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Women in Zen

What is the place of women in Buddhism – and in Zen particularly? What a stupid question! What is place of men in Buddhism? BTW, this is a quick way to see if your question or statement conceals implicit bias; if it sounds stupid when applied to the majority population then it contains implicit bias. Rather, let’s ask what is Buddhism’s - and Zen’s approach to women?

Zen has a strange relationship with women – as does all of Buddhism. The Buddha founded the Four Assemblies or Orders – Monks, Nuns, Laymen and Laywomen – and declared that they all have the same potential to realize Awakening, yet also required additional vows of nuns and prohibited them from teaching monks. The Buddha is also said to have stated that the Dharma would now persist a far shorter time because women had been admitted to the orders; yet the Canon contains not only a chapter, Verses of Elder Monks but one Verses of Elder Nuns. There are stories in the sutras of women attaining Awakening, but in many if not most cases they have to perform a miracle and transform themselves into men to prove that it is “real” Awakening.

Zen has been – even to today - no less dismissive of women and their abilities – but at least here there are occasional exceptions. I want to read some passages from the great Zen Master Dogen’s Shobogenzo in which he is talking about why students must get rid of the notion that women are somehow inferior in the Buddha-Dharma. Here, he relates an encounter story – the origins of koans - including the female teacher Matsuzan:

Master Shikan is a venerable patriarch in Rinzai’s lineage...[after years of study]...He leaves Rinzai and goes to Matsuzan, at which time Matsuzan asks him, “Where have you come from?” The Master says, “The entrance of the road.” Matsuzan says, “Why have you come here without anything on?” The master has no words; he just prostrates himself, bowing as student to teacher. The Master asks a question back to Matsuzan, “Just what is Matsuzan?” Matsuzan says, “She never shows a peak.” The Master says, “Just who is the person within the mountain?” Matsuzan says, “It is beyond appearances such as those of man or woman.” The Master says, “Then why don’t you change your form?” Matsuzan says, “I am not the ghost of a wild fox, What might I change?” The Master prostrates himself. [he works as her head gardener for three years. When he leaves and begins to preach, he says:] “I got half a dipper at Old Papa Rinzai’s place, and I got half a dipper at Old Mama Matsuzan’s place. Making a dipper with both halves, I have finished drinking.”

There is so much to talk about in this passage! First of all, yes, “She never shows a peak” has the same connotation in Chinese and Japanese as in English. The name Matsuzan means “The Last Mountain”; so, this simple phrase has multiple layers. Of course, the vulgar, “she never shows her breasts” but also; she never shows all that she is. From her name, we have the revelation that she holds the final teaching; she has mastered the Buddha-Dharma. When Shikan asks why she doesn’t change her form he is referring back to the stories in multiple sutras about women transform themselves into men to show that they have indeed reached Awakening. Here, she answers that she’s not a magician or mystic so what does she need to change – essentially denying the validity of these stories as being relevant in the real world. Finally, let’s look at Shikan’s responses to her.

His response to her question of where he comes from – a standard Zen question from master to student – is that he comes from “the entrance of the road”. Now, remember that he had just finished studying with the great Rinzai himself, the founder of the Rinzai school of Zen; yet he knows that he has only reached the entrance to the road of Awakening. When he begins preaching and introduces his Buddhist order of the Tathagata’s lifetime lineage, he places her at the same level as Rinzai – as giving him half of what he has gained.

Next, I want to quote parts of the rest of this sermon. This is a long passage so I’m going to skip quite a bit of it.

“Through every life, in every age, I shall never look at a woman.” Upon what morality is this based? Is it based on secular morality? Is it based on Buddha-Dharma?...What wrong is there in a woman? What virtue is there in a man?...Wanting to hear the Dharma and get liberation never depend on whether you are a man or a woman....if a man has vowed never to look at a woman must he discard women even when vowing to save limitlessly many beings? If he discards them, he is not a bodhisattva. How much less does he have the Buddha’s compassion?...If the vow of that monk were true, not only would we fail to save women, but also, when a woman who had got the Dharma manifested herself in the world and preached the Dharma for human beings and gods, we would be forbidden to come and listen to her...

Again in Japan, there is one particularly laughable institution. This is a place called a “sanctuary” or “a place for practicing the truth of the Great Vehicle” where...women are not allowed to enter....people cannot recognize it for what it is. not rectify it, and men of great knowledge give no thought to it. Calling it the enactment of people of authority, or terming it the legacy of men of tradition, they never discuss it at all. If one laughed, one’s guts might split...We should never hope to have so-called sanctuaries which surpass in their purity the Buddhist order of the Tathagata’s lifetime [the Four Assemblies]. There is no difference in the Dharma-forms of the Buddhist order, not in this world or in other directions, and not among a thousand buddhas of the three times....When a woman has already become a buddha, is there anything in the ten directions that she cannot perfectly realize? Who would stand in her path?...Those who exclude women are just very stupid fools who deceive secular people. They are more stupid than a wild dog worrying that its burrow might be stolen by a human being."

I honestly don’t know what I say as commentary on that. As always, Dogen lays it out pretty simply and fully. Notice, that it is not that men and women are the same; but that they have the same capacity to reach the Realization of the Buddha-Dharma. How many places and institutions and rules and moral guidance do we have in our own society that no one wants to rectify? That no one wants to talk about? That people simply accept because “it’s always been that way”. Dogen says all those arguments are laughable and as followers of the Buddha-Dharma it is our responsibility to bring them down.

Finally, I want to go to the koan of Miaozong. This is a famous koan in both the Rinzai and Soto tradition that shows the humor that these encounter stories can use to present important teachings. In this one, Miaozong is a guest in a monastery and Wanan objects to her being there. The abbot, Dahui, suggests he go to her for a “dharma interview” - a time when a master can test a student.

"When Wanan entered he saw Miaozong lying naked on her back on the bed. He pointed at her genitals, saying, “What is this place?”

Miaozong replied, “All the Buddhas of the three worlds, the six patriarchs, and all the great monks everywhere come out of this place.”

Wanan said, “And may I enter?”

Miaozong replied, “Horses may cross, asses may not.”

Wanan was unable to reply. Miaozong declared: “I have met you, Senior Monk. The interview is over.” She turned her back to him.

Wanan left, ashamed.

Later Dahui said to him, “The old dragon has some wisdom, doesn’t she?”."

First off, yes, she is engaging in sexual harassment of the poor monk; but women everywhere are probably applauding her brilliant response to Wanan’s request to enter.... “Horses may cross, asses may not.” - and again yes, it has the same connotations in Chinese with the added rejoinder that asses are base and unworthy. Beyond that though is her initial insight that “All the Buddhas of the three worlds, the six patriarchs, and all the great monks everywhere come out of this place.” Being presented with this simple profundity, how can any man claim primacy over women? Whatever achievement a man may realize began in that nurturing cavern that men have been trying to strip of its power for generations. This does not diminish the achievements of men, but only forbids us from diminishing the achievements of women.


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