Review of “The Women of the Way”

The Women of the Way: Discovering 2,500 years of Buddhist Wisdom by Sally Tisdale, reviewed by Roko Sherry Chayat.

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi
1 March 2006

The Women of the Way: Discovering 2,500 years of Buddhist Wisdom by Sally Tisdale, reviewed by Roko Sherry Chayat.

Feminism has had an impact on Buddhism, but it has been a slow, wrenching process. Yes, the Buddha proclaimed that women were capable of enlightenment; yes, Dogen, Dahui, and other great ancestral teachers declared that according to the dharma there was no difference between men and women. But at the same time, the movement that seeks to establish women’s equality has had to confront ancient Buddhist teachings that, as Osumi Kazuo explains, would have us believe that “because the nature of women is inherently evil, they cannot achieve salvation without first being transformed into or reborn as men.”1 And indeed, in actual practice, the world of differentiation always seems to trump the realm of sameness.

During the late twentieth century, even while serving in the supportive ways that our Asian teachers considered appropriate to our gender, women questioned and prodded—tactfully perhaps, yet insistently. Why couldn’t a woman walk with the keisaku (“encouragement stick”)? Why couldn’t a woman be head monastic, or lead retreats? It was hard to ask these questions because, after all, what was most important was true insight, true practice. Why, then, “create waves where there is no wind,” as the saying goes? Yet we had to. In the introduction to Women of the Way, Sallie Tisdale declares, “Discrimination—by gender, race, class, in any way—is contrary to buddhadharma. To accept that women are equal to men—to really accept it, not just say it—is quite a radical notion; it requires action.”

Women’s quiet yet radical questioning gradually resulted in a more egalitarian practice community. To the credit of our Asian teachers, who themselves were profoundly changed by their experiences living in what Nyogen Senzaki called “this strange land,” women have assumed leadership roles in dharma centers and the number of American women authorized as dharma teachers has grown considerably. This growth has also brought with it a substantive challenge to inherited forms of hierarchy. Nonetheless, in candid moments, women teachers still share painful experiences about our voices not being heard in mixed gatherings, or the equally painful recognition that we continue to question our own authority. As one teacher put it recently, “I have no problem when it’s the dharma speaking through me, but when I have to speak as an individual, I tend to freeze up.”

We may think that being American Buddhist teachers in the twenty-first century guarantees equality, but lurking in our hearts are the “five obstructions”—the five types of superior rebirth unattainable by women, including rebirth as a buddha—and the “special rules,” including the one that says a nun, no matter how advanced in her practice, must always defer to a monk, no matter how junior.

And then there’s the matter of historical role models. Over the years, many of us Zen practitioners searched the official lineages for women’s names, usually in vain2. Of course, we realized that the countries in which Buddhism evolved were strongly patriarchal, and we knew that the histories were indeed “his stories.” Still, there were tantalizing sightings in the koan collections: Layman Pang’s daughter, Lingzhao, who was her father’s traveling companion throughout years of 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 crisis 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 legends that served to trigger men’s realization 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, laywomen, princesses, wandering nuns, courtesans, and goddesses who endlessly preach the dharma in countless stories and are never named.” In her introduction, she prefaces her stories about these women with her own tale. Visiting Eiheiji, the temple founded by Dogen, she asks the monk leading her 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 frustration 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 self-identity—exactly the opposite of all other phenomena. It is to contradict the teaching.”

Tisdale seeks to rectify this contradiction 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 awakenings 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 scholarship 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 imagination 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 eight-year-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 fulfills 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 colloquialism: “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 lectures on the dharma, causing all beings—including Shariputra—to understand.

Introducing the next section, “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 Siddhartha’s stepmother, Maha Pajapati, his wife, Yasodhara, and his son, Rahula, Tisdale relies on a quirky version of the story from a 1997 book called Sacred Biography 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, collecting 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 stepmother 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 mendicants: “The Siddhartha who was Shakyamuni, the Tathagata, the Great Honored One, knew with vivid clarity that all things are equal and empty. The Siddhartha 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 encounter, it was only after Ananda asked repeatedly on behalf of Pajapati and the other women that the Buddha finally relented—with the provision that the women follow the now-famous “special rules.”

Introducing the section on Chinese ancestors, which begins with Bodhidharma’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 biographical 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 broad-minded, 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 dramatic, vigorous, challenging flavor of Rinzai: “Shout, and life and death disappear. Shout, and the buddhas and patriarchs 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 circumstances were like, fleshing out the meager information available with well-known Chinese adages and descriptions of the landscape and lives of the peasants. Unfortunately, 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 priest of a temple, whereas the authoritative accounts have her visiting him when he lived alone in a small mountain hut. Shiji was willing to circle his hut, as was customary, but not willing to remove her hat unless he could say something that would satisfy her. To Juzhi’s great consternation, he was speechless. He remained in that mountain hideaway, consumed by the despair and self-doubt that Shiji had engendered, until Hangzhou Tianlong (Koshu Tenryu) came along and awakened him with his “one-finger Zen.”

This is such an important case in the Gateless Gate that those who have been transformed by its profundity must bristle at Tisdale’s wiseass, dismissive trivializing of Juzhi’s realization: “After that, he didn’t say or do anything as a teacher but hold up a single finger.… It saved him a lot of breath, and maybe it saved him having to figure out what to say that was worth hearing.” While Tisdale often has the women characters in this book also utter such putdowns, no doubt in an effort to turn the tables, it’s a demeaning approach. It’s unlikely that these extraordinary and fully realized dharma masters, who were undaunted by the patriarchy of their times, would stoop that low.

These and other concerns regarding accuracy aside, Tisdale has created a well-written, deeply moving collection of stories that are vivid portrayals of living, breathing women ancestors. Fanciful and eminently readable, Women of the Way brings us face-to-face with our long-obscured matriarchs. Tisdale conveys not only their remarkable resolve and courage, but manages to impart something of their realization experiences, as in this wonderful concluding passage in the story of Teijitsu, abbess of Hakujuan, a nunnery near Eiheiji: “She saw that arising arose, abided, and fell away.… She saw that knowing this arose, abided, and fell away. Then she knew there was nothing more than this, no ground, nothing to lean on stronger than the cane she held, nothing to lean upon at all, and no one leaning, and she opened the clenched fist in her mind and let go and fell into the midst of everything.”

1 Osumi’s essay “A New Age of Research on Women and Buddhism” appears in Engendering Faith: Women and Buddhism in Premodern Japan, edited by Barbara Ruch.

2 Andy Ferguson’s 2000 book Zen’s Chinese Heritage does include “Iron Grinder” Liu Tiemo (Jap., Ryu Tetsuma) and Moshan Liaoran (Massan Ryonen), “the primary remaining example of a prominent female teacher among the early records of the Zen school.”

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat is the Abbot of the Zen Studies Society.