Where are the Women?

Here’s a thoughtful and thought provoking piece by Miranda Forward:

“Something has been bothering me for a while: –

Every Wednesday evening during the service at StoneWater Zen Liverpool, we chant the Identity of Relative and Absolute Sutra. After the sutra, the Ino chants a dedication –

In reciting the Identity of Relative and Absolute, we dedicate its merits to:

The Great Master Shakyamuni Buddha; Bodhidharma; Daikan Eno; Tozan Ryokai; Eihei Dogen; Keizan Jokin. All successive ancestors through Koun Taizan and all women lineage holders whose names have been lost or forgotten….

I have been struggling with this last sentence for ten years. Are all the women lineage holders lost? Are they forgotten? Well, at least that implies that they exist. If they exist, where are these women? And does it ultimately matter? This last question is what has kept me pondering uneasily rather than raising it out loud. My hesitation has stemmed from several different but related sources. Firstly, one of the main reasons I was attracted to Zen was that I found that any discussion on social justice, whether in relation to women or any other group, often led to division, anger and an emphasis upon ‘us’ and ‘them’ – where ‘we’ are right, and ‘they’ are wrong, to put it at its simplest. Wars start like this! Within Zen, as I saw it, the fixed self is an illusion, so ideas, beliefs and thoughts are also illusory. Any duality, including gender, is ultimately empty and the idea of separation is ultimately unreal. How wonderfully freeing, I thought…. Secondly, on a more personal level, I had a sinking feeling that I would be up against a losing battle! I had chosen, unknowingly at first, a tradition which places great importance on hierarchy, lineage and the personal transmission from teacher to student which accompanies that. So, if I was bothered by these words, perhaps my unease was due to my fixed ideas or beliefs. I would put my unease aside, and see what happened.

Ten years later, we now have a thriving sangha with a much healthier proportion of women members, so the context is different. And I still feel the same unease! I’ve come to realise that believing something is no more a problem in itself than using our minds in other ways – it’s a basic feature of human existence and can, and sometimes should, be used in a constructive way. How else can positive change occur in our ‘normal’, relative world? It is when beliefs become fixed and lead to reactive, automatic behaviour and preconceptions that they become unhelpful. It’s now up to me to ‘take the seat’ and face this one rather than deny how important it is to me. So I’ll return to my first question – Where are the women in our tradition? Since Zen came to the West, there have been and are many women Zen dharma holders and teachers. However, women do not figure in our lineage chart at all. Where are the ‘lost or forgotten’ women lineage holders referred to in the chant?

Last summer, an article was published in Tricycle, the Buddhist Review, entitled “Roused from a Dream, Restoring Zen’s Female Lineage” by Mary Fowles. The article describes how a woman called Rowan Piercy, preparing for her Jukai ceremony in 2007 in the Salt Spring Zen Circle, a small island sangha off the coast of Canada, struggled with the same issue. She wanted to commit to the practice, but felt she could not continue to set aside and make invisible what women have brought to the tradition, as nuns, teachers and abbesses over the millennia. She asked her teacher the same question – Where are the women? Her teacher, Peter Levitt, said he felt as if ‘roused from a dream’ – she was right, but he had never thought about it. The emphasis had always been on the dharma, regardless of who, or what, revealed it. How did this sit with the clear omission of any women’s names in the lineage chart?

Levitt looked further, with the support of Norman Fischer of the San Francisco Zen Centre, and found that much research had already been done. A lineage chart was then prepared and a women’s ancestor document was presented to both men and women students at their Jukai ceremony. The US Soto Zen Buddhist Association has since produced an official list. Currently, the San Francisco Zen Centre website includes over 60 women lineage holders over the centuries.

Of course, it is not just a question of a list of names – having the women’s names, the wider issue is what are their stories and what can they teach us? There is a deeper question too: why have they only recently been rediscovered?

A book I have found very useful is ‘Zen Women’ by Grace Schireson, who received dharma transmission in the Suzuki Roshi lineage and is the Abbess of Empty Nest Zendo in California. I was reassured to hear it took her twenty years to ask the same question! In this book, she explores the teachings and history of Zen’s female ancestors, from the Buddha’s time through Buddhism’s journey via China and Korea to Japan, and more recently to the West. She describes female practitioners as they were portrayed in the classic patriarchs’ literature, often as bit-players in the stories of male students’ enlightenments, or tough-as-nails women jousting with their male partners. She also examines women teachers more from their own perspectives in terms of how they dealt with being women taught by men, within the societies existing at the time and a sometimes blatantly misogynist tradition, and their own unique contributions to the teachings.

So who are these women? The first woman to mention has to be Mahapajapati, the Buddha’s aunt and stepmother, who asked three times to join the order and was eventually admitted – along with a set of additional conditions and a resulting subordinate position for women. That is a whole debate in itself.

Another woman ancestor is Zongchi, a student of Bodhidharma who is considered to be the founder of Zen. She is named by Dogen as one of Bodhidharma’s four equal dharma heirs. There was also Ekyu, the first female Soto dharma heir, who was given dharma transmission by Keizan Jokin. Keizan’s mother, Ekan, was herself a teacher and abbess of two temples.

These four women – Mahapajapati, Zongchi, Ekyu and Ekan – are discussed in the Tricycle article. Schireson’s book examines the lives and achievements of scores of other Zen women teachers and dharma heirs throughout the centuries. One of the main reasons why the traditional lineage charts only contain men’s names is that each step in the lineage was represented by only one male dharma heir. If all the dharma heirs of a teacher were shown, the women reappear. What we do not have is a linear family tree from teacher to teacher including both women and men, as these women were by definition excluded from the traditional lineage charts. As Schireson says, the “male Zen order claims to trace its teachers’ lineage back to the Buddha, although most scholars dispute the veracity of a continuous lineage. The female order makes no such claim to continuity. From the time of the first female nuns in India led by Mahapajapati…. the women’s order has struggled to survive…” and she suggests many reasons for this.

Another book which greatly contributes to our understanding of the importance of ancient Zen women teachers is ‘The Hidden Lamp’, edited by Florence Caplow and Susan Moon. Here, we have one hundred stories of awakened women, presented as koans: each story is introduced by a contemporary Zen woman teacher, several of whom are in our own White Plum Asangha. By strange synchronicity, one of Sensei’s recent dharma talks was on Hakuin and an old woman’s awakening. It was only when I got home that I realized that the story is in this book!

In summary, much research has been done to rediscover and reclaim our previously lost and forgotten Buddhist women ancestors. Fascinating details are now available about who these women were and what they can teach us. It is now time to include them in our chants and charts, and to learn more of their stories and teachings.

This is something very close to my heart, and I know that some of you share my enthusiasm. Several of us have spoken to Keizan Sensei about this and he is in complete agreement that it should be taken forward.

If you are interested in taking part in a group to discuss this further, please let me know either through the StoneWater Zen website, our Facebook page or directly to me. This group could also learn more about the women’s stories and teachings.

The women lineage holders’ names are now being found and remembered.

Let us not ignore them any longer, for the benefit of us all!”

Caplow, F. and Moon, S. (2013) The Hidden Lamp, Somerville, MA USA, Wisdom Publications.

Fowles, M. (Summer 2014) ‘Roused from a Dream’, Tricycle, The Buddhist Review,http://www.tricycle.com/feature/roused-dream

San Francisco Zen Centre website www.sfzc.org/teachings/

Schireson, G. (2009) Zen Women, Somerville MA USA, Wisdom Publications.

Miranda Forward