Miaozong's Dharma Interview
By Chris Fortin - Everyday Zen's Women Retreat - January 2011
This koan was acted out by Martha de Barros, Sue Moon, and me at the women's retreat:
Wanan relied on Dahui, and served as his Senior Monk at Dahui's monastery on Ching-san. Dahui had seven women disciples, and Miaozong was the most beautiful.
Before had become a nun, Dahui lodged her in the abbot's quarters. The head monk Wanan always made disapproving noises. Dahui said to him," Even though she is a woman, she has strengths." Wanan still did not approve. Dahui then insisted that he should interview her. Wanan reluctantly sent a message that he would go.
Miaozong said, "Will you make this a dharma interview or a worldly interview?"
The head monk replied, "A dharma interview."
Miaozong said: "Then let your attendants depart." She went in first and then called to him. "Please come in."
When he came past the curtain he saw Miaozong laying face upward on the bed without anything on at all. He pointed to her genitals and said, "What kind of place is this?"
Miaozong replied, "All of the Buddhas of the three worlds and the six patriarchs and all the great monks everywhere - they all come out from within this."
Wanan said, "And would you let me enter, or not?"
Miaozong replied, "It allows horses to cross; it does not allow asses to cross."
Wanan said nothing, and Miaozong declared: "The interview with the Senior Monk is ended." She then turned over and faced the inside.
Wanan became embarrassed and left.
Wanan came before Dahui, who said, "It is certainly not the case that the old dragon does not have any insight."
Wanan was ashamed.
Beware of falling into dualities. Our focus will be largely on Miaozong, but just as you might study a dream, realize all parts and characters as a part of yourself.
Dahui was a widely acclaimed Zen master and was the successor to Yuanwu, who had several female heirs and was a strong supporter of women's practice. Dahui lived during the Sung dynasty in China (960-1279). Miaozong (1095-1170) - one of his principal heirs - is memorialized in this koan. She was remembered and honored by female practitioners in both China and Japan, and was among the most highly celebrated of the female lineage. This koan was used as a teaching koan for both Chinese and Japanese nuns long after Miaozong's death.
Studying in close proximity to a teacher has always been essential in this lineage. Dahui headed a monastery that didn't permit women in residence, but Miaozong, a woman whom he recognized as a serious dharma student, studied with him and was housed in the guest rooms of his abbot's quarters. The head monk, Wanan, repeatedly questioned her presence there, as it seems to have been a source of concern for the monks of the temple. It would have been part of Wanan's job as senior monk to be responsible for setting the standards for the monastery. A woman in residence was against monastic rules. It is also relevant to note that part of his concern may have arisen from the fact that Dahui's teacher, Yuanwu, had broken these rules by training women in Zen and also by taking lovers in this temple.
All koans are about meeting - complete, transparent, and intimate meeting in the present moment. They enact and reveal going beyond the safety net of certainty and leaping into the unknown with a fearless openheartedness. Dahui's quiet confidence in this meeting between two dharma practitioners, and Miaozong's wholehearted courage and radical encounter with Wanan, radiate directly to us across time and space.
The theme for the Everyday Zen women's weekend is "Authentic meeting: ferocious vulnerability - vulnerable ferocity." The dictionary offers us this about the source of these words. "Ferocious" denotes "wild." "Vulnerable" is "capable of being physically or emotionally wounded; completely seen." Miaozong was naked in this encounter. "Nakedness" is "unarmed; without addition or concealment; nothing extra; bare."
On reflection, this seems to express the heart of the practice that we share with Miaozong and all of our ancestors. Zazen becomes the naked, unarmed, bare act of ferociously, wildly and wholeheartedly committing ourselves to sitting and breathing - in the midst of the vulnerable suffering of being a human being. It is where we meet ourselves and the whole world. What arises from this practice is a deep confidence and trust that is rooted in the body, in everyday activity, and in an awareness of the interconnected, karmic dance of cause and effect between all beings.
With a faith that makes us vulnerable, that humanizes and connects us, we vow not to turn away from what is uncomfortable. This is ferocious vulnerability. Practice awakens our hearts and minds to the wisdom and compassion of the buddhas. It cuts through limiting discriminations and self centered views - the root cause of human suffering.
Miaozong - whose name means "no attachment" - nakedly meets the moment and transcends any agenda, demand, or expectation that her conditions imposed on her. She embodies the dragon's roar for all of us. I, for one, am immensely and deeply grateful for her practice. She shows the way of playing freely in form and emptiness.
I recently received a TED video link called "The power of vulnerability" - narrated and researched by Brene Brown. It brings a current day focus to this koan. Her research revealed that a fundamental human need is to feel connected. (What a surprise!) This can only be fulfilled when we allow ourselves to be seen. Disconnection and separation occurs when there are feelings of shame; of being unworthy or not good enough; and the fear of being revealed. We fear, "If someone knew who I really am..."
The attribute shared in common by people who consistently experienced a strong sense of connection, love, and belonging was a sense of worthiness. This freed them to live wholeheartedly and courageously. They understood that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful, and that turning away from uncomfortable feelings or situations severed their connection to life.
Miaozong transparently radiated this awareness and understanding. I acted the role of Miaozong, and stepping into her skin was liberating beyond my cognitive understanding.
I felt that her heart and mind are at ease with herself, with her life, and with her deepest understanding of Buddhist teachings. She fearlessly turns towards desire, sexuality, and human confusion. She meets Wanan's judgments by revealing her most intimate part, her vagina. Through this open gateway, she invokes powerful images of the feminine that is at the heart of Buddhist non-dual teachings.
The Tathagatagarbha sutras teach that all sentient beings are the womb of the tathagata, the buddhas. As she points to her vagina, Miaozong expresses this directly in her statement , "The buddhas, the six patriarchs, and all the great monks everywhere come out from here."
In the Prajnaparamita sutras, Prajna Paramita is represented in the female form as the archetypal embodiment of perfect wisdom. In his book, The Mother of the Buddhas, Les Hixon comments on selections from the Prajnaparamita Sutra in 8000 Lines. He invokes similar images:
We come alive with the infinitely intelligent life of mother Prajna Paramita, experiencing new birth from her mysterious womb of perfect wisdom...The teachings flow and shine forth solely from the inexhaustible reservoir, treasury and womb of truth energy, of the mother Prajna Paramita....Mysterious spaciousness is her most intimate embrace and is fully evident in and through the daily world: simple, direct, concrete and immediate...She never creates any limited structures. This absence of characteristics is her transcendent, mystic motherhood, the radiant blackness of her womb.
Miaozong simply and intimately expresses these teachings in her dharma interview with Wanan.
It is interesting to note that traditions across cultures and time have myths that use similar metaphors. They are characterized by a passage of transformation to the underworld to meet non-dual truth in the dark womb, the source, of life. The outer known world of intellectual understanding and concepts must be left behind as the seeker lets go of identity, status, gender, and earthly desires. Ultimately she/he returns to the world of light and differentiation, with an understanding the ultimate unity of all things. Miaozong effortlessly propels Wanan on this journey when she pulls him into her dark parts. "What place is this?" he exclaims as he is jolted beyond conventional views.
This journey into the unknown and the deep earth body is also embedded in temple geomancy, the science of orienting buildings in harmony with the universe that was first used in China and later copied in Japanese temples. Monastic complexes were laid out in the shape of the human body. The mountain gate - the first building where all monks must enter, is the genital area. Maxims are often inscribed here alerting new students to the seriousness of entering and the necessity of releasing all desires and conceptual thinking.
Great Zen master Zhauzhou, whose teachings were known as "The great bridge to enlightenment," exemplified going beyond dualistic thinking. When someone challenged his qualifications, he responded that horses can pass (over this great bridge) and asses can too. His teachings were strong enough to carry anyone across - even one without discrimination - to enlightenment.
Miaozong freely courses in these enlightened teachings, and goes beyond, to find her own voice and authenticity with Wanan. "Horses can pass, asses cannot!" In other words, "This is okay, and this is not okay," - a direct and empowering teaching for women practitioners.
One last refection on this amazing and multifaceted koan - that just keeps revealing its riches the more it is turned. The chapter "The Universal Gateway of the Bodhisattva Perceiver of the World's Sounds" in the Lotus Sutra, is about Kwan Yin. She is the goddess who responds to the needs of any being in any circumstance. One can easily imagine that Miaozong's dramatic response to Wanan was that of this goddess of compassion.
The sexual transformation of Kwan Yin from the male or androgynous Avalokiteshvara happened only in China. The feminization rekindled the ancient goddess tradition in China that had died with the rise of Confucianism as the state religion. Two Kwan Yins emerged in this transformation. One was the person in "white", an asexual embodiment of the teachings of emptiness. This Kwan Yin became an icon for monks meditating within the walls of monasteries. The second Kwan Yin was a child-giving fertility goddess, who was worshiped by lay women. She also manifested as Kwan Yin with a fish basket - a woman who was clever and sexually alluring. A woman living in the down-to-earth world of fish and nets.
As she bares her body, Miaozong cuts through these seemingly contradictory, sexual manifestations. Her sexuality and her deep understanding of the dharma contain both the mundane and the spiritual. Her wholehearted openness and radiant transparency free us to play in the limitless ease and delight born from the dark womb of emptiness.