I arrived at the monastery for the first time curious about Zen but prepared to stay on the sidelines. Organized religions of any kind were to me male-defined, patriarchal institutions I was better off avoiding, and yet here I was. When I turned toward the monastic in the zendo for beginning instruction there was a woman—in black robes and distinctive bald head—and she spoke with a clear, soaring enthusiasm for the dharma. A sudden recognition, and a new picture came into view—this is my seat.
In this issue of the Mountain Record we open up a source text of the Heart Sutra, ‘The Perfection of Wisdom in 8,000 Lines,’ exploring central teachings of the Mahayana school of Buddhism—of Prajnaparamita, the non-dual reality of wisdom and compassion. Sometimes known as the Mother of All Buddhas, Prajnaparamita is the great “being” in this sense who we hold as our common ancestor, the compassionate one whose body nurtures and protects us. This ‘mother’ is the wisdom and compassion at the source of our awakening that the sutra expounds, the same qualities of awakening that relieve our suffering. Our birth mother, who brings us into our human form, is invoked as a metaphor to show how we can care for Perfect Wisdom as we care for our own mother, because her well-being is not separate from ours.
This issue begins with Shugen Sensei’s exploration of the sutra and its teachings on encountering the world of dualities with the wisdom and compassion of our true nature. As the children of mothers ourselves, and as gender-identified people, we must inevitably navigate distinctions and inequality but as spiritual practitioners we can also call on our practice and understanding to find a path through this terrain. Our human world includes poisonous disregard and abuses as well as clarity and healing, and the legacy of discrimination embedded in many of our religious and spiritual traditions is found in Buddhist sects as well. Contributors for this issue explore the tension created when women seek to ordain, embody the dharma, become spiritual teachers, or simply become visible as we step out of the boundaries of traditional female roles. Scholar Allison Goodwin looks to the Buddha’s teachings on Right View in an effort to dismantle persistent teachings of women’s inferiority in Theravadan and Mahayana orders. We also look to words from an early Christian apostle, to practices of Buddhist tantra, and to Dogen’s view on women as spiritual teachers. Our own sangha’s women teachers, Hojin Osho and Zuisei, contribute a compelling discussion of the energies of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ within Zen practice, and sangha members offer their reflections on spiritual practice and the expand- ed role of our female ancestors in our liturgy.
Our last excerpt is from the Lotus Sutra, and tells the story of the Dragon King’s daughter, a realized being who turns herself into a male Buddha to achieve complete realization. I have wondered about this story—is it a multi-layered response to discrimination, a deftly camouflaged teaching on the non-duality of gender? Isn’t Buddha nature actually beyond gender to begin with? What is helpful for us to see here? As we practice and clarify the Perfect Wisdom of the Mother of all Buddhas, how does each of us manifest the wisdom and compassion of our enlightened nature in the world of dualities, for the benefit of all beings, in this body?