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Buddhadharma : Spring 2006
buddhadharma| 79 |spring 2006 pilgrimage; Liu Tiemo of Case 24 in The Blue Cliff Record, called “Iron Grinder” for the way she crushed her opponents or ground them up in dharma combat; and the nun Shiji (Jap., Jissei) of Case 3 of the Gateless Gate, whose “Speak! Say a word!” triggered a dramatic spiritual cri sis for Juzhi (Gutei). But we knew almost nothing about these women’s lives, or even if they had actual lives, as opposed to being mere symbols, apocryphal leg ends that served to trigger men’s realiza tion experiences. It is with great excitement, then, that we greet this new publication by Tisdale, a practitioner at Dharma Rain Zen Center in Portland, Oregon. She dedicates her book to “all the old women, refreshment sellers, little girls, rice cake vendors, lay women, princesses, wandering nuns, courtesans, and goddesses who endlessly preach the dharma in countless stories and are never named.” In her introduc tion, she prefaces her stories about these women with her own tale. Visiting Eiheiji, the temple founded by Dogen, she asks the monk leading the tour what she knows to be a forbidden question: Are women allowed to practice here? Upon hearing his anticipated reply, accompanied by his embarrassed explanation that there are as yet no toilet facilities for women, she found herself overcome by tears of frus tration and loss, struck to the quick by “the difference between the open heart of Dogen and the closed doors of Eiheiji.” She goes on to say, “A foundational belief of Buddhism is that the attributes of the self are without essence. ... We are taught in our first lesson as Buddhists that to grasp at something as permanent is the very source of suffering. ... To treat men and women unequally is to act as though gender were permanent, eternal, with intrinsic selfidentity – exactly the oppo site of all other phenomena. It is to con tradict the teaching.” Tisdale seeks to rectify this contradic tion by using recent scholarship on the historical records and writings of our Buddhist matriarchs to imagine what their lives were like: their social contexts, their families and teachers, their awaken ings and teachings. Undeterred by the dearth of factual information, she creates personalities and cultural settings for these women, often drawing from her own understanding of Buddhist practice to convey a sense of each woman’s lived experience. Noting that “the finest schol arship cannot rescue what does not exist,” she affirms that hers “is not a work of scholarship itself, but a narrative history, using known facts in historical context to tell the story of a life – of many lives. ... But I have had to use my imagina tion to find the lives of these women. For the imagining, I don’t apologize.” Women of the Way opens with the “mythical ancestors” found in the sutras, such as the fully enlightened eightyear old daughter of the Naga king, who had a special relationship with the Buddha. Skeptical Shariputra tells her (as Tisdale imagines it), “If a woman practices for eons and never falters and completely ful fills the perfections, she still can’t be a buddha. She can never do this because she is subject to the Five Obstacles.” As with all the female ancestors portrayed in this book, the Naga princess humorously punctures his misogyny, and her inner monologue is of our own era in its col loquialism: “Here we go with the Five Obstacles again, she thought.” She then proceeds to transform herself into a man with all the marks of a buddha and lec tures on the dharma, causing all beings – including Shariputra – to understand. Introducing the next section on Indian Ancestors, Tisdale notes that the main source of information about these early nuns – all of whom lived during the era of the historical Buddha – is found in nuns’ enlightenment poetry collected in the Therigatha. In the first tale, about Sid dhartha’s stepmother, Maha Pajapati, his wife, Yasodhara, and his son, Rahula, Tis dale relies on a quirky version of the story from a 1997 book called Sacred Biogra phy in the Buddhist Traditions of South and Southeast Asia. The story goes like this: Yasodhara keeps Rahula in her womb for six years, giving birth only after Siddhartha returns as the Enlightened One. But Siddhartha leaves again, collect ing students wherever he goes – stealing sons and widowing women, as Tisdale puts it. When the Buddha comes back six years later, Rahula begs to go to live with him and his monks, and so does his step mother Pajapati, and five hundred women whose husbands have joined the Buddha’s retinue. Tisdale describes what the Buddha might have been thinking in response to the women’s request to become mendi cants: “The Siddhartha who was Shakya muni, the Tathagata, the Great Honored One, knew with vivid clarity that all things are equal and empty. The Siddhar tha who was a young Indian prince reared in luxury lived in a world where men and women lived different lives. Men sought and struggled; women took care of things. What would happen to the world if women started seeking too?” And, as we know from many accounts of this encoun ter, it was only after Ananda asked repeat edly on behalf of Pajapati and the other women that the Buddha finally relent ed – with the provision that the women follow the nowfamous “special rules.” Introducing the section on Chinese ancestors, which begins with Bodhidhar ma’s female heir, Zongchi (absent, of course, from the official charts), Tisdale notes, “In the Chinese records, women appear largely as supporting players even when they are the main characters.” They turn up only as disciples in the biographi cal accounts of their male teachers, or are known from brief appearances in koans – with the exception of the twelfth century abbess Miaodao, “a rare case of a teacher whose awakening process was recorded in detail.” This was because of the broadminded, profoundly realized nature of Miaodao’s own teacher, Dahui Zonggao (Daie Soko), who had several female dharma heirs, and who said of Miaodao, “You must believe that this matter has nothing to do with male or female, old or young, monk or nun or lay. Breaking through, you stand beside the Buddha.” Tisdale quotes from Miaodao’s own teachings, which exemplify the dra matic, vigorous, challenging flavor of Rinzai: “Shout, and life and death disap pear. Shout, and the buddhas and patri archs can’t be found. Shout, and enemies attack. Shout, and you can’t be saved. But you tell me, in which shout is life and death extinguished, the buddhas lost, the enemies born, your life taken?” In cases where less is known about these ancestors, as with Shiji, Tisdale imagines what she thinks their circum stances were like, fleshing out the meager information available with wellknown Chinese adages and descriptions of the landscape and lives of the peasants. Unfor tunately, she (perhaps relying on some of her sources) also takes liberties with some of the details that have been passed down. For example, she says Shiji’s encounter with Juzhi happened when he was head