The Mountains and Rivers Order sangha has recently been formally introduced to our women ancestors. For several years our Sunday morning program has included a service at the Mahapajapati altar during which we chant a short list of names. We now begin a new tradition, chanting a long list of the names of women ancestors, at the Monastery and Temple every other Sunday, alternating with chanting the list of our lineage—all male ancestors—that has been part of the Sunday service for the past 35 years. The list of women ancestors begins with Prajna Paramita—Perfect Wisdom, frequently embodied in female form and known as “the Mother of all Buddhas”—and goes through 57 names from India, China, Japan, ending with Ruth Fuller Sasaki and Jiyu Kennett—two of the first Western women to receive transmission in a Zen lineage and establish Zen training in the United States. While the list of male ancestors we chant reflects the long line of teacher/disciple relationships that the dharma has passed through to reach us, the list of women ancestors does not reflect a continuous line of dharma transmission. Nothing like that exists in the historical records that we know of, but this list of ancestors does reveal a body of powerful and deeply influential women teachers whose names and reputations have survived over hundreds and thousands of years.
To create this list, our sangha drew on the work of Sallie Jiko Tisdale and the Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, OR, and on the Zen Peacemakers Order, both of whom chant similar lists in their sanghas. A few of the senior women in our sangha worked with Shugen Sensei to cull the 57 on the list from a larger body of distinguished nuns and women lay practitioners. The names we chant were selected because they were teachers, many of whom established monasteries and temples and all of whom worked with students, passing along the dharma and helping to ensure that it would find its way into our lives.
I was given an assignment during caretaking to research the lives of some of the women who now make up our list of women ancestors. I found myself in them, in their pain, their struggle, their joy and determination for practice, their not being held back by the conditions they found themselves in as they searched for enlightenment. Why were these women forced to fight so hard to practice the teachings of the Buddha, who clearly stated that women and men and all beings are inherently equal, and that women have no inherent barriers, hindrances or differences from men in their ability to achieve enlightenment? Our list of women ancestors makes clear that women have been present from the very beginning of Buddhism, walking alongside the Buddha as his disciples, ordaining, teaching, and practicing their lay lives.
Shugen Sensei has drawn from the work of modern scholars, especially Alan Sponberg, to describe the historical context and conditioning that has traditionally kept women in a subordinate position in Buddhist institutions. Even as the Buddha realized and taught the fundamental reality of the equality between women and men, he felt bound by the gender norms of his time and place. Gender discrimi- nation was further institutionalized through the years and centuries following the Buddha’s death, as Buddhism spread through India, into China and Japan. Women teachers were systematically erased and officially forgotten about, even though they appear in so much of Buddhist history.
In the Metta Sutta we chant, “just as a mother protects with her life her child, her only child so…should one cherish all living beings.” And in the Identity of Relative and Absolute, “the four elements return to their nature as a child to its mother.” I think of these expressions of a very natural love, often labeled feminine or maternal, that we can all relate and aspire to. Shugen Sensei in his teachings has made clear that ultimately, “woman” and “man” are just ideas in our minds, empty of reality. And yet they are also the forms in which we appear, and those forms have been the basis for discrimination since, seemingly, the beginning of time. The work of our time, Shugen said, is to pull out that discrimination by its roots—delusion, desire, attachment—and to embody the reality that the Buddha awakened to and that has been passed down to us by our male and female ancestors. “Woman” and “man” are not just the basis for discrimination, that are also the forms through which we realize ourselves.
Shannon Shinko Hayes, MRO, is an oncology nurse in Massachusetts.