by: Grace Schireson
You could not find a more useful or inspiring book on this subjectGrace’s readings of the stories and teaching of women ancestors are of far more than mere historical interest; I believe they are of great value to women practicing Buddhism and other spiritual paths today.
-from the foreword by Miriam Levering,
Author of Zen Inspirations and Rethinking Scripture
For Zen Buddhists, questions about gender can be a provocative. If there are no differences between rocks and mountains, according to the philosophy of Oneness, how can there be any differences between men and women in Zen practice? So then, why are pioneering female disciples largely excluded from the official Zen record? Why have the stories and teachings of inspiring Zen women been largely overlooked for centuries?
As one of the millions of women who comprise about half of American Zen practitioners, Grace Schireson often wondered about the place of women in the tradition of male monastic training. To make the Zen she was trying to follow truly her own, she needed to learn about Zen’s founding females-who they were, what challenges they faced, and how they were taught-and learn from them along the way. She shares the fruits of her ten-year quest to get to know her female Zen ancestors in a rare work of revisionist history and authentic enlightenment, ZEN WOMEN: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens, and Macho Masters (Wisdom Publications; $16.95; Paperback Original).
This book has many voices, Schireson reflects. These women adapted their Zen practice to their lives, and their lives to their practice. They formed institutions to meet their needs and bring their practice to their communities. They found ways to support themselves and their institutions financially. In short, they faced many of the issues Westerners now face in establishing Zen Buddhism in our environment.
Women were practicing Zen from the very beginning, Schireson states. (In fact, one of the four documented disciples of the founder of Zen in China was a woman: Zongchi.) Yet, in ancient Asia, women were usually portrayed as practicing Zen essentially to train and serve monks-in other words, to benefit men. After exposing this patriarchal perspective, ZEN WOMEN presents a different view-a view of how women Zen masters entered Zen practice and how they embodied and taught Zen uniquely as women.
Describing Zen nuns and laywomen dating back to first-century India in terms of their specific tradition, their historical culture, their spiritual transformations through Buddhist practices, and their personal histories, ZEN WOMEN celebrates:
o Zen founders and supporters, starting with the Buddha’s stepmother, Mahapajapati Gotami, who endured physical hardship to stand up for the spiritual rights of women-even widows, former prostitutes, and other women her society deemed worthless-long before the term women’s rights existed.
o Early Zen Dharma heirs who established women’s Zen lineage in China, Korea, and Japan-and who often used passive-aggressive resistance, and sometimes acts of self-mutilation, to oppose family obstacles and accomplish their spiritual objectives.
o Convent nuns who not only taught women, but combined devotion with active community service. For example, through their charitable works with the poor and sick, including washing leprosy victims’ wounds, one of the earliest orders of Japanese Zen nuns practiced what Westerners are now calling engaged Buddhism.
o Pioneering nuns who studied with male masters, including Japan’s Great Abbess Ryonen Genso, who pursued her own teacher rather than settle for the teachers who had taught her brothers, and Western Zen’s Sewing Ancestor, Kasai Joshin.
o Nuns who experienced and taught awakening while embracing women’s sexuality, including Miazong, the first-century Chinese Zen nun known for her quick wit, bold behavior, and famous vindication of the vagina.
o Working nuns who practiced Zen outside the convent. For example, Weiju washed away ignorance while running a public bathhouse in Japan and Eunyeong Sunim, a farmer’s daughter, founded the first independent nun’s order in Korea.
Drawing on the lives and teachings of these and other trailblazers, ZEN WOMEN offers flexible and pragmatic solutions to problems arising in contemporary Western Zen centers. As 21st century female disciples will discover, their Zen foremothers can help them with the everyday struggles of integrating a Zen practice into the outside world of career, marriage, and children.
For Zen Buddhism to survive in the West we need the benefit of both sides of our practice’s wisdom-male and female-and the ability to adapt practice to our actual circumstances, Grace Shireson observes. Including female teachings in our developing Western Buddhism nurtures our continuous and deepening practice with loved ones and our communities.
About the Author
Grace Schireson, PhD., is a clinical psychologist specializing in women and families, as well as an ordained Zen Abbess and a Dharma teacher in the Suzuki Roshi lineage. She has been married for forty-one years and has two grown sons and three grandchildren. She lives at her Zen retreat center in the Sierra foothills.