The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

Monday Mindful Morsel: Zen Women

by Lydia Anderson
March 3, 2014
Mon, 03/03/2014 - 11:30 -- landerson

March is Women’s History Month, and we thought there was no better book to kick off the week than Grace Schireson’s Zen Women. This landmark presentation at last makes heard the centuries of Zen's female voices. Through exploring the teachings and history of Zen’s female ancestors, from the time of the Buddha to ancient and modern female masters in China, Korea, and Japan, Grace Schireson offers us a view of a more balanced Dharma practice, one that is especially applicable to our complex lives, embedded as they are in webs of family relations and responsibilities, and the challenges of love and work. In today's selection, Schireson gives an introduction to Women’s Zen and examines Zen practice given in a first-person female voice.

Introduction to Women’s Zen

There is something heretical in categorizing Zen by gender. After all, the word Zen just means “meditation.” Yet we talk about Japanese Zen, Western Zen, Rinzai Zen, Soto Zen, Obaku Zen, and so on, each of which emphasizes different aspects of practice. When we lump all these categories of Zen together, they comprise Patriarchs’ Zen. Is there an equivalent “Matriarchs’ Zen”? What does the sum of these two streams offer to contemporary Western Zen practitioners?

To explore this, I suggest we look beyond classic Zen literature to answer three key questions:

1. Were there separate institutions for women’s Zen practice?

1. Did female Zen teachers leave teaching words beyond the literature of “Patriarchs’ Zen”?

3. Were there authenticated Zen Buddhist female teachers whose lives and teachings were left out of the story of “Patriarchs’ Zen”?

We can answer all three questions in the affirmative. Women’s Zen assumes no categorical differences between male and female attributes. The existence or nonexistence of elusive traits that characterize men and women has long been argued. It is not the aim of women’s Zen, or of this book, to prove that the feminine is in any way superior to the masculine. The intent of this chapter is to present a body of female Zen masters’ work in the form of writings, artistic contributions, Zen institutions, and additional Zen practices.

Women go beyond the limited familial and supportive roles that constellated around Patriarchs’ Zen to offer a unique embodiment of Zen at the same time that they embody their female identity. Because women’s Zen developed in the same cultural milieu as Patriarchs’ Zen, we can see how women’s Zen was innovative or unique. Women’s Zen incorporated women’s abilities and issues into Zen practice, finding ways to express and practice Zen as women rather than as token participants in an allmale Zen institution.Women found ways to include family training and their own style of leadership within convents, in their own homes, and in their own small hermitages. They did not just imitate the macho Zen heroes; they expanded the job description of the enlightened (and not always monastic) female Zen master to include: loyalty to family, commitment to married sexual relationships, continued work in the lay community, and socially engaged Buddhist projects.

When we shift our view of women from their relationship roles (as mother, sister, wife, or iron maiden without family ties) to their functional roles (as founders, innovators, managers, and artists), we see that women make unique contributions to those excluded from a monastic setting. We see beyond a view of women as “unsafe” whenever they depart from the roles of nurturing mother, sister, or lover.

A Women’s Zen Lineage

Until recently,Western Zen women have assumed that few if any female teachers preceded them. Part of this misunderstanding comes from the scarcity of women in classical Zen literature. (A few such rare birds have already been mentioned in the previous section of this book.) Another source of this misunderstanding derives from documents of the Zen sect which suggest that the teachings passed from male master to male disciple without listing a single woman.

This male Zen order claims to trace its teachers’ lineage back to the Buddha, though most scholars dispute the veracity of a continuous lineage. The female order makes no such claim to continuity. From the time of the first nuns in India led by Mahapajapati Gotami (the Buddha’s aunt and stepmother), the women’s order has struggled to survive, dwindled to virtually nothing, and at times almost vanished. Like a stream gone underground, the women’s order would seem to disappear, only to surface later in a different location. Looking beneath the surface, we see that women did not sustain their lineage single-handedly, rather, their Zen order was repeatedly reinvigorated by open-minded male Zen masters.

There is no formal or continuous lineage of female Zen teachers tracing back to the first Buddhist woman, Mahapajapati.We do find evidence of its persistence, but no linked relationships from teachers to disciples. The discontinuity of thewomen’s lineage had many causes, including the hazardous nature of travel for women, the rape and capture of woman as sex slaves, the restrictions placed on women’s participation outside the home by Confucian culture in China and Japan and Hindu culture in India, the lack of convents, and, of course, by the Eight Special Rules. Finally, discrimination against women and conservative views forbidding women to work outside the family system may have resulted in the erasure of women masters from Zen records during particularly misogynistic periods of history.

The Origin and Transmission of the Female Zen Buddhist Order

The women’s Zen order descended from the first women who practiced with the Buddha Shakyamuni. Special rules and services practiced in current female Zen orders throughout Asia can be traced to this original Buddhist women’s order. Mahapajapati’s reputation and influence were so strong that several hundred years after her death, in a set of poems commenting on the earliest account of her life (in poems found in the Therigatha), she was referred to as the Buddhi Gotami (in contrast to the male Buddha Gotama). In the Theri Apadana, Gotami expresses her belief in women’s spiritual potential. Just as Patriarchs’ Zen traces back to Shakyamuni Buddha, so Matriarchs’ Zen traces back to Mahapajapati Buddhi. And just as the male Zen monastery evolved from the Buddha’s order, so the Zen convent derived from the Buddhi’s order. Women practitioners in China, Korea, and Japan all referred back to Mahapajapati andwhat she accomplished. Unfortunately, the ways in which this order might have provided for gender-differentiated practice has been lost to Western Zen practice and scholarship.

The male lineage follows the transmission of Buddhism from India to China, to Korea, and then to Japan via traveling male Zen and Buddhist masters, but the transmission for the female order differs. The nuns’ order in India did not carry Buddhism to Chinese women. After monks brought Buddhism to China, Chinese women studied Buddhadharma with men and then created their own convents. Later, early Chinese nuns tried to replicate the ordination process that had been developed for Indian nuns. Similarly, Chinese nuns did not bring Buddhism to Korean women. Korean men went to China and brought Buddhism to Korea, and Korean women were ordained by the first Korean monks and later formed their own convents.

The transmission from Korea to Japan was a little different. Perhaps surprisingly, the first ordained Buddhist practitioners in Japan were not men, but women. The strength of women’s spiritual influence in Japan was probably due at least in part to the ancient cult of Japan’s female goddess, Amaterasu, the sun goddess in the Shinto pantheon of deities. Amaterasu was given credit for inventing the cultivation of wheat and rice, the use of silkworms and the loom, and for sending her grandson to earth to pacify the Japanese people in a time of war. The Japanese emperors are said to descend from Amaterasu. Women were the early intermediaries in this Japanese folk religion.

From this brief study of how Buddhism traveled from India to Japan and then from Japan to the West, we see that women worldwide are indebted to male teachers. Yet left out of this history of Buddhist transmission is male Zen teachers’ indebtedness to the women who showed pioneering monks that women could not only practice sincerely but spread the Buddhadharma in unique ways. The Zen lineage (according to legend) began with the Indian monk Bodhidharma bringing Buddhist practice to Chinese men and—as we have seen—at least one woman. He and his successors ordained women in Tang dynasty China. Korean and Japanese monks traveled to China and brought back Zen teachings. Japanese monks brought Zen to the West and taught both men and women. Currently, there are many female Zen teachers in the West, but there is no separate established female order. Most Western Zen women do not even know that a female order existed.

To learn more about Zen Women, click here.

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