You Go, Dharma Sister!
--- Namu Amida Butsu - Namu Amida Butsu - Namu Amida Butsu ---
So happy to see you all here today. It really feels like spring to me this morning...this time for sure? Though shoveling snow on Monday was fun. The life of the temple has been full and joyful. Last weekend we had our Moon Rabbit Cafe and shared food and community with 180 guests. A couple hospital visits and a professional clergy association meeting filled out week of priestly duties. I take a moment to remember Aki Miller a Dharma sister who passed on this week.
Today we focus on Dharma Sisters and their contributions - the essential spirit of Buddhism absolutely includes all beings, male and female, small and big, new and old. These are just fictional dualities - Constructs that lack in any real substance. That said - Women have always been integral to the unfolding of Buddhist life. You all play a role that is essential to us being here together today.
I have considered so many ideas in preparation for this talk. The role of women in many Buddhist countries and historical periods. The very nature of the Duality of women and men. Its place in the sutras and the thought of Buddhist teachers and Bodhisattvas. Much of this I will save for another time. These thoughts might obscure my deep gratitude for all the women who have done most of the work of sustaining Buddhism for 2,600 years.
I had meant to give this talk closer to mother's day. But now is always a better time to do anything - right. As we talk about many fine women of our lineage, please consider the core Buddhist values of... COMPASSION, ACCEPTANCE, and RIGHT EFFORT- that they teach even today.
The story of Buddhism has many important women...
If it were not for these women it would be impossible for us to be here together. We say to them - “Thank you so much!”. Let's say that together - “Thank you so much!”
Thats a lot of people in my list - My dear teacher Linda Brown at Truckee High would tell me I have to pick two of them to tell you about.
Ok - Mahapajapati - Eshinni
Let me consider Mahapajapati -
She was the first woman to “go forth” in Buddhism as a Bhikkhuni or nun - about 10 years after the Buddha’s enlightenment. There had been many women lay followers by this time. Queen Pajapati was Maya’s sister - She raised Siddhartha's after Queen Maya died just a week after the birth. She was very important to his life and growth as a spiritual teacher.
As he grew up the king sheltered him from any religious teaching. It must have been Prajapati who quietly nurtured Siddhartha's spiritual growth. Is it a surprise that the young prince resolves to be a religious seeker - when his father gave him a purely materialistic upbringing? Kids will do that sometimes. The pendulum swings.
With Maya’s death - Pajapati did her duty and assumed her sister's role in the palace. She gave up whatever plans and dreams she had for herself and became queen. This is the experience of impermanence - that life does not always go according to our own plan - it was deeply felt by Prajapati. Out of compassion for all she assumed this role, and focused on her new son and raised him.
As for Siddhartha, he later came to appreciate deeply the many elements that led him to his awakening, acknowledging the many Buddhas before him whose legacy made his awakening possible. This realization did not come to him in only six years of religious study and ascetic practice, growing up there was natural exposure to the religious thought of his time. Queen Pajapati was his first teacher. A teacher of Wisdom and Compassion.
Fast forward to ten years after Siddhartha's enlightenment - He returned to the Sakya kingdom for the first time when his father died. There was a funeral and the Buddha shared the Dharma. Upon hearing the teaching Queen Pajapati asked to join the order. This was a big ask. Since there was no order of nuns and the general culture treated women as property - often expecting a widow throw herself on her husband's funeral pyre. It was a big ask. The Buddha considered the effect on the newly created sangha.
The story in the Pali canon is as follows:
Mahapajapati went to the place where the Buddha was, approached and greeted him, and, standing at a respectful distance, spoke to him:
"It would be good, Lord, if women could be allowed to renounce their homes and enter into the homeless state under the Dharma and discipline of the Tathagata."
The Buddha considered this suggestion but gave no response. He traveled to the next town on his circuit - she asked again that the Buddha allow women to be ordained into an order of nuns. He said ”no” to this second request. As they walked to Jetavana, Ananda asked the Buddha many questions about Pajapati’s request. He asked the Buddha if women were able to reach enlightenment, the Buddha said they can. This was a very significant thought. All previous religious traditions specifically excluded women from this attainment. 2500 years ago the idea of gender equality was not common.
A few days later, to demonstrate her resolve, Pajapati renounced her previous life and began her own journey of enlightenment. She shaved her head like a monk, wore robes, and walked 300 miles to Jetavana Monastery where the Buddha had arrived a few days before. The story goes that a group of 500 women followed with her.
After having been rejected two times, this was probably her last opportunity to get a “yes” from the Buddha. Ananda, [Pajapati’s other nephew and attendant to the Buddha] intervened this time to help Pajapati and her followers. His questions had affected the Buddha’s view.
On her third request the Buddha agreed to create the order of Bhikkhunis provided Pajapati accept the eight conditions. After Pajapati accepted these administrative conditions, her requested was accepted.
Mahapajapati was really a parallel leader in early Buddhism. Her attainments and her ultimate enlightenment were important to the sustained growth of the Buddhist sangha. Mahapajapati request was not for herself, but out of compassion for 50% of humanity - all of humanity. She continued to guide and nurture the order for the rest of her life. At peace with the changefulness of existence she was not content to live out her days in courtly pursuits and embarked on a challenging and rewarding spiritual path. She wrote…
I've been mother and son before;
And father, brother — grandmother too.
Not understanding what was real,
I flowed-on without finding [peace].
But now I've seen the Blessed One!
This is my last compounded form.
The on-flowing of birth has expired.
There's no more re-becoming now.
In the end, Gotama Buddha himself carried her body to the funeral pyre with deep gratitude. We all have deep gratitude of Mahapajapati she was a wonderful Dharma sister: strong, independent and, compassionate.
We had that long list…Who else can I tell you about? - Eshinni! Partner and wife of Shinran Shonin.
When Shinran left the monastery on Mt. Hiei and studied with Honen in Kyoto there were many other students there. Myoko Tanemori [Eshinni] was a hand maiden for an important lady it the imperial court and met Shinran in the Pure land Buddhist groups of the time. Honen, Shinran and others who were making the Pure Land teaching - available to all. Eshinni wrote in a letter…
“Numerous as clouds in the sky, all sat with sleeves touching - court ladies and grave diggers, monks and lepers. No distinction. No discrimination. All reciting the nembutsu until it felt as if the place filled with an ocean of sound.”
The idea of sharing Buddhism among everyday common people did not sit well with the politically powerful monasteries and monks at the time.  Honen even allowed Shinran to marry Eshinni.
“...It is important to live the Nembutsu - if you can live the Nembutsu as a monk then do that - if you have to be married to live the Nembutsu then do that...”
They were married and soon after all of Honen’s disciples were exiled . Likely Eshinni was pregnant when they had to quickly leave Kyoto. Some were executed, but the new couple was sent to Eshinni’s home province of Echigo located between the Japan sea and the Japan Alps - it is a beautiful and sometimes harsh place to live.
Their marriage is important - it was the first openly recognized marriage of a priest - this is a tradition we continue today in Shin Buddhism. Really a teaching partnership between wife and husband and sangha. It makes Shin Buddhist temples welcoming to householders and families. Eshinni was essential because she was the one who supported the family through their exile and travels to the Kanto region. Her management of family lands produced and supported Shinran and their children. Shinran and Eshinni began to share the Buddhist teaching - our Nembutsu - with the people of Echigo. The oldest Shin Buddhist temples are there. [We visited one last year on our Japan trip.] Shinran would go on long teaching tours in the neighboring region. In those times Eshinni would share the Nembutsu with the sangha.
When famine struck in Echigo in 1214, Eshinni collected their 4 children and several servants and migrated to the Kanto region in the East. On foot across the spine of Honshu must have been a difficult journey. Pregnant at the time, Eshinni is said to have chanted the Nembutsu as she carried the little-one over the mountains to Hitachi. A new place, and a new life, but the same role. As keeper of the home temple, Eshinni supported the family and stayed in the village of Sakai in Hitachi prefecture. Shinran traveled and taught ranging all over the Kanto area - spreading the Nembutsu teaching.
Their life was more comfortable in the Kanto, with more nembutsu followers many viable Shin Buddhist sanghas were established. One we visited outside of Kosama,
was just a ginkgo tree where Shinran would teach when his travels came through the village. It is now just a stump with a protective roof over it. In memory of those days.
In his 60’s Shinran retired and quietly returned to Kyoto where the whole story had begun. Eshinni and the two younger children followed Shinran to Kyoto. Later Eshinni had to return to Echigo, she to attend to the family businesses manage their the land. She never saw Shinran again and corresponded by letter when possible.
We know so much about Eshinni because of 10 letters written in her hand that were discovered in 1921. They bring us vibrantly in contact with this remarkable woman. Here is a bit on one of those letters...
“Also, [I recall] a dream I had while we were at a place called Sakai village in Hitachi. There was a dedication ceremony for a temple building...In front of the building there were lanterns [burning] bright...there were [two] Buddhist images suspended from the horizontal part of ... a shrine gate. In one there was no face... but only a core of light, as if it were the radiance of the Buddha... distinct features could not be seen, and light was the only thing there. In the other, there was a distinct face ... I asked what Buddhist images these were, and a person - I don’t remember who ... - said "The one that is only light is Master Honen. He is the bodhisattva [of wisdom] Seishi." When I asked who the other was, he said "That is [the bodhisattva of compassion] Kannon. That is none other than the priest Shinrna." Upon hearing this I was shocked [out of my sleep], and I realized that it had been a dream.”
Then she confides in her daughter…
“... I [have remained] silent, not telling other people [about this]. But I did tell my husband [Shinran] the part about Master [Honen]. He said, "Among dreams there are many different types, but this dream must be true. There are many [other] instances of dreams in which people have seen Master [Honen] … as a manifestation of the bodhisattva Seishi. The bodhisattva Seishi is the ultimate in wisdom, so he [appeared simply] as light." I did not say anything about my husband being Kannon, but in my own mind I never looked upon him from that day forward in any ordinary way. You should ponder these things well…”
Their relationship was profound. Each considering the other an emanation of Great Compassion itself. Eshinni shows us that when life challenges us, when we are ready to face real adversity in our lives that’s when our hearts can truly open: we hear and appreciate the wisdom and compassion of the Universe. This is when our personal spiritual journey begins - with hearts open to reality we find ourselves on the Dharma path. Eshinni always acted out of COMPASSION. As a mother and a wife and a teacher and Nembutsu follower.
She deeply understood - the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism…
After his death, Kakushinni wanted to keep Shinran’s teaching alive and perpetuated it for his followers. She built a temple enshrining an image of Shinran. As a result, the Nembutsu teaching began to reach more people. About 50 years later, this mausoleum became an official temple and was named the “Hongwanji.” The Hongwanji temple has developed into the Jodo Shinshu school as one of the largest and most powerful Buddhist schools in Japan.
Kakushinni’s foresight and deep appreciation towards the Nembutsu teaching saved Shinran’s work and established the foundation of Shin Buddhism. She is truly the Mother of the Honganji.
All the women I listed at the start were Builders and Sustainers of the tradition. Mothers to the way of COMPASSION. They endured and thrived in very difficult times and selflessly gave to others the gift of the Dharma. The four noble truths teach that joy flows from ACCEPTING CHANGE. These dear women saw changes again and again. And learned to accept and embrace teh becoming of the world around them. Most of all they inspire us with their RIGHT EFFORT. Each of them faced life with strength, resolve, and kindness.
As Shin Buddhists we have the advantage of being part of the Pure Land tradition, and we have a married clergy, we have a congregational system, we share a path to Enlightenment available to all - within a lifetime. It is a path of gratitude, a path of mindfulness of Wisdom and Compassion. These kind women brought the universal message of the Nembutsu - You are Ok just as you are. Troubles and all we can go forth in joy. Grateful for the Wisdom and Compassion of the Universe. Amida Buddha.
I am so grateful to the women who did much of the work of sustaining Buddhism for 2,600 years. They have done so much for all of us. Please send their good wishes to all sentient beings - just repeat after me...
May you be happy;
May you be free from harm:
May you receive boundless compassion;
And may peace and harmony fill your heart
- Namu Amida Butsu Namu Amida Butsu Namu Amida Butsu -
Thanks to to the clear thoughts of : Rev. Patty Naikai, Rev Jōshō Cirlea, James Dobbens
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