Skip to main content

A Few Koans About Women

By: Florence Caplow, Sue Moon | 10/31/2010
In Topics: Women in Buddhism, Zen Koans

Koans from the upcoming collection, compiled and edited by Sue Moon and Florence Caplow, of Zen Koans about women.


The Old Woman’s Rice Cakes

Te-shan was traveling to the south in search of the Dharma when he came across a woman on the roadside selling refreshments. He asked her, “Who are you?”

She responded, “I am an old woman selling rice cakes.”

He said, “I’ll take some rice cakes.”

She said, “Venerable priest, why do you want them?”

He said, “I’m hungry and need some refreshments

She said, “Venerable priest, what are you carrying in your bag?”

He said, “Haven’t you heard that I am ‘King of the Diamond Sutra?’ I have thoroughly penetrated all of its levels of meaning. Here I have my notes and commentaries on the scripture.”

Hearing this, the old woman said, “I have one question, venerable priest. May I ask it?”

He said, Go ahead and ask it.”

She said, “I have heard it said that according to the Diamond Sutra, past mind is ungraspable, present mind is ungraspable, and future mind is ungraspable. So where is the mind that you wish to refresh with rice cakes? Venerable priest, if you can answer, I will sell you a rice cake. But, venerable priest, if you cannot answer, I will not sell you any rice cakes.

Te-shan was struck speechless, and the old woman got up abruptly and left without selling Te-shan a single rice cake.

* * *

Ling-chao’s Helping

Layman P’ang was once selling bamboo baskets. Coming down off a bridge he stumbled and fell. When Ling-chao saw this, she ran to her father’s side and threw herself down.

“What are you doing!” cried the Layman.

“I saw Papa fall to the ground, so I’m helping,” replied Ling-chao.

“Luckily no one was looking,” remarked the Layman.

* * *

The Old Woman Burns Down the Hermitage

There was an old woman who supported a hermit. For twenty years she always had a girl, sixteen or seventeen years old, take the hermit his food and wait on him.

One day she told the girl to give the monk a close hug and ask, “What do you feel just now?”

She did as the old woman asked, and the hermit responded,

An old tree on a cold cliff

Midwinter-no warmth

The girl went back and told this to the old woman. The woman exclaimed, “For twenty years I’ve supported this vulgar good-for-nothing!” So saying, she threw the monk out and burned down the hermitage.

* * *

The Woman of Daishan

There was an old woman who lived on the path to Mt. Dai. A traveling monk asked her, “Where is the path to Mt. Dai?”

The old woman said, “Go straight ahead.”

The monk went on.

The woman called after him, “My dear Reverend, you too go off like that.”

Monks came one after another asking the same question, and they always received the same answer.

Later, one of the monks told Chao-chou about it. Chao-chou said, “Wait here for a while. Let me check her out.”

He went to the woman and asked, “Where is the path to Mt. Dai?”

The old woman said, “Go straight ahead.”

So Chao-chou went on, straight ahead.

The woman said, “My dear Reverend, you too go off like that.”

Chao-chou came back to the assembly and said, “I have checked out that woman for you.”

* * *

Satsujo Weeps

When Satsujo (a great disciple of Hakuin) was old, her grandaughter died, and she grieved and mourned. An old man from the neighborhood came and admonished her: “Why are you wailing so much? If people hear this, they’ll all say, ‘The old lady was associated with Hakuin and is enlightened, so now why is she mourning her granddaughter so much?’ You ought to lighten up a bit.”

Satsujo glared at her neighbor and scolded him: “You fool, what do you know? My tears and weeping are better for my granddaughter than incense, flowers, and lamps!”

The old man left without a word.

* * *

The Goddess’s Transformations

Sariputra and a certain goddess were attending the householder Vimalakirti in his home, where he remained as an invalid. Sariputra asked the goddess, “Why don’t you change your female sex?”

The goddess said, “I have been here twelve years and have looked for the innate characteristics of the female sex without finding them. So how can I change what I cannot find? If a magician were to create an illusion of a woman, would you ask her to change her female sex?”

Sariputra said, “No. Such a woman wouldn’t really exist, so what could be changed?”

The goddess said, “Just so. All things do not really exist, so how can you ask, ‘Why don’t you change your female sex?'”

Then the goddess used her supernatural power to change Sariputra into a likeness of herself and she changed herself into a likeness of Sariputra. She asked, “Why don’t you change your female sex?”

Sariputra, in the form of the goddess, answered, “I no longer appear as a male! I do not know how I changed into a female form, and I do not know what to transform.”

The goddess replied, “Sariputra, if you can change into a female form, then all women can also change. Just as you are not really a woman but appear to be female in form, all women only appear to be female in form but are not really women. Accordingly, Buddha taught that all beings are not really either men or women.”

Then the goddess, by her supernatural power, changed Sariputra back into his own form. She asked him, “Sariputra, what have you done with your female form now?”

* * *

Miaozong’s Dharma Interview

Before Miaozong became a nun, she would visit Master Dahui and would be lodged in the abbot’s quarters. The head monk Wanan always disapproved. Dahui said to him, “Even though she is a woman, she has strengths.” Wanan still did not approve. Dahui then insisted that Wanan should have an interview with her. Wanan reluctantly agreed.

When he arrived at her quarters, Miaozhong said to him, “Will you make this a dharma interview or a worldly interview?”

The head monk replied, “A dharma interview.”

Miaozhong said: “Then let your attendants depart.” She went in first and then called to him, “Please come in.”

When he came past the curtain he saw her lying face up on the bed without anything on at all. He pointed at her genitals and said, “What kind of place is this?”

She replied, “All the Buddhas of the three worlds, and the six patriarchs and all the great monks everywhere-they all come out of this place.”

He said, “And would you let me enter?”

She said replied, “Horses may enter; asses may not enter.”

Wanan said nothing, and she declared: “The interview with the Senior Monk is ended.” She then turned over and faced away from him.

Wanan became embarrassed and left.

Dahui said, “It is certainly not the case that the old beast does not have any insight.”

Wanan was ashamed.

* * *

Ryonen Scars Herself

The nun Ryonen Gensei was an attendant to the Empress of Japan before she became a nun. After ordaining, she went on pilgrimage to Edo and had an audience with the monk Hakuo sect, desiring to practice in his temple.

Hakuo told her that although he could see her sincere intentions, she could not escape her “womanly appearance,” and that her beauty would only make trouble. Ryonen went away and burned her face with a hot iron, scarring and disfiguring herself.

When she returned to Hakuo, he accepted her as a disciple.

Commemorating this occasion, she wrote a poem on the back of a little mirror:

In the service of my Empress

I burned incense to in order to perfume my exquisite clothes.

Now as a homeless mendicant

I burn my face to enter a Zen temple.

* * *

Paṭacārā’s Presence of Mind

In a single day Paṭacārā experienced the deaths of her whole family: her husband, her newborn child, her older child, her brother and her mother and father. She tore off her clothes and went mad with grief. She wandered naked in circles for a long time, until she stumbled into the place where the Buddha was teaching. When she came near the Buddha, he said to her, “Sister, recover your presence of mind.”

At his words she regained her sanity. She told him why she had gone mad and begged for help.

He said, “I am not a person who can help you. For countless lives you have wept for children and loved ones. Your tears could fill the four oceans. But no child or loved one can be a secure refuge or hiding place. Knowing this, a wise person walks the path of awakening.”

She bowed down and asked to be ordained in the Buddha’s sangha.

She practiced diligently. One day she was washing her feet in a bowl of water and poured some the water away. She saw how the water went a little distance and then soaked into the ground, completely disappearing. Then she poured out more, and noticed that it went further before disappearing. The third time she poured out even more, and it ran still further along the ground but then it also disappeared. She thought, “That is the way it is with human beings-some of us die as children, some in middle age, some in old age, but all die in the end.”

The Buddha knew her thoughts. He appeared in a vision in front of her and said, “Paṭacārā, all human beings die in the end, so it is better to see the truth of impermanence for even one moment than to live for a hundred years without deeply knowing it.” Paṭacārā completely awakened. She became the greatest of the women teachers at the time of the Buddha.

* * *

The Old Lady’s Enlightenment

One morning an old lady experienced an awakening while cleaning up after breakfast. She rushed over and announced to Master Hakuin, “Amida Buddha has filled my body! The whole universe radiates! How marvelous!”

“Nonsense!” Hakuin retorted, “Does it shine up your asshole?”

The old lady gave Hakuin a shove and shouted, “What do you know about enlightenment?”

They both roared with laughter.

* * *

Kakuzan Shido’s Dagger

In 1304, Master Tokei (‘Peach-tree Valley’) of Enkakuji gave dharma transmission (inka)to the nun Shido, the founder of Tokeiji. The head monk did not approve of the dharma transmission and asked a question to test her, “In our line, one who receives transmission gives a discourse. Can the nun teacher really brandish the staff of the Dharma in the Dharma-seat?”

She faced him, drew out the ten inch knife carried by all women in the warrior class, and held it up, “Certainly a Zen teacher in the line of the patriarch should go up on the high seat and speak on the book. But I am a woman of the warrior line and therefore I should declare our teaching when face to face with a drawn sword. What book do I need?”

The head monk said, “Before father or mother were born, how, then, will you declare our teaching?”

The nun closed her eyes for some time. Then she said, “Do you understand?”

The head monk said in verse: “A wine gourd has been tipped right up in Peach-tree Valley; drunken eyes see ten miles of flowers.”

* * *

Miao-Hsin’s Banner

A group of seventeen monks, all of them in search of Zen enlightenment, traveled to Mount Yang-shan. There they sought out the celebrated Master Yang-shan Hui-chi, who lived on the mountain.

It was arranged that they stay the night in a small temple attached to the large one. That evening they discussed one of the koans concerning the Sixth Patriarch: “What moves is not the wind nor the banner, but your mind.”

Now, the nun Miao-hsin, who presided over the temple, happened to hear their conversation and made a scathing criticism of it to her followers. “Humbug!” she said. “It’s a pity that the seventeen donkeys have worn out so many pairs of straw sandals on pilgrimages and still cannot even dream about the dharma.”

One of the nuns attending the monks told them of her teacher’s opinion. If they had not been true Zen followers they might have dismissed Miao-hsin’s comments as a piece of impertinence, but they were ardent in their quest of enlightenment and they humbly begged her instruction.

They entered the nun’s room together, and Miao-hsin asked them to approach. As they did so, she said, “What moves is not the wind, nor the banner, nor your mind.”

At once all the seventeen monks awakened.

* * *

Chiyono’s No Water, No Moon

Chiyono was a servant in a Zen convent who worked night and day in service to the nuns. One day Chiyono approached an elderly nun and said, “I have a desire to practice zazen but I am of humble birth. I cannot read or write. Is it possible that I too might attain the way of the Buddha even though I have no skills?”

The nun answered her, “This is wonderful! In fact, what is there to attain? Listen carefully. The teachers of the past have said that people are complete as they are. Not even the width of one eyebrow hair separates them from this perfection. In Buddhism there is no distinction between a man and a woman, between a layperson and a renunciant, between noble and humble, between old and young. There is only this – each person must hold fast to his or her aspiration and proceed along the way of the Bodhisattva. There is no higher way than this. The teachings of the sutras are like a finger pointing to the moon. If one looks directly at the moon there is no need for a finger. In entering the Way we rely on our bodies.” She then explained the way of zazen.

Chiyono said joyfully, “With this practice as my companion, I have only to go about my daily life. If I wake practicing and go to bed practicing, what hindrance can there be?”

In the eighth lunar month of the following year, the full moon was shining. Chiyono went to draw some water from the well. As she did, the bottom of her bucket suddenly gave way and the reflection of the moon vanished with the water. When she saw this she instantly attained great realization. Carrying the bucket, she returned to the temple and found the elderly nun. She said, “The one moon of self has illuminated the thousand gates of the dharma.” Then she made three prostrations in front of her teacher.

Her enlightenment poem was this:

With this and that I contrived

And then the bottom fell out of the bucket.

Where water does not collect,

The moon does not dwell.

Chiyono later ordained. She was the first Japanese Zen woman to receive full dharma transmission and authorization as a teacher.

Sources for the English translations of these stories:

Stephen Addiss, Zen Sourcebook

Thomas Cleary, The Book of Serenity

Nelson Foster and Jack Shoemaker, The Roaring Stream

Stephen Heine, Opening a Mountain

Thomas Kirchner, Entangling Vines

Trevor Leggett, The Warrior Koans

Ruth Fuller Sasaki, The Teachings of Layman P’ang

Grace Schireson, Zen Women

Kazuaki Tanahashi and John Daido Loori, The True Dharma Eye (Dogen)

Diana Paul, Women in Buddhism

C.A.F. Rhys Davids, Psalms of the Early Buddhists