Wednesday, July 11, 2012

On shikantaza: who does this sound like?

"Do not misconstrue the past, the present, or the future. The past has not gone, the present does not stay, the future has not come. Tranquilly sitting erect, accepting things as they come, but not being bound, this is indeed what is called emancipation."

Dogen Zenji, right? The wordplay, the bewildering subversion of normal ideas of time, and the equation of zazen (shikantaza) with emancipation. But it is Mazu Daoyi ( Baso Do'itsu), godfather of the Hongzhou Chan school and grandfather teacher of Linji Xiyun (Rinzai Gigen).

-from The Record of Linji, tr./ed. Sasaki and Kirchner, p. 172. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Buddhism, Women, and the Culture of Awakening

Women and The Culture of Awakening

The Buddha did not just teach Dharma- the theory and practice of Awakening-or establish a sangha- a community of awakened disciples and specialized renunciant community- the Buddha established a parisad- a culture of awakening (see Pasadika Sutta DN 29). When the Buddha spoke of the culture of awakening he intended to establish, he spoke of it as having four parts- bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, upasakas and upasikas, ie. monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. It’s important to understand that when teachers spoke in ancient India- as in ancient Greece or Israel- they usually used the male pronoun to refer to “everyone”. The fact the Buddha did not do this- that every time he discusses the make-up of his culture of awakening he specifically mentions both men and women in both monastic and lay roles- is of great importance. The Buddha emphatically states that if any of these groups are missing from the culture of awakening it is incomplete, and his gift to the world would not last long. Further the Buddha said that creating a fourfold culture of awakening was not an innovation of his but was a distinctive feature of the teachings of all Buddhas past and future. In other words, establishing a fourfold culture of awakening is an inherent part of the very definition of “Buddha”. A Buddha establishes a culture of awakening, that is his gift to the world (sasanam). This culture must be, on all levels, inclusive of both men and women for it to fulfill the Buddha’s compassionate intention.

This position of the Buddha’s has been at times overlooked or, worse, covered up and hidden by those who aspired to make men as dominant in the culture of awakening as they were outside of it, or who believed, against the Buddha’s explicit statements to the contrary, that women were incapable of the higher levels of spiritual practice. One story in the Canon is a culprit in this regard: the story in the Vinaya of the fonding of the Nuns order. It presents the Buddha as having established it grudgingly and warning of the grave dangers associated with it. Recently several scholars have critically examined this narrative and different rescensions of it in the surviving Vinayas of differing schools. The consensus is that it is a late, polemical addition to the Vinaya. 

Recently Ven Analayo, a Theravadin monk-scholar, after examining the different rescensions of the story and other evidence from the canon, proposed a reconstruction of what was likely to have really happened in the founding of the nuns sangha: I retell the story below based on Analayo’s research. For more details on why the garudhammas (rules subjugating bhikkhunis) cannot date from the foundation of the bhikkhuni sangha by the Buddha:

The Story

Thus have I heard: At one time the Buddha was dwelling in Kapilavatthu, in the Nigrodha park, in the territory of his own clan, the Shakyas. At that time his foster mother Mahapajapati Gotami, visited the Buddha. After bowing to him with her head at his feet she sat down and asked him if women could attain the four stages of awakening as men could. The Buddha affirmed that they could, as he had on other occasions. Mahapajapati then made a bold request which would be the first step in completing the Buddha’s vision for his culture of awakening. She requested that women be allowed to go forward as homeless wanderers like men were, leaving behind home and family and living a contemplative life in the jungles and forests.

Gotami must have been very disappointed with the Buddha’s answer. The Buddha told her not to make that request. “Shave your head like the bhikkhus, wear ochre robes, and live at home as a celibate renunciant.”, he told her according to one version of the story. Home was a more protected environment. The jungle was a dangerous place for women wandererers. The Jains would also come to accept women as homeless sadhus in their community. In their rules of discipline, the famously nonviolent Jains state that whenever women stay in an overnight dwelling without lockable doors they are to station their stoutest member by the entrance with a big stick to fend off intruders with sexual assault on their minds. The women of the jungle were not protected by association with the male holders of power- and were therefore easy prey for predators.

Mahapajapati returned home and did as the Buddha asked. A few weeks later she returned again to where he was dwelling for the rains retreat, this time with shaven head and ochre robes as the Buddha had suggested, and repeated her request, but was again turned away. Mahapajapati returned home and began to gather around her like-minded women, who she instructed to shave their hair and don monastic robes like hers.

After the end of the rains retreat when the Buddha once again took to the road Gotami followed with her band of holy women. They caught up to the sangha in Nadika (or perhaps Vesali). The Buddha, seeing the number of women who had taken up the renunciant life with Gotami and braved the hardships of the road, was put at ease about their readiness to enter the homeless life and complete the parisad. The women had shown that despite mostly being ladies of the Shakyan royal court, they could handle the rigours of the homeless life, and that they now had enough numbers to assure eachothers safety. This time the Buddha granted Gotami`s request.

The Buddha`s decision was not without risk and controversy. Early records show that some of the monks worried that the laity upon whom they depended for their survival would lose faith in the holiness of a sangha that included women. Some laypeople distrusted supposed renunciant communities which were inclusive of women, suspecting the community of licentiousness and perversity. Some monks believed that admitting women would corrupt the purity of the community and shorten the lifespan of the Buddha`s teachings in the world. The Buddha must have known of these fears, yet he acted to create a community of female monastics anyway.  

Before the Buddha’s passing away he famously refused to appoint a succesor or to freeze the Sangha in the form he created, disavowing any sense of ownership of the parisad or the monastic sangha. Since the Buddha’s time the men of the parisad have had a mixed track record with regards to maintaining the Buddha’s inclusivity of women and affirmation of their potential. Within a few centuries of the Buddha’s death the female monastics had been put under eight “grave decrees” subjugating them to the Bhikkhu sangha, and their inclusion within the community of the homeless was seen as a danger to the Buddhist mission which needed to be guarded against and kept under male monastic control. A sutta was composed stating that although women could attain arahantship, they could not be samma-sambuddhas, or awakened religious founders- they could not be creators of a culture of awakening- a future goal some practitioners aspired to (to be reborn at a time when the Dhamma had disappeared and rediscover and re-establish it). This was solely a male perogative. This strange assertion, largely dealing with the realm of theory- since Buddhism had been founded on earth at that time, as now, there will be no need for another samma-sambuddha until it dies out again- this assertion seems to serve no purpose but revenge.

More reassuringly, some great Buddhist masters did not fail to attain a Buddha’s vision of women’s potential and rights. Dogen Zenji (1200-1253), the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, wrote that those monks who refuse to pay homage to a nun even if she has aquired the Dharma “do not understand the dharma” and “are like animals far removed from the Buddhas and ancestors”. “What is there about a male intrinsically to esteem?”, he asked. “The female is no different from the male, so both female and male aquire the dharma without distinction.” Furthermore he argued, “If you detest women because they are objects of sexual desire, should you not also detest men, who are likewise objects of sexual desire?”

Bankei Kotaku (1622-1693), the great Rinzai Zen master, was once asked by a woman disciple how she could attain realization, obstructed as she was by her female body. Bankei replied:  "I can tell you something about this matter of women's Buddha Mind. I understand that women feel very distressed hearing it said that they can't become Buddhas. But it simply isn't so! How is there any difference between men and women? Men are the Buddha Body, and women are the Buddha Body too.” (Haskell, Peter. Unborn Zen)

In our time some Mahayana lineages have preserved the lineage of bhikkhunis and some haven't, or never even received it, as in the case of Tibet. In the Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese worlds there are full female monastics. In the Theravadin world the lineage was lost, and since the rules stipulate that only a bhikkuni can ordain a bhikkuni, there had been no movements to re-instate it until recently, when a number of women who wanted to be bhikkunis and bhikkus who support them conspired to restart the lineage by having Mahayana bhikshunis ordain them. This move has proven to be controversial, but is coming to be more and more accepted. A number of major Buddhist teachers support the principle, including HH the Dalai Lama, HH the Karmapa, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Bhikkhu Bodhi. The new Bhikkunis have gained significant support in the West and in Sri Lanka and India, and so far less so in Burma and Thailand. 

Most recently a renegade bhikkhu in the western Thai Forest Sangha, Ajahn Brahmavamso, broke with his fellows, who had created an interim type of Nun (shiladhara) in their monasteries and were awaiting the go ahead from the Thai Hierarchy to ordain full bhikkunis. His fellows included Ajahn Sumedho, Ajahn Amaro, Ajahn Sucitto and Ajahn Passano. He ordained some bhikkunis, but unfortunately his behaviour around the incident, which was apparently both hostile and deceptive to his former monastic comrades, as well as sensationalistic, has probably set back the general acceptance of ordaining bhikkunis in Thailand by a few more years. Nevertheless the over-all historical movement is clear, and it is only a matter of time before there are full bhikkunis throughout the Theravadin world again. Then there will be the issue of new rules for our day and age to sort out......

Sunday, July 8, 2012


"To be alive, that is a practice."

-Thich Nhat Hanh, Talk in Ireland (Online) 2012.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Sekito's Grass Thatch Hut

Sekito Kisen (700-790)

      A Song About My Grass-Thatch Hut

      Here, where nothing is worth anything,
      I've set up a grass-thatched hut.

      After eating,
      I just stretch out for a nap.

      As soon as it was built,
      weeds were already growing back.

      Now I've been here awhile
      its covered in vines.

      So the one in this hut just lives on,
      not inside, out, in between.

      The places where usual folk live,
      I don't.
      What they want,
      I don't.

      This tiny hut holds the total world,
      an old man and 
      the radiance of forms and their nature,
      all in ten feet square.

      Bodhisattvas of the Vast Path
      know about this but
      the mediocre and marginal wonder,
      "Isn't such a place too fragile to live in?"

      Fragile or not,
      the true master dwells here
      where there is no 
      south or north, east or west.

      Just sitting here,
      it can't be surpassed:

      below the green pines
      a lit window.

      Palaces and towers 
      of jade and vermillion
      can't compare.

      Just sitting,
      my head covered,
      all things rest.

      So this mountain monk
      has no understanding at all,
      just lives on
      without struggling to get loose.

      Not going to
      set out seats
      and wait for guests.

      Turning the light
      to shine within,
      turn it around again.

      you can't face it
      or turn away from it.

      The root of it.

      Meet the Awakened Ancestors,
      become intimate with the teachings,
      lash grass into thatch for a hut
      and don't tire so easily.

      Let it go,
      and your life of a hundred years 

      Open your hands.

      Walk around.


      The swarm of words,
      and little stories
      are just to loosen you
      from where you are stuck.

      If you want to know
      the one in the hermitage
      who never dies,

      you can't avoid this skin-bag
      right here. 

-translation by Anzan Hosshin

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Thich Nhat Hanh: Non-action

"My Dharma is to take up the action of non-action, to practice the practice of non-practice, to attain the attainment of non-attainment." This line from the Sutra in 42 Chapters communicates to us that we should not be caught in the outer form, we should not discriminate between non-action and action, being and acting. Many of us try to do many things, yet the more we act the more troubled our family, society, and world become, because the foundation of our being is not yet stable enough. Try practicing the opposite: don't do anything, don't take any action right away, but improve your quality of being through meditation and mindfulness practice. To be in the here and now, fully alive, fully present, is a very positive contribution to any situation. In creasing our insight, compassion, and understanding through the practice of mindfulness is the best thing we can offer to the world. This is the practice of non-practice, the attainment of non-attainment, the action of non-action. We improve the quality of our being so that we have peace and joy, and then we can offer it to our families and communities, and to the world.

-Peaceful Action, Open Heart: Lessons From The Lotus Sutra

Monday, July 2, 2012

Ah, Abraham

A morsel from the late great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (1907-1972):

“The ineffable inhabits the magnificent and the common, the grandiose and the tiny facts of reality alike. Some people sense this quality at distant intervals in extraordinary events; others sense it in ordinary events, in every fold, in every nook; day after day, hour after hour. To them things are bereft of triteness; to them being does not mate with nonsense. They hear the stillness that crowds the world in spite of our noise, in spite of our greed. Slight and simple as things may be- a piece of paper, a morsel of bread, a word, a sigh- they hide and guard a never-ending secret....”

“Part company with preconcieved notions, suppress your leaning to reiterate and to know in advance of your seeing, try to see the world for the first time with eyes not dimmed by memory or volition, and you will detect that you and the things that surround you- trees, birds, chairs- are like parallel lines that run close and never meet. Your pretense of being aquainted with the world is quickly abandoned.”

"How do we seek to apprehend the world? Intelligence inquires into the nature of reality, and, since it cannot work without its tools, takes those phenomena that appear to fit its categories as answers to its inquiry. Yet, when trying to hold an interview with reality face to face, without the aid of either words or concepts, we realize that what is intelligible to our mind is but a thin surface of the profoundly undisclosed, a ripple of inveterate silence that remains immune to curiosity and inquisitiveness like distant foliage in the dark."

"The greatest hindrance to knowledge is our adjustment to conventional notions, to mental cliches. Wonder or radical amazement, the state of maladjustment to words and notions, is, therefore, a prerequisite for an awareness of that which is."

- Man is Not Alone: A Philosophy of Religion (1951), p.5-11

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Sky and Ground

Please look up and see the sky
far and wide and without tracks
turn your body around a bit
everything is right before you

= Tao-ch'uan (Ch'an monk of the Linchi lineage, 1100-1170)
From his commentary on the Diamond Sutra, Ch.20, quoted by Red Pine in "The Diamond Sutra: Text and Commentaries Translated from The Sanskrit and Chinese"