which is situated not far from Tenryūji in the Arashiyama area of Kyoto, Although not the original site of Tsūgenji, Donkein’s proximity to Tenryūji reconfirms the close connection between its foundress, Abbess Shintsū, and her brother the second Abbot of Tenryūji, Mukyoku Shigen (1282-1359), as well as with another Tenryūji Abbot, Shun’oku Myōha (1312-1388). It is from Myōha that Shintsū received the green and purple peony scroll kesa preserved now at Donkein. It comes with the following.
法衣一頂 地萌 畦紫 顕紋紗
まいらせ候 随分 秘蔵
One Buddhist robe of kenmonsha (patterned three-end gauze weave) with green ground and purple bands
A present. Long a secret belonging, I present it to you with all due respect.
Third day of the sixth month of Eitoku 2 (1382)
Tenryūji Abbot Myōha
Tsūgenji Tōdō Abbess
This kesa has green gauze-weave fields (rectangular cloths) and purple gauze-weave bands (veritical, horizontal, and edging strips). The large peony pattern is rendered in three-end gauze of a different structure from Nyodai’s. The leaves have a similar curl at the end, but are larger and given more weight in proportion to the flowers than on Nyodai’s kesa.
Peony design on Chisen Shintsu’s kesa
If we look at the pattern repeats on these two kesa we find they are both composed of two types of peonies set within leafy vines and shifted a half pattern. The blue lines indicate the borders of the pattern repeat.