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).

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