Yoshihime and the Gate through which all buddhas come into the world

Women can be quite spunky when we’ve a mind to be. When we are at our spunkiest best, the stories about what we have done bring a smile to my face and a twinkle to my eyes. So, I was most delighted to find this story in the November issue of the Shambhala Sun.  . . . the story plays off a traditional Zen Buddhist Koan, a a paradoxical anecdote used by Zen teachers to demonstrate to a particular student the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment, often the provocation is in a visceral sort of manner. Often the ‘correct’ response to a koan is not communicated in words, but rather through a simple, elegant, eloquent act or gesture.

 Traditionally Zen teachers and students were boys and men. There were, of course women who studied and practiced Buddhism, but they were accorded far less prominence so to hear about one is, for me particularly, a special treat. So, I am honored to introduce you to Yoshihime.

Yoshihime was a Buddhist nun. Because of her strength and her headstrong approach to life and study, she had earned the nickname “Devil-girl.” After studying and meditating for many years, Yoshihime decided that it was time for her to meet and have an interview with Engakuji, the teacher at the monastery, but the monk who was serving as the gatekeeper barred her way. Before he would let her approach, he shouted a koan to her: “What is it, the gate through which the buddhas come into the world?”

Yoshihime grabbed the man’s head, forced it between her legs, and said: “look, look.”

The monk said, “in the middle, there is a fragrance of wind and dew.”

Yoshihime said, “This monk is not fit to keep the gate; he ought to be looking after the garden.”

The gatekeeper relayed this to Engakuji’s assistant, who said that he would test Yoshihime. And, so he went to the gate, and posed the same koan to Yoshihime, ““What is it, the gate through which the buddhas come into the world?”

Yoshihime grabbed his head and held it between her legs, saying: “look, look!”

The teacher’s assistant said: “The buddhas of the three worlds come, giving light.”

And Yoshihime said: “This monk is one with the eye; he saw the eighty-four thousand gates all thrown open.”

So, what is going on in this story? Yoshihime lives with the misogyny of her time on a daily basis. Then she is confronted with it in a very personal, particular way in the action of the monk baring her passage through the gate. Yoshihime responds to the misogyny with an act of profound, insightful feminism. What is the gate through which buddhas come into the world? As a woman she immediately understands that it is the very same gate through which ALL human beings come into the world. She responds by demonstrating her awareness to  the gatekeeper and then the teacher’s assistant – all human beings enter the world through their mothers cervix and vagina. The gatekeeper’s misogyny was too thick and he could not see through it, but the teacher’s assistant immediately got it.

Misogyny is not a thing of the past. It is alive and too well in our world today. Yoshihime’s audacity is a powerful lesson to us all. We need to know ourselves. We need to be prepared to stand our ground, to claim our rights, and maybe even to be a bit audacious as we do so.

With thanks to Judith Simmer-Brown and Florence Caplow and Susan Moon.

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