• Home
  • Dharma Talk with Nomon Tim Burnett : More Stories - Women in Buddhism

Dharma Talk with Nomon Tim Burnett : More Stories - Women in Buddhism

  • Sunday, December 03, 2023

Nomon Tim offers a reflection on women in Buddhism, acknowledging the cultural conditioning that has permeated Buddhist traditions and scriptures across the millennia, and the aspiration within Red Cedar Zen to embody Dogen's admonition to "not discriminate between men and women. This is the most wondrous principle of the Buddha way."

Stream audio:

Stream video:

Tim's talk notes:

​​When I was thinking about the story of the Buddha, the life of Buddha, for yesterday's talk at our Rohatsu mini-retreat one of the things that came up for me was the very unfortunate story within Buddhism that women can't fully awaken in female bodies. A horrible story to be sure and one that emerged from the culture at the time.

The way I see it is Buddha was both awakened and subject to cultural conditioning in a very rich mix. You might know the story of Maha-Prajapati's request for ordination, I think I've told it here before:

Story of Prajapati  & Ananda: https://tricycle.org/article/mahapajapati

Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and trusty attendant, hears their cries and asks Mahapajapati what is going on. She tells him, and he is apparently so moved by their plight that he goes and takes a stand. He pleads their case to the Buddha—but again, the Buddha says, “No. It’s not going to happen.” However, Ananda doesn’t take no for an answer.

“Isn’t it true that women can attain awakening just as easily as men?” he asks the Buddha.

The Buddha says, “Yes.”

Ananda asks, “Isn’t it true that Pajapati fed you at her own breast?”

And the Buddha says, “Yes.”

Ananda says, “So then, how can you not allow these women in the sangha?” This is apparently enough to persuade the Buddha 

but, a big but he adds these rules which came to be called the Eight Garudhammas - "rules of respect"

(1) A nun who has been ordained even for a hundred years must greet respectfully, rise up from her seat, salute with joined palms, do proper homage to a monk ordained but that day.

(2) A nun must not spend the rains (vassa, 3 months rainy season retreat) in a residence where there are no monks.[20]

(3) Every half-month a nun should desire two things from the Order of Monks: the asking as to the date of the Observance (uposatha) day, and the coming for the exhortation [bhikkhunovada].[21]

(4) After the rains a nun must 'invite' [pavarana] before both orders in respect of three matters, namely what was seen, what was heard, what was suspected.[22]

(5) A bhikkhuni who has broken any of the vows of respect must undergo penance for half a month under both Sanghas."

(6) When, as a probationer, she has trained in the six rules [cha dhamma] for two years, she should seek higher ordination from both orders.

(7) A monk must not be abused or reviled in any way by a nun.

(8) From today, admonition of monks by nuns is forbidden. [Book of the Discipline, V.354–355][23]

Unusual to allow women to be fully ordained - enlightened - but adding these special conditions to make them always inferior to the men - culturally conditioned.

Several hundred years later the Lotus Sutra seems to move us forward a bit, but still not all the way:

In this afternoon's ceremony we'll honor the great women practitioners as part of our efforts to tell a new story. The chanting includes a mention of the "dragon girl" - another famous story from the Lotus Sutra which is one long convoluted story of a Sutra 

The dragon girl was the daughter of a Naga King - Nagas are half-human half-cobra beings who live in palaces at the bottom of the ocean. They can come out onto land too and there's a famous story of a Naga protecting the Buddha during the night of his awakening. And they're really wise beings who are into the Dharma. When the teachings were translated into Chinese they didn't have such a thing as Nagas so they change the story the Nagas became Dragons.

In this Lotus Sutra story, the back story is the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, Manjusri, had been traveling around teaching and he visits the King of the Nagas in his underwater palace teaching the Lotus Sutra. The King's daughter is nearby listening and it soon become clear she totally gets what Manjusri is teaching. Manjusri is really impressed. Usually it takes a long time and a lot of practice to understand the Dharma so completely. Since the main way this sutra comes to us is through Chinese translation the Naga king's daughter is usually called the dragon girl.

Back to our main narrative in the Lotus Sutra. The Buddha has been teaching and his senior students are a perplexed and overwhelmed. For one thing, the Buddha is saying it takes many eons and lifetimes to understand the true Dharma. One of the students says, “It took eons of practicing austerities and accumulating wisdom for even our own Shakyamuni Buddha to realize awakening. Is it possible for anyone to quickly attain Buddhahood?"

And Manjusri remembering the dragon girl pipes up, "I know an example!" but the bodhisattvas, who are all male, don't believe it. So the Buddha with this super powers invites the dragon girl to appear which she does.

And right away Shariputra, one of the Buddha's early disciples, totally lays into her - sorry it's a bit gross.

"You claim quick attainment to the Supreme Path. This is difficult to believe. Why? The body of a woman is filthy and not a vessel for the Dharma. How can you attain to the Supreme Bodhi? The Buddha Path is remote and distant. Only after one has passed through limitless aeons, diligently bearing suffering and accumulating one’s conduct, perfecting one’s cultivation of all Paramitas, can one then attain realization. What is more, a woman’s body has Five Obstacles: one, she cannot become a Brahma heaven king; two, she cannot become Shakra; three, she cannot become a Mara king; four, she cannot become a Wheel Turning Sage king; five, she cannot become a Buddha. How can a woman quickly realize Buddhahood?"

But you'll be glad to know the dragon girl stands up to this senior monk.

The girl said, "With your spiritual powers, watch as I become a Buddha even more quickly than you can imagine!" At that moment, the entire assembly saw the Dragon Girl instantly appear in the Buddha land without filth, where, seated on a jeweled lotus, she accomplished Equal and Proper Enlightenment and embodied the Thirty two Marks and Eighty Minor Characteristics. There, for the sake of all living beings throughout the ten directions, she proceeded to proclaim the wonderful Dharma.

Wonderful! Not just a woman, but a girl. Not even a human girl. All can awaken and this misogyny is total bullshit, said the dragon girl 2,000 years ago.

But sadly, I left something out. There are stories like this of inclusion of women in our tradition stories they almost always have a caveat. In this case she also transformed instantly into a man just before she transported herself to the Buddha land without filth and did the deep practices leading to full awakening

Fast forward another 800 years or so to Dogen who does a good bit better:

This is from his wonderful essay Raihai Tokuzui, Bowing to the Marrow, in Shobogenzo:

Why are men special? Emptiness is emptiness. Four great elements are four great elements. Five skandhas are five skandhas. Women are just like that. Both men and women attain the way. You should honor attainment of the way. Do not discriminate between men and women. This is the most wondrous principle of the buddha way.

He goes onto stay how stupid it is to objectify women and to have practices that ban women. Go Dōgen. 800 years ago. I got the inspiration for Mari's name Myoshin from one of the stories he tells of a strong woman practitioner named that.

In Japan today, though, all these years later, things are far from even. There are many fewer nuns than monks. There's a system in which sons inherit the abbot-ship of family run temples from their fathers but not girl. There are training nunneries, a few at least, called ni-sodo - sodo is the monks hall, ni, indicates it's for women. There's a wonderful recent book I just read by a young American woman who trained at one.

They are supported by donations to the monastery and donations for doing ceremonies. Whereas the monks are supported by members of the temple, and if that temple has sub-temples it makes donations up the chain - a kind of Zen pyramid scheme of donations. But the nuns don't benefit from this. Zen on the whole is in decline in Japan but I read that there are only about 1,000 Zen nuns. And, yikes, one estimate I saw was there are 30,000 zen monks.

A wonderful book I just read by an American Zen student who practiced for 2 or 3 years in the most well known nisodo [find Claire Greenwood's book]. Talks about meditation yes, but mostly day after day of exacting training in rituals and flower arranging. And a very intense strict training environment which is common in the male monasteries too. Lots of corrections.

[corrections are hard on us: story of Chris's mala beads, Mel's correction of my shashu posture]

And a big challenge for her was they lived 3 or 4 women in a room. Her roommates often drove her nuts, and I'm sure she drove them nuts too.

Here's an interesting

11 minute conversation between Aoyama and Gaelyn Goodwin - it's also interesting to see the formalized politeness and slow careful thoughtful speaking of Japanese Zen I think.

A weird twist of fate for Zen is that as part of Japan's very rapid modernization in the 1880's or so the government stripped away some of the Buddhist church's power but doing away with celibacy which has always been a part of Buddhist monastic practice. So Japanese monastics are weird in that they have families - like I do. But most nuns actually do practice celibacy. Perhaps another example of where women have to work harder, be more pure, do everything better than the men. However I guess it wasn't required as Geshin Claire has a few chapters on an intense sexual affair she had while she was trying to figure out her relationship to Japanese Zen as a nun - but she wasn't living at the nisodo at the time. 

Another twist that connects to this goes back further and has to do with the ways Buddhism came to Japan. The full monastic form actually never took hold. Bodhisattava vs. Vinaya ordinations.

Making the leap into the West the story has improved another good step I think. Generation by generation of teachers there is improvement. The Asian teachers bringing Buddhism to the west were almost all men. Most, but not ALL, of their first Western disciples were men, but now the 2nd and 3rd generations seem like they are closer to 50-50 but I don't have any real data on that.

And of course an example is right in front of you: the top spiritual leader here, it seems, is a man and the next person is a woman. Of the two fully ordained priests it's 50-50. And if I look at the 10 practice leaders besides us - senior students who have been shuso they actually are also 50-50 men and women. Eventually I'll ordain Seishin who doesn't identify as either male or female so we stay 50-50 I guess!

Also there's been a powerful, but still small, movement world wide to give Buddhist nuns in the other lineages that do the full celibate vinaya ordination without being inferior to the monks. May that continue.

May we continue to rewrite the story that women are inferior to men in our sangha. I'm sure I have some blind spots and a lot more to learn but I hope I can make some contributions - perhaps ultimately by getting out of the way. I'm excited about a new weekly Sunday program that will be led by rotating teacher-hosts from our practice leaders group. I'll be around a good bit and I know I cast a long shadow (even as I think I'm just a regular guy too) but I'm excited to stay out of the way and let them lead and teach us.

www.RedCedarZen.org     360-389-3444     registrar@redcedarzen.org
Powered by Wild Apricot Membership Software