How we practice zazen at the temple
by Juliet Lau

Each Sunday morning, we meet from ten to eleven-thirty to practice zazen at the temple with the Roshi.

A few weeks earlier, the Roshi was asked a question that in Oriental monasteries, women are accorded subservient roles. In some oriental traditions they transmit the notion that it is difficult if not impossible for women to become enlightened.

The Roshi gave the story of Takeda Sanno. Takeda was an ordinary woman, living an ordinary family life. She would wake up early each morning, before working at her daily duties, sit quietly in a nearby temple and listen to the Dharma teachings. Some people were doing breathing practices and studying various sutras that always began with the phrase "Thus have I heard". This phrase "Thus have I heard" became Takeda's daily mantra. She would ask herself the meaning of this phrase and constantly be mindful of it while she earnestly lived her daily life; doing her chores in the kitchen and at home. She was not seeking something special. One day, while making a fire to burn refuse outside; she accidentally threw a box in the fire. In this box, there was a precious porcelain cup that was thrown into the fire by mistake. Instantly, she realized this error, and quickly reached out to pull the box out of the fire. Right at once, she felt the intense sensation of heat of the fire to her hand, and came to a realization.

This story illustrated not only that realization can be attained in our ordinary daily life, but also that ordinary women in the Sangha, like us, can equally attain it. All things as it is. Takeda is a storybook example of a woman just like us, who have families to take care of, busy chores to do every day, and different mundane tasks to work on in our daily lives. The teaching is that if we continue to practice diligently in the Way, if we are mindful, if we diligently practice self-use of our true nature in our daily lives, equally, we all can attain a realization.

We, the present- day spiritual seekers, thankfully, with the teachings of our Zen Master, do not have to travel over the far mountains and beyond the great oceans to find the Middle Way. Takeda came to the understanding of "Thus have I heard" while she was doing her regular daily work as a layperson. Nothing special. The meaning of this teaching is that practice and enlightenment is not different. Moment by moment, we can learn to practice wisdom and learn to act wisely in all occasions. We can, little by little know our self- nature clearly for ourselves, and agree to ourselves, that there is nothing lacking, nothing excess. If we agree to the way, men and women, being alive, all human beings living in this world, equally will have the opportunity and ability to awaken to the Bodhi-mind.

In the "Meaning of Practice and Enlightenment" that we recite in our Sangha every week, it says that 'Even a little girl of seven can become the teacher of the four classes of Buddhists, and the compassionate mother of all being; for in Buddhism, men and women are completely equal. This is one of the highest principle of the Way".

The legend was that when Shakyamuni Buddha, and a lot of his family members including Ananda, his cousin, and his son, Rahula became monks, his step-mother Lady Maha-Prajapati and her friends also wanted to join the Sangha and practiced the Middle Way. She implored the Buddha again and again, three times, asking to be accepted as a Bhiksuni, and the Buddha refused each time. The women were very disappointed, and some even began to cry. The group of women later shaved their heads, put on Kasayas, and journeyed on foot toward Vaisali where the Buddha was staying. They only could walk a short distance each day, and therefore, took them a long time to arrive at Mahavana Monastery. When they arrived, their feet were all swollen and they were all weakened by fatigue. Maha-Prajapati stood at the entrance to the monastery and was weeping sorrowfully. Ananda, the Buddha's cousin, who took care of his daily chores, went inside to entreat the Buddha to have compassion and allow the women to practice Dharma similar to the Bhiksus. The Buddha replied " Ananda, do not ask me to do this." Ananda did not back down and entreated him for three times, and each request was refused each time. Then Ananda thought about asking in a different way, that if women were to practice pure living according to the Dharma, would they be able to attain the four fruits of wisdom, would they be able to attain nirvana. The Buddha replied that if women were to practice according to the Dharma, they too could attain the stages of nirvana.

I read that one of the reasons why Shakyamuni Buddha did not allow women in general and his step-mother, Lady Maha-Prajapati in particular to join the order was for the women's own safety and health concerns. This was about two thousand five hundred years ago. It was never easy for anyone to leave their families, especially in the olden days, to become Bhiksus. One can imagine that the conditions of living in the forest must be very primitive and it surely would involve a constant strain on one's physical stamina. There would always be safety concerns of women living in the forest, especially in those days, when women mainly stayed at home. This must have been a revolutionary idea.

Thankfully, today, we can practice freely in the Way in our daily lives, doing our best wholeheartedly. We can practice the wisdom of enlightenment, by being mindful of what we know and learn in life. The Roshi said that to practice in our life is like walking on a busy street, we have to be careful not to be hit by a car. Also, when we become angry in our daily lives, we have to be mindful, and not be carried away by our immediate emotional reactions. We have to be aware of cause and effect, always avoid the first reaction of revenge, but take a big breathing space, see things wisely, hear things clearly, then act with forbearance, and like this, in organic harmony, things can improve equally for all of us, men and women. Let us all ' fall awake'.

The fruit of the Arhat this week was:

Heaven and earth and I are of the same root,
All things and I are of one substance.

May we all, both men and women in the Sangha, practice in this peaceful enlightened dwelling place where truth, faith, serenity, peace and happiness rain down naturally like sweet dew, and that we are free to foster true worldly desires.