Keizan, the Mothers of Zen, and Ekan Daishi

 “Keizan is the mother of Zen” is often repeated in texts describing the founding of Japanese Soto Zen. In April with the start of our sangha’s women’s dharma study group, the Tea Ladies, we discovered Keizan Jokin as the one who paved the way for women to practice Zen in 1300 A.D. in Japan—in a time when women were not allowed to practice. Our Tea Ladies studies the book The Hidden Lamp, Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women, and use as our companion text, Zen Women, Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens and Macho Masters by Grace Schireson.

Keizan was heavily influenced by women. There is much written about how Keizan was influenced by his grandmother who herself practiced with Dogen’s own teacher Myozen and was an early supporter of Dogen. Keizan’s mother Ekan also was a fervent practitioner of Buddhism and prayed fervently to Kannon. She prayed to Kannon for a baby and at age 37, Keizan was born.

Even though Dogen wrote the “Raihaitokuzui “on the importance of recognizing women’s equal teaching ability in the Dharma, this teaching text was hidden in Eiheiji temple for centuries, and Dogen was not able to fully bring this dharma to fruition, or to the real lives of women who wanted to study or teach Zen. Women were forbidden into the teaching temples at the time. However, as Dogen’s disciple, Keizan was able to later give transmission to the first woman Soto Zen dharma heir, Ekyu Daishi, in 1325 A.D. He included women and laypeople more fully in practice, training, and ceremonies. He actively appointed women as priests. It is said that without Keizan’s more open spreading of the Zen practice, Dogen’s monastic practice might have died out.

Keizan’s mother continued to be a major influence in spreading Zen, with Keizan’s support as well, and became the abbess of a Soto convent, Jojuji, Ekan was devoted to teaching Buddhism to women and founded the temple Hooji.  Her order of Soto nuns “had the plum blossom as its symbol, since it is the first to bloom in early spring and its delicate blossoms often meet with snow and cold. It is said that the plum blossom teaches us to be gentle even in the harshest conditions.” [Zen Women]

Our Tea Ladies study the women ancestors to completely realize the Tathagatha’s true meaning. Our honoring starts from Mahaprajapati, Buddha’s aunt and step mother, the first woman Buddhist and lineage holder, down through the ages, to include all the men and women teachers, as Dogen wrote about 700 years ago.

Dogen: “Why are men special? Emptiness is emptiness. Four great elements are four great elements. Five skandhas are five skandhas. Women are just like that. Both men and women attain the way. You should honor attainment of the way. Do not discriminate between men and women. This is the most wondrous principle of the Buddha Way.”

Keizan: “In perfect ease go, stay, sit and lie down. Seeing, hearing, understanding and knowing are all the natural display of the Actual Nature. From first to last, mind is mind, beyond any arguments about knowledge and ignorance. Just do zazen with all of who and what you are. Never stray from it or lose it.” 

Zen practice in times of incivility and fear

The world has gone seemingly insane. News and conversations swirl with refugees and homelessness around the globe, bombings, shootings, uncivil talk from our leaders, racism, violence, hurricanes, wildfires, climate change, sexism, hate.  Did your body just get tense? We also have the fear of being emotionally numbed or overwhelmed so we are unable to act. People speak in angry tones and we lose heart. We think we know how things are and then find out they are not. We think we know how others experience the world and find out we do not. We don’t always know what is going to happen or what is happening, or what did happen.

The Buddha offered: “To open our heart like a Buddha, we must embrace the ten thousand joys and the ten thousand sorrows.”

How do I practice in the Way of the Buddha, the way of compassion?

Our silent sitting, our zazen practice, day after day, is the gateway. We must believe this. Dogen says that to study the way is to study the self, then to drop the self, then to be enlightened by the 10 thousand things, to be enlightened by the 10 thousand joys and sorrows, our lives just as they are. We can learn to accept the joys and sorrows with great compassion.

We listen to our own hearts, our true teacher.

Through stillness and inquiry into our heart, we can feel some small freedom. We examine the place in us before anything arises, a place of profound silence and the deepest rest. We relax. We can rest in a place where “I” or small conditioned self is not controlling us. We can drop the small self and open up to a larger view. With practice, we can see these habitual thoughts or feelings and they diminish.

This brings us some peace and lets us see peace in the world.

Overtime, our minds and bodies and vitality—our energy will literally change. Our lives will change. We can handle this, we can open our hearts wider to ourselves and to others and turn toward kindness. We can laugh more, slow down, refrain from harsh speech, be more flexible, go more quietly, respond with kindness. Roshi Robert Aitken wrote about zen practice: “We become free to approach our humanity appropriately in the moment, according to the needs of people or things around us. We can stand on our own two feet and decide “I will do this. I will not do this.” This is compassion.”

When we are overwhelmed by all we cannot do or save, we can be also reminded of our Bodhisattva vows (creations are numberless- we vow to save them, delusions are inexhaustible- we vow to put an end to them, reality is boundless- we vow to perceive them, the enlightened way is unsurpassable -we vow to embody it) and the sangha and other good companions on the Way—and remember that no one can save the world or awaken alone. We are humans who are embodied on this earth-- we are never helpless.  Numberless beings we vow to save. Keep your heart “open like a buddha”—Thank you.


Practicing with Great Doubt

Great questioning, or great doubt is to investigate every point. You may say, “The Buddha says such and such” or “Dogen Zenji says such and such” or “I believe such and such.”

And yet, somehow you say, “I cannot really accept how my life is.” “Who am I?” and “Where do I get stuck? Why can’t I have a great faith that takes care of everything?”

These questions are good to focus on. The more serious you are in resolving these matters, the more desperate you feel, the stronger your determination becomes, and the clearer the answers come.

Have good trust in yourself. Have good faith in your practice. Sit well and unconditionally open yourself up.—Taizan Maezumi Roshi (Founder, White Plum Asanga)

Wisdom is creating Wisdom - Dogen

Dogen - "We remain unclear because our minds go racing about like horses running wild in the fields, while our emotions remain unmanageable, like monkeys swinging in the trees. If only we would step back and carefully reflect on the horse and monkey, our lives will be one with our work. Doing so is the means whereby we turn things, even while simultaneously we are being turned by them."


Commentary~ When we observe our minds and the truth of the moment, making our fears conscious, seeing that our thoughts are holding us in place, we can be just who we are. When we back out of unreality by witnessing it, we see it for what it is; we fall into reality. At first, we only see it a second at a time, but over time, sitting zazen, we see it more and more. We then see what life is, we are life. Then, we know what we are and we live it.



Three Tenets of Zen Peacemakers and Zen Practice

From the Zen Peacemakers, Wendy Egyoku Nakao Roshi 

In Three Tenets practice, Not-knowing trains you to continually set aside fixed points of view. I describe not-knowing as a flash of openness or a sudden shift to being present in the moment. This dropping away of the things you have relied upon for a sense of stability may lead you to examine what you believe is your center, to take shelter in the place before anything arises, a place of emptiness and profound silence, a place of the deepest rest where self-interest has not yet entered. This is not a void, but rather a darkness where things are not yet differentiated or seen. You yourself can go to the darkness and become like an empty vessel, empty of points of view and preferences. An empty vessel refuses nothing and receives everything that is coming at it from all directions. By practicing in this way, you can create more space to accommodate your own reactivity and the points of view of others.

Bearing Witness: The practice of bearing witness is to see all of the aspects of a situation including your attachments and judgments. You cannot live solely in a state of not- knowing, because life also asks that you face the conditions that are coming at you by being present to them. When you bear witness you open to the uniqueness of whatever is arising and meet it just as it is. When combined with not-knowing, bearing witness can strengthen your capacity for spaciousness, thus enabling you to be present to the very things that make you feel as if you have lost your center. It can strengthen your capacity to listen to other points of view, thus allowing a more nuanced picture of a situation to emerge.

The third tenet is Taking Action. It is impossible to predict what the action in any situation will be, or the timetable for when it will arise or what might result from it. The underlying intention is that the action that arises be a caring action, which serves everyone and everything, including yourself, in the whole situation.

Sometimes the action is as simple as continuing on with the practice of the first two tenets of not-knowing and bearing witness; the very practice of the Three Tenets is itself a caring action. And though the action that arises from the engagement of not-knowing and bearing witness is spontaneous and often surprising, it always fits the situation perfectly.

Training with the tenets is a matter of taking a backward step again and again and continually discerning your internal processes in the midst of acknowledging what is happening around you.  An effect of ongoing and consistent practice of the Three Tenets is that when you lose your sense of center and fall into reactivity, you also regain your center more quickly. And when you continually perform this practice in the midst of all the activities of your daily life, the practice will be readily accessible to you during the most challenging circumstances.