The Other Ryonen – Sarah Kokai Thwaites

Very little is known about Ryonen, the Zen ancestor that I find myself drawn to write about. For many of our ancestors the historical details of their lives are often much less well known than the stylised reputation their names have gathered over the years. In the case of our female ancestors even less is known. In Ryonen’s case she is also overshadowed in terms of the Google god by a more famous Ryonen with a more dramatic storyline. That Ryonen allegedly burnt her face with a scalding iron in order to gain admittance to a monastery. She’d previously been turned away by two different Zen masters in case her beauty distracted their monks. This Ryonen however did not, it seems, need to burn her face. Her teacher was Dogen and he seems to have willingly accepted her as a student. Little else is known about this Ryonen. There are differences of opinion as to when she was born, when she died, her background, history and pretty much everything else. Talking about her feels a little like building a tissue paper house over the barest of twig outlines so I’ll try to limit my conjecture about her life and how she might have experienced it.


But maybe what is known about her is enough. She was one of Dogen’s first students and was highly regarded by him. Three of his Dharma Words (practice letters) in his Eihei Koroku (Extensive Record) are addressed to her or refer to her, including the following comments:

“Wayfarer Ryonen, you have the seeds of prajña from early on [in life], intently aspiring to the great way of Buddha ancestors. You are a woman, but have strong, robust aspiration. Without begrudging any effort in nurturing the way, for you I will demonstrate the precise meaning coming from the west.”

“This mountain monk regards the sincerity of the aspiration for the way of wayfarer Ryonen, and sees that other people cannot match her.”


Dogen’s Raihaitokuzui or ‘Prostrating to the Attainment of the Marrow’, one of the fascicles of the Shobogenzo, contains outspoken criticism of male teachers and practitioners who sought to exclude women from spiritual practice:

“Because they do not know and will not learn they are close to animals and far from the Buddhist patriarchs”

“just very stupid fools who deceive and delude secular people. They are more stupid than a wild dog worrying that its burrow might be stolen by a human being”.

Conversely he highly praises the sincerity of practice of men who have studied and awakened with female teachers.


He also clearly sets out his conviction that spiritual capacity bears no relation to gender, which flows naturally from his teaching that all beings are Buddha Nature:

“Why should men be higher? Space is space, the four elements are the four elements, the five aggregates are the five aggregates and women are also like this. As regards attainment of the truth both men and women attain the truth, and we should profoundly revere every single person who has attained the Dharma. Do not discuss man or woman.”

“Wanting to get Dharma and achieve liberation, never depend on whether we are a man or a woman. When they have yet to cut delusion, men and women alike have yet to cut delusion. When they cut delusion and experience the principle, there is nothing at all to choose between a man and a woman.”

The fascicle is full of such references which must have been encouraging to his female students such as Ryonen. He sees excluding women from sacred spaces, as was common in Japan, and male monks vowing to never look upon a woman as unbuddhist.

“If a man has vowed never to look at a woman, must he discard women even when vowing to save limitlessly many living beings? If he discards them, he is not a bodhisattva. How much less does he have the Buddha’s compassion….. Words like those [monks vowing to never look on a woman] are the deranged speech of a stupid man. We should feel sorry for him.”


By some of the reconstructed timelines of Ryonen’s life, the Raihaitokuzui would have been written a month after she joined the monastery so it may have been written in an attempt to quell any dissent about her admittance. She may thus have provided the impetus to write it. We will never know. It is true that some of Dogen’s successors such as Keizan Jokin are better known for their active work to support female practice 1 but Dogen’s fascicle stands out as a powerful rebuke to anyone who doubted the capacity of women as students or teachers of Zen (including female self-doubts). That centuries later the other Ryonen had to resort to such desperate measures to gain admittance to a monastery shows that Dogen was perhaps well ahead of popular opinion.


So why does this matter to us? Indeed does it when our lives are so different from those of either of the Ryonens? It seems, almost to my surprise, that to me it really does. Centuries later there are numerous female Zen teachers around the western world, even if practice in the east remains divided and unequal. Many of the numerous Zen books on my bookshelves are authored by women, I can hear podcasts by female teachers any day of the week should I choose. There are now role models for women in Zen practice. And yet, somehow it also matters to me, matters deeply, to remember that women have been doing this practice for centuries, that it is as natural for women as it is for men and also to know that Dogen, as the founder of the Soto part of our lineage, whose name we recite each week, whose writings (and commentaries on his writings) overflow my bookshelf, recognised this.


Footnote: [1] Keizan Jokin’s mother Ekan, is one of the women ancestors we pay tribute to in our service dedication. She was the abbess of a Soto convent and the founder or a temple and it was said that Keizan, so affected by the depth of his mother’s practice, vowed to help women’ practice in the three worlds and the ten directions.