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Miaozong’s Dharma Interview – Talk 3 Zen’s Women Ancestors

By: Norman Fischer, Zoketsu Norman Fischer | 09/12/2012
Location: Community Congregational Church in Tiburon
In Topics: Women in Buddhism, Zen Koans

Norman gives the third talk on the Zen’s Women Ancestors series on Miaozong’s Dharma Interview.


Excerpt from:

Miaozong's Dharma Interview – Talk 3 Zen's Women Ancestors

By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | September 12, 2012

Excerpted and editedby Barbara Byrum

The story:

Wanan relied on Dahui, and served as his Senior Monk at Dahui's monastery on Ching-san. Dahui had seven women disciples, and Miaozong was the most beautiful.

Before had become a nun, Dahui lodged her in the abbot's quarters. The head monk Wanan always made disapproving noises. Dahui said to him," Even though she is a woman, she has strengths." Wanan still did not approve. Dahui then insisted that he should interview her. Wanan reluctantly sent a message that he would go.

Miaozong said, "Will you make this a dharma interview or a worldly interview?" The head monk replied, "A dharma interview." Miaozong 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 Miaozong laying face upward on the bed without anything on at all. He pointed to her genitals and said, "What kind of place is this?"

Miaozong replied, "All of the Buddhas of the three worlds and the six patriarchs and all the great monks everywhere – they all come out from within this."

Wanan said, "And would you let me enter, or not?"

Miaozong replied, "It allows horses to cross; it does not allow asses to cross."

Wanan said nothing, and Miaozong declared: "The interview with the Senior Monk is ended." She then turned over and faced the inside. Wanan became embarrassed and left.

Wanan came before Dahui, who said, "It is certainly not the case that the old dragon does not have any insight."

Wanan was ashamed.

Mostly, in religions, sexuality is never discussed in any useful way. Usually, it's the opposite: sexuality is really bad. It shouldn't be engaged in. Or, it is off to the side, not important, and not central to the proposition of religion.

If, in male dominated, monastic establishments, women are demonized and rejected – as they so often are – and relegated to lower status, maybe it is because of the power of sexuality, and males are worried about this in themselves. So it is much easier to project it onto women and get rid of them. And so you think you have taken care of the problem. Too dangerous to touch, so let's get rid of them.

There is the phenomenon that we have throughout history – even into the present – of male religious leaders taking advantage of women followers. This is all too common in the history of religion. Those of us who have been doing Buddhism a long time know that this is unfortunately commonplace throughout the Buddhist world and in other religions as well. We have it in our own dharma family, as everybody knows. It was quite a painful thing to go through.

Nowadays the conversation in our culture is such that when this happens, we immediately assume that the male is at fault, and most of the time we are right. Even if women seem to willingly participate, you have to doubt how willing they actually are, when the man is in such a position of power. It doesn't seem like it is ever a fair and reasonable relationship.

Right now it is clear to us that this can't go on; it's not good. These days, even very powerful religious leaders – male teachers who do this stuff – don't get away with it. People will come down pretty hard on them, and that is right. We should, because it's really breaking trust. This whole thing depends on a certain degree of trust.

But, here is the point. Sometimes, when we are doing this, the outrage we feel can, without our realizing it, becomes a moralistic rejection of warmth and passion and sexuality itself. So there can be a puritanical aspect to it.

In Mahayana Buddhism, as I understand it, sexuality is the life force. It is not something bad or creepy. It is just life wanting to go on. Life affirms life, and furthers life, and when that happens, we call that "healthy." Yes, there is suffering in it, for sure. But without this passion for life, there is no energy, there is no creativity, and there is no ongoing warmth and passion to go further, to go on.

So what is nice to me about this story is that Miaozong takes all this on quite directly and dramatically and courageously. As someone who was soon to become a nun, she was probably not indulging herself in sexuality. But, she wasn't rejecting it either. She challenged the head monk's narrow lack of imagination. There are rules and limits. Sexual restraint is a necessity. [Imagine a world without sexual restraints. Pain and confusion would abound. People get hurt.] But restraint need not be rejection or demonizing. "All buddhas and bodhisattvas are born from this place." The womb. All life flows from it.

… This last week-end I was up in Seattle talking about all these stories. I presented this story and the things I just said to you now. A woman heard something in this story that I had not heard, and it was really beautiful. She said, "I thought it was so poignant when Wanan says ‘May I enter?'" On the surface it seems that he is coming on to Miaozong and that sheis rebuffing him. But this woman in Seattle heard something completely different. She heard Wanan's awesome appreciation of Miaozong's presentation of femininity. She felt that Wanan was really sad. That as a man, he couldn't participate in the connection, that – this woman said – women feel. Women give birth and carry life in their own bodies. She thought it was sad and that he was asking for a way to understand this. Maybe there is a connectedness to life and to physicality that women naturally have. Men, in comparison, are much more abstract and theoretical and in exile from their own bodies. Wanan was expressing his sorrow over this and wanting to participate, as a woman participates in life, but knowing he could never do that.

homework: Explore the phrase, "May I enter?" What does it mean to you? May I enter what? Are you outside of anything that you want to enter? Bring up the phrase throughout the day and in your meditation.


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