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Women in Buddhism 2009 – 6

By: Norman Fischer | 12/17/2009
In Topics: Women in Buddhism

Sixth and final in a series on Women in Buddhism 2009 based on two texts: Grace Shireson’s “Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens and Macho Masters” and Susan Murcott’s “The First Buddhist Women: Translation and Commentary on the Therigatha”.

Women in Buddhism 2009 – 6

By Norman Fischer | December 17, 2009


Abridged and edited by Ryusen Barbara Byrum

Thanks to Chris [Fortin] for talking last week. I appreciated her talk and for bringing up Raihai Tokuzui. It is an amazing thing that in the 13th century Dogen would have such a powerful and clear sense of justice and make such a strong rebuke against prejudiced monks.

As we talk about practice and women and Buddhism, I wanted to read some inspiring quotations from a lot of women teachers. Mostly I am limiting them, tonight anyway, to Zen teachers and women who teach Theravada Vipassana. I am not taking up the whole realm of Vajrayana teachers, such as Pema Chodron and our local Lama Palden in San Rafael.

I will start with Aoyama Roshi. She has been a number of times to the Zen Center. She is a very strong, contemporary Japanese teacher, who has a training monastery in Japan. So I am going to read a page from her teaching:

The life and the voice of the Buddha is everywhere in heaven and earth and is manifested in all things. As art historian Muneyoshi Yanagi wrote in his last years in his book, "Buddha is the name of something nameless," the life of the Buddha originally had neither name nor form and is in everything – from a tree to a blade of grass, to a tile or a stone. It becomes the wind in the pines or in a sail. It is born as a man or woman. It is in good and evil, beauty and ugliness. Whatever form something takes, it manifests the Buddha. The magically gifted monkey in the 16th century great comic novel could not leave the palm of the Buddha's hand, and nor can we.

Whenever I am so arrogant as to think that I have the power to give myself life, I think of this poem by a five year old child: "The moment I say, ‘Tongue speak,' my tongue has moved. When I told my tongue to speak, who moved it?" The power that moves my tongue before I do is the power that works without rest when I sleep, and makes a flower bloom or a horse neigh. Whether we know it or not, the Buddha holds us in the palm of his hand, and he is the power that gives us life. To symbolize and revere that power, people have given artistic form to what originally was without name or form, by carving images of buddhas and bodhisattvas in human form. In the way that a child sometimes needs to call its mother, we call on Amida Buddha or Kannon Bodhisattva. Then, everything is revealed as Amida or as transformations of Kannon.

In the 1980's or early 90's, when I was director at Green Gulch, and there was nobody else there but me, there was no abbot. There was no tanto. So I could do whatever I wanted. I invited a lot of teachers to come, and they would come regularly. We had beautiful relationships with a number of powerful teachers. Among them was Maurine Stuart. And there was Tara Tulku Rinpoche and Ayya Khema. Ayya came to Green Gulch many times for retreats, and we became really close. She was a fantastic teacher, and in one of her books, on the little blurb I wrote for it, I said, "Ayya Khema is a meditator's meditator." And she was like that. She was really an incredibly astute expert on the details and the ins and outs of meditation. She had led a very colorful life, beginning with her escape from Germany – I don't know how old she was – but she was maybe a young teenager. She was Jewish and ended up escaping to China. Her family went to Shanghai. There was a whole bunch of Jews who were transported to Shanghai – a little known story. Starting from there, she had a very colorful life and ended up being a Theravadan nun. So here are a bit of her meditation instructions from her book When the Iron Eagle Flies. She has three or four books. They are terrific, detailed meditation instruction books.

When we keep our attention on the breath, the mind being with the breath is actually mindful. This is called anapanasati in Pali. Mindfulness of inbreath/outbreath. We will notice again and again that the mind just does not wish to stay attentive, but wants to do something else. So we will use that to gain insight into ourselves. We won't just say, "Thinking, thinking," because that doesn't tell us anything new. But rather we shall learn to label. We are going to say "Past, future, nonsense." The last one nearly always fits. We can say, "Wanting, hoping, planning." The last one is very popular.

We think that we can't get anything done while we are sitting, so at least we can plan what to do next week. The first label that comes to mind should be used. We need not try to find exactly the right label, because that induces new thinking. If thoughts are like clouds in the background, not solid, but quick to disappear, it is unnecessary to run after them to give them a label. That is neighborhood concentration – upachara samadhi and can lead to full concentration. When solid thinking takes place, labeling has two results. First of all, it dissolves the thought, because the mind can't do two things simultaneously. Giving a label means watching a thought objectively and not becoming involved with it. Therefore it dissolves like a water bubble. The second very useful result is gaining some insight into one's own thinking process and patterns. This is extremely important, because it helps the meditator not to fall into the error of always believing in his or her own thinking. Only people who never meditate believe what they are thinking. [So that's what you learn, you know, from meditation. Don't believe your thinking. At least not too much. Only up to a point.]

When one has labeled one's thoughts in meditation, one realizes that the thinking process is quite arbitrary and often has no real meaning. "Nonsense. No sense in it, and not even want it." Gaining such an insight into our thinking during meditation helps us in everyday life to drop thoughts which are not useful, and that makes our life less stressful. If we could drop a thought by labeling it during meditation, we can do the same in daily life. Otherwise, we have meditated in vain. We have been sitting and getting a knee pain without any result. We must be able to transfer our meditation practice into everyday life.

In meditation we drop all thoughts. When they recur, we drop them again. We substitute for them by putting our attention on the breath. In daily life we drop unwholesome thoughts and substitute wholesome ones. It's exactly the same substitution process, and when we learn in meditation how to do that, it can be a good habit in daily life. Not that it will always work – there is no such thing as always – but we understand the possibilities.

When we listen to the words of the Buddha, we know that he is showing us an ideal to work for, and if we have not yet reached that ideal, we need not blame ourselves. "Awareness, no blame, change" is an important formula to remember. "Awareness, no blame, change." To become aware of what is going on within ourselves, but not to attach any blame to it. Things are the way they are. But we, as thinking human beings, have the ability to change, and that is what we are doing in meditation. We can drop the thought and go back to the breath, and the more often we do this, the easier and more natural it becomes. Eventually the mind gives in and says, "All right, then. I'll stop thinking for awhile." Not only does this become easier because it has become a habit, but we shall be more and more determined to abandon discursive, non-directed thinking, because it has become apparent how unnecessary and how useless it really is. It brings no results. It goes round in circles. It is disturbing, and so the mind recognizes the value of staying with the meditation subject.

This is a book called Jizo Bodhisattva, by Jan Chozen Bayes. Jan was one of the early disciples of Maezumi Roshi. Maezumi Roshi had several powerful disciples in the early years, Bernie Glassman and Daido Loori – who recently passed away – and Genpo Merzel, who has a big establishment in Salt Lake City. Jan is also a doctor and has spent her whole life taking care of children. She specializes in needy children and battered children from troubled families. She continues this work to this day. They have a monastery in Oregon, but she still works a few days a week taking care of children. This has made her a devotee of Jizo Bodhisattva, who is the bodhisattva that takes care of children. So the monastery is devoted to Jizo, and they did a project making – I forget whether it was ten thousand or a hundred thousand – little Jizo statues, which they took to Japan on a pilgrimage – all around Japan, meeting people and giving them Jizos. They were called "Jizos for peace," and it was called a "Pilgrimage for Peace."

She is quite an extraordinary and inspiring person. Her one book is called Jizo BodhisattvaModern Healing and Traditional Buddhist Practice. It's about all that you could ever know about Jizo Bodhisattva. So I will read you one passage. Jizo is the same as Ksitigarbha in Sanskrit. The English translation is "earth store bodhisattva." So there is an Earth Store Sutra, and she refers to that here.

The Earth Store Sutra tells of ordinary human beings becoming bodhisattvas through the power of their vows. My teachers talk often about the importance of making vows. It took me many years to understand that vows are at the core of practice. Actually are the nuclear core of the energy pile that is our life. An interviewer once asked Maezumi Roshi if Buddhists believed in something like a soul that continued after death, and Maezumi Roshi said, "No. It is the vow that continues." A vow is like a seal that imprints itself on the wet clay of another emerging life, but it is more than a passive seal.

And as you know, that is one of the differences between Mahayana Buddhism and Theravada Buddhism. In Theravada Buddhism the goal is no longer to be reborn, because the energy of re-birth is karma and unfinished business. So you want to put all that to rest and never be reborn again. In Mahayana Buddhism, you want to substitute the vow for the unfinished business and the karma. She is saying here that we vow to continue to be reborn until all beings are at peace and nirvana. So that is what Maezumi Roshi is talking about there.

The vow has a propelling energy that propels us into the search for the end of suffering and into finding ways to help others. Finally, when all the various schemes we have developed to do these things fail, it propels us into practice. All Buddhist practices involve vows. At the Zen Center we chant the four great bodhisattva vows every day. [As we chant after lecture.]

Beings are numberless. I vow to save them.

Desires are inexhaustible. I vow to end them.

Dharma gates are boundless. I vow to enter them.

Buddha's way is unsurpassable. I vow to become it.


Over the years we have chanted vows like these hundreds, thousands of times. It does not matter if the vows were made when we were half asleep, or if we didn't quite understand them. We have made these promises, and now the gig is up and the promissory note is due. This explains the common feeling people have. "I don't know why I practice. I just have to. Something is compelling me to do this practice." The ongoing vow operates below the conscious mind.

I have a chapter on vowing in Taking Our Places, in which I say that I think that everybody has a vow. Every human being as a child develops a vow, which you forget about, or is not entirely conscious. Part of practice is uncovering the vow, and I think the vow is always the same. It is some version of wanting to use your life to benefit others. Somewhere, I think, we all have that in us. It's human to have that.

It is very important to say and shape our vows. Maezumi Roshi recommended starting each day with vows. There are many possible vows. They can be simple: "I vow to do what I can to relieve suffering. I vow to do what needs to be done to awaken fully, even if I am afraid at times. I vow to open my mind and hands and let go of what needs to be dropped, for me and others to be free." Vows can be formal and part of a ritual. They can be simple and spontaneous. What is important is to vow. At that point the things that are needed for the vow to be fulfilled begin to flow toward us.

Jizo Bodhisattva is called the "King of Vows." When we call upon the power of Jizo, we are calling upon the power in each one of us that is always urging us in the direction of fulfilling our life vow or purpose. For all of us, the fundamental vow is actually the same: to uncover and embody our innate wisdom and compassion. For each of us the specific situation that helps us with the uncovering and the embodying is different. It could be having a difficult child, caring for an elderly parent, working an extra job to earn money for retreats, or driving a city bus in a poor part of the city. When we are in the midst of these specifics, we often lose track of our larger purpose. We get angry or impatient and feel like we are failing. This is time to call upon Jizo Bodhisattva.

This is from Roshi Jiyu-Kennett's book, which used to be called Selling Water by the River, but when later editions came out, it became Zen is Eternal Life. Jiyu-Kennett has been gone now for some years, but she was actually one of the handfuls of founding teachers. When you think about this, it is really extraordinary what she did. She went to Japan just because she wanted to do Zen. She showed up in Japan, a very determined woman, and managed to get ordained as a priest and become a Zen teacher. She established a Zen lineage in the West very early on. She should be mentioned in the same breath with Suzuki Roshi and Maezumi Roshi and Katagiri Roshi – these early, first generation founding teachers. I met her a few times, and she was a very strong, totally convincing person, who went through a lot to be able to do what she did. This book, Zen is Eternal Life, is intended to be like a Bible for Zen in America. All you need to know about Zen. It was written early on in the Zen movement. This is chapter eight, "What are koans?"

It is essential to do zazen if one is to understand the world we live in with anything deeper than the usual, superficial understanding of the average person. It is not a matter of doing anything out of the ordinary, since all religions have practiced various forms of concentration throughout the centuries. Even dogs and cats love to sit quietly for long periods of time. However, most Western people, being intellectually oriented, are plagued by either fear or boredom during such periods if they have nothing specific to think about. This is the main reason why the Rinzai system of koans appeals to the average Westerner. It gives him something to think about.

This is a completely wrong use of koan and zazen. It was Daie Soko, born in 1089, who advocated the use of koans during zazen as preferable to the old method of quiet sitting, known as shikantaza in Japanese, which prevailed up to then, and on which he himself had been trained, as indeed, all the great masters up until that time, including Rinzai himself. Since Daie Soko was known to be brilliantly intellectual, I strongly suspect that he found the older method of meditation too difficult to practice. Only the intellectual types seem to have difficulty in practicing the old method of meditation. However, since the whole purpose of zazen is to quiet down the thought waves so that one may realize one's true nature, the present day use of koans for many Westerners – that of seeing how many they can solve like puzzles – is utterly wrong. In Japan I have so often seen, with disgust and sadness, a snobbish pride taken by these people in telling their fellow co-trainees how many koans they have solved and what heights of understanding they have reached. It must be clearly understood by all that the sole purpose of koan training must, and still is, to lead the trainee to a true understanding and keeping of the precepts – that is, the exhibition of enlightenment is daily life.

Sharon Salzberg is also a founding teacher. She is one of the founders of Insight Meditation and one of the founders of the Vipassana movement in America. She and others went to Asia without a clue, practiced meditation, came back to their home in America, and then established a new religion that they invented. Can you imagine this? But that is what they did, because Vipassana in America is not the same thing as Theravada Buddhism. It's based on that, but as a result of their own conversations and their own nerve, they just did it. It's really amazing when you think about it. And now, of course, it is a huge movement all over the world.

Anyway, just a little bit from Sharon's book Loving-Kindness. It's from a chapter called, "Relearning Loveliness." And she begins by quoting Galway Kinnell, who is a poet.

"The bud stands for all things, even for those things that don't flower. For everything flowers from within of self blessing, though sometimes it is necessary to re-teach a thing its loveliness. To put a hand on the brow of the flower and re-tell it in words and in touch, it is lovely, until it flowers again from within of self-blessing."

To re-teach a thing its loveliness is the nature of metta. Through loving-kindness, everything and everyone can flower again from within. When we recover knowledge of our own loveliness and that of others, self-blessing happens naturally and beautifully. Metta, love, or loving-kindness, is the first of the brahma viharas, the "heavenly abodes." The others – compassion, sympathetic joy, and equanimity – grow out of metta, which supports and extends these states.

In our culture, when we talk about love, we usually mean passion or sentimentality. It is crucial to distinguish metta from both of these states. Passion is enmeshed with feelings of desire – of wanting, or of owning and possessing. Passion gets entangled with needing things a certain way, with having our expectations met. The expectation of exchange that underlies most passion is both conditional and ultimately defeating. "I will love you as long as you behave in the following fifteen ways, or as long as you love me in return at least as much as I love you." It is not a coincidence that the word passion derives from the Latin word for suffering. Wanting and expectation inevitably entail suffering.

By contrast, the spirit of metta is unconditional, open, and unobstructed. Like water poured from one vessel to another, metta flows freely, taking the shape of each situation without changing its essence. A friend may disappoint us. She may not meet our expectations, but we do not stop being a friend to her. We may, in fact, disappoint ourselves and may not meet our own expectations, but we do not cease to be a friend to ourselves.

This was Sharon's first book, because she has made a practice of loving-kindness. It's her specialty. She worked very hard and a long time to write this book, Loving-kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness.

Some time ago a book came out called One Bird One Stone – One Hundred and Eight Zen Stories. Probably no-one has ever heard of this book. It didn't seem to make a terribly big splash, but it's a good idea. I'll read some very short stories here that involve some other women teachers.

When Katherine Thanas, who was resident teacher of the Santa Cruz Zen Center was struggling whether to make a deeper commitment to Zen practice, she came before Suzuki Roshi during a Shosan ceremony [the question answer ceremony] and without preamble said, "Inside me there is a yes and a no." "Follow the yes," he told her.

Another local Zen teacher is from the Peninsula, Angie Boissevain, who was given transmission by Kobun Chino.

She came before him with a question that had been burning within her all morning. But after she made the customary three bows and knelt before him, she found her mind was utterly blank, and the question was forgotten. So she sat before him in silence for a long time before finally saying, "Where have all the words gone?" And he said, "Back where they came from."

Pat Enkyo O'Hara is the teacher of the Village Zendo in New York City. Are there any men teachers in America? Maybe, a few! So many women teachers!

Pat Enkyo O'Hara, who is now the resident teacher of the Village Zendo in New York City, was serving as caretaker of altars and offerings during the three month training period at Zen Mountain Training Center in Idlewild, California. During one very formal memorial ceremony, as she was carrying a lacquered tray, one of the cups tumbled from the tray and landed among some rocks, resulting in a chip on its highly polished surface. Devastated, she went to Maezumi Roshi and announced her intention to order a new one from Japan. "Why?" he said. "With a chip it is more valuable. See? Just as it is." "Over the years," says Ms. O'Hara, "this has emerged as his great teaching for me. He was broken. I am broken. And when we can see chipped and broken, we begin to value our life as the expression of the teaching that we are truly perfect and complete, just as we are."

One more, Toni Packer. She's still alive, elderly. I'm not sure how active she is, but she was a real ball of fire. She was trained by Kapleau Roshi and was Kapleau's first dharma heir. But then she walked out on the whole thing – rejected Zen, rejected Buddhism, and went her own way. This book, called The Work of This Moment, is a kind of strong argument against Zen, against Buddhism, and any from of religious practice. In this chapter, someone writes her a letter, saying, "I quit. I am quitting your group. I am leaving, because I'd like to work within a Buddhist framework." And then she sort of criticizes Toni for somehow not having any identifiable framework. And so Toni writes her back, and this is Toni's letter:

In your letter you talk about being disturbed by something of a double message at Springwater [her place] on the denial of any affiliation with Buddhism. And then, on the other hand, there are cushions, a wooden block to signal time, and a schedule that includes meeting and a talk – all part of the external form of a traditional Zen sesshin. I'm not sure you want an explanation from me, and yet you are raising the question. So let me state that I left the traditional Zen center because it was impossible to question within that context the totality of our conditioning, including the traditional forms and beliefs themselves. We do question the forms we use in retreats in Springwater and drop or change what has been found unnecessary or in need of change. You ask, "What is the context within you teach awareness work?" Awareness cannot be taught, and when it is present, it has no context. All contexts are created by thought and are therefore corruptible by thought. Awareness simply throws light on what is, without any separation whatsoever. You want to know whether I experience the formidable truths, the eight-fold path, the precepts, the nature of form and emptiness, as expressed in the Heart Sutra, as true. No formulations, no matter how clear or noble, are the Truth. The Truth is inexpressible in symbols. The question is, can a human being see directly, understand immediately, the origin of sorrow within himself or herself? Can one see and understand directly and immediately what perpetuates conflict and division within oneself and others? Can one see and understand directly, without mediation of any kind, the end of suffering in oneself?"

So she was very feisty and maintained that stance, I think, until present.

So, we were talking about the stories of Zen women throughout history. Grace [Schireson] did a great job in her book about uncovering a lot of those stories. We heard from Dogen and talked about stories from earlier in the tradition. I don't know what conclusions we can draw from this. If I read these same passages and said that they were by men teachers, would you be able to tell the difference? Would anybody say, "Wait a minute. Those couldn't be men teachers. They must be women teachers." I doubt it, actually. I doubt it.

In the universities now one of the great points of theory – people write about it all the time – is gender studies and feminist studies. It's a very important topic. And one of the big topics of debate is whether or not there is any such thing – essential thing – as gender. Is gender simply and entirely socially constructed? In other words, can anybody make any sense when they say, "Men are like this. Women are like that." Is there any way that men essentially are, that women essentially are? Or, is it really just the product of our conditioning on an intimate level? I don't think there is any solving this.

Although you can historically say, as Grace says in her book, that we can look at the manifestations of the way men practiced and the way women practiced, I think it would be very difficult to say that this is how men should practice or do practice in the present or the future, and this is how women should practice or do practice in the present or the future. All you can say is "This is how this woman practices. This is how this man practices." It seems to me that there is a tremendous variety. Each one of these voices is completely different, I think. Completely different from each other. There is a tremendous range in terms of whatever kind of values you want to use to categorize the teachers. There's a tremendous range.

And yet, don't you have the feeling that the full inclusion of women has made a difference, a big difference, in the Buddhist movement? As Chris was saying last week, this is not the case in other traditions, where women are not fully included. So the fact that they are fully included, and have been from the beginning of our movement, has been a huge factor, I think, of what Zen and Buddhism in America is like. Idealistically, you would think that it would be an improvement. To include those who have been excluded would always bring more humanity, don't you think? So you would hope, let's say, that in a world in which everyone was included would also politically be a better world. That if you had leaders of men and women, and different groups were equally included, you would have a better world. And then I thought to myself, "I hope so, but maybe not." Maybe if everyone was included, there would be just as many wars, just as much confusion as we have now. But we can hope.





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