Stand-in Fugen

Cleveland Museum of Art

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This ink painting on silk shows a courtesan, dressed in men’s clothes, riding a white elephant, the bodhisattva Fugen’s vehicle. As the tale goes, in the 12th century, an extremely wise courtesan skilled in poetry lived in Eguchi. One night, the monk Saigyō asked for shelter at her inn. She initially refused him, saying she didn’t want him to become attached to the worldly space of the brothel. When she did eventually let him in, they engaged in a long poetic exchange. Ultimately, the courtesan revealed herself to be Fugen. In another tale, a traveling priest met the courtesan of Eguchi, and saw a vision of her true form as a resplendent Bodhisattva every time he closed his eyes. Feminist scholar Etsuko Terasaki argues that the tale both reiterates and challenges medieval Japanese Buddhism’s association of womanhood with spiritual contamination. Read more about Japanese courtesans’ association with the divine.

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