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Myōchi-ni: Nurturing The Now To The Benefit of the Future

In the present-day Fukui Prefecture, there is the village of Echizen. The Echizen Basin has been an important regional center of Japan for over 1,500 years. Nestled amidst its serene hills, flowing rivers and abundant foliage lived a woman named Myōchi. She no doubt found the tranquility of the area with its sea views and its warm, wet summers and cold winters with heavy snowfall both a trial and a great place to grow up and raise children.

It is said that her quiet presence, like a gentle breeze, left an indelible mark on the hearts of those fortunate enough to cross her path. This presence played a pivotal role in shaping the destiny of a young boy named Gyoshou.

Myōchi was a devoted lay student of the revered Ryōnen Myōzen (1184 - 1225). An early master of Rinzai Zen. The role of a Buddhist laywoman historically was that of a quietly devout woman. Practicing generosity and ethical conduct through dana (donations) to the local sangha and within her family life. They’d have visited temples to pray, burn incense, place offerings of fruit or flowers at altars, and observe rituals performed by monks, such as the consecration of new images or the celebration of a Buddhist festival.

It is possible to imagine her having enough prosperity to do this and to also picture her working in the temples: cleaning the premises, dusting the Buddha images, arranging the flowers, teaching, helping with the celebrations, and so on; whilst overhearing Myozen’s and a young disciple by the name of Dogen, plans to travel to China. (1222) At this time it is generally acknowledged that as a householder with a child to raise, she could only remain a laywoman. However, her understanding of Myozen’s Rinzai and Tendai teachings led to her profound understanding of Zen principles, and today academics recognize that Myozen held her in high regard. Through these acts lay people had a close relationship with the ordained Sangha, and provided the material and economic support to the temples and monasteries. They were free to ask questions after a dharma talk to help their understanding alongside the ordained. She would have heard Dogen and his contemporaries ‘battle’ through their epiphanies.

When Dogen returned from China, Myōchi played a vital role in ensuring he had the means to continue his teachings and contribute to the blossoming Zen community. Perhaps this is due to the recorded facts: that Dōgen took Myōzen’s relics back to Japan and gave part of them to Myōzen’s female student named ‘Chi’, who had been a devoted disciple ordained by Myozen sometime before he left Kenninji. She was a nun, a colleague of Dogen’s. Was this Myōchi-ni?

* "ni" is Japanese for nun.

We do know that she passed on her reverence of the Dharma and Kannon to her daughter, which got them both through a particularly hard time when mother and 'child' were separated. The daughter, Ekan, was eighteen. The reasoning is not recorded.

Years later Ekan went to the Kiyomizu Temple in Kyoto.

Every day for a week she went there to drink its ‘healing waters’ and to pray to Kannon to help her find her mother. They both must have been carrying the weight of uncertainty over the well-being of the other. On the sixth day as she was drinking, something in the mud caught her eye. As she gently moved silt, it became clear that this was a carved head of Kannon. It was small and finely done. Finding it there seemed auspicious and strange to Ekan, and she quickly put her palms together and made a vow. “If you have pity for me," she said to the bodhisattva’s head, “help me. Help me find my mother. If you do, I will have a body carved for you and honor you for the rest of my life.”  Then she carefully picked up the head, took it home, and washed it clean.

The next day, she met a woman on the road who gently, yet firmly, put out her hand to stop Ekan. To her surprise, the woman smiled, then told her where to find her mother! Ekan took the wooden Kannon head straight to a craftsman and commissioned a body made to fit. Only then did she go to a nearby town to be reunited with her mother. Their joy and relief must have been immense.

When Ekan was thirty-seven years old, she had a dream. She swallowed the morning light, warm and as soft as silk, and it filled her entire body. A few days later she realized she was pregnant. Then she prayed, as she had often prayed, to the beloved statue of Kannon:

“May this child be a spiritual leader, a benefit to all, and please, may the delivery be easy.” For the next seven months, she bowed 1,333 times each day and recited the Kannon Sutra. The baby was born on the property of the Kannon Temple in the province of Echizen, apparently without pain. A short while later Ekan took vows as a nun, and the baby’s grandmother, Myōchi, helped raise him.

It must have been an interesting time for Myōchi; her daughter claiming a divine pregnancy, then watching her prostrate throughout the pregnancy. Was she supportive throughout? Did she try to prevent the prostrations fearing for the health of mother and child? Was there any concern for how they would all survive in the future? There’s no record of husbands or their position in society. She became the primary caregiver to her grandson, Gyoshou (meaning birth on the way), whilst his mother dedicated herself to the temple.

The intricate threads of destiny had woven a tapestry, connecting the lives of Myōchi-ni, Ekan Daishi, Gyoshou, Myozen, and Dogen to the future of Zen.

I can imagine Myōchi telling her grandson her stories as they sat together, played together, and cooked together. As any grandparent who is raising their child might do. No doubt this came with its challenges at times:

“Mamma? Where’s Mamma?” “Shhh, shhh, little one. Patience. Mamma’s at the temple helping many people. They are with Kannon and they practice generously with the precious manna and compassion.”  She soothes him, scooping him up into her arms and carrying him on her hip. As she began to wrap him to her side, she takes the time to wipe his eyes.

He sniffles “She coming back? “Yes hunny, she’s coming back. The day we eat the breakfast of …” “Tam-a-go-yaki.”  She mouthed alongside him as he formed the syllables. They began to smile warmly at each other. A moment of shared pride.  “Tama-go-yaki breakfast is Mamma's day” “Good, good, now shall we go see if Miss Sue has some eggs for us?” * Tamagoyaki is similar to an omelet. 😉

We can all picture a sleepy, ruffled-haired child as their head appears around the doorway: “Are we going to temple today Grandma?” She temporarily stops her bathing. “I thought you didn’t like the temple, Gyoshou?... Eh? I remember you saying that your legs were too stumpy for the walk up the stairs.” He coyly approaches her. “Sometimes they do get stumpy. But you and Mamma said that Kannon was watching. So we dug deep and conquered the mountain.” Washing his hair; “She and the ancestors are always watching. Hmm... I also thought you said the monks were all grumpy.” Pivoting, arms crossed. “Sometimes they do look grumpy Grandma. All those stairs up that mountain! And… and..  I bet the floor hurts their butts too!  I am not fond of sitting still and being so quiet.” “We all have to abide with the things we are not fond of Gyoshou. Though it’s not always easy, eh! I’m sure those living at Joju-ji practice when grumpiness is upon them, but as I instruct you, we don’t act from that. We …” “Accept that grumpiness is with us and consider how to act with Kannon to remove the things that have been hooked within.”

“Tell the story of the Kannon statue on the altar again, pleeeease.” “When your mother was 18 she and I were separated for a loooong time. We both found ourselves suffering with the longing absence that you have known for her at times and we were uncertain of the fate that had befallen upon the other.” Myochi began. Picking up the story; “I trusted that the sun and the moon, the eyes of Buddha and Kannon were watching over both of us. I stopped and asked a great many people if they had seen my mother. All replied that sadly they had not." “You prayed all the time?” 

“You know I did Gyoshou. I made sure to go to the temple and light incense so that it would carry my words to Her ears. I was always with Her, but I would call upon Her whenever I felt alone, afraid, or hungry. I gave thanks to Her when things were good too.

Over time this became my steadfast, wholehearted, practice. Wherever and whatever I was doing I was reciting Kannon’s name either aloud or in my head. It was my anchor. One day, after a long time, I went to Kiyomizu Temple, in Kyoto, to pray that I might be told where my mother was. For days I went daily to the temple. I admit I was close to accepting that reunion was a hopeless delusion, it was so hard not to fear the worst.”

“Oh mamma!”

“However, on the sixth day, I found Her on the way there: a carved head of the Eleven-Faced Kannon.”

“That’s when you made your vow, right Mamma?” 

What is clear is that Myochi-ni, Ekan Daishi, and Dogen were in touch. They no doubt conversed about Gyoshou's future. Perhaps she influenced Dogen's principle of robai-shin, or grandmother mind? Who can say for sure?

Gyoshou left home to become a novice at Eihei-ji when he was only seven years old. Its founder was Dōgen. Had a place been reserved for him via the family's connections? His decision to become a monk might have been prompted either by his grandmother’s urging, her death or the fact that he had been raised to believe it was foretold. Perhaps it was a combination of these? Gyoshou becomes the monk, and Master, Keizan. In his writings, it is clear both his mother and grandmother were hugely responsible for his spiritual interests:

"In later life, Keizan praised Sonin (Yōkōji’s main patron) as the reincarnation of his grandmother. He stated that as a teacher and disciple, he and Sonin were inseparable. At Yōkōji, Keizan symbolized his bonds to his grandmother and to Sonin by dedicating the Enzuin Kannon chapel to the memory of Myōchi while providing use of the building to Sonin."

"Keizan’s mother, Ekan (d. ca. 1314), also appears repeatedly in his writings. She had become the abbess of a Sōtō convent (Jōjuji) while Master Gikai was still alive. * Gikai was a disciple of Dogen's. Her temple responsibilities did not prevent Ekan from intervening in her son’s career. Keizan wrote that her stern admonitions had checked his growing arrogance when he first rose to prominence under Jakuen at Hōkyōji. The statue of Kannon that Keizan placed in the Enzuin had originally belonged to her." "Ekan attributed many miracles to the mysterious power of Kannon, and Keizan believed her. He wrote that all the major events in his life, from his birth, through his becoming a monk and his dharma succession, to his becoming abbot of Yōkōji, had been due to his mother’s faith in and constant prayers to Kannon." "Accounts of Kannon calling forth the birth of illustrious monks is a standard hagiographical element. Yet for Keizan, this assertion was no mere pious legend but an autobiographical fact, both mother and grandmother told him of his connection to Kannon."

Perhaps Keizan would have promoted worship of Kannon even without his mother’s influence. Yet we cannot doubt that her faith gave added impetus to his emphasis on the power of Kannon.

"Ekan’s influence remained strong throughout Keizan’s life. Shortly before his death, Keizan composed two Buddhist vows inspired by Jakuen’s memory and to his mother’s dying admonitions. In this document, Keizan also praised Ekan’s dedication to teaching Buddhism to women. Keizan followed in her footsteps. His disciple Ekyu is the first Japanese nun known to have received a Soto dharma transmission. To help her overcome the difficulties of reading Chinese, Keizan gave her a copy of Dōgen 's precept manual transcribed in the Japanese phonetic syllabary." Dogen is often referred to as the Great Patriarch of Zen. Keizan as the Great Matriarch. Both are honored as the founders of Soto Zen by the Soto Shu. _______

Myochi’s lesson for those of us today lies in embracing the wisdom of the grandmother mind, that of heartfelt kindness, compassion, and empathy. That self-parenting mind which includes grandmotherly sternness when required.

Of being selfless and offering unconditional love and support.

Steadfastly pacing, one foot in front of the other, and working with the energy we have to offer the warmth of a ‘blanket’, when you, yourself are ‘freezing’ and always offering kindness.

Approaching each challenge with a heart of peace and actions filled with a bottomless well of understanding and compassion.

Abiding with our thoughts and concerns, whilst working towards discernment. To conquer the ‘mountains’ we face. As Susan Moon in "Alive Until You’re Dead" says: “Since we will become ancestors after we die, whether we like it or not, we might as well practice now by loving the beings we meet with grandmother mind, even if we aren’t grandmothers and even if they aren’t children.”

Nurturing the now to the benefit of the future.

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