List of Female Ancestors Enters the Order’s Liturgy

· Sangha News

post by Shannon Shinko Hayes, MRO
photo credit: Photo Dharma

On Sunday, May 29th, the Mountains and Rivers Order sangha was formally introduced to our women ancestors. For several years, our Sunday morning program has included a service at the Mahapajapati altar, in which we chant a short list of some of the women ancestors’ names. This was the first time we began a new tradition—of chanting a long list of the names of women ancestors. This will take place at the Monastery and Temple every other Sunday, alternating with chanting the long list of the male ancestors in our lineage 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, 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 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.

What does it mean to chant this lineage and bring these women into our lives? Why is this necessary in this time and place when we already seem to have so much equality? I entered Zen training in the MRO in 2010, and have always felt that I never really needed to ask any questions about gender or where I belonged as a woman in this Order, because all of those questions were already being asked and answered. What a privileged place I have found myself in! For me, Zen practice has been about coming into myself fully—as a woman here and now, fully embodying my present self, the past life of all women, and what I aspire to as a woman with no fixed form. I have not felt many barriers in this sangha to that practice because of my gender.

Several weeks ago, I was given an assignment during caretaking of researching 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. I cried as I read about the number of women who had to scar their faces, deemed too beautiful and therefore distracting, to train with men. I felt myself a bit ashamed as I empathized with the women who had to work to overcome attachment to their own beauty before they could really begin to practice. I held the hands of the many women who entered training through the gate of loss, most often of their children, and set themselves free through that deep pain.

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? Why do women all over the world continue to have to struggle to be seen and allowed to live their lives freely? Our list of women ancestors makes clear that women have been present from the very beginning of Buddhism, practicing alongside the Buddha as his disciples, ordaining, teaching, practicing their lay lives. So why has it taken so long to restore these women to our lineage, to their place in history?

In his talk on Sunday, Shugen Sensei drew 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. His monastic sangha depended on the support of the lay community. Gender discrimination became worse and 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. Now that Buddhist teaching and practice have come to us in a time when we have also inherited the teachings of the civil rights movement, women’s movement, LGBTQ movement and many other movements for equality, we are in a position to atone for the ways in which the fundamental truths of the Buddha’s teachings have been subordinated to cultural and societal norms.

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. In his talk, Shugen Sensei 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.

May we continue to find our full selves through our relationships with each other, and through the lives and teachings of our many ancestors, our fathers and our mothers.

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