In ancient Japan, lady courtiers spent most of their lives indoors. During the Heian era, 794 to 1185, the beauty ideal was very fair skin, so staying out of the sun was common practice. The women spent their days composing love poems and letters to gentlemen, having them delivered, then eagerly awaiting the response. They also engaged in incense contests, and music and theater performances, as well as spending a great deal of time coordinating the colors and patterns of their many-layered robes.
In the main living space, women slept on the floor (as they still do in Japan). It was a large, open room, with few places to keep personal belongings. Each woman, however, had her own pillow – a shallow wood or ceramic block-shaped item, that contained in it a slender drawer. The doors became the repository for small personal things, like hair combs or love letters.
It was here also that the women kept their journals, small notebooks filled with their musings about life, poetry, notes on love. The journals came to be known as “pillow books” because of their most usual “secret” spot.
The most famous pillow book is the one by Sei Shonagon, written in the 990s, which has survived to this day. It is a fascinating look into life in Heian Japan, as well as being a masterpiece which can stand on its literary merits, separate from history.
I have always been intrigued with the idea of the pillow book, placing a personal record of thoughts underneath your head at night, pulling it out to record the day’s entry.
During the Rohatsu Sesshin, those five days that we spent sitting in the zendo, it was similar to the great living room of these Japanese courtiers. Although we slept in a separate room, all of the rest of our day was spent side by side in the zendo, with our personal space limited to the zabuton and zafu that we were sitting on.
Much to my amusement, I realized at some point during the retreat that my zabuton had become a Heian “pillow” of sorts, with personal items stored not in a drawer, but simply tucked underneath. During the course of the sesshin, I stowed Nicorette lozenges, my clappers for the tea ceremony, my kokyo’s chant book and daily schedule, gloves, a hat, tissue, a small notebook, a pen, and even extra “feminine products,” not to mention the growing stack of support cushions on top of my zabuton.
It made me wonder what I would have found if I had gone around the room and flipped up all the cushions….