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Chiyono - The First Ordained Woman

No Water - No Moon

Chiyono At The Well

Woodblock print by Yoshitoshi


For twenty-six Fridays, a group of us from Rising Lotus Sangha have been meeting with a priest and good friend from Treeleaf Sangha to explore the koans left by women practitioners across space and time. We’re using the book, The Hidden Lamp: Stories From Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women, edited by Florence Caplow and Susan Moon as our guide.

I’ll be paraphrasing the story from the book. I’d like to note that the commentary published in the book for this story was written by Roshi Merle Kodo Boyd. She passed away in February of last year at age 77. She was the first Black American woman to receive dharma transmission. Deep bows to her.

Roshi Merle Kodo Boyd

The seventh story in the book is about a woman who lived in 13th-century Japan named Chiyono. Chiyono lived from 1223-1298. To put this time into some context, in July of 1223, Louis VIII became the King of France. In December, St. Francis of Assisi set up the first nativity scene. Genghis Khan was in power, and Henry I was King of England. Most importantly, Zen Buddhism was planted in Japan as monks from China migrate to Japan to escape the Mongol Invasion.

The details of Chiyono’s life are vague, but we do know she was a servant at a Zen convent who watched the nuns practice Zazen every day. She probably was nearby as they quietly sat, worked, ate, and perhaps this peaceful way of life appealed to her. One day, she found an elderly nun and (as the story goes) spoke to her, saying, “I am of humble birth and can neither read nor write. I have no real skills, and must work all the time. Is there any way I could attain the way of the Buddha?”

The old nun smiled and answered, “This is wonderful! In Buddhism, everyone is equal. Just remember this: Each person must hold fast to the desire to awaken and nurture a heart of compassion”. Chiyono was so happy and said, “With this practice as my companion, I will practice day and night,”

And she did.

She practiced and practiced, diligently day and night. She tried and tried for months, and “nothing happened.” Frustrated though she was, she kept practicing with her whole heart.

One night, the night of a full moon, she set out to gather water from the well as was her chore. She carried with her an old, patched bucket. The bottom of the bucket was held together with bamboo straps. She filled the bucket to the brim and was able to see the moon reflecting in the water. As she turned to make her way back to the convent, the bottom of the bucket broke through and the water splashed all over the ground. When this happened the reflection of the moon vanished with the spilled water. When this happened she received a great realization.

Her enlightenment poem was this:

With this and that

I tried to keep the bucket together

And then,

the bottom fell out

Where water does not collect

the moon does not shine

Chiyono’s dharma name became, Mugai Nyodai 無外如大.

She was the first Zen abbess and the first female Zen master in the world.

Many of us come to Zen practice as plate spinners. Remember the act on the old Ed Sullivan Show? If I’ve dated myself and you have no idea what I’m talking about, watch this old clip from the Ed Sullivan Show. The point is, many of us wear many hats, and switching all of those hats on and off all day long every day, keeping all of the plates spinning, and keeping the water in the bucket is exhausting. Many times, we come to Zen tired and seeking. For many of us, the first thing we’re told to do is to “let go” and “sit with it” - whatever “it” is (because we don’t get that at first). But, hold on and wait just a second, we want Enlightenment! We want a way to rise above and be eternally serene! And um, by the way, let go of what? EVerything, you say?! No, no, thank you very much, I’ll just keep spinning the plates and patching the bucket. Look! I’ve got it all together. I’ve even got the moon!

And then - the bottom falls out. Everything. Falls. Apart. No more moon.

Because we’re human and we can’t keep it all together all the time, forever.

And we (hopefully at some point) realize that we are in our own way.

Zen practice is a balm for our rattled souls. There is a rhythm to our practice. Zazen, our liturgy, incense offering, and chanting, can soften our rough edges. Are we willing to stop trying to patch our buckets? If we can come to practice just as we are, sit still, relax into the Sacred Pause of intentional breath, and let the pieces of the bucket be, we might just look up, and see the moon.

May we each be a blessing,


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1 commento

Jitei (Jenna)
Jitei (Jenna)
31 gen 2023

Absolutely lovely article on this our ancestor. ❤️🙏🏻❤️

Mi piace
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