The Wise Woman Who Talked Back to God

The Ancient Buddhist tale of the Seven Wise Sisters has Zen Teacher Bonnie Myotai Treace thinking about the koan of gender.

Bonnie Myotai Treace
1 July 2005

The Ancient Buddhist tale of the Seven Wise Sisters has Zen Teacher Bonnie Myotai Treace thinking about the koan of gender.

There is a teaching story I love in which a woman talks back to God. She is yet another unnamed woman in Buddhist history, but we’re told she was wise, one among seven wise sisters. And like the seven Ancient Greek muses, the daughters of Memnosyne (Great Memory) who gave Hesiod his poet’s tongue, these women remember to live from the heart, and walk the mountains with lots of attitude.

In the story, they opt out of following the crowd and instead take an unusual trek into the deep woods, where they face off with mortality, managing in the process to offer a potent teaching on desire and trust. Though obviously speaking to the human journey in the widest sense, “the woman who talks back” may offer some particular gifts for women on the Buddhist path.

We learn about her in the Lamp Transmission text entitled “Continuous Lamp of the Source Gate Meeting the Essence.” It was first published in 1189, and is translated here by Dan Taigen Leighton and Shohaku Okumura:

Here is a story. The Seven Wise Women were all daughters of kings of great countries. During the season of praising flowers (i.e. spring), a hundred thousand people all wanted to go to a resort to enjoy themselves. Among the Seven Wise Women, one woman said, “Sisters, you and I should not go to scenic parks to partake of worldly entertainments like those people. Instead, let’s go together to enjoy the charnel grounds.”

The other women said, “That place is full of decaying corpses. What is such a place good for?”

The first woman said, “Sisters, just go. Very good things are there.”

When they arrived in the forest, the woman pointed to a corpse and said to the other women, “The corpse is here; where has the person gone?”

The women witnessed the truth and realized the Way. When they looked up at the sky, heavenly flowers fell around them and a voice praised them saying, “Excellent, excellent.”

The woman said, “Who is praising us amid flowers raining from the sky?

The voice from the sky said, “I am Indra. Because I see the sacred women realizing the Way, together with my attendants I came and scattered a rain of flowers.”

He also said to the wise women, “I only request to the sacred women that if you need something, that I might supply it until the ends of your lives.”

The woman said, “At my house the four material offerings and seven jewels are all completely provided. I only want three kinds of things. First, I want one tree without roots. Second, I want one piece of land with no north and south. Third, I want one valley where shouts do not echo.”

Indra said, “I have all the things you could want, but those three things I truly do not have. I’d like to go together with you sacred women and discuss this with the Buddha.”

Together they went to see the Buddha, and asked about this matter.

Buddha said, “Indra, all of the great arhats among my disciples cannot decipher the meaning of this. Only the great bodhisattvas understand this matter.”

There is so much to love and study in this story, and there are many ways to appreciate it. But for our purposes, we probably shouldn’t overlook the basic setup for the dharma encounter that is taking place here. The simple picture: a group of women freely discerning how best to use their time, and not seeming shy about taking some time alone together. Already, we’re on relatively fresh ground as religious literature goes. And when we hear this wise woman instruct the group with such obvious confidence, it’s hard not to register her voice as so remarkable that it catches our attention right away. To put it another way, this is a “gender-significant event.”

It’s true that in Buddhism, women have come to hold various leadership roles. But it is still all too rare for a woman to hold the genuine authority to actually guide a group’s—or an institution’s—direction.

So, if we stretch a little, one of the first teachings we may find in the story outline is the quiet reminder that in order to see ourselves clearly, women may need some time to walk with other women. To walk with one another as these women do, literally, “amid the burning.”

Of course, it would be more precise to say that in order for any practitioner to walk with awareness, we’d be best served by not denying the rich koan of gender (or any other duality) by falling into a too-facile oneness.

But this still begs to be revealed in terms of what to do and how to practice.

For women, I’ve noticed that it is much harder to maintain that walk of awareness without other women. Receiving the legacy of our grandmothers and mothers helps us. So does knowing that our sisters are beside us—even as they are different from us—and recognizing that we are here to make a better world for our daughters and granddaughters.

I’ll never forget seeing that tacit lineage come into place several years ago, with a group of Zen students involved in precepts study. We were working with the prize-winning 1993 book The Lenses of Gender, by Cornell women’s studies professor Sandra Lipsitz Bem. She explores how suffering can begin to take shape from gender identity—how it shapes not just a person’s individual perspective, but also the most apparently neutral institutions of society. Bem also considers the ways in which simple difference is regularly transformed into devastating material disadvantage.

It wasn’t an easy night of discussion. There had been all sorts of frustration and plunges into sadness, but then came that shift which almost always arrives when we let in what is true, and we hold steady.

One of the students, a woman who had been working with extremes of isolation most her life, looked up and met my eyes in a way I’d never seen her able to before. In a voice that seemed newly strong yet distinctly plain, she said simply, “I don’t know why—I have such a sudden sense of inheritance.” She spoke about recognizing her own pain in other lives, and about how she was able to feel in a real way, for the first time, the courage of other women as her own.

But the story of the wise women also nicely reveals that facing what needs to be faced—walking towards the charnel grounds, taking up the koan—can often strike us as basically unpleasant. Which may be why one of the women questioned the choice of graveyard over springtime spa. Ah, the beauty of unmasked aversion!

Doesn’t it always seem that there are sweeter ways to spend a day, if one has the option, than in the awareness of issues and divisions? It comes up whatever the issue, and however duality expresses itself—life and death, male and female, self and other, and on and on. Where separation causes pain, aversion arises. And aversion presents a mystery to the deciding mind: is this wisdom that indicates that this is not the path we should take, or just our resistance and habituation holding us in some old pattern?

But the lead woman cuts through: “Sisters, just go. Very good things are there.” Her way of offering instruction is itself instructive. As we take the inevitable step off the edge, here is a reminder to trust the perfect air.

She’s questioned. Why this step? Isn’t it just leading to decay and oblivion? But she not only calls the others forward; she asserts without doubt the goodness of things ahead. Why? Only someone awake to the sufficiency and trustworthiness of this moment could make such a claim.

“Good things are there” follows from a certain realization about the nature of “here and there.” To my ear, this just might be the secret of sustained, disciplined practice. Her lead here is the ancient memory: “entering” meditation, the wholeness of that step, is like having private access to a natural pool in your backyard, one that is always full of healing water. To the extent we can say it is “like” anything, it is certainly more like this pool than like most of the images people use when they’re beating themselves up for not meditating enough.

Our wise woman gently turns aversion on its head: the real spa, the place where release from the suffering of decay will be realized, is exactly where we think it is not. And so she encourages the others: “Just go.”

The women, as they make the journey we all make to face our mortality, also make the journey their own, in a sense. Like all practitioners of the Way, they begin to use time, rather than being used by it. Arriving at the burning grounds, they awaken. They look at the sky, and it rains flowers. The very air—or perhaps it’s Indra—says, “Excellent, excellent.” Their leader poses the question, “Who praises us and showers us with flowers?” Indra, the God of the Earth, answers that it is he who is celebrating the women’s awakening. It is he who would like to take care of all their needs for the rest of their lives.

In order to connect with the depth of the story here, and the gorgeous turning that’s about to happen as the wise woman responds, we have to connect with what is realized amid all the decaying corpses. What state of mind requires no support? What empowers her to say to this god that she already has everything he has to give her? What empowers her to turn the tables on him, pressing the assumptions about reality revealed in his statements? What allows her to love so largely that she begins to take care of him, and to ask for the realization of intimacy? We can say that the women in that charnel ground were whole, perfect, complete. That’s a fine explanation. But that had been true before they went on their walk, and would forever be so. We need to explore what changed when the six who were unsure saw the corpses, and their minds settled. They became, in a sense, beings who were no longer asking for what had been theirs from the beginning, and who were no longer turning from pain or mystery. When that occurs, what becomes available? Something invulnerable—and inarguable.

Still we need to be careful. The “four material offerings” (bedding, shelter, food, medicine) that the wise woman claims Indra need not provide for her are exactly the things that many women do without every day. How that lives in us is the truth of this teaching story. If we miss that, we’re not only not clear, but we may be doing tremendous harm.

That’s why waking up in the “gender koan,” if you will, is increasingly critical— for women’s lives, for children, and for the state of the planet. Several weeks ago, I came across the haunting citation that fully 75 percent of the world’s poor are women and children. That single, bald percentage shook awake something that’s hard to put to rest: the matter of who eats and who goes hungry, of who has a roof and who goes unsheltered, of who is clothed and who is not, of who is cared for and who is abandoned when ill or aged.

Since reading that 75 percent figure, I find almost everything arriving in terms of it: the way the precepts are taught and talks are given; the way the ceremonial Zen meal called oryoki is practiced, or ordination is understood. I wonder what kind of boldness we are called to, at precisely this moment in history, to keep not only the number of poor but that percentage from rising? To bring it down? The frame around the picture of women in Buddhism is hard to keep small. It keeps opening, including, indicating.

It is likely that the wise woman who “talked back” to Indra was not poor by worldly standards, though we don’t really know. All we know is that she was able to claim with confidence that in “her house,” everything was already present. And with that natural confidence, she was able to turn to Indra, meet him, and take the meeting to greater depth. She didn’t jump through his hoops; she redrew the sky. To “talk back,” in this sense, is to live from the heart of the matter. It is to “remember,” if you will, that we are the daughters of Great Memory, of the Ancient Springtime that is beginningless time. Then, as we reach for food, or ordination, or to take the lead when it is called for, we stand alone between heaven and earth—without root, compass point, or echo. Walking together, we may ineffably give and receive reminders of that absolute sufficiency.

Through this old story, finally, an answer to, “What do women really want?” The tree without root, the valley without north or south, the shout without echo: each moment so full it has no measure, no boundary, no remainder. What does this have to offer students of Buddhism, as we educate ourselves about the male-centeredness of religious history, and reflect on the gender-subtleties of the present?

It has everything we need.

If we were to say provisionally that Buddhist practice was settling into one’s own mind—and realizing an increasingly subtle sense of that settling—then it is obvious that no one has ever been truly capable of denying access to Buddhist training or authority to women in any way, at any time. To say so would be the very definition of ridiculous. But in the relative sense, we may forever carry the karma of how the institutions of Buddhism have added a gendered authority to “the matter of awakening,” and its skillful means. And so, as we realize time—the historic challenges, the present moment, the source of the future—what is required?

To walk with these “wise women,” and not just admire them, we have to realize what they realized. What exactly was that? Master Tosotsu asks the same thing in the Mumonkan collection of koans: “If you are free from life and death, you know where you will go. When the four elements are decomposed, where do you go?” His asking began a virtual Zen poetry slam. In the first poem, a teacher takes up the words of our Wise Woman:

The corpse is here.

Where is the person?

Truly I know

The spirit is not the person.

Another teacher, Daie, felt that this was heretical, a separating of the spirit from the flesh, and wrote back:

This corpse, as it is, is the person.

The spirit is the bag of skin,

The bag of skin is the spirit.

And the winning poem? We’re writing it now—

Bonnie Myotai Treace

Bonnie Myotai Treace

Bonnie Myotai Treace, Sensei, served for many years as vice-abbess of Zen Mountain Monastery and abbess of the Zen Center of New York City. In 2004, she founded Hermitage Heart, a Zen training program with a special emphasis on home practice. She lives and teaches in Black Mountain, North Carolina.