Sunday, May 24, 2009

Women in Zen

"Women in Zen" number 57 of 200 from Robert Aitken's book Miniatures of a Zen Master.

Today's miniature points to the status of women in Zen. In the old days things were quite different. Today there are lots of women teachers and practitioners at all levels. My local and extended sangha is about 50/50 men and women. Here, on the internets, it seems male dominated but that is skewed by the audience.

Aitken Roshi points to this story in the Vimalakirti Sutra and is tickled that in their interaction, the goddess generally shows up Sariputra

Translated by Robert A. F. Thurman
(This is a small section from the sutra.)

Sariputra: Goddess, what prevents you from transforming yourself out of your female state?

Goddess: Although I have sought my "female state" for these twelve years, I have not yet found it. Reverend Sariputra, if a magician were to incarnate a woman by magic, would you ask her, "What prevents you from transforming yourself out of your female state?"

Sariputra: No! Such a woman would not really exist, so what would there be to transform?

Goddess: Just so, reverend Sariputra, all things do not really exist. Now, would you think, "What prevents one whose nature is that of a magical incarnation from transforming herself out of her female state?"

Thereupon, the goddess employed her magical power to cause the elder Sariputra to appear in her form and to cause herself to appear in his form. Then the goddess, transformed into Sariputra, said to Sariputra, transformed into a goddess, "Reverend Sariputra, what prevents you from transforming yourself out of your female state?"

And Sariputra, transformed into the goddess, replied, "I no longer appear in the form of a male! My body has changed into the body of a woman! I do not know what to transform!"

The goddess continued, "If the elder could again change out of the female state, then all women could also change out of their female states. All women appear in the form of women in just the same way

as the elder appears in the form of a woman. While they are not women in reality, they appear in the form of women. With this in mind, the Buddha said, 'In all things, there is neither male nor female.'"

Then, the goddess released her magical power and each returned to his ordinary form. She then said to him, "Reverend Sariputra, what have you done with your female form?"

Sariputra: I neither made it nor did I change it.

Goddess: Just so, all things are neither made nor changed, and that they are not made and not changed, that is the teaching of the Buddha.

I continue to look at why I feel comfortable referring to Robert Aitken as Aitken Roshi. My own teacher I refer to as Jack. I've never referred to any other living Zen practitioner as Roshi so why Robert? Why bother even considering this question? When I refer to Gerry Simpson as mom, there is no wondering. She never asked to be called mom. I just feels natural and comfortable.

Any error or confusion created by my commentary on Miniatures of a Zen Master
is solely a reflection of my own delusion and ignorance. Any merit
generated by this activity is solely the result of Aitken Roshi's clear
teaching and is dedicated to all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas throughout
space and time.


  1. You can get free audio and video of Robert A.F. Thurman teaching the Vimilakirti Sutras on his website:

  2. Thanks for the heads up on Bob's podcast. Subscribed.