Lately, after a suggestion from Robert at Shiawase, I purchased a copy of Autobiography of a Geisha, by Sayo Masuda. This book paints a very, very different picture of life as a geisha than Mineko Iwasaki’s book Geisha of Gion. Where Miss Iwasaki was a geisha of the famous district of Gion, and had a privileged life as an heir to a famous geisha house, Miss Masuda had a totally different experience. As an illegitimate child, she was sold early in life as a house servant, mistreated, then sold again as a bath-house geisha, which live a lifestyle somewhere between the real geisha of Gion, and common prostitutes. Unlike geisha of Gion, bathhouse geisha were frequently mistreated and pressured into having sex with specific patrons, or danna, but still retained much of the culture and training of a real geisha, as well as skill with instruments, conversation and so on, and didn’t sleep with just anybody. I guess bath-house geisha were more like country courtesans than prostitutes.
Masuda’s life is one heartbreak after another, but the worst turning point is when her little brother whom she raised committed suicide, and shortly after, the one man she loves is married, and the wife confronts her. After living among gangsters, illiterate and almost totally destitute, she drinks herself almost to death, and then tries to kill herself in the mountains in Nagano Prefecture by freezing to death in the snow.
Just in time, she is rescued by an elderly man in the mountains, and taken to his house, where he revives her and listens to her tragic life story:
…and after he listened to everything I had to say, he said: “When people only think of themselves, that’s when they are most unhappy. Why don’t you try and do something for someone else; just once in your life, that’s enough. At any rate, give it one more year. And during that year, just once, do something to make someone else happy.. If you still want to die, then come back here. If you do that, I will help you die painlessly.” (pg. 143)
According to his story, he had once been a member of Japan’s Communist party, during Japan’s military government in the early 20th century, and was arrested and sent to a prison in Hokkaido. Then, after he escaped, he wandered around similar to Miss Masuda, depressed and suicidal, but somehow recovered and lived in his hut since.
When I read this part of the book, I was really taken back by this man’s words. A while back, after someone had killed themselves in front of a train I was riding to work many months ago, I wrote a small Buddhist-related post asking depressed people to try and do some good in their lives, but I think the man in this story really expressed it much more succinctly. He really hit the truth right on the mark.
Much of our misery can be let go when we turn our thoughts outward toward the welfare of others, and its fair to say we will gain far greater rewards in the long-run, than if we just live for ourselves and our needs. Buddhism teaches that people can never find lasting satisfaction if they only live for themselves, so one learns to first see themselves as they truly are, and then they turn this wisdom outward and see others suffering similarly. Compassion arises, and one begins to live a very different life than before.
As Dogen once said:
“To study Buddhism is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to become enlightened by all things.”
In any case, the book was a fantastic, though very dark read, about an extraordinary woman, and I hope you get a chance to read too. (thanks Robert!)
P.S. Another thing about this book is that it really made me realize how hard it is to be a woman sometimes in a world dominated by men and their sexual needs. I really feel for women.