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Buddhadharma : Winter 2009
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly winter 2 0 09 78 This is a book filled with women ancestors and there’s enough material about some of them to get a real feeling for their lives and teachings. Previously unknown women, such as Zhiyuan Xinggang, a seventeenth-century Chinese dharma heir in the Linji (Rinzai) line, come to life. We read some of her poems, her practice instructions to students, and an excerpt from a memoir of her own training. The tenderness and genuine emotion with which the members of her com- munity treated each other is palpable, as is their care for those they came in contact with. Discovering that the monks at the temple where she’d trained were suffering terribly from the cold, Xinggang and her nuns spent several months sewing leggings for them. By the time we read this verse, we believe her when she says: In the gates and hall of the elders, the work of the lineage flourishes. Knowing my own lazy ignorance, I’ve hidden away in order to be still. Esoteric methods, blows and shouts— I’m giving them all a rest. We trust in Xinggang’s ability to find her own way in a school known for its severe methods, and we delight in her sly reference to the differences in her style: Too lazy to whack her students and yell at them? Too ignorant to be interested in esoterica? Among this book’s most important revelations is how some women were able to (re)discover the essential spirit of their lineage, and then create their own unorthodox ways of expressing that spirit. North American Zen has a bit of a problem with mistaking the customs of particular times and places for essential truth, and the stories about Xinggang and others are a refreshing antidote. In addition to the stories of individual women, there are descriptions of several communities similar to the one Xing- gang lived in. Perhaps the most famous is Tokeiji, a medieval Japanese convent where women found sanctuary from bad marriages and could eventually obtain divorces. Turns out that women walking the Way together developed unique prac- tices like Tokeiji’s mirror Zen, in which people meditated in front of a large mirror. If the enlightenment poems that came out of this practice are any indication, it was effective for many women over many generations. The book’s inclusion of modern voices, particularly from Korea, gives a sense of what has been continuous in the tra- dition and what has evolved. We see the shared concerns of some contemporary Asians and North Americans in the work of someone like Kim Ilyop, who advocated for women’s sexual freedom both before and after she became a nun. And we hear the living dharma, expressed with power and beauty. Here is a poem by twentieth-century Korean nun Song’yong Sunim: Outside the Zen hall of Naewonsa The snow-covered world Is the garment of Avalokitesvara Expounding, like flowing water, The Dharma inexpressible by the body, Inaudible to the body, Invisible to the body, Inexpressible by, and inaudible and invisible to space. So who is this wonderful person Who expresses, hears and sees it? These examples of confidence and clarity are all the more moving considering what the book reveals regarding the perni- cious ideas about women and the dharma, and the rejection, threats, and physical violence, that many of our ancestors faced. Some of the most painful stories are of women who resorted to self-mutilation to gain admission to the monaster- ies of male teachers. Men sometimes went to similar extremes to demonstrate their sincerity, but it’s hard to miss that women disfigured themselves in a particular way: they “ruined” their faces so that they’d no longer be seen as disruptive objects of desire. There’s so much wrong with this picture that it’s hard to know where to begin. We owe a monumental debt of gratitude to these ancestors for their courage and perseverance. It’s good to remember that some of us have always had to undergo trials in order to steal the dharma, either to participate in the schools from which we stole it or to create new ones. These stories poignantly suggest what has been lost and what never had the chance to develop. They also can provoke us to consider what has been gained: some very important things in this human life can only be discovered through struggle, won by courage, and made truly our own through acceptance. As Schireson navigates this material, she is a conscientious and thoughtful guide through Zen’s philosophical ideas and terms of art, which means the book is accessible to Zen begin- ners and old-timers alike, as well as to readers from outside the tradition. I confess to longing occasionally for interpreta- tions that are more sympathetic to the vividness and nuance of some of these stories, as in the one about Pang Lingzhao and her father Layman Pang, who were out and about one day when he tripped and fell. Lingzhao immediately threw herself down next to him, and he asked her what she was doing. “I saw you fall so I’m helping,” she replied. “Luckily no one was looking,” he said. The author sees Lingzhao as playfully acting out “the helpless tactics” of those who “see our loved one’s suffering, and we quickly react by throwing ourselves into their situation at the same emotional level, ... trying to comfort them from the same perspective that is causing the problem.” Layman Pang hopes that “no one has seen how far she has moved from conventional behavior.” Reviews