Dharma Rain Zen Center - Stillpoint
In Support of a Women’s Lineage
by Domyo Burk
In Zen, the face-to-face transmission of the teaching from human being to human
being, teacher to student, is sacred.
There are two primary reasons for this. First, we celebrate the gift of the
Dharma that allows us to transform our lives. Second, we emphasize that the
essential matter is a personal experience that must be lived and manifested,
not merely learned from books or verbal teachings. We cannot give someone a
written test, or even ask them to demonstrate physical practices, to determine
whether they have a personal knowledge of essential Dharma. Rather, a teacher
recognizes at an intuitive level that a student has experienced what the teacher
has experienced. We say “Buddha recognizes Buddha” in the sympathetic
resonance of shared experience. There is also a mystical aspect to this shared
recognition, as the student’s very ability to recognize Buddha is an
important part of it.
Our Zen lineage is a list of names reflecting the transmission from teacher
to student, from Shakyamuni Buddha all the way down through the generations
to our own teachers. There are a number of places in the lineage, especially
early on, where the connections are acknowledged by modern scholars and practitioners
to be mythical rather than literal. However, a few holes in the historical
record does not diminish the symbolic power of the lineage.
Because of this important aspect of lineage, there has been some controversy
over the lists of historical Buddhist women practitioners, compiled by modern
women, sometimes called a “lineage.” These lists have been an effort
on the part of living Zen women to know and celebrate the many women who have
practiced throughout the ages but who do not appear on the lineage lists, either
because they were not able, or allowed, to establish lineages or because their
names were simply excluded from the historical record. Most people agree that
it is regrettable that Buddhist lineages included exclusively men’s names
for thousands of years, with women’s names appearing only in the last
generation or two. However, can you call these cobbled-together lists of women “lineages” without
compromising the important meaning of that term in Zen?
When I first encountered the lists of historical women practitioners, I thought
it might be better to call them a list or a line. I also wanted men to acknowledge
the importance of these women, so I didn’t want to call the lists a “women’s” lineage
or line. I proposed a compromise which still appears in our Zen Center’s
chant book: “The Line of Women Dharma Ancestors.”
Having received the first part of my priestly transmission, however, I feel
very differently. I passionately feel that these lists of women, though less
historically accurate than the lists of men, are every bit as important to
me as a lineage, if not more so. I also believe this is a women’s lineage.
I don’t expect men to feel as I do.
When a student finally becomes able to recognize Buddha in her teacher and
in herself, this is an incredibly important step. It is perhaps one of the
most difficult steps for human beings to take. It requires great courage. It
requires letting go of all of our previous ideas. It requires, ironically,
a certain form of self-esteem.
The need for this self-esteem is emphasized very early in Buddhism, perhaps
the first time in the Lotus Sutra. A number of parables deal with self-esteem,
but the best known is the story of the Lost Son. A rich man’s young son
wanders away from home. The son spends decades living a desperate and irresolute
life in foreign lands and forgets who he is. Eventually he wanders back home
but does not recognize home, or his father. The father recognizes the son,
however, and is overjoyed to see him. When the father reaches out, the son
assumes that this rich and powerful man is just going to harass or imprison
him, so he runs away. What follows is many years of the father gradually employing
and promoting his son — first as a menial field worker (work the son
can accept), and finally as his primary assistant — until the son regains
a sense of pride and confidence. As he is dying, the rich father publicly acknowledges
his son, at which point the son is ready for his inheritance.
Our Buddha-nature is our inheritance, but recognizing it in ourselves is
not easy. We need time, hard work, and lots of gentle encouragement and teaching.
If it were not for my women’s lineage, I might not have had the opportunity
to practice the Dharma at all, and I certainly would have found it difficult — if
not impossible — to claim my inheritance, my Buddha-nature. The women
in my lineage kept alive the reality that women, too, can practice; that women,
too, can attain liberation, awakening and wisdom. Did every woman in the lineage
meet the woman whose name appears before hers on the list? No. But did every
women hear about, know about — at least in some general way — and
gain strength from the woman who came before her? Absolutely. Imagine some
Chinese nun requesting full-strength Dharma and training from a male teacher
in a male monastery. Imagine her meeting her teacher in Dharma combat to hone
and manifest her awakening. How many women would have the thought, let alone
the courage, to do such a thing if she had not heard of some audacious woman
50 years earlier, in another province, who had dared to do the same? If she
had not heard whispers about Mahapajapati? We women notice the slightest mention
of such a thing, and do not forget.
The flame of the Dharma lamp of transmission was not passed directly from
woman to woman; that lineage of men was essential to me as well. The women’s
lineage cannot stand on its own, but neither can the lineage of men; all things
are interdependent. For me, this truth only increases the gratitude.