Forgotten? Eminent Zen women

Anybody interested in Zen has a vast literature available. Stories and anecdotes abound about what came to be known as ‘Patriarch Zen’. Anybody willing to undergo a strict Zen training, especially in the Rinzai tradition, would nowadays have a choice. It is either to go to a Japanese Zen temple or to find a western Zen master, who got a permission to teach from an acknowledged Zen master. Moreover, traditional Zen training is in a monastic setting, male Zen masters sometimes accepting female students. Aspiring women would have been really determined to enter training as often they were not allowed to live in temple grounds.

In times of the Buddha, and some couple of centuries afterwards, a blueprint for the Buddhist practice was set. There were monastic orders, of monks and nuns, and two broad categories of laymen and laywomen. It is well known that Zen sect traces its origin to one of Buddha’s disciple, Mahākāśyapa. What is perhaps less well known that it was the Buddha’s stepmother and aunt, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī who asked his permission to form nun’s order. Her request was eventually granted, with the proviso that nuns were subordinate to monks according to eight rules. (The origin of the rules is traditionally accepted to be set by the Buddha.) To become a monk, a man would have to give up everything, leave home and become a mendicant, living off begging. What about nuns? Could they leave home, leave behind everyone and everything they took care of? Hence another type of arrangement had to take place. Penetrating insight into the role of societal restrictions through ages and wider picture is given in an invaluable book by Grace Schireson ‘Zen women: beyond tea ladies, iron maidens and macho masters’.

In the second half of the last century, when Zen started to move from Japan to America and Europe, a new phenomenon took place.  A new Zen ‘order’ has appeared: that of ordained priests who chose to practice as lay people, thus not leaving families behind and supporting themselves through work. With the equality of men and women, at least on paper, in most Western countries women are becoming successors of male Zen masters more easily. But there is historical precedence; however for various reasons women’s role in the Dharma transmission in Zen is under-emphasized, to put it mildly. Also as there are women Zen masters both men and women can become successors in female lineages.

In orthodox Buddhism women were considered by some to have a karmic burden and not to be able to see the true nature. A convenient theory? There is an inherent conflict as Zen goes beyond gender – the Buddha mind is neither male or female. The absurd of woman’s mind being inferior to that of man’s has been exposed by In words of Bankei (1622-1693) in the Hōshin-ji sermons: (source: The Unborn: The Life and Teachings of Zen master Bankei, translated by Norman Waddell).

‘Here is something that will prove to you that the Buddha-mind is the same in men and women. There are a lot of people gathered here. Now, suppose that outside the temple walls someone started to beat on a drum or strike a bell. When you heard those sounds, would the women here mistake the drumbeat for the bell, or the bell for the drumbeat? No. As far as hearing those sounds is concerned, no difference exists between the men and the women. It’s not only true of men and women; there are people of all kinds in this hall: old people and young, priests and laity, and so on. But there wouldn’t be any difference in the way that a young person, or a monk, or a layman heard the sounds either. The place in which there’s no difference in the hearing of those sounds is the Unborn, the Buddha-mind, and it’s perfectly equal and absolutely the same in each of you. When we

say  “This is a man” or “This is a woman”, those designations result from the arising of thought. They come afterward. At the place of the Unborn, before the thought arises, attributes such as “man” or “woman” don’t even exist. That should make it clear that there is no distinction between men’s Buddha-minds and women’s. There is no reason, then to doubt about women having Buddha-minds.’

Today Bankei’s teachings have lost nothing of their validity. He had been a very popular Zen teacher who attracted a big following of monastics and lay people. His enlightened attitude to women was unusual in feudal Japan.

I’d like to concentrate on the beginnings of Zen Rinzai tradition in Japan. The first Buddhists in Japan were three women linked to Korean nuns (Schireson, p.57). The first ordained Buddhist was a young girl Shima who received the Buddhist name of Zenshin; she was ordained in 584 together with two other girls. The ordination ceremony was in Japan, conducted by a Korean priest turned layman, and an old Korean nun. Shortly afterwards they have suffered persecution under orders of a powerful lord Mononobe no Moriya to destroy their temple: they were defrocked, stripped of their ordained status, and beaten. But when the fortunes of war changed they could travel to Korea in 587, receive a full ordination and return to Japan in 590. These facts have been left out of the usual records of Buddhism’s transmission across Asia.

A few centuries forward and there is first documented female Zen Rinzai master Mugai Nyodai (1223-1298), and the first woman in Japanese history to be recognised as a Rinzai Zen Master. Well-read in Chinese and Japanese classics, she was married to a feudal lord who was killed in the battle, and his clan was destroyed. It’s not known when she began her Zen practice – she was ordained as a nun in her fifties. Her Zen teachers were Enni Bennen (Shoichi Kokushi) of Tofukuji Monastery, and Wuxue Zuyuan (Mugaku Sogen). It is implied from imperial records that in order to gain entry to Tofukuji she has burned her face in order not to ‘distract the monks’…She was recognised as one of Mugaku Sogen’s Dharma heir, and has founded a sub-temple at Engakuji. Little is known about her as – allegedly – her Dharma nephew Muso Soseki erased all traces of this Zen abbess from the Engakuji history. He was a successor of the male Dharma heir of Mugaku Sogen. We can only speculate what was his motivation.

Here is a poem that Mugai Nyodai (childhood name Chiyono) wrote upon enlightenment when a water pail broke (from Rep’s Zen flesh, Zen bones):

In this way and that I tried to save the old pail/
Since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break/
Until at last the bottom fell out./
No more water in the pail!/
No more moon in the water!

We have a partial answer why women were invisible throughout centuries of Zen history. This is the representation of the Zen lineages as continuing through one main male Dharma heir. Modern Zen, while acknowledging more contemporary female successors, is not free of this omission. Toni Packer, the first Dharma heir of Kapleau Roshi, has been removed from some renditions of his lineage. She eventually formed her own meditation school. Another female Zen master, Charlotte Joko Beck, was  Taizan Maezumi Roshi’s Dharma heir who broke off with her teacher and formed the Ordinary Mind Zen. One of her successors, Barry Magid, is a co-founder of Lay Zen Teacher

Association (LZTA). Even in my own lineage, the first female successor of Shinzan Roshi, Melody Eshin Cornell Roshi is not widely known.

Let’s hope things will change with Zen moving to the West. But I have no hope this can change overnight. As somebody has said, it takes about 500 years for Zen to adapt to new society – we have another 400 plus years to go!