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.”