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.

Wanting to have MU

 We were sitting in the student center, each drinking a cup of coffee, saying our goodbyes. Over the past semester, Ludis and I had co-taught a course, we had talked about life and hopes and dreams, I guess you could say that we had become friends of a sort. Why the qualification? Well, we never went out to dinner, we didn’t do things off campus, we didn’t exactly hang out together. But we did talk before and after class, and we seemed to like each other well enough. So, friends of a sort. As we sat there talking, I asked Ludis if he was ready to head home to Lithuania.

 “In many ways, more than ready. I very much miss my wife and son. It has been far too long since I have seen them. I want to hold them both, each of them, for a long time.” He said blushing a bit at the last admission.

 “And, are you packed? Is there anything you want to do here that you haven’t gotten to yet?”

 “Yes, one more thing.” He said. “I want to buy a sweatshirt from your book store.”

 “A sweatshirt?” I asked a bit incredulous. Ludis just didn’t seem the kind of guy who would care very much about college logo clothing. Let’s just say, in the months that I had known him he did not strike me as a clothes horse. He did not dress badly, but he certainly was neither flashy nor cool. More, I saw him as guy who always wore neat, clean clothes but who had more important things on his mind than haute couture. So, his one last desire being the acquisition of a university logo garment seemed kind of odd.

 “I don’t understand, Ludis, what’s so special about a sweatshirt from here?”

 “Think about it, he laughed, the school’s initials are MU.”

 “And?”

 “And you talk about Zen Buddhism?.” He said sounding a little disappointed.

 “I do, some. But what’s that got to do with it?”

 “MU” he said, “the school for you here, and the koan for Buddhists.”

 And then, finally the light went on for me. Of course, the great Buddhist koan, also known as the first gate to enlightenment. For over ten years I had taught at the university. How many times each year had I written the school’s initials, and I never saw the connection! How many times had I read and reread and meditated on that Koan! At one point I even thought I was beginning to get it. Ugh. Clearly, I did not have it yet. But then, that too is the point of the koan, isn’t it?

 In Japanese, Korean and traditional Mandarin, ‘mu’ means not, nothing, nothingness, without, non-existent or non-being. For Zen Buddhists, one of the first koans is known as MU. A koan is riddle like paradox used to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning as the only mode of knowing; mediation on koans help to provoke openness to enlightenment. The ‘mu’ koan is put this way: a student asked the Great Master Zhaozhou, “does a dog have Buddha nature?” Zhaozhou replied, “Mu.”

 So, the koan can be understood as asking about the meaning of life, the purpose of life, about attachments and possession, it asks about the vastness of life, and offers to teach about how to live and how to love. For an ultra short story, it holds great depths of potential if we are willing to plumb the depths that await us.

 I thought I had been doing some plumbing of the ‘mu’ koan. I thought about it in connection with the adage: if you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. That meaning that if you think you have found enlightenment outside yourself, you are quite mistaken, and so end that delusion. Does a dog have Buddha nature? No because it is not a thing to be had. Buddha nature is more about being than having. I thought all these things as I plumbed the ‘mu’ koan. I thought I was plumbing a bit. And then Ludis showed me that I had not even picked up the wrench!

 When I finally saw the connection, we both sat and laughed for a good long while. Ludis bought the sweatshirt. I left without mu.