Honouring our female ancestors – Sarah Kokai Thwaites

At Jukai, people who are receiving the precepts are given a lineage chart (kechimyaku) which shows their new dharma name at a long end of a blood line going back to the historical Buddha. Look closer and the line is actually a loop with no end and no beginning.

One of the children attending our recent Hanamatsuri celebration was heard to say proudly, “My dad is part of the Buddha’s family tree. I’m not yet because you need to be big”. We might not all feel big but it does feel good to be part of the Buddha’s family tree. Even though I know that the chart is not historically accurate (some people were not even alive at the same time as the person they are shown as succeeding), it still feels powerful to me to see my name on my lineage chart and feel part of this line of people sharing a practice and dedication to facing life as it is not how we wish it was. And yet the family tree is less inclusive than our practice actually was in the past and is today. For many reasons, female ancestors are not represented in the traditional lineage. That doesn’t mean that there weren’t many powerful female practitioners – there are records of many, some of whom received authority to teach –  but women did face additional barriers to becoming heads of monasteries where the more formal practice and succession routes were based. In addition the chart, partly for reasons of simplicity perhaps, is a line forwards and back in time not a full family tree. One teacher may have had many descendants but only one, the one that led to the next in our historical chain, is included in the chart and not the sideways relations. A full family tree would include many more names, male and female, but would be impossible to fit on one piece of paper and be given at Jukai.

Does the chart not representing female ancestors matter? For a long time I thought it didn’t that much. Research has uncovered a vast number of female ancestors and it is years now since we included the names of a sample of female ancestors in our service dedication (Mahaprajnapati, Soji, Ekan and Ekyu) reflecting that their names are not “lost and forgotten” as our dedication previously stated. I know that many women as well as men came before me and I feel supported by both. I didn’t feel any less close to my lineage chart for the names being of people of a different gender to me.

And then one of our more recent Jukai recipients, their eyes glowing as they looked over their new lineage chart, asked me if any of the people on the chart were women. I told them no (although some historians believe that Prajnatara, Bodhidharma’s teacher was female). The person looked disappointed. I realised then that it does matter that we are reminded that women as well as men are our ancestors and that having women visible in our lineage charts does matter. We do need role models and what better time to be reminded of them than at Jukai when we are ourselves making a formal commitment to practice?

I knew that some Zen groups had developed a women’s lineage chart to be used alongside their traditional one and after a bit of digging and contacting various groups and practitioners, I received, via San Francisco Zen Centre and Zen teacher Norman Fischer, one we could adapt and adopt at StoneWater Zen. The names in the chart were selected by the American Soto Zen Buddhist Association from hundreds of possibilities. They are a collection of names rather than a line of transmission and so the names are shown in the chart in a circle rather than a line. You can read the list here: https://upaya.org/uploads/pdfs/WomenAncestorsDocument.pdf  You can read more information about the names included in our service dedication here: https://www.stonewaterzen.org/2017/06/who-are-these-women-explaining-the-female-names-in-our-dedication-chant-miranda-wayu-forward-and-sarah-kokai-thwaites-on-behalf-of-the-stonewater-zen-women-ancestors-group/

Many thanks to Roshi for his support in including this chart in our future Jukai ceremonies. If people who have previously received Jukai want a copy of the additional chart they can contact me on kokaistonewaterzen@gmail.com

I hope that the names on it will inspire many people’s practice in years to come.