Feminism and the practice of koans and meditation belong together, although they have largely been separated for thousands of years. The philosophy and practices that came to be associated with Buddhism and the later practices of Chan in China and Zen in Japan were incubated in a much earlier matricentric culture, which is how our early ancestors came to understand the world and our place in it and how we might understand they mysteries of the universe. Shifts happened.
Koans for Women and Other Oppressed Peoples
by Rachel Boughton
Koan: No! (Gateless Gate)
Koan: The Abbot said to an attendant, “Bring me the rhinoceros horn fan.” “It’s broken,” said the attendant. “Then bring me the rhinoceros!” (Blue Cliff Record)
Zen Koans are my favorite meditation practice. They are a way of entering into an understanding of the world that’s normally hard to reach. Koans each have their own core message to deliver, but the experience of a koan changes depending on what life is delivering at the moment. As a woman in recent times I’ve been made brilliantly, blindingly aware again of the challenges we face. My practice has needed to stretch to include all this.
Women have had a tough go of it over the last, say, three thousand years. Sometimes things are a little better, sometimes worse, some places it’s worse or better, but ours is not a world where we can reliably walk tall and proud and free. And when women are being treated badly, it’s almost certain that anyone who is culturally other: minority, disabled, queer or in some way different, is also having a difficult time.
It’s hard to know why women, so powerful and central to life on the planet, have been so systematically disenfranchised, hated, blamed, made small, regardless of who else is oppressed at any particular moment in history. It hasn’t always been this way (see my article on this) but it certainly is now. And in order to change things, to survive and thrive, to burgeon into our rightful role again and balance a torn ecology, we need a practice. Perhaps many practices. An important practice for me has been meditation and Zen koans. Meditation, which has been a nearly lifelong companion, is plain, like breathing. Koans introduce the mystery of what might be possible, just out of reach, the places I don’t even know are there.
There are two koans that have been particularly helpful and surprising to me in the regard. The first one is the mainstay of the koan tradition. The koan No. Sometimes it’s said in its Japanese form, “Mu” or the earlier Chinese, “Wu”. In its earliest form, the Chinese character we use for no meant “dance”. It’s the koan that obliterates concepts and sweeps away barriers to understanding. It shows things as they are. And it’s also a word that women and others, and supporters of equality and balance, need to have close at hand.
In meditation, the koan No clears everything away, all the dithering and the disapproving, the judgments and evaluations, the endless fuss with reality. I breathe and notice the sun on the tree, the sound of the birds. The world spreads out around me, in me. As a woman I notice the koan No also allows me to stop making excuses for the way things are and to check in with my body and my heart/mind and speak what needs to be said and do what needs to be done. It lets me breathe and it makes obstacles disappear. It means that I stop accepting and colluding with poor treatment by other people or the culture, because that’s just more fussing with reality.
To make this clear: a meditation practice doesn’t mean I don't react, it means that the separate self I’ve carried around, the one that has learned to be fearful and ashamed, may reveal itself to have no substance, and my true native force and energy will appear.
It’s a good thing to feel that strength. It’s a river, the kind that surges over rocks and is clear to the very bottom.
Another koan that has a lot of power is the one about the rhinoceros.
The director of a famous temple said,
“Bring me the rhinoceros horn fan!”
The attendant answered,
“Then bring me the rhinoceros!” said the director.
I was thinking recently about how, when I was young, I tried to attend self-defense classes for women. But I always dropped out because the scenarios presented to the class made me frightened rather than courageous. Thinking about it recently, I noticed that good self-defense isn’t just knowing how to carry my keys in my fist facing outward through my fingers while I walk down the middle of the street late at night, although that’s cool. It needs to be much bigger than that. It needs to be a matter of learning about, and feeling deserving of, a life that’s good for me. To realize that it’s crazy for me to have to be prepared for violence just because I’m a lady, among other things.
There aren’t a lot of models for how I can relate to the outside world in this way. How does it even work? How do I feel proud and free in solitude? In desire? In love?
Awakening must have something to do with it.
Some years ago I spent a lot of time with the rhino koan. “Bring me the rhinoceros!” I told myself. I repeated it in meditation and I noticed the way it gave me confidence. I had had that confidence all along, I just needed to tap it and it was right there. I called on the koan when I was fencing with a much taller male opponent. The energy to make the touch was inside my chest first, then in my arms and my foil. It taught me to be tricky, to give myself the advantage because I deserved it, or because I didn’t not deserve it. And I could feel the rhinoceros in me as I walked down city streets alone at night, when I reached for it. This rhinoceros was alert and untouchable and unafraid. Holding my ground in the world, placing my large heavy grey feet deliberately on the ground and moving forward, feeling the wondrous horn on my forehead, that’s the spiritual practice. This force is called sila in Sanskrit. Rhinoceros horn is associated with sexual potency. The metaphor is strong (and, taken literally, much to the detriment of actual endangered Rhinos).
When I drop the sense of difference between a separate me, and the “other” I can feel that rhino force already inside me. It is the inexorable force of longing to connect with the ineffable, to understand what it’s all about. It’s the same force that’s needed now, by all of us. It’s objectively true and it’s right here.
Rachel Boughton, Abbess, Flower Mountain Zen
and here are a few more voices on the subject:
No by Meghan Traynor
(excerpt from a song)
I be like nah to the ah to the no, no, no
My name is NO
My sign is NO
My number is NO
You need to let it go
You need to let it go
Men often react to women's words as if they were acts of violence; sometimes men react to women's words with violence. So we lower our voices. Women whisper. Women apologize. Women shut up. Women trivialize what we know. Women shrink. Women pull back… [my work] does not say, forgive me and love me. It does not say, I forgive you, I love you.…forgiveness and love must be subtext. No. I say no. –Andrea Dworkin Intercourse
won’t you celebrate with me by Lucille Clifton
won’t you celebrate with me
what i have shaped into
a kind of life? i had no model.
born in babylon
both nonwhite and woman
what did i see to be except myself?
i made it up
here on this bridge between
starshine and clay,
my one hand holding tight
my other hand; come celebrate
with me that everyday
something has tried to kill me
and has failed.
Yu Daopo worked in the market square of Jinling making sweet rice cakes. The Zen teacher Langye Huije tasted them at her shop. He gave her the saying of the Old Master Linji: **There is a no-position genuine person.**_
One day she heard a beggar singing the Lotus Sutra. He said, "if you haven’t heard the story of Liu Yi, how can you find your way to Lake Dongting?” Suddenly she understood. She threw her rice cake pan onto the ground. Her husband scowled and said, “You are wicked!” Daopo responded, “This is not your realm.”
She returned to see Langye where he was giving a talk at his temple. He said, “Is anyone here a no-position genuine person?” She immediately answered, “There’s a no-position genuine person with six arms and three heads, working furiously, splitting Flower Mountain in two with a single blow. For ten thousand years the swiftly flowing water didn’t know it was Spring. Eminent teachers, so sharp and quick, have lost it beneath the dark forest of their learning”_
Later she became a famous teacher and when masters and students came to her for her teachings, she called them all “son”
**Yu Daopo** lived during the Song Dynasty in China, born around the year 1000. Yu was her family name and her teaching name was Daopo which means "Old Lady/Grandma/Hag of the Tao".
**The Lotus Sutra** is one of the most influential and radical of all Buddhist texts. It says that all beings may attain Buddhahood, and that all practices lead to awakening.
**The Story of Liu Yi** refers to a famous story of a dragon princess who is rescued by a young man and later marries him but eventually returns to being a dragon. She lives under Lake Dongting.
**Lake Dongting** is a large shallow lake known as the "Lake of the Grotto" where, according to some stories, the Dragon King makes his home. Other earlier stories identify two goddess/dragons as the inhabitants of the grotto. It's a famously romantic location.
**Flower Mountain** has 5 peaks, one of which is split in two, as if by a sword. There is a story where the goddess Sanshengmu is buried beneath it and her son, who is half god and half human, takes a magic sword and splits the mountain in two and releases his mother from her incarceration.
This is the story that is the basis of our name, Flower Mountain Zen. It's a story from the Song Dynasty in China that makes reference to older Chinese mythology, including the Goddess who is imprisoned under Mt. Hua, the five peaked mountain that is called Flower Mountain. One of the peaks appears to have been split in two and it is from this split that the Goddess was said to be released.
The story itself tells of one of the many Chinese women of the time who taught Zen outside of the monasteries. In many cases they took the word p'o, which means old woman, as part of their teaching name. In this case, and in the case of many of the other women of the time, she challenges the temple establishment as overly technical and without a spontaneous feel for awakening.
It's an invitation to believe in yourself and your own possibilities.