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Suffering of Women

Talk on Suffering of Women and Buddhism

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | Jun 23, 2005
Location: Loon Lake
In topic: Women in Buddhism
Talk of Suffering of Women and Buddhism
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Talk on Suffering of Women and Buddhism

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | June 23, 2005
Location: Loon Lake

Abridged and edited by Ryūsen Barbara Byrum

Lately I have been thinking a lot about the suffering of women.  In our day-to-day life, or in our culture, we might imagine - or at least men might imagine - that the suffering of women is not so great.  We might think that we are beyond that.  But actually, women, just by being women, are victimized every single day.  Every single day women are raped, beaten up, intimidated - sometimes by their husbands.  Every day in our culture and elsewhere, women are made to feel small, insignificant, unimportant.  And even when - and I hope this is the case for most of us - this is not so, I think that the residue of this negative and oppressive view and history of women is in the heart of every woman.  Somewhere there is a residue of it. 

I have a cousin who is an important person in the world of cancer research.  She gets invited all over the world to give scientific papers and is really respected and praised for her work.  She works with radiotherapy and nuclear materials that are put inside peoples' genes.  I can't even understand what she does when she explains it to me.  She has a wonderful husband who is really supportive of what she does.  He travels around with her and is very proud of her.  She lives in Israel, and about a month ago she came to give a paper at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center, so I went down there to have dinner with her.  So we were talking, and I was asking her about her work.  She said, "All the years that I've been doing this, my three brothers have never once asked me about my work - all these years.  And when I try to bring it up, they change the subject immediately.  Because it is absolutely impossible for them to imagine that their sister [and she is the oldest of the four] could possibly be doing something significant in the world.  Unthinkable thing, you know." 

In a way you could say, "Why doesn't she laugh this off?  She's way smarter than they are and way more significant than they are.  She ought to be able to laugh this off."  And you would think so, but when she told me this, she had tears in her eyes.  And it really broke my heart.  I never knew this, and I've known her all my life.  She works really hard, and she is driven in her work, but, actually, no matter how hard she works - she might cure cancer completely - it still wouldn't make her brothers notice.  And I think she will always carry this wound in her heart. 

Think about it.  In most places in the world - and I don't think this is an exaggeration - marriage is literally a form of slavery of a woman to her husband.  Women are literally sold by their families to husbands, and they live their lives as prisoners of those husbands.  In India, when it happens that a bride's family doesn't deliver the dowry they promised in order to arrange the marriage, it happens - it's not the most common thing in the world, but also is not uncommon - that the bride is murdered, so that the husband can re-marry and get someone who will deliver a dowry.  It also happens in India that when a husband dies and is burned on the funeral pyre, the wife jumps on, or is sometimes thrown on, because that is the "right" thing to do.   In China and India, female children are gotten rid of.  And in every culture in the world a woman alone is physically vulnerable.  Even here.  And in any encounter with a man, a woman is psychologically vulnerable. 

So a man who is reasonably kind and respectful of women may not notice any of this or think about it.  Certainly a man who is not kind or respectful of women doesn't think about this.  So, in a way, men are not really noticing the actual experience that women are having.  And that's a lot left out. 

Maybe I told some of you the story about how I came to have a very direct appreciation of this.  Of course, growing up in our culture, how many times have I heard this?  How many times have I heard this from women - my own wife reminding me many times of this?  And I said, "Yeah, yeah, yeah.  Sure, I get it."  But I really didn't, and I didn't know that I didn't. 

So here's what happened that made me - not to say that I get it now - get it better.  One day, I was, as usual, conducting dokusan at Green Gulch, and in comes a young woman, who was a brand new student, who had been there maybe a week.  She came in and sat in front of me, and she started weeping.  I said, "What's wrong? Why are you weeping?"  Now in the Zen Center, as is the custom in Japanese Buddhism, the lineage is chanted every day, starting with Buddha, all the way up to the present - at least up to Keizan Zenji.  So she said, "Every day when I hear them chanting that lineage, it just really hurts me.  I can feel it.  It's killing me."  And I said, "Why?"  I couldn't fathom it.  "Why would chanting the lineage cause you to weep?  I don't get it."  And she said, "Because all these names are the names of men." Well, I knew that they were all the names of men, and I thought to myself, "Well, that's too bad that our lineage is all men.  It's an historical misfortune.  But that somebody would weep over this?"  I could not understand that.  But, somehow seeing this woman in front of me - somebody I didn't even really know - seeing her weeping, somehow her feeling was shot into me like an arrow, and I felt, all of a sudden, exactly what she was feeling.  And I will never forget that experience for the rest of my life. 

It was as if shot with that arrow, I could feel, at least for a moment, the strong suffering of women, the endless sorrow of endless generations, everywhere in the world, of being left out, vulnerable, ignored, denied, disrespected.  In acknowledging the suffering of women in this way, the pervasiveness of this, we also acknowledge all the others outside of us who are denied and ignored.  And all that within ourselves that's denied and ignored and disrespected.  It's with that acknowledgement and that deep feeling and the taking in of that, that the real spiritual path begins. 

Being a man - when I got this arrow shot in me - I immediately got up and started running around doing things.  All of a sudden I was shocked.  "How could this be?  All these years we've been chanting men's names." So I went to all these different councils, and I said, "From now on, we are going to chant the lineage of women with the men."  Then everyone said, "But there is no lineage of women."  I said, "Yes there is.  We know who were the first Buddhist women.  We know the women who were living in Buddha's time, because we have the Therigatha [which is their poems.]  We're going to chant all their names every day."  They said, "You can't do that, because they're not in the lineage.  We have to talk about this, research this, think about this.  We've been doing this all these years, and you can't just overnight do this thing."  And I patiently reminded everybody, "I am the abbot of Zen Center.  [Laughter] And it won't hurt us to try this out, will it?  If we think this is a bad idea, we can always stop doing it, can't we?  So why don't we just chant this as an experiment?"  And we did it.  As far as I know, at Zen Center they still chant  names of women, and now it is an unthinkable thing that you could chant an all male lineage. 

I know there has been a lot of scholarship and effort to uncover women ancestors within the Chan/Zen lineages.  When I did this, those names were not available at that time.  I still feel very close to the first Buddhist women.  To me they are the most poignant, and their practice is the most beautiful.  When you do dharma transmission ceremony, you are supposed to chant the lineage every day, three times a day.  I was just giving instructions in the transmission ceremony to a couple of people, and I explained to them that you have to chant the lineage of women, because if our practice does not acknowledge this suffering, what are we doing?  What kind of practice is this?  This age old suffering and the reality of it still exist today. 

I thought I would share with you some of the stories of these women.  This is a great book.  It is called The First Buddhist Women, which include translations and commentary on the Therigatha by Susan Murcott.  She was a student of Aitken Roshi's in Hawaii.  Susan worked for about ten years on this book, and her mission in life, I think, was to produce this book.  The Therigatha had been translated before, but never with this spirit and this clarity. 

I will give you a little bit about what she says about Mahapajapati, the first ancestor of Buddhist women, whose name we chant here.  She was, as you know, the Buddha's stepmother, the sister of Maya, Buddha's mother, who died a few days after the Buddha's birth.  She was the sister, and possibly at the same time married to the king, so she naturally took him in as a stepson.  The legend of Mahapajapati says that, just like the Buddha, when she was born, an astrologer said that she would be a leader of a large following, which is what the word "pajapati" means - "leader of a great assembly."  And "Maha" means "great."  So Mahapajapati and Maya were from another clan, not the Shakya tribe, and according to this account, they were both married to Suddhodana, the king.

When Buddha was born to Maya, the king - this is legendary material - called an astrologer, who said that the child would be a great king if he stayed at home and a Buddha if he left home.  When Buddha was twenty-nine years old, he left home and didn't return until after his awakening.  When Buddha came back - because he did come back to Kapilavastu - his stepmother, Pajapati, who was probably in her fifties, didn't know what to make of him.  The family of the Buddha wasn't too happy that he had left, but when they heard his dharma discourse, their hearts were immediately opened, and they all became his followers.  In fact, Buddha's son, Rahula, was ordained, as was Ananda, who was Mahapajapati's son [not the same Ananda who was the Buddhas's attendant], and who also left home to join the Buddha. 

So I will read you what she says here:

One by one, or in groups, women sought Pajapati's support, advice, and direction.  These women appealed to her not merely because of her high status.  After her husband died, she may have exemplified for them the particular anxiety of being a woman without any primary male relations.  [Because that is how you were protected and how you survived - through your male associations.]   Following the Buddha's return to Kapilavastu, Pajapati's son, Ananda, and grandnephew, Rahula, had both became monks, and not long after this, Suddhodana died.  This left Pajapati without the web of family relations, which gave every woman in that society her identify and security. 

We find this supposition confirmed when we review the poems of this chapter.  The majority of the authors are women formerly of Siddhartha's harem - women who lost their sense of identity when their primary patron set out on his spiritual journey.  Then a significant event occurred, which brought even more women to Pajapati's door.  An angry dispute had arisen between the Shakyans and their neighboring tribe, the Kolyans, over the right to draw water from the major river of the region.  A battle ensued in which men were killed.  Some women who lost their husbands came to Pajapati.  Others went to the Buddha and urged him to try to settle the dispute.  The Buddha was related not only to the Shakyans, but also to the Kolyans, through Maya and Pajapati.  He delivered an inspiring sermon.  As a result, many left fighting altogether, but they left home, becoming Buddhist monks, leaving more women without men. 

So this is a lot of women who were left alone, either through the death of the men or through the men leaving home.  Pajapati now had a large group of women who were coming to see her, and for whom she became a spiritual leader.  This is a quotation from one of the Vinaya text

Now at one time the Buddha was staying among the Shakyans at Kapilavastu.  Mahapajapati Gotami went to the place where the Buddha was, approached and greeted him, and standing at a respectful distance, spoke to him.  "It would be good, Lord, if women could be allowed to renounce their homes and enter into the homeless state, under the dharma and the discipline of the Tathagatha." 

Without male connections these women were very vulnerable and had no place in society.  And they were practicing.  Clearly.  And their practice was deep.  But because they were not validated in their practice, they were stuck.  So she was saying, "Why can't we join the order so that we now don't have to run to men for protection, but can be protected in and of ourselves through our practice?"

So the Buddha said to her, "Enough, Gotami.  Don't set your heart on women being allowed to do this."  She came and asked him a second and a third time, and he said the same thing.  Thinking the Blessed One would not allow woman to enter into homelessness, she bowed to him, and keeping her right side toward him, departed in tears. 

The Buddha went traveling to Vasali.  Pajapati cut off her hair, shaved her head, put on saffron colored robes, the robes of the order, and followed him to Vasali with all the women.  She arrived in Kutagara Hall with swollen feet and covered in dust.  Weeping, she stood there outside the hall.  Seeing her standing there, the Venerable Ananda asked, "Why are you crying?"  "Because, Ananda, the Blessed One does not permit women to renounce their homes and enter into the homeless state under the dharma and discipline proclaimed by the Tathagatha." 

Then the Venerable Ananda went to the Buddha, bowed before him, and took his seat to one side.  He said, "Pajapati is standing outside under the entrance porch with swollen feet, covered with dust, and crying, because you do not permit women to renounce their homes and enter into the homeless state."  [We can imagine that the Buddha was not unaware that this was the case.]  "It would be good, Lord, if women were to have permission to do this."  "Enough, Ananda.  Do not set your heart on women being allowed to do this." Then Ananda asked the same thing a second time and a third time and got the same reply. 

Then Ananda thought, "The Blessed One does not give his permission.  Let me try asking on other grounds."  So he said to the Buddha, "Are women able, Lord, when they have entered into the homeless life, to realize the fruits of stream-entry, once-returning, non-returning, and Arhatship?" [In other words, are women capable of actually realizing the practice and ending suffering and becoming awakened?  Would that be possible for them, if they could have a chance to do it?  Could they do it?]  "Yes, Ananda, they are able," the Buddha replied without the slightest hesitation.  "If women, then, are able to realize perfection, and since Pajapati was of great service to you - she was your aunt, your nurse, your foster mother; when your mother died, she even suckled you at her own breast - it would be good if women could be allowed to enter into homelessness."  "If then, Ananda, Pajapati accepts the eight special rules, let that be reckoned as her ordination." 

And that is how Buddhist women were allowed to be ordained, and there became a sangha of nuns very early on, even in the Buddha's own lifetime. So the eight special rules, of course, are rules that subjugate the women monastics to the men monastics.  So that's not so great.  But at least women were allowed to be ordained. 

So you might hear the story and think, "What's up with the Buddha?  Why doesn't he just agree to do this?"  But if you look at it that way, if you fall into the trap as we always do, of looking at the story as a bunch of atomized, separate individuals, who are negotiating with one another, and as projecting onto the Buddha and onto the literary style of this story our own preconceptions, you don't come up with a true understanding of it.  You have to look at the whole situation.  The Buddha and Ananda are not two different people.  The Buddha and Ananda are two forces working within our practice.  The reality is that for women to take up the path in society is difficult - then and now.  Because of the way that we are all conditioned, there's some toughness and suffering involved in it. 

So this story expresses, on one hand, that it is very realistic for women to realize the Way, and on the other, that they will meet resistance from men.  It is generous and hopeful and realistic to say that there will also be men who will be supportive of women, and together, those men will help one another to clear a pathway.  We could also criticize the Buddha and say that he was mistaken, or prisoner of his own conditioning.  That would not be a bad thing to do; we can criticize the Buddha too, I think.  All we can say for sure is that the Buddha did give permission.  There was an order of women, but the women's orders were always subjugated to the male orders, because of the patriarchal nature of Asian cultures.  They did not receive as many donations; they were not as important, and so on.  Nevertheless, practice was possible, and we'll talk more of how women rose to be important teachers, not only in early Buddhism, but in Chan and in Zen as well. 

So what does it all have to do with our work on the cushion?  It tells us, "Don't make this mistake on your cushion.  Don't ignore, don't deny, don't do violence to, and don't disrespect what's inside you - that's hidden and pushed aside and shoved into the shadow."  With the dignified bearing of a Buddha, strongly establish awareness of body and breath at the beginning of every period.  In just being aware of the body and the breath of your being there, sitting on the cushion, feel the strength of your Buddha-nature, beyond the details and the challenges of your personal life. 

Then, having established this strong awareness, soften, and sit with an openness and generosity.  Sit with an invitation to yourself.  "I invite whatever is within me.  Whatever is neglected, feared, ignored, despised - I invite these things to come forth."  If these things do come forth, don't run away or get scared.  Also don't grab hold of them and beat yourself over the head with them, or use them to club somebody else.  Just let them be there.  Acknowledge and let them go, trusting your practice, and trusting in the process of your life to hold what's there and to feel what's there.

In a way, you could say that practice is the process of growing bigger and bigger every day.  Being able to take in more and more of what we are and what this world is - until we get big enough that we could even take in not-being as part of it all. 

So, please sit that way, with a generosity of heart, with openness, with patience, and with strength. 

Thank you.