Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens, and Macho Masters
by Grace Schireson
Wisdom Publications, 2009
320 pp., $16.95 paper


102revZenWomenZen lineage charts have been starkly female-free zones all the way up until the most recent generation, despite the openly acknowledged existence of powerful female Zen ancestors. Grace Schireson’s book “Zen Women” is a serious attempt to rectify several millennia of careless and diligent erasure of Zen women from the record.

Not only have Zen women’s names had a strange tendency to fall off (the rare koan encounters involving women usually refer only to “an old woman” or a “tea lady”), but entire female lives have been made to disappear, or their gender has been changed, their stories having been doctored in the records. “Zen Women” tells the stories of some of these extraordinary women who managed to enter intensive practice and went on to embody and convey the teaching uniquely—and, in some cases, more humanely, with no sacrifice of clarity. Schireson lets us feel the extraordinary obstacles they encountered while becoming Zen masters. While it is utterly true that when you forget the self and look with unclouded eye there’s neither male nor female to be found, historically women have been forced to walk a path strewn with thorns to win the right to practice. Schireson rightly says that this can no longer be permitted.

She asserts that Buddhism’s rejection of women practitioners began squarely with the Buddha. Though he allowed women to listen to the dharma, he was adamant in his rejection of his aunt Mahapajapati’s passionate wish to practice. Finally he allowed her ordination, and the formation of an order of nuns, only after she and her sangha sisters had endured a 150-mile barefoot walk—and then only because of Ananda’s persistent, tender intervention, and under pain of an especially heavy set of rules having to do with female subordination. Later, the Buddha acknowledged that Mahapajapati was a master of “great powers.” And yet the idea of women in practice struck him as far too radical and troublesome, a contaminant that would ruin the purity of monks’ practice.

Schireson points out the painful ambivalence underlying the Buddhist notion that the most senior nun must completely subordinate herself to a monk ordained even for just one day, but she doesn’t look into the way a woman’s body was imagined in early Buddhist teachings about purity: Outflows of tears, milk, and menstrual blood were thought to defile the body in the same way that mental outflows defiled the mind. Such abject fear of “impurity” testifies to the powers thought to lie in women’s bodies—powers depicted as a flood meant to destroy Buddhism (apparently first sweeping away even its fabled rationality).

Any purity theology will oppose life, and will first and most onerously oppress women as the life-bringers. In such a world, women teachers with full authority are sorely needed in every tradition— not only Buddhism—to mitigate past harm, and reconcile practice with the fullness of life and an unabridged reality.

Luckily, dreams of human purity quickly fade in any encounter with the bracingly indecorous and inclusive spirit of Zen. And yet, where have all the women gone? With its delightful subtitle, I expected, from “Zen Women,” bracing encounters with many more of the “Kahawaii Koans” kind of women. “Kahawaii,” in Hawaiian, means “Little stream that can roar and move boulders,” and that nineteen-eighties’ “cyclostyled” collection, which circulated privately among women from Robert Aitken Roshi’s Diamond Sangha, unearthed such wonderful figures as Yu the Donut Maker, who smashed through petty doubts with her vivid realization of the “true person of no rank.” She threw her donut pan to the ground, ignoring her husband’s reaction—“You must be crazy!”—and ran to see Master Langya. Even at a distance, he could see the strength of her realization.

Or the vivid Station Lady who, when first challenged by the Zen Master Hakuin with a koan about the light of buddhanature, had the terrific thought “This is not so hard!” When at last she abruptly saw clearly the light of her own intensely personal body full of mountains, rivers, forests, and fields, she told him, “I’ve run across Amida Buddha in my own body—everything on earth is emanating a great light. How wonderful!” and danced with delight.

“So you say, but what about what’s down there in the cesspool—does it also emanate light?” Hakuin asked her.

She went up to him and slapped him, saying, “This old guy still hasn’t realized!”— leaving him roaring with delighted laughter.

You can’t possibly imagine Yu or the Station Lady tolerating even one moment of the transparent quibble over rules that have so disfigured and bound women’s lives in religion. With a glance of powerful “donut” (“don’t know”) mind, the bottom falls out of all such shallow pans, and the all-too-nosy father figures scatter. Boulders are rolled away, and the sun shines freely on the simple matter of great wonder.

While Schireson brings back some wonderful figures from obscurity to flow into the living stream once more, her book feels muted by her choice to not come forth more strongly from her own Zen ground. She attempts to speak about Buddhist women with a one-sizefits- all voice, and that voice ends up rather restrained, from a Zen point of view. What should be a robust and naturally poetic directness and an earthy humor feel sacrificed in favor of an attempt to not step on a single doctrinaire toe. Despite that, you will find wonderful figures restored to life who could not possibly be easily “forgotten” again—like Miaozong, Jingchen, Kim Ilyop, Euyeong Song, and Kakuzan, as well as the strong Korean nuns who stepped up to become the postwar temple leaders.

One of the most memorable encounters written about in “Zen Women” is the one between Dahui’s head monk, Wanan, and the laywoman whom Dahui agreed to shelter in the monks’ quarters when he recognized her exceedingly clear dharma eye. When Wanan, scandalized by his teacher’s decision, came to test her eye for himself, he found her lying flat on her back, completely naked.

“What kind of place is that?” asked Wanan, pointing at her.

“It’s the place whence all the buddhas of the Three Worlds, all six Zen patriarchs, and all the venerable priests in the land have emerged,” she replied.

“Would you allow me to enter?” he asked, pressing further.

“It isn’t a place donkeys and horses can go,” she said. Wanan was unable to reply. “The meeting is over,” said the laywoman, turning her back to him.

I see that canny laywoman offering all of Buddhism a powerful corrective glimpse of the source of life and the fundamental bond that ignites and supports all spiritual inquiry; the unconditional attachment of mother and child born from that place makes human life possible. Not just the monk Wanan, but Buddhism at large is not eloquent or at ease enough with this. It remains a painful fact that the Buddha called his only child Rahula—“ Obstacle”—and left home in order to seek liberation on the very night of his son’s birth. Much of Buddhism has seen the Buddha’s sudden departure from his home as a quest to “cure” the self of all human attachment and gain release from the unending wheel of birth and death, and has visualized the body as a foul, corrupting hindrance. Women have had a significant problem with this; the giving of life is a sacred act, and to cast that act as rank misfortune makes a considerable travesty of human beings.

But what if liberation means seeing right through the self into an essential nature, shared by everything that is human, so open and unbounded even the word “love” disappears into it? Women and children are entirely welcome there. Their lives, too, are holy. The insistent avoidance of women, sex, birth, death, body, in so much of Buddhism’s heavily monastically-flavored tradition, has left love an awkward, edgy matter outside of “lovingkindness.”

“Zen Women” will inspire you to inquire more deeply into many of the silences in the tradition, by both following where Schireson goes and noticing where she draws away. What vast areas of human life can go completely missing from the Zen record, and from the dharma as a whole, when women are muted or erased from it. And how distorted this can leave practice—indeed, life itself!

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