Women of Spirit:
Women's Wisdom from Buddhism

Timothy Conway (Compiler / Editor)

© Copyright 1992, 2017 by Timothy Conway



Sagely women of the Therīgātha (Uttarā, Muttā, Sanghā, Sumangala’s mother, Addhakāsī, Mittā, Uttamā, Selā, Somā, Vimalā, Sundarī-Nandā, Nanduttarā, Sonā, Khemā, Vijayā, Mahāpajāpatī, Patācārā, Sīsupacālā, Vaddha’s mother, Kisā-gotamī, Uppalavannā, Subhā, Sumedhā); Dīpa Mā;  Sharon Salzberg; Rina Sircar; Achaan Naeb; Traipitra  Sarnsethsiri; Ayya Khema; Christina Feldman; Michele McDonald; Chit-t’ong; women of medieval Zen  (Miaozong, Nyozen, Shidō, Runkai, Shōtaku, Junsō, Yōdō, Ryōdō, Kanso,  Ikkyu’s mother, Jiun’s mother, Ryōnen); Charlotte Jōkō Beck Rōshi; Jiyu-Kennett Rōshi; Shundō Aoyama Rōshi; Joan Rieck, Jōun Rōshi; Toni Packer; Jan Chozen Bays, Rōshi; Barbara Rhodes; Danette Choi/Ji Kwang; Gesshin Myōkō Midwer; Flora Courtois; Maria Rowe Kim; Ching Hai; Osono; Yeshe Tsogyel; the Yoginī Siddhās (Manibhadrā, Mekhalā, Kanakhalā, Laksmīnkarā); Nangsa Obum; Machig Ongjo; Drenchen Rema; Gelongma Khechog Palmo; Alexandra David-Neel; Sangye Khadro/Kathleen McDonald.

*** Words of early Buddhist women arhats (perfect adepts) of the Buddha's time

(Women’s verses from the Therīgātha, probably dating to the 5th – 4th centuries BCE, and committed to writing circa 80 BCE:) [1]

Well have I disciplined myself in act

In speech and ... in thought, rapt and intent.

Craving with the root of craving is o’ercome;

Cool am I now; I know Nibbana’s peace [the peace of perfect realization].

Uttarā (verse 15)


O free indeed! O gloriously free...

I’m free from rebirth and from death,

And all that dragged me back is hurled away.

Muttā (v 11)


Home have I left, for I have left my world!

Child have I left, and all my cherish’d herds!

Lust have I left, and Ill-will, too, is gone,

And ignorance have I put far from me;

Craving and root of craving overpowered,

Cool am I now, knowing Nibbana’s peace.

Saṅghā (v 18)


O woman well set free! how free am I....

Purged now of all my former lust and hate,

I dwell, musing at ease beneath the shade

Of spreading boughs—O, but ‘tis well with me!

Sumangala’s mother (v 23-4)


Irksome now is all my loveliness;

I weary of it, disillusioned.

Ne’er would I more, again and again,

Run on the round of rebirth and of death!

Now real and true for me the Triple Lore [the three wisdom-attainments: reminiscence of former births, the heavenly eye (clairvoyance), and destruction of the asavas (sensuality, lust for life, false views, and spiritual ignorance)].

Accomplished is the bidding of the Lord [Buddha].

Addhakāsī (a former prostitute) (v 26)


Fain to dwell in homes celestial ...

I want no heaven of gods.

Heart’s pain, heart’s pining, have I trained away.

Mittā (v 31-2)


The Seven Factors of the Awakened mind [mindfulness, truth-discernment, energy, rapture, serenity, concentration, equanimity]

Seven Ways whereby we may Nibbana win—

All, all have I developed and made ripe ...

Transported with Nibbana’s bliss away.

And all the sense-desires that fetter gods,

That hinder men, are wholly riven off.

Abolished is the infinite round of births.

Becoming cometh ne’er again for me.

Uttamā (v 45-7)

[Māra, the tempter, accosts the solitary arhat, Selā, “Ne’er shalt thou find escape while in the world! / What profiteth thee then thy loneliness? /  Take the good things of life while yet thou mayst. / Repentance else too  late awaiteth thee.” She responds:]

Like spears and javelins are the joys of sense

That pierce and rend the mortal frames of us.

These that thou callest ‘the good things of life’—

Good of that ilk to me is nothing worth.

On every hand the love of pleasure yields,

And the thick gloom of ignorance is rent

In twain. Know this, O Evil One, avaunt! [go!]

Here, O Destroyer, shalt thou not prevail.

Selā (v 58-9)


[To Māra, the tempter, who is belittling woman’s ability to attain Nibbāna:]

How should the woman’s nature hinder us?

Whose hearts are firmly set, who ever move

With growing knowledge onward in the Path?

What can that signify to one in whom

Insight doth truly comprehend the Norm? [the Dhamma, the eternal way of virtue and wisdom]

Somā (v 61)


To one for whom the question doth arise:

Am I a woman in these matters, or

Am I a man? or what not am I, then?—

To such an one is Māra fit to talk!

Somā (additional ending verse, p. 182)


For five-and-twenty years since I came forth [into the renunciate life],

Not for one moment could my heart attain

The blessedness of calm serenity.

No peace of mind I found. My every thought

Was soaked in the fell drug of sense-desire.

With outstretched arms and shedding futile tears

I gat me, wretched woman, to my cell.

Then She [the woman teacher, Dhammadinnā] to this poor Bhikkunī [renunciate] drew near,

Who was my foster-mother in the faith.

She taught to me the Norm [the Dhamma, the eternal way of virtue and wisdom]...

Beside her I sat down to meditate.

And now I know the days of the long past [in former lives],

And clearly shines the Eye Celestial,

I know the thoughts of other minds, and hear

With sublimated sense the sound of things

Ineffable. The mystic potencies

I exercise; and all the deadly Drugs [e.g., greed, aversion, delusion]

That poisoned every thought are purged away.

an anonymous sister (v 67-71)


How was I once puff’d up, incens’d with the bloom of my beauty,

Vain of my perfect form, my fame and success ‘midst the people,

Fill’d with the pride of my youth, unknowing the Truth and unheeding!

Lo! I made my body, bravely arrayed, deftly painted,

Speak for me to the lads, whilst I at the door of the harlot

Stood, like a crafty hunter, weaving his snares, ever watchful.

Yea, I bared without shame my body and wealth of adorning;

Manifold wiles I wrought, devouring the virtue of many.

To-day with shaven head, wrapt in my robe [as a renunciate Buddhist sister]

I go forth on my daily round for food;

And ‘neath the spreading boughs of forest tree

I sit, and Second-Jhāna’s rapture win [this is the “bare access” state of mental concentration in which one practices insight meditation],

Where reas’nings cease, and joy and ease remain.

Now all the evil bonds that fetter gods [in the impermanent deva-lokas]

And men [worldly humans] are wholly rent and cut away.

Purg’d are the Asavas [sensuality, lust for life, false views, and ignorance] that drugged my heart,

Calm and content I know Nibbana’s Peace.

Vimalā (former courtesan) (v 72-6)


There is in this body not even the smallest essence [of abiding reality].

‘Tis but a heap of bones smeared with flesh and blood under the form of death and decay. ...

I, even I, have seen, inside and out,

This body as in truth it really is ...

Now for the body care I never more,

And all my consciousness is passion-free.

Keen, with unfettered zeal, detached,

Calm and serene I taste Nibbana’s peace.

Sundarī-Nandā (half-sister of the Buddha) (v 85-6)


I went into the homeless life, for I

Had seen the body as it really is,

And nevermore could lusts of sense return.

All [becomings were] snapt in twain,

Ay, every wish and yearning for it gone.

All that had tied me hand and foot was loosed,

Peace had I won, peace throned in my heart.

Nanduttarā (former Jaina practitioner) (v 90-1)


Ten sons and daughters did I bear within

This heap of physical decay [i.e., this body]. ...

Cutting off my hair, I left the world.

Then as I grappled with the threefold training [virtue, concentration, wisdom],

Clear shone for me the Eye Celestial.

I know the ‘how’ and ‘when’ I came to birth

Down the long past, and where it was I lived [in former lives].

I cultivate the Signless, and my mind

In uttermost composure concentrate.

Mine is the ecstasy of freedom won ...

Holding to nought, I in Nibbana live.

This five-grouped being have I understood [as a mere “heap” of the five constituents of personality—form, sensations, perceptions, reactions, and personal consciousness].

Cut from its root, all onward growth is stayed.

I too am stayed, victor on basis sure,

Immovable. Rebirth comes never more.

Sonā (v 102-6)


Speak not to me of delighting in aught of sensuous pleasure!

Verily all such vanities now no more may delight me.

Slain on all sides is the love of the world, the flesh, and the devil.

Rent asunder the gloom of ignorance once that beset me.

Know this, O Evil One! Destroyer, know thyself worsted!

Khemā (a former queen) (v 141-2)


While passed the first watch of the night there rose

Long memories of the bygone line of lives.

While passed the second watch, the Heavenly Eye,

Purview celestial, I clarified.

While passed the last watch of the night, I burst

And rent aside the gloom of ignorance.

Then, letting joy and blissful ease of mind

Suffuse my body, seven days I sat,

Ere stretching out cramped limbs I rose again.

Was it not rent indeed, that muffling mist?

Vijayā (Khemā’s former attendant) (v 172-4)


Now have I understood how Ill doth come.

Craving, the Cause, in me is dried up.

Have I not trod, have I not touched the End

Of Ill, the ... [noble] Eightfold Path?

Oh! but ‘tis long I’ve wandered down all time.

Living as mother, father, brother, son,

And as grandparent in the ages past—

Not knowing how and what things really are,

And never finding what I needed sore.

But now mine eyes have seen th’ Exalted One [the Buddha]

And now I know this living frame’s the last,

And shattered is th’ unending round of births.

No more Pajāpatī shall come to be!

Mahāpajāpatī (Buddha’s aunt, foster mother, and first of his almswomen to take vows) (v 158-160)


Sit ye down apart.

Planting your minds in steadfastness,

With concentrated effort well composed,

Ponder how what ye do, and say, and think,

Proceeds not from a self [an abiding, permanent personality substratum], [and] is not your self.

Patācārā’s words to Uttarā (v 177)


[Māra tempts Sīsupacālā with the pleasures of the celestial realms; she responds with this verse:]

Ay, think upon the Three-and-Thirty [levels of] gods,

And on the gods who rule in realm of Shades [ghosts];

On those who reign in heaven of Bliss, and on

Those higher deities who live where life

Yet flows by way of sense and desire.

Consider how time after time they go

From birth to death, and death to birth again,

Becoming this and then becoming that,

Ever beset by the recurring doom

Of hapless individuality,

Whence comes no merciful enfranchisement.

On fire is all the world, is all in flames!

Ablaze is all the world, the heav’ns do quake!

But that which quaketh not, that ever sure,

That priceless thing, unheeded by the world,

Even the Norm [Dhamma]—that hath the Buddha taught

To me, therein my mind delighted dwells

And I who heard his blessed words, abide

Fain only and always to do his will.

The Threefold Wisdom have I gotten now,

And done the bidding of the Buddha blest.

On every hand the love of desire of sense is slain

And the thick gloom of ignorance is rent

In twain. Know this, O Evil One, avaunt [go]!

Here, O Destroyer, shalt thou not prevail!

Sīsupacālā (v 197-203)


O nevermore, my [son] Vaddha, do thou stray

Into the jungle of this world’s desires.

Child of my heart! Come thou not back and forth

To share, reborn, in all the ills of life.

True happiness, O Vaddha mine, is theirs

Who, wise and freed from longing and from doubt,

Cool and serene, have tamed the craving will,

And dwell immune from all the deadly drugs [such as greed, aversion, delusion].

The Way that Sages such as these have trod—

Leading to that pure vision how they may

Make a sure end of Ill—do thou, dear lad,

Study and cause to grow to thine own weal.

Vaddha’s mother (v 204-6)


Cleave to the men [and women] of worth [i.e., arhats]! In them who cleave

Wisdom doth grow; and in that pious love

From all your sorrows shall ye be released.

Mark sorrow well; mark ye how it doth come,

And how it passes; mark the Eightfold Path [right understanding, thought, speech, action, livelihood, effort, mindfulness, and concentration]

That endeth woe...

[She recounts how she lost her husband, children, and parents to death...]

Yet she, her people slain, herself outcast,

Her husband dead, hath thither come

Where death is not!

Lo! I have gone up on the ... [Noble] Eightfold Path

That goeth to the state ambrosial.

Nibbana have I realized ...

I, even I, am healed of my hurt,

Low is my burden laid, my task is done,

My heart is wholly set at liberty.

—Kisā-gotamī (v 214-23)


The Heavenly Eye ...

Have I clarified;

Clear too the inward life that others lead;

Clear too I hear the sounds ineffable;

Powers supernormal have I made mine own;

And won immunity from deadly drugs [the poisons of greed, aversion, delusion].

These, the six higher knowledges [iddhis] are mine.

Accomplished is the bidding of the Lord [Buddha]. ...

[Māra tempts her with pleasure... She responds:]

Were there an hundred thousand seducers e’en such as thou art,

Ne’er would a hair of me stiffen or tremble—alone what canst thou do?

Here though I stand, I can vanish and enter into thy body.

See! I stand ‘twixt thine eyebrows, stand where thou canst not see me.

For all my mind is wholly self-controlled...

These that thou speak’st of as the joys of life—

Joys of that ilk to me are nothing worth.

On every hand the love of pleasure yields,

And the thick gloom of ignorance is rent

In twain. Know this, O Evil One, avaunt!

Here, O Destroyer! shalt thou not prevail.

—Uppalavannā (v 227-35)


Death, bonds, and torture, ruin, grief, and woe

Await the slaves of sense...

Ruthless and murderous are sense-desires...

Great sages spew forth all desires of sense,

Whether [these] be in heaven or on earth;

At peace they dwell ...

For they have won unfluctuating bliss. ...

A greedy maw it is, a path impassable,

Mouth of a pit wherein we lose our wits,

A horrid shape of doom impending—such

Are worldly lusts; uplifted heads of snakes.

Therein they that be fools find their delight—

The blinded, general, average, sensual man. ...

Endless the direful fruit of worldly lusts,

Surcharged with poison, sowing many ills,

Scanty and brief its sweetness, stirring strife,

And withering the brightness of our days.

For me who thus have chose [the way of renunciation], ne’er will I

Into the world’s disasters come again,

For in Nibbana is my joy always.

—Subhā (v 345-59)


I have set my mind to be watchful in whatso befalls me—

Blame or honour, gladness or sorrow—and knowing the principle:

“Foul are all composite things,” nowhere the mind of me clings to them. ...

So I am come to haunts that are Empty [solitary and also free of ego].

 There lies my pleasure.

Subhā of Jivaka’s mango-grove (v 388-9)


Listen, mother, father, both!

All my heart’s love is to Nibbana given.

Transient is everything that doth become,

Even if it have the nature of a god.

What ... have I, then [to do], with the empty life

Of sense, that giveth little, slayeth much?

Bitter as serpents’ poison are desires

Of sense, whereafter youthful fools do yearn. ...

The majority [of people] ...

Long to be reborn among the gods.

[Yet] e’en with the gods is no eternal home.

Becoming needs must be impermanent. ...

Suffer ye both that I renounce my world;

And in the blessed teaching of the Lord [Buddha] ...

I’ll strive to root out birth and death. ...

What is it worth—this body foul, unclean,

Emitting odours, source of fears, a bag

Of skin with carrion filled, oozing impure [with various fluids] ...

Borne in a little while to charnel-field,

There is this body thrown, when mind hath sped,

Like useless log, from which e’en kinsfolk turn.

Throwing the thing that they have bathed to be[come]

The food of alien things, whereat recoil

The very parents, let alone their kin.

They have a fondness for this soulless frame,

That’s knit of bones and sinews, body foul,

Filled full of exudations manifold.

Were one the body to dissect, and turn

The inside outermost, the smell would prove

Too much for e’en one’s mother to endure.

The factors of my being, organs, elements,

All are a transient compound ...

Countless [are] the ways in which we meet our death,

‘Mong gods and men, as demons or as beasts,

Among the shades [ghosts], or in the haunts of hell. ...

No sure refuge is ours even in heaven.

Above, beyond Nibbana’s bliss, is naught.

And they have won that Bliss who all their hearts

Have ... [listened] to the blessed Word of Him [the Buddha]

[And] have striv’n to put far from them birth and death.


[To her princely suitor:] O set not

The heart’s affections on this sensual love.

See all the peril, the satiety of sense.

Transient, unstable are desires of sense,

Pregnant with Ill and full of venom dire ...

Baneful the root of them, baleful the fruit. ...

[They are] as cheating “dreams,” as “borrowed goods” reclaimed. ...

A furnace of live coals, the root of bane,

Murderous and the source of harrowing dread.

So hath the direfulness of sense-desires,

Those barriers to salvation, been declared. ...

Remember how we swell the charnel-fields,

Now dying, now again elsewhere reborn.

Sumedhā (v 449-502)



*** Teachings of contemporary Theravāda Buddhist women teachers:


Dīpa Mā (1911-89; Theravāda; Burma-India):

[Dīpa Mā was a saintly family woman, who lived as a householder in Calcutta with her daughter.] Once she was asked if she found worldly concerns a hindrance for her. “They are not a hindrance because whatever I do, the meditation is there. It never really leaves me. Even when I am talking, I am meditating. When I am eating or thinking about my daughter—this does not hinder the meditation. I know these are the things I have to do. I will not spend time gossiping or visiting people or talking unnecessarily, or do anything I don’t consider necessary in my life.”

You must bring mindfulness to all daily activities, not only to the formal sitting and walking [meditation] periods.


Someone once asked Dīpa Mā, “What is it like in your mind?” She closed her eyes for a moment and answered, “In my mind there are three things: concentration, loving-kindness and peace.” “That’s all?” “Yes,” she answered, “that’s all.” [2]




Sharon Salzberg (1952- ; Theravāda; United States):


It is quite a pathetic world, our world. That basic desire to be happy is being expressed in ever-more distorted and twisted ways. Even in very horrible manifestations, the strongest addictions, the most terrible violence, if we look to the root of it, we will find an urge to connect, to feel a part of something greater than oneself, to be happy. That is why ... an understanding of the law of Karma is essential—so we can realize what will actually bring us happiness. ... Karma means action that is backed by [egocentric] will, intention, or volition. ... According the law of Karma a certain volitional action will bring a certain result—just as when we plant a certain type of seed it will yield a certain type of fruit. If we plant an apple seed, we may beg and plead with the universe to give us a harvest of mangoes, but it doesn’t work, because we live in a world governed by laws of nature, not in a crazy haphazard world where things just happen any old way. ... We are supported by, dragged down by, [or] made buoyant by our own actions, depending on whether or not they are in harmony with the truth. We are pursued by our Karma the way a person is followed by their shadow. Karma is the law of connectedness—between what we have done and the results for ourselves and others. The results arise according to the ethical tone or quality of the action, and it is very simple. Unskillfully motivated actions bring unhappiness and discord; skillfully motivated ones bring happiness and harmony. Unskillful motivations include grasping, aversion, and delusion; skillful ones include generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom. We can see the immediate effect here and now coming from an action. Acts of doubt, fear, confidence, compassion, all have a vibrational tone that affects the present moment like a force field they create within and without us. That force field is an indication of what will follow someday, somewhere, when the seeds of our acts ripen. We can also sense the power of our mental volitions when we see what happens if a strong mood or feeling is present. If we’re sad or angry or depressed, we can be in the most beautiful place and we’re miserable. If we’re in love, or filled with deep peace, or have strong faith, then we’re fine even in very difficult situations. Our minds are very powerful. ...Our actions have tremendous consequences. If they are born out of grasping, aversion or ignorance (which includes not thinking, not paying attention), these actions will bring suffering to ourselves and to others. The seed we are planting right now, in this moment’s reaction, this moment’s intention, is the most important part of any experience. ... While what we are experiencing right now is outside of our control, how we are reacting to it depends upon our awareness. We don’t have to be victimized by our circumstances; in each moment we are planting a new seed; our power is in being aware of our volitions, and in planting seeds of wisdom and joy. ... The law of Karma points out that, as beings living in the world, all of our activities must be part of our spiritual practice; every aspect of our lives must be a part of our spiritual journey. We dedicate our lives to courses of action that bring happiness to ourselves and others, rather than pain. Our lives are all of one piece, a seamless garment as it is called in Christian theology. ... We must recognize our lives as whole and connected and act wisely with that recognition. [3]




Rina Sircar (b. c1935; Theravāda; Burma-United States):


Meditation is ... a part of the prime roots of every religion, philosophy or system of yoga. Meditation exists in the early traditions of every culture precisely to transcend thinking, and to develop understanding. Meditation, then, is a universal tool, the means by which man can directly examine, understand, and tame his own mind. There are two main purposes to meditation practice. The first is to learn to still the mind, to calm down ourselves. It is surprising but true that simply by cultivating calmness we can overcome most of our emotional or psychosomatic problems and anxiety disorders. Developing calmness through meditation is the practice which tranquilizes and humbles the mind, making it clearer and brighter, until it is empty and radiant. In this way, a new mind is uncovered, a “right mind” which is powerfully simple, creatively silent, energetically still.But tranquility [samatha] is not the entire answer. If man hopes to make any radical changes in his pattern of life or his place in society, if he wishes to fulfill his duties and obligations to fellow human beings, then he must also have understanding. And so we come to the other main purpose of meditation: to learn to understand oneself, and thereby to understand others. ... Meditation is the development of face-to-face [immediate] awareness of your own mind and body. The process of meditation is a transcending of the intellectual mind ... As a result, the understanding that arises from this direct awareness is very different, fundamentally different, from intellectual understanding. We might call it “intuitive understanding.” It is clear, directly apparent, independent of discursive thinking ... And it is this understanding that can bring happiness and peace. ... Intellectual understanding is ... only theoretical, the act of clinging to a view, dependent upon the coming and going of elusive thoughts. ...The highest [element] in man is mind [consciousness]. ... The man who has conquered his own mind is happy. This happiness is the highest peace. Just as when the clouds are driven away by the wind, the sky becomes blue, so also when by some practice [of virtue, concentration, and insight-wisdom] the defilements of the mind like sensual desire (rāga), ill-will (dosa), and delusion (moha), etc. are dispelled, the mental sky becomes clean, dispassionate, filled with virtue (sīla), love (mettā), and insight (paññā). Now... where should one begin? ... This cleansing process, in Buddhism, begins with moral conduct (sīla). Only on a firm foundation of sīla can we build up a stable structure of concentration (samādhi), and so make way for the arising of intuitive insight or wisdom (paññā). [Along with this,] the most important technique ever given by the Buddha on mental health is the cultivation of mind through mindfulness (satipatthāna). “Sati” means “mindfulness,” and “patthāna” is “establishment.” ... Mindfulness makes us more and more alert, more and more precise, and more and more careful in whatever we say or do. ... In the practice of mindfulness, there is no mystery or magic involved.... It is useful to have the utmost determination and a most courageous attitude to persevere in the training through the inevitable confusion, boredom, restlessness, physical discomforts, and fear that are likely to come up. ... There are many different things about which one can be mindful. ... But the Blessed One chose to practise ānāpāna-sati, that is, mindfulness of in-and-out breathing. With the continued practice of mindfulness of in-and-out breathing, the yogi develops within himself a wonderful tranquility during his meditation practice. Later on, this tranquility can continue, right through the day. The Buddha laid great emphasis on the importance of practising mindfulness continually. ... Everything depends on the intensity of the practice. When the awareness becomes sharpened, one proceeds to observe the changing nature of body and mind, and experiences the universal truths of impermanence [anicca], dissatisfactoriness [dukkha], and insubstantiality [anattā] ... This is to say, one begins to see things as they really are, and not as they appear to be or as we would like them to be. In other words, the yogi comes to develop insight (vipassanā) ... What is meant by vipassanā is a type of extra-ordinary seeing, that is, seeing things in their real perspective ... It is this insight that helps the yogi get rid of all defilements and makes way for the unconditioned peace—Nibbāna. ... The goal of [mindfulness or insight] meditation is to cause the arising of the “unconditioned peace within.” ... One may penetrate the deepest levels of the unconscious mind and learn how to eradicate the deepest and most hidden complexes. ... It is a practice which develops positive, creative energy for the betterment of the individual and the society. ...One might pose the question: “Does meditation really do what is so confidently claimed for it?” The answer is plain: try it yourself, instead of wasting time in verbal quibbling. No better proof can one have than ... [direct] experience. [4]




Achaan Naeb (d. 1983; Theravāda; Thailand):


There are in Buddhism two methods of mental development. One is development of insight (Vipassanā), and the other is the development of tranquility (Samātha). The latter aims only at concentration, whereby the

individual is constantly conscious of one object, and this concentration is directed along a single channel of one-pointedness until a serene tranquility is reached. This kind of mental development does not bring about an understanding of reality, nor of its cause and effect. It brings only tranquility. The development of insight, on the other hand, calls for an understanding of the “truth of existence”; or, to put it another way, the understanding of form or matter and mind or mental states. This understanding is the aim of the development of insight. ...Concentration ... cannot lead to insight, because insight meditation must have the changing of mental states and matter as its object of meditation. Although concentration can lead to the development of great powers of mind and extraordinary happiness, this great happiness is temporary and still very different from the application of mindfulness which leads to nirvana. Only insight practice brings a permanent end to sorrow. ...In brief, insight is wisdom which enables one to see that mental states and matter are impermanent or transitory, unsatisfactory or suffering, and impersonal or non-self. What we regard as “self” or “ego” or “soul” are miscomprehensions arising from a lack of knowledge of absolute truth. In reality, “self” is but a very rapid continuity of birth and decay of mental states and matter. ... Insight has as its function the destruction of all hidden defilements, craving, and wrong views. ... It is only through cultivating the right methods of development of insight that we can see existence as it really is. Such is the sole purpose of the development of insight. There is nothing else which can be attributed to this kind of mental development. ...

[Regarding the various extraordinary powers of mind over matter,] all of these performances are not the achievement of the development of insight and have no bearing upon it. These peculiar feats may only be the effects of concentration. The sole function of insight is to destroy the defilements, qualities of mind such as craving, wrong view, and ignorance, which form the basis of the rebirth cycle (saṃsāra). This is the growth of wisdom. ...It should be understood just what prevents us from realizing the three marks of existence [impermanence, dissatisfactoriness, and insubstantiality] ...

Mental states and matter are constantly and very rapidly arising and falling away. This process happens so quickly that we are unable to perceive the arising and falling away of mental states and matter; thus it seems to us that mental states and matter are permanent. This is how [the sense of] continuity hides impermanence. In order to illustrate this, let us take seeing a movie as an example. Although continuous movement appears on the screen, it is not the projection of only one picture but actually hundreds of them. The rapidity of the change from one type of matter to another gives us the impression that there is only one matter instead of separate matters. Similarly, as we cannot see the many individual pictures making up a movie, we cannot see that in reality there are many kinds of mental states and matter. Moreover, mental states and matter arise and fall away far more rapidly than the individual pictures which go into the making of a movie. This is why it is extremely difficult for us to perceive the changes. ...

What is it that obscures suffering? ... We do not realize that mental states and matter are painful, and that suffering is oppressing us at all times. When we do not realize this truth, then wrong view occurs, and we see our life, mental states, and matter as good and bringing happiness. Following this, the craving for happiness arises, leading to greater suffering. ...

[Insubstantiality or “no-self”] is the heart of Buddhism...What is it that prevents us from realizing impersonality? ... It is the massing together of compounded perceptions of mental states and matter. This gives us the opinion that mental states and matter are one whole solid mass or entity which is permanent. ... Although we may have heard that the five aggregates [form, feelings, perceptions, impulses/reactions, and ego consciousness—the basic constituents of personality] arise and fall away very rapidly, we are not able to see the separation of each mental state or each of the five aggregates and thereby realize its true characteristics. This inability to separate [distinguish] them is the reason why we do not realize impersonality. This lack of realization creates the illusion of solidity, or personality, that is to say, the belief that there is a permanent “I” or “self.” When this happens, the illusion of personality becomes the mental factor causing desire. Desire, in turn, will cause one to think that both mental states and matter are lasting and can bring happiness. It is necessary to correct this misperception to understand the three characteristics of existence and become liberated. (133-7) [5]

When we see only unchanging matter, then wrong view, belief in an unchanging [ego] self, arises. Therefore, while practicing insight, we have to be aware at all times of precisely what type of matter or what type of mental state we are looking upon. Developing desireless awareness is the right understanding of the applications of mindfulness. It is similar to watching the characters acting in a play. ... We are composed of aggregates (matter and mind or feelings, perceptions, mind elements [reactions], and [ego] consciousness) which are like a movie picture that continues throughout the day and night, even while we are sleeping, sitting, or breathing. It continues acting with every breath, in and out, until we die, and then begins to act another role, continuing on endlessly. This is known as saṃsāra [the cycle of rebirths].

It is not necessary to search elsewhere to learn about mental states and matter. During the practice we must have a neutral feeling toward whatever arises, like the attitude toward the role which a character is playing, or appearing in, at every moment. We have to be aware as an onlooker with a neutral feeling. ...We should check to see that there is no desire to have the wandering mind disappear. ... Why? Because one is wrongly trying to control nature, deluded that there is a self which can control the mind or force the wandering mind to disappear. ... Realize that mental states and matter are impersonal and are ultimately not in one’s power or control. ...If you have the right understanding and awareness, you can meditate anywhere on the “present reality” (that which exists [e.g., in the form of sensations] independent of our desires) which is occurring at any moment. When we are aware of present reality with right understanding and awareness,we can reach at any moment the first stage of enlightenment. ... When we are practicing insight, we should not cling to any particular state. ...

[When in pain, enquire] Who is suffering? Is matter suffering, or mental states suffering? If examining mental states and matter has not yet shown us the true characteristics of things, we still cling to the illusion of “self.” ... When we acknowledge an object through the eyes, we must be aware that it is the mental state which sees. When we acknowledge an object through the ears, we must be aware that it is the mental state which hears ... Otherwise we mistake the hearing as “I” hear. We must be mindful of hearing so that we may eliminate the illusion of “I” or “self” from the hearing. Hence it is of extreme importance to realize that when we hear or see, it is simply the mental state or process which hears or sees. ...All kinds of existence are nothing more than mental phenomena and matter; no body, no soul, no woman, no man, is there who sits. There is no one who stands, walks, or sleeps; no one is there who smells, sees, or hears, etc. There is nobody who understands or knows these things. (139-50)


[What follows is a discussion of the “9 knowledges” realized during vipassanā-insight meditation, culminating in nibbāna, perfect realization:]

     After we have realized the empty nature of mental states and matter, then we attain the first degree of insight wisdom, which is called mind-and-matter-determination-knowledge. It is the level of insight which enables us to directly perceive the separate mental state and the separate matter in all phenomena. ... Anyone who has not experienced this determination knowledge cannot distinguish between ... “theory” and ... “realization.” So, whatever he perceives, it is still with the illusion of “I” or the “self” which hears or sees; he is under a delusion in spite of his theoretical knowledge of what is the mind [mental states] or what is matter. ... To attain [this] ... is not easy... It requires strong mindfulness and concentration to be able to distinguish these clearly in every moment.  We must now proceed to develop the practice more deeply ...

     When we reach the degree of the mind-and-matter-condition-acquiring-knowledge we will know [experientially] that mind and matter do not occur by the creation of anyone at all. Instead they are conditioned by causes and factors, they are in a cause-and-effect relationship with each other. ... When we experience and realize the arising and falling away of various [mental and material] existences [formations], then we have attained the degree of insight called mastering-knowledge, and it is this knowledge which sees decisively that mental states and matter are not permanent. It can be said that this degree of insight knowledge realizes the three characteristics of existence ...

     If we continue our awareness, insight wisdom will grow keener and keener, and our awareness will become finer and more subtle. The more mindful we become, the more continuously will we acknowledge the present existence, irrespective of the object [arising]. Now the awareness of one present existence will become clearly disclosed [in each moment] and the sharp demarcation of the arising and the falling away of each state of mind and matter will be realized. ... When we experience this demarcation of the arising and falling away of mental states we will gain a degree of insight knowledge which is called the arising-and-falling-away-knowledge. ...The true path of Vipassanā [insight or clear seeing] has now begun with the experience of the arising-and-falling-away-knowledge.... This degree of knowledge is very important ... [it] will uproot and destroy the illusion that mind and matter are permanent, it will show that they cannot be a source of lasting happiness and that they are empty of a “self” or “I.”  This wisdom will remove many of the misunderstandings which have been established in our consciousness. However, this insight knowledge is still temporary, and it cannot as yet completely uproot all wrong views. It will begin to eliminate defilements ... At this point, great joy and lightness will arise in the mind. The clarity of perception is such as has never before been experienced. This is the first taste of true liberation in the mind. ... a very high stage of practice. The meditator will have gained a radical new perspective on his perception of each moment of experience. ... If the practitioner becomes attached to the arising-and-falling-away-knowledge ... then the defilements of insight may occur during this period ... subtle defilements. These defilements of insight, which are a very subtle form of attachment, are ten in number. They may be cause by attachment to the power of concentration ... they will hinder the progress of the meditation leading to the higher degrees of insight. For example, the mind may become filled with happiness and rapture. Subtle attachment arises and the feelings and inclination for deepening insight will thus diminish and disappear. ... When the practitioner’s wisdom is not keen enough to know and let go of such defilements, which are often exceedingly seductive, he is not able to proceed further. ... The feelings can become so subtle, pleasing, and happy that they might mislead us to think that we have become enlightened, and that we have realized nirvana. Without right understanding or reasoning, we will not know at all whether the attainments in the insight practice are right or wrong. Right understanding arises when we see that the path to higher insight requires that we let go of any attachment to the various mental states that arise. Rapture, bliss, concentration, even mindfulness can become objects of our subtle clinging. When we see that insight will continue to develop only by clear detached mindfulness, the defilements of insight pass. ...There arises then the stage of insight called purity-by-knowledge-and-vision-of-the-path. This insight sees that the path to nirvāna requires letting go of even the most subtle attachment to any state of mind or matter. Now, the levels of higher insight knowledge begin to develop progressively from this point. Awareness becomes sharper into the ongoing process. ... The next level of insight, the insight into the dissolution-of-phenomena arises. ... He will experience the falling away of mind and matter. This dissolution of all he sees is frightening. Yet as he stays with the present object, it is only the falling away of mind and matter which holds his attention. The experiencing of this knowledge is called dissolution-knowledge, which means that all things are experienced as dangerous ... unsubstantial, and not pleasant ... The feeling of detachment which arises is called aversion-knowledge, and the desire to hold on to any states of mind and matter becomes weaker and weaker as the results of insight practice. Eventually the practitioner reaches the stage of highest clarity and detachment, knowledge-of-equanimity-toward-all-formations. It is from this stage, with a mind totally free of attachment, seeing clearly all experience with the arising of no [mental] defilements, that the practitioner may experience nirvāna and the permanent uprooting of wrong view and other defilements. ...

     We know that during the Buddha’s lifetime there were many religious sects and meditation practices. Even supranormal powers were practiced at that time; for example, flying in the air, walking on water, passing through mountains. All of these supranormal powers occurred quite frequently. [Some of the Buddhist scriptures, like the Visuddhimagga, even give detailed instructions for meditation masters on how to cultivate them in order to better teach their disciples.] However, the true way to nirvana had not yet been taught. ... We pay homage to the Buddha because he has shown us the method of mental development for the attainment of nirvana ... that which all other teachers in the world could not teach. ... That is why Buddhists deem the Buddha as the greatest individual in the world and pay homage to his virtues of wisdom, purity, and compassion. (150-7)




Traipitra Sarnsethsiri (b. 1939; Theravāda; Thailand-U.S.):


Most forms of meditation work on concentration only. If you want a calm mind, you can just focus it on something, block out other thoughts, and forget the whole world. You may even experience peace, happiness, or joy during that time, but when you come out from it, you will be the same [that is, riddled with the same unwholesome mental tendencies]. ... So when you do concentration only, and go deeper and deeper, you suppress everything else in the mind, and thus you can’t see the defilements in your own mind, and you won’t be able to clean it, purify it. But with this technique [of vipassanā] you should be able to see the impurity of your own mind, uproot it, destroy it—not suppress it; you don’t block anything.


[A student of Mrs. Sarnsethsiri’s, John Stella, of Oxford Univ., writes of how she instructed him when he was in a troubled state:] Mrs. Sarnsethsiri ... listened quietly to my bilious despair. She did not try to contradict or mollify it; instead, she encouraged me to look more closely at it, to use it as a meditation object when it interfered with mindfulness, because obviously I could not be mindful while being depressed, and because any aversion prevents us from seeing things as they are. Instead of letting go of it, I was giving life to the demon. She related a helpful analogy to one in an intense retreat: when we look at the water of a pond, it appears still and clear to us because all of the mud is settled at the bottom. But if we were to take a great stick, and splash the water and stir the mud, then the pond would look dirty and cloudy and contaminated. At that time, however, when the dirt is suspended, we can filter the water and clean the pond completely of impurities. So too when we look at ourselves: if we are never mindful, we can delude ourselves into thinking that all is clear and pure, but all the while the mud will be collecting at the bottom. Vipassanā, like the great stick, disturbs the placid scene and forces all of our impurities to the surface, and we might yearn for the peaceful routine of ignorance. But of course at such times what we need to do is to apply our minds like a filter, paying attention to all the contaminants while they are still water-borne, and not let them settle another time. [6]




Ayya Khema (1923-97; Theravāda; Germany-Australia-Sri Lanka-Germany):


To feel at ease we need to discard wanting, but since we aren’t ready to discard our desires just yet, we keep carrying them around because they look so nice. This is our greatest problem, which we call Mara, the tempter. There is no tempter out there somewhere; temptation is in our mind and even assailed the Buddha before his enlightenment. For us, Mara is constantly around, making everything look very pretty. Look at the beautiful flowers—lovely, aren’t they? Beautiful weather, pleasant people, nice food. Everything looks great, and so we are again and again lulled into complacency, thinking that if we just fix up the one thing that isn’t working in our lives, we’ll have it right forever. If we can just organize that relationship, the job, the house, the bank account, that trip, the teacher—everything will be fine. Having fixed up that one thing, we find something else, of course. Mara makes everything look good as gold, but it’s fool’s gold. It glitters, but it is worth absolutely nothing. It attracts our senses of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking. Our world looks very nice, especially here in Southern California [where Ayya Khema was giving a retreat], yet we know there ought to be something more. From time immemorial, humanity has looked for that something extra, calling it heaven, paradise, angels, god, Ātman, nirvana, or whatever, but ultimately it is in our mind.


An altered state of consciousness is available to us, and the Buddha stated quite clearly that everybody has access to it. We don’t have to be anybody special. The mind needs a slow approach to altered states of consciousness, first through the purification of behavior and thinking, and then through the purification of meditation. Then we can maintain such states and are no longer dependent upon outer conditions... Our minds are used to doing what they please. We are usually not aware of that until we begin to meditate. We call the mind a magician because it can do anything, and usually does. For instance, in Nazi Germany, brutal murder was considered to be useful for the state. All we have to do is open Time magazine and we can see many mind aberrations.


The untrained mind has not yet learned to refrain from thinking. ... When we first begin meditating, and distracting thoughts arise, it is useful to label them. We give them a name, such as future, past, worry, boredom, anger, dislike, wanting, greed, or whatever it may be. Be brutally honest about it. One of the labels which will fit at least 75 percent of the time is “nonsense.” By learning to apply these labels during meditation, we can continue that labeling and get a solid handle on our thinking during the day. We will stop believing everything we’re thinking and everything we’re told. We’ll stop arguing, knowing that the other person’s mind is just as distracted as our own. We will realize that minds are just minds, and neither our own nor anyone else’s is trustworthy. We’ll also come to recognize that unwholesome and negative mind states make us unhappy. We learn to substitute. In the meditative process, we learn to replace distracting thoughts with the meditation subject [e.g., the breathing]. So in just five minutes of meditation, we’ve learned several enormously important lessons: that thinking is thinking, that we can label it, and that we can substitute.


Meditation practice helps us to substitute the negative with the positive in daily life. ... If we reinforce the meditation practice with thought substitution in daily life, our minds will become calmer, less disturbed by anger, fear and worry, and our meditation practice will become easier. We are using a natural purification system which is essential in order to come to an altered state of consciousness.


Samātha, calm and tranquility meditation, gives the mind enough strength to go deeper. If we don’t get into the depth and profundity of our own being, we will not understand the depth and profundity of the Buddha’s teaching which enables us to get free from the personal identity syndrome that we all suffer from. And we do suffer from it, because it separates us from the rest of the world and brings on all the anxiety symptoms.


Westerners suffer greatly from convoluted mind states because we’ve been fed too much information. After a while we can’t distinguish the wheat from the chaff; there’s just too much. So we need to simplify, and the meditation process is perfect for this because it trains our mind to stay in one place. As we purify, we experience the peacefulness and beauty of this simplicity for ourselves, like seeing a wonderful sunset or falling in love for the first time. We would like to get back to that feeling of falling in love, or watching the sunset, or preferably both—but what it actually amounted to was a moment of non-thinking, touching upon the inner jewel of the mind. Sunsets are gone in a moment and falling in love is neither easy nor permanent, and is usually not that successful either. It has decided drawbacks. We have to do something about it, and that’s where the difficulties arise. These experiences give us an inkling of inner peace and harmony; through meditation and purification, we can make them lasting.


If we keep digging shallow wells, we won’t get a drop of water. But if we dig deeply, through meditation and perseverance, we will definitely draw nearer to Nirvana. It is not only possible, it is within each one of us. [7]




Christina Feldman (contemporary; Theravāda; England):


Awakening to truth, reality, oneness, wholeness is the heart of spirituality. ... In awakening to reality we can only wonder how we ever could have mistaken separation for reality. It is like awakening from a dream and there is no return to the trance of sleep. I do not find it helpful to relate to karma, reincarnation, heaven and hell realms as being futuristic states or destinies. In our lives, on a moment to moment level, we experience that our causes have effects, that any stone dropped in a pool leaves ripples, that we influence the quality of our lives and our world on a moment to moment basis by the quality of our being. ... By this process we enter heaven and [or] hell. The future is an extension of the present... Why concern ourselves with the future when we have access to transformation now? ... I do not feel that any style of practice is suitable for all people at all times. We are privileged in having a variety of meditation styles available to us and in being able to draw upon their richness and inspiration. Exploring different styles of practice without prejudice and scatteredness can help dispel notions of there being an “only” way, a view which creates so much division and intolerance. ... We need to be not just spiritually awake, but also awake in every area of our lives—socially, politically and in our relationships. I do not perceive spirituality as being a withdrawal from the world or a negation of the world, although this does not deny that most people find themselves benefiting from extended periods of formal retreat practice. Generosity, love and compassion are innate characteristics of inward awakening, and these qualities impel us to caring and sensitive action to alleviate suffering. Our world cries out for this action and is enriched by it, just as we are. ... The essence of meditation is the end of suffering, is freedom. ... Freeing ourselves of suffering through understanding its causes inwardly empowers us to contribute to the end of suffering in the world. Our challenge in meditation is to learn, when closing our eyes, how to open our hearts and concern ourselves with the end of all suffering. ...

     To be truly free a person must be able to explore whatever arises in her or his mind or life, whether it is swirling particles or anger, being a man, being a woman. Exploration, if done with true awareness, does not mean identification [with what is being explored]. Sometimes one needs to explore formlessness, letting go of boundaries. At other times one needs to explore being a human—a solid, caring, grounded being—to develop integrity and sensitivity in the world. Some people are adept at merging and need to balance that by learning to have boundaries. And vice versa. I feel that it is important to be able to honor the worlds of both form and formlessness. Respect for one’s own or another’s path is also essential. Some choose to have families; others choose to be nuns or monks throughout their lives; some choose lives of service. Some may need to explore formlessness for lifetimes, or to explore form for lifetimes. Some may never take form again. Who can judge? We all grow and balance ourselves in our own unique ways, in our own time. The key is learning to trust one’s heart and path, and to be honest, even ruthlessly honest, with oneself. Whether on is a woman or a man, the question to ask is, “Am I avoiding what I have to explore, or am I doing what I need to do to be free from suffering?” [8]




Michele McDonald (contemporary; Theravāda; United States):


Anattā [one of the “3 marks of existence” in Buddhism, a core teaching] is usually translated as “emptiness” or “not self.” “Emptiness” can ... be easily misinterpreted, and used to reinforce one’s aversion to life. For some people “emptiness” has a negative connotation; it implies a lack of heart. This is a misunderstanding. When a true understanding of anatta corresponds with the immediate experience of interconnectedness, then feelings of empathy with all that appears in our universe will naturally follow. So the essence of anatta can also be expressed as “fullness” or “completeness.” Any way of expressing the concept of anatta in words is usually confusing. Using the word “fullness” captures the feeling tone of anatta, but may mistakenly imply solidity or substantiality. On the other hand, using the word “emptiness” recognizes the lack of substantiality, but may also imply a [negative or vacuous] feeling of annihilation or death. Meditation practice allows a deeper understanding of anatta. This understanding [gives] ... a lot of joy and relief and a sense of completeness. [9]



*** Sayings and teachings of Ch’an/Zen and Mahāyāna Buddhist women:


Chit-t’ong (c.Tang dynasty, 7th-9th century; Ch’an school; China):


There being no difference between the self and material things,

Kaleidoscopic phenomena are all reflected in the same mirror.

So transparent is the mind, that it has transcended master and mastered;

Enlightened is the mind that has penetrated true emptiness. [10]



The nun Miaozong (J: Mujaku; 12th century), back in the years before she was ordained, but after her spiritual awakening, often visited her great teacher, the Chan master Dahui Zonggao, for conversations in his private quarters. He had seven women disciples but Miaozong was the most physically beautiful. Head monk Daoyan, likely concerned about his master's reputation in the community, objected strongly to her visits. Dahui, who knew her great virtue, told Daoyan he should go interview Miaozong. Daoyan reluctantly agreed and went to see Miaozong at her small home. She came out to meet him and asked, “Will you make it a spiritual interview or a worldly interview? “A spiritual interview,” said Daoyan. Miaozong went into her room and in a moment she told him to come in. He did so and there found Miaozong lying face upwards on the bed without any clothes. Daoyan pointed at her and began a Chan dialogue: “What is in there?” She replied, “All the Buddhas of the three worlds and all the patriarchs and great priests everywhere— they all come out from here.” Daoyan said to her: “And would you let me enter, or not?” Miaozong replied: “A donkey might pass; a horse may not pass.” Befuddled, Daoyan said nothing, and Miaozong declared: “The interview with the head monk is ended.” She rolled over and showed her backside. Daoyan turned red and left. Dahui later told Daoyan: “The old gal had some insight, didn’t she? She outfaced head monk Daoyan!”

Miaozong had a flash of illumination one night during an interview with Master Wuxue Zuyuan. She went out into the evening and took up a lacquered wooden bucket for flowers at the water-pipe from the stream; as she was holding it full of water, she saw the moon’s reflection in it, and made a poem, which she presented to Zuyuan: “The flower bucket took the stream water and held it, / And the reflection of the moon through pines lodged there in purity.” Subsequently, after more interviews and much study of the Heart Sūtra, one day she was again holding the wooden water bucket when its bottom fell out; she had a flash of realization, and composed this enlightenment poem: “The bottom fell out of Miaozong's bucket [a metaphor for ego-death]; / Now it holds no water, nor does the moon lodge there.”  The Japanese nun Nyozen of Tōkeiji used to meditate on this poem as her basic theme. In 1313 she grasped the essence of Zen, and presented this poem to her teacher, Genō, of Kaizōji temple: “The bottom fell out of the bucket of that woman of humble birth; / The pale moon of dawn is caught in the rain-puddles.” [These poems were used as kōans at the famed Enkakuji temple itself from 1291 onward.] [11]



[In 1304, Rinzai Zen Master Tōkei (“Peach-tree Valley”) of Enkakuji gave the inka seal of approval for Zen enlightenment, to nun Kakusan Shidō (b. 1246); the head monk did not approve, and challenged her:]

“Can the nun teacher really brandish the staff of the Dharma [teaching] in the Dharma-seat?” Shidō faced him, drew out the ten-inch knife carried by all women of the warrior class, and held it up: “Certainly a Zen teacher of the line of the patriarch should go up on the high seat and speak on the book. But I am a woman of the warrior line and I should declare our teaching when really face to face with a drawn sword. What book should I need?” The head monk said, “Before father and mother were born, with what then will you declare our teaching?” The nun closed her eyes for some time. Then she said, “Do you understand?” The head monk [approvingly] said in verse: “A wine-gourd has been tipped right up in Peach-tree Valley; Drunken eyes see ten miles of flowers.” [12]




[In 1287, Shidō, foundress of the Tōkeiji Rinzai Zen nunnery/temple at Kamakura, addressed the nuns assembled for the Buddha’s birthday celebration and she asked them:]

“The Buddha who is born this day, where does he come from?”

Her attendant [and successor] Runkai stepped out, and pointed with one hand to heaven and with the other to the earth.

Then the teacher asked again: “And when that Buddha who has been born has not yet left this world, where is he then?”

Runkai again pointed with one hand to heaven and with the other to earth. [13]




[Shidō and her seven successors at Tōkeiji expressed enlightenment poems which became famous at Enkakuji and elsewhere as the “Eight Kōans of the Mirror Zen Nuns.” Below are selections of some of these, along with a) the “tests” based on them given by Master Sanpaku of Enkakuji at a major winter retreat for the nuns of Tōkeiji and the vicinity in 1596, and b) the comments given in response to these tests by some of the leading nuns in attendance:]

[Shidō, the foundress:] If the mind does not rest on anything, there is no clouding, / And talk of polishing [the mirror of the mind] is but a fancy.

[Test:] If the mind does not rest on anything, how will anything be seen or heard or known or understood?

[Comment by nun:] Rising and sinking according to the current, / Going and coming, no footprint remains.

[Test:] A mirror which does not cloud and need no polishing—Set it before the teacher now.

[Comment by nun:] The things are hidden in no secret treasure-house; / The heart is eternally clear to see.


[Runkai, the 2nd teacher:] Various the reflections, yet its surface is unscarred; From the very beginning unclouded, the pure mirror.

[Test:] When it reflects variously, how is it then?

[Comment by nun:] The heart turns in accordance with the ten thousand things; / the pivot on which it turns is verily in the depths.

[Test:] If from the very beginning the mirror is unclouded, How is it that there are reflections of karmic obstacles in it?

[Comment by nun:] Within the pure mirror never clashing with each other, / The reflections of pine and bamboo are in harmony.

[Test:] Show the pure mirror right before the teacher’s face.

[Comment by nun:] Heaven and earth one clear mirror, / Now as of old, luminous and majestic.


[Shōtaku, the 3rd teacher:] As night falls, no more reflections in the mirror, / Yet in this heart they are clearly seen.

[Test:] What does this poem mean?

[Comment by nun:] On a dark night, things in front of the mirror are seen no more by the eye: yet images are reflected in the heart, and in face of them we go astray. When we have passed beyond this path of illusion, then our gaze pierces through even the darkest night to see the sun-Buddha ever shining everywhere, illumining all.

[Test:] What is the colour and form of the heart which sees in the dark?

[Comment by nun:] The ten directions with no sign of an image: / The three worlds pass and leave no trace.


[Junsō, the 4th teacher:] Reflections are clear yet do not touch the eye, / And the I facing the mirror is also forgotten.

[Test:] If you think the reflections are there but do not touch the eye, this is at once a dust on the mirror [i.e., a subtle form of mental clinging], so what is the meaning? Try and see!

[Comment by nun:] When it is said that they do not touch the eye, it means that the eye is not joined to awareness: there is no agitation in the heart. So there is not even the thought that they do not touch the eye....

[Test:] What is the difference between forgetting-I Zen and Void-Zen?

[Comment by nun:] Void Zen is still a duality of seeing Voidness in the person and in the things. Forgetting-I Zen is the Mahāyāna [Great Vehicle of deliverance for all sentient beings] when mind and its object are one.


[Yōdō, a former princess and 5th teacher:] Heart unclouded, heart clouded; / Rising or falling, it is still the same body.

[Test:] Heart unclouded, what is that?

[Comment by nun:] Ten thousand miles without a cloud, / Ten thousand miles of heaven.

[Test:] Heart clouded, how is that?

[Comment by nun:] In the spring, clouds rise round the mountain / And in the cave it is dark.

[Test:] What is this rising and falling?

[Comment by nun:] The moon sets, and in the pool no reflection; / A cloud is born and the mountain has a robe. ...


[Ryōdō, the 7th teacher:] If one asks where the reflections in the pure mirror go when they vanish, / Do you declare their hiding place.

[Test:] Right now this old teacher is asking, where are those reflections gone? Answer well! Where are they?

[Comment by nun:] Close the door and shut out the moon, / Dig a well and chisel space apart.


[Kanso, the 8th teacher:] Clouded over from time without beginning is that pure mirror; / When polished, it reflects—the holy form of Amida [Buddha, the Saviour of the Western “Pure Land” Paradise]. ...

[Test:] Declare the form of Amida. ...

[Comment by nun:] This body the Lotus Paradise, / This heart verily Amida. [14]




[Tōkeiji Abbess Yōdō’s poem on the theme of gathering and arranging the altar flowers on the birthday celebration of the Buddha at the temple:]

Decorate the heart of the beholder,

For the Buddha of the flower hall

Is nowhere else. [15]




[Ikkyu (1384-1481), a famous Japanese Zen teacher of the Ashikaga era, was the Emperor’s illegitimate son. When very young, his mother the Empress left the palace and went off to study Zen in a temple. With this, Ikkyu also became a Zen student. She left him a letter at her passing, which read:]


To Ikkyu:

I have finished my work in this life and am now returning into Eternity. I wish you to become a good student and to realize your Buddha-nature. ... If you become a [realized] man... you may leave off studying and work for humanity. The Buddha preached for forty-nine years and in all that time found it not necessary to speak one word. You ought to know why. But if you don’t and yet wish to, avoid thinking fruitlessly.

Your Mother,

Not born, not dead....


P.S. The teaching of Buddha was mainly for the purpose of enlightening others. If you are dependent on any of its methods, you are naught but an ignorant insect. There are 80,000 books on Buddhism and if you should read all of them and still not see [realize] your own nature, you will not understand even this letter. This is my will and testament. [16]




[Jiun was a Shingon master, a well-known Sanskrit scholar and lecturer of the Tokugawa era in Japan (1603-1867). Jiun’s mother heard about his frequent lecturing and wrote him:]

Son, I do not think you became a devotee of the Buddha because you desired to turn into a walking dictionary for others. There is no end to information and commentation, glory and honor. I wish you would stop this lecture business. Shut yourself up in a little temple in a remote part of the mountain. Devote your time to meditation and in this way attain true realization. [17]




Ryōnen (b. 1797; Rinzai Zen school; Japan):


In the service of my Empress I burned incense to perfume my exquisite clothes,

Now as a homeless mendicant I burn my face [with a hot iron] to enter a Zen temple.

[Previously Ryōnen had been rejected discipleship with several masters because she was considered “too beautiful,” too formidable a “temptation” for male monks—a most unfortunate sexist attitude.]


[Nearing death, Ryōnen stated:]

Sixty-six times have these eyes beheld the changing scene of autumn.

I have said enough about moonlight [Zen symbol of awakening unto the true Self],

Ask no more.

Only listen to the voice of pines and cedars when no wind stirs. [18]




Charlotte Jōkō Beck, Rōshi (1917-2011; Sōtō and Rinzai Zen schools; U.S.):


To realize one’s true nature as no-self—a Buddha—is the fruit of zazen (Zen meditation)... Zen practice (and perhaps a few other disciplines and therapies) can help us to move from an unhappy self to no-self, which is joy. To have a “self” means we are self-centered. Being self-centered—and therefore opposing ourselves to external things—we are anxious and worried about ourselves. We bristle quickly when the external environment opposes us; we are easily upset. And being self-centered, we are often confused. ... No-self doesn’t mean disappearing off the planet or not existing. It is neither being self-centered nor other-centered, but just centered. A life of no-self is centered on no particular thing, but on all things—that is, it is nonattached. ... We are not anxious, we are not worried, we do not bristle easily, we are not easily upset, and, most of all, our lives do not have a basic tenor of confusion. And thus to be no-self is joy. Not only that; no-self, because it opposes nothing, is beneficial to everything. ...[The usual] life is based on a false premise, the premise that we are a self. Without exception, we all believe this—every one of us. And any practice that stops with the attempted adjustments of the self is ultimately unsatisfying. ...

     [In real spiritual practice, which needs a basic stability and happiness as a foundation, there is] an intelligent, persistent filtering of the various characteristics of mind and body through zazen. We begin to see our patterns. We begin to see our desires, our needs, our ego drives, and we begin to realize that these patterns, these desires, these addictions are what we call the self. As our practice continues and we begin to understand the emptiness and impermanence of these patterns, we find we can abandon them. ... They just slowly wither away—for when the light of awareness plays on anything, it diminishes the false and encourages the true—and nothing brightens that light as much as intelligent zazen, done daily and in sesshin [intensive, extended retreat]. With the witnessing of some of these patterns, no-self—which is always present—can begin to show itself, with an accompanying increase of peace and joy. ... The ability to live a beneficial and compassionate life increases. ... We learn in our guts, not just in our brain, that a life of joy is not in seeking happiness, but in experiencing and simply being the circumstances of our life as they are; not in fulfilling personal wants, but in fulfilling the needs of life; not in avoiding pain, but in being pain when it is necessary to do so. Too large an order? Too hard? On the contrary, it is the easy way. ... The practice of nonattachment, the growth of no-self, is the key to [Zen] understanding. [19]




Jiyu-Kennett, Rōshi (1924-1996; Sōtō Zen; England-Japan-U.S.):


[Universal] mind ... is absolute Buddha, shining brilliantly and perfectly in everything, manifesting itself in all things and at all times, and this universal mind, which is Buddha, can only be realised by leaving behind all reason, analysis, belief and knowledge which it knows and trusts in. This awakening to reality can be achieved only by Zazen [meditation] and by the intuitive understanding which the teacher is always exhibiting to the pupil. ... The real Truth lying beyond any kind of verbal explanation or expression ... means, of course, that there is no mind as explained above. (SW 45) [20]


Human nature is such that it is constantly desiring something, never being satisfied with that which it already has. ... I know now that they who search for the absolute never find it for, whilst attachment to desire exists [emphasis added], it will never manifest itself; as soon as the search ceases and the searcher learns to clean up his life and accept things as they are he is filled with the absolute for, indeed, it was never lost. This is the secret entry to the gateless gate of Zen—the barrier which all must pass if they wish to understand Zen behavior and Zen books. It is so simple that no one believes it...

     Although we can ask a thousand different questions and get a thousand different answers yet, in fact, there is only one question and, to that question, no answer that will ever satisfy logic. So the Zen kōans [enigmatic, mind-breaking questions] that are given to Zen students [especially in the Rinzai Zen tradition], and the questions that they ask, are really one question and the reader must ask it in his own words for I cannot write his own particular formula thereof for him; and he must find his own answer to his kōan for himself, within him, for no one can tell it to him. When he can live without doubt he will have found his answer without knowing it, and when he has doubt he will never find it for he will again be searching, searching ... And yet we must always go on. We must, at every moment, find the right answer. This is the “Gyate, gyate, paragyate” [mantra] of the Hannyashingyo [Heart Sūtra]—the “going, going, going on, always going on”—never stopping, never resting, only continuing without doubt. The doubting mind is hell. The undoubting mind is in heaven. And this heaven is the Pure Land of the Shin Buddhists and the Nirvana of the Zenist. ...

      Each time one has a kenshō experience [release of ego] one starts again at the beginning although the memory of the first one, translated thereafter into faith, makes each successive one easier to come by. If a Zen Buddhist stops his training after a kenshō he will be worse off than he was before he had it. So always he must do his Zazen—sitting meditation—and, for this purpose, he must turn every action of the day into Zazen, whether it be peeling the potatoes, washing the floor, or sitting in the meditation hall. If he decides he has finished his training he has ceased to begin it. So no Zen master ever admits that he is enlightened; if he did he would not be! He just keeps going, doing that which has to be done and doing the best he can in both sickness and health whilst life lasts. By his deeds we can tell if he is real or not and by no other means; there are many whose words are excellent but whose actions prove them to be ordinary men of the every-day world. If a man is the living embodiment of the Buddhist precepts [no killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, taking intoxicants, etc.], if he evinces no doubt whatsoever as to the rightness of his actions and if he accepts all the consequences thereof, even when he has been wrong, without demur, then he is real and a sage worthy of being followed. (WWG xiii-xv)


By clinging to our ideas of right and wrong, of good and evil, our likes and dislikes, our prejudices and concepts ... [we] have created clouds that hide the brightness of the moon of our true self. When we sweep away these clouds, we discover that the moon has never ceased shining... (WWG 19)


When the [Zen] pupil is just living, without thought of self or other, doing that which has to be done without fear or elation, taking notice of neither praise nor blame as a result of his actions, the teacher will know that he has, in fact, refound his original true self. He will be living in the same way as a top spins: whilst he is seemingly in motion outside, yet his centre will be still and unmoving. When this stage has been reached and the master and disciple behold each other face to face, they will know that their minds always have been and always will be one, just as they are one with the mind of Shakyamuni Buddha and all the Buddhas of the past, present, and future. ... But this past, present and future too are nonexistent, for time also has been transcended... the very time that you are reading this now is none other than the time when Shakyamuni Buddha smiled at Makakashyo in India [thereby transmitting the Zen Mind of Truth], and you are Makakashyo; it is the time when [6th Patriarch] Hui-Neng was transmitted at midnight, in secret, and you are Hui-Neng in ancient China ...

     If you want the Truth as much as a hanged man wishes to loosen the rope round his neck, you will understand these words instantly and know that you yourself are Buddha, always have been and always will be; you are enlightened in all ages simultaneously with the whole universe. To those who realise ... not only is duality transcended in unity but the very unity itself is also transcended and the truth of Meister Eckhart’s words proved for all time: “And a man shall be free, and as pure as the day prior to his conception in his mother’s womb, when he has nothing, wants nothing, and knows nothing. Such a one has true spiritual poverty.” This is true spirituality and true enlightenment, ... do not stay with unity any more than you stay with duality, for if you do you will be the embodiment of the saying: “[And he who thinks that he is Buddha,] there he sits upon his throne, unseen by any save himself.”

     Every philosopher knows that to reach perfection is to reach an ending from which one must start again at the very beginning. So he who reaches Buddhahood ... is not pretending to be holy or unholy, nor is it his problem if others dislike him or worship him for being the way he is. He just does what has to be done and nothing more, without ever saying that he is Buddha or that he is not. He is always becoming Buddha and leaving Buddhahood behind every moment of the day; he cannot hold onto Buddhahood ...They who know never say they do or do not know; they just live. ... The Zen teacher ... just goes on, making himself as perfect as possible as he goes, doing that which has to be done. (WWG 47-9)


Once it is second nature to constantly exemplify the Precepts, one is not conscious of doing so and so is not conscious of being Buddha. ... The master recognises the pupil as Buddha when the latter keeps the Precepts with no smell of holiness and no taint of evil, for Buddha then walks, sleeps, sits, eats and works in him without any [self-conscious] knowledge of Buddha and any attachment thereto. (WWG 54)


Wisdom ... is the immaculacy of nothingness ... being able to just live, expecting nothing, seeking nothing, and knowing nothing—the acme of spiritual poverty which possesses the universe. (WWG 43)


I must not hold on to the fact that I exist, nor to the fact that I do not exist ... (HGLB 174)


Nothing matters. Mindfulness is all. ... [Question: What do you mean when you say that nothing matters? It sounds so negative.] There is nothing that matters; neither life nor death, good nor bad, form nor void—no opposites matter at all. Be in the mind of Zazen [meditation] constantly; trust in the Lord of the House [infinite Buddha-nature] completely; follow the voice in your heart; be willing to accept everything and give up everything; and at the same time know your complete responsibility for all you do. Do not grab onto anything. It [this Zen teaching] is actually very positive—go on with the flow of life. (HGLB 176, 253)


To live beyond duality may seem cold to the dualistic mind—I can assure such a mind that to live beyond the opposites [of life-death, praise-blame, pleasure-pain, etc.] is anything but cold. To bathe in the Lord’s fountain is to be washed thoroughly and intimately with pure love. ...Who can fathom such love? I bathed in the Lord’s fountain and I cannot even conceive of the depth of that love. I can only tell others of it and hope and pray that they may know it too before they die. (HGLB 175)


The Light of the Lord of the House, the heart-mind, irradiates the infinity of space—within its centre I may not say it is empty; I may not say that it is not empty. It is unstained, immaculate; I am not It, It is all of me; thus form is void and void is form. ...The Lord of the House has no beginning and no end, no past and no future. ... For centuries people have caused Buddhism to suffer under the belief that it was a way of life and not a religion. This was because they feared saying the Truth lest they set up a god to be worshipped [as separate]. The Lord is not a god and He is not not a god. ... If, at the moment of death, a person can embrace infinity instead of his own delusions, he is immediately united with the Lord. At all times we are free to unite with, or turn away from, the Lord. If you would know the Lord know that the means of training are thousandfold but PURE Zazen [sitting meditation free of selfish desire and ambition] must be done. Through Zazen we are immediately united with the Lord; together with him we go out into emptiness, into form and again into emptiness... (HGLB 182, 179)


Appearing and disappearing, form and emptiness are but manifestations of the Lord; appearing here, disappearing there, the Lord remains eternally, unseen, unheard, untouched, unsmelt, untasted save by those who have truly looked for He is indeed there for all to see, hear, touch, smell and taste and, above all, to KNOW. ... The means of finding Him are so very simple; all we have to do is sit down with an open mind. (HGLB 174)


[There are] hallucinations and visions which sometimes beset people in training. These phenomena are called in Japanese makyo [“diabolical phenomena”] ... They can be caused by bad sitting [in meditation] and incorrect breathing [correct breathing is slow, gentle and “circular”—up the spine with each inhalation, down the front with each exhalation]. Dōgen Zenji [who brought Sōtō Zen to Japan in the early 13th century] himself, in his writings on Zazen practice describes how the body may feel hot or cold, glasslike and hard, heavy or light, if the breathing is not well harmonized with the mind. He also says that one may experience sensations of sinking or floating, feel hazy or alert; seem able to see through solid objects as if they were transparent; or perceive one’s body as a translucent substance. One may also see Buddhas and holy beings, receive penetrating insights or suddenly understand difficult passages of the scriptures, but all these abnormalities are simply a proof of not having properly harmonised one’s breathing with one’s mind. If not regulated early, they may turn into such things as visions of gods, sounds of heavenly voices, or miracles seemingly worked by oneself, which to some may be desirable but to a Zen trainee are only proof that he has got himself caught up in gedō, the second and more dangerous stage of meditation through which one must pass [after bompu Zen, which merely brings physical effects such as relaxation and better health]. Although such phenomena may produce a feeling of well-being in their own way, they should be understood only as figments of an overstrained mind and thus not truly religious. ... Miracle-working and mass hallucination are indeed by no means unknown or uncommon in Zen [just as in Christianity, etc.], there being many stories of miracles performed by the Zen priesthood. But the Zen trainee passes such things by, setting no store by them although he may be able to do them, for he knows they are morbid states of the imagination of others and nothing more. They are no better than dreams which vanish for ever on awakening. To hold on to them is to become a prey to superstition. Too much asceticism can cause visions also... This explains how some Christian saints, after rigorous ascetic practices, have had visions of God and angels. This did not mean they were any nearer heaven, but simply that they had punished their bodies excessively and their minds were creating a balance to make them stop. Their minds were simply giving them the sort of images they wanted to see. Shakyamuni Buddha tried asceticism in the beginning and called the visions that beset him “obstructing devils.” It was only after he abandoned these excesses and just sat that he realised the Truth. ...So if makyo appear, just ignore them, correct the faults in your sitting, breathing, and mode of life as much as you possibly can, and then continue to do your Zazen as if nothing had happened. If once you think that you are becoming holy as a result of visions, all progress will stop completely. (HGLB 26-8)


Don’t get fascinated [with the extraordinary-sounding experiences of others]. ... What is happening to you now is the very best teaching for you now—accept it, be grateful, learn from it—and do not long for other people’s experiences. In other words, do your own training [in virtue, meditation, and wisdom]. Kenshō [release of ego] and other religious experiences, happen naturally, when one’s training is strong enough to make good use of them. To try to force them artificially is not only to try to rob the Treasure House of your own heart but also to risk serious spiritual, mental, and physical illness. (HGLB 255-6)

A Bodhisattva [enlightening being] is obviously someone who has transcended the opposites of self and other and is no longer concerned about his own salvation. The thing that is difficult to grasp is that he is not consciously concerned about the salvation of others, either; he simply does what has to be done for the sake of doing it. ... A Bodhisattva is not just an ordinary do-gooder in the Christian sense of the word. He remains in the world as an ordinary person, devoting himself to leading others gently and compassionately with only as much teaching as they can manage at a time, which may mean nothing more than setting them an example, because it is the natural thing for him to do. But it is more than just setting an example, for he has realised his eternal oneness with all men; he suffers as they suffer without being conscious of a difference between them and himself, although he has himself overcome the causes of suffering. And it is because of this that he continues to train himself endlessly so as to overcome everything that stands in the way of his deepening his oneness with all men; this oneness gives him increased power in their service, including the service of his enemies. (SW 15)


[Question: Suppose I’m in the hospital dying. The doctors want to fill me full of drugs and my family doesn’t want to talk about death. Someone gives me this book. What do I do now; who do I talk to?] Train with all your strength; clean up your life; do not be afraid to look at everything that comes up. Do not expect anything in particular—do not expect the same thing that happened to me. Calm your mind—be very still, very attentive, very accepting of whatever teaching the Lord of the House [infinite Buddha-nature] presents to you. It will be right for you. Know that you are not alone and know that the Lord of the House will never reject you—so do not reject Him and the opportunity and teaching that is being offered to you. Nothing can stop you from knowing what is in your own heart. Even if there is no one to talk to, you and the Lord of the House will do just fine.

[Question: Suppose I am with a friend or relative who is dying; what should I do?]

Above all, love them; you must not reject them or their illness under any circumstances. Be with them and love them. ... They must be allowed to go, but ... do not attempt to impose your ideas on them; do not try to convert them; do not, in other words, put yourself between them and the Lord of the House. A dying person needs to know that he is loved both by man and the Cosmic Buddha. You do your part; the Cosmic Buddha will take care of His. (HGLB 25¸-9)




Joan Rieck, Jōun Rōshi (contemporary; Rinzai Zen; United States):


Our practice is to bring us to realize this moment. We have to stop living in our thoughts, to stop wishing for something that’s not here or avoiding what is, and to start being in the present. The process of practice is bringing attention to nothing else but the breath or koan, etc., in this moment. Then when we get up from our [meditation] cushion we carry that same kind of attention over into each moment. Just being here now, life starts to flow. ... Our whole life is our practice. How much time someone is able to sit will vary. Times of intensive practice help greatly, but if your life situation makes that impossible, that’s okay, too.


In kenshō, or realization, nothing changes at all, only your awareness. It’s like waking up to the moment, to what’s right here now. You realize there is nothing else. ... The world doesn’t change at all. It’s just that you become able to see. Kenshō may be only a hazy glimpse, but you keep on practicing and you see more. It’s a gradual process, over years. [Q.: And all this leads up to being able to live more fully in the moment?] [Actually] You can’t live more fully in each moment. You are living totally in each moment whether you are aware of it or not. Only our awareness or realization changes. Master Bankei says we don’t have to do anything at all—just know that the perfect unborn mind is constantly working in all of us. But we can only “know” that with realization.


[Q.: Two experiences spoken of frequently are the oneness experience and the experience of emptiness. How do you see these relating to each other and to living right here in the moment?]

People seem to come fairly easy to the experience of oneness, but without the experience of emptiness [i.e., the experience that all psychological and material experience is neither solid nor permanent] we cannot say that it’s real kenshō. If there’s an experience of emptiness, the realization of oneness is a natural outcome. It is only because it is empty that it is one. This changes a person’s perception of reality, as I said, not the fact of reality [i.e., the appearance of phenomena]. In kenshō we realize that the present moment is It. There is nothing outside of it to strive for, nothing in it to avoid. It’s the experience of complete satisfaction with exactly what is happening.


If we surrender to the moment, the next step takes care of itself. [21]




Toni Packer (1927-2013; unaffiliated Zen; United States):


Do you see that you ... have an image of yourself as being somebody or many “bodies”; being a Buddhist, being a woman, being an American? ... As far as one’s religious affiliation is concerned, is one identified with it, attached to it, so that one’s self-image includes and is invested in the religion, the religious group or center that one belongs to? This can easily be tested. When someone criticizes one’s religion, does one feel defensive immediately, personally attacked and hurt? Or if somebody praises one’s group or center, is one’s vanity flattered? One’s personal vanity, one’s identification—this is “me.” And as a woman, what kind of [self-] images does one nurture, mostly unaware? ...Why does one need any image? One doesn’t understand the difficulties, the impediment, the separation that all images create within ourselves and among each other. ... Watch it for yourself. You will discover amazing things, what goes on in this mind and therefore throughout this body. Anything that goes on in this mind, any single thought, is totally connected with the whole organism ... Can one question all this? I don’t call this work “Zen” anymore, because the word is extra, unnecessary to the inquiry. This fundamental inquiry into the human mind and body (not my mind and body personally, but the human mind) doesn’t need any descriptive label. To the extent that this mind (as it functions in images, in blockages, in contradiction and conflict) is clearly understood, the whole human mind is clearly understood, because it does not differ fundamentally from one person to another. On the surface, superficially, we’re all different, but fundamentally each of us has an image of being a self, of being someone. To see that this [“me”] is an idea, a thought creation, seems inordinately difficult. The self-image feels so solid, so real, that one takes the self for a fact. One confuses it with this body and the ongoing processes of thought, sensations, and emotion. but there is no [separate] owner of all this. To say “this is me” and have an image—”I’m good at this, “I’m poor at that”—is a mental construction, a bunch of thoughts and ideas ... part of that stream of thinking poured out by the brain. Yet “this is me” is the root of all our individual interpersonal problems and our international problems. ...

     Recently I heard a famous news commentator, reporting about a new violent incident in Jerusalem where Christians, Muslims and Jews are at bloody loggerheads with each other. He said, “How is it possible, in the place where three of the greatest religions were born and all of them preach peace, that people kill each other? It’s unfathomable.” But if one thoroughly understands identification, investment, image, defensiveness and aggressiveness by seeing it directly in oneself as it happens, then it is not unfathomable that members of religious groups fight each other and even kill each other. ...So what is one going to do about all of this? ...It is a simple fact that this work can only start with oneself. ... Is one at least clear what one is doing? Can one see that one’s foundation is one of separation and isolation, because it is divided from the foundations of other human beings? Each one is defending their own foundation. Each one is defending their own foundation... putting their refuge in it, and at times reaching as if over the foundation wall to shake hands with someone else... Can these walls break down completely? So that nothing separates us from one another? It is a tremendous challenge. I’m not trying to give opinions. I’m talking about what comes out of looking very seriously into oneself, and seeing the dangerous consequences of identification with something or somebody, and the danger of being somebody. It’s only when you really work on yourself, as many of you do, probing deeply and stopping nowhere ... going all the way, that one really comes in touch with this fundamental anxiety of being nobody. ...

      Maybe there is a flash of insight into the fact that we are nobody, nothing. With this glimpse comes a joy that cannot possibly be put into words. ... Then the next moment, does one try to grab onto it, make it into an image? “I am somebody who has seen.” “Now I know.” Does one congratulate oneself again? Does one try to recall and relive the experience? Images come so quickly ... There they are—new images. Will one see them immediately and drop them instantly? ...

      So—is it possible to see and be free of images from moment to moment—really being no one and therefore completely open and related to everyone and everything, with a lovingness that cannot be produced through any kind of [ego-centered] practice? Love is not practiceable. It’s either there or it isn’t, and it is not there when the “me” is there who wants to bring it about, who tries to grab it and hold on to it. ... Can [images of oneself as a compassionate, loving person] be dropped instantly so one really does not know what one is? Just letting action flow out of this not-knowing, just being in touch with what is within and before one—listening, seeing, responding openly? [22]



Jan Chozen Bays, Rōshi (contemporary; Zen; United States):


The spiritual thirst is tremendous. ... We have a tremendous yearning to take the search all the way to the bottom, to put aside all the things that restrict and bind us and keep us from pursuing that search full time. To do that, we have to do zazen [meditation]. We have to do retreats, set aside hours, days, weeks to pursue that search. Meanwhile, what are we leaving at home? Jobs, housework, children. As we sit, visions of spiritual orphans float through our heads. We picture our child wandering through the neighborhood, dirty in an unironed shirt, thumb in his mouth. Someone says, “Where’s your mommy?” “My mommy is getting enlightened.” ... [For working women, women with a family,] meditation is such a relief, to have a few moments to ourselves. The place I used to have for these moments to myself was, and still is, the bathroom. I can sit in the bathroom for ten whole minutes of solitude. But usually there is a child lying against the door sobbing, “Mommy, when are you to come out here? Are you going #1 or #2?” ... A real conflict arises. ... There is a powerful monastic element in each of us ... We have other voices. Another might say, “... Your [spiritual] practice is your everyday life.” ... Then there are other voices. There’s one that says, “I love being married. I love waking up in the middle of the night and feeling that warm body next to mine.” ... All these parts are the Buddha nature. ... In spiritual practice you often see people saying or feeling that there’s a spiritual way to be. ... It’s a mask over what’s really there. What’s there is there. No one thing is more Buddha than any other thing. Everything is the Buddha, the enlightened way. You can’t throw part of the Buddha out. ... All these things are parts of our Buddha self. ... Our practice is to become wider and bigger, to encompass more energies, more ways of living ... Whenever we see ourselves resisting, angry, unhappy, there’s the place to go [and be aware of what’s going on]. There’s the bowing mat [for doing spiritual practice]. ... Knowing and exploring all those parts is exploring Buddha nature. It’s not just [my] human nature, it’s everything. I am the grass, the leaves, the Datsun Z. I am Ronald Reagan. I am a star and a piece of dirt. All of that blending together and constantly changing [empty] is who we are. It’s not a blend in the sense of gruel, like on the seventh day of sesshin [extended meditation retreat] when the cooks keep mixing the leftovers from days before into the pot and it comes out all gray with some little green flecks in it, not tasting like anything. It’s a rich and lovely blending like Chinese food, that preserves and recognizes the diverse elements ... That’s what our mixture is—delicious. ... [These parts] are constantly changing, EMPTY. All of these parts are us, and all are not us. Call them the relative and the absolute. ... Relative means that I am all of these parts. None can be denied. The absolute means that none of the parts are me. [23]




Barbara (Bobby) Rhodes (contemporary; Chogye Zen; United States):


All of those things that we think of as hard times don’t really have to be a hard time at all. All of those things are your teacher. ... You say “thank-you” when anything appears. ... Then there’s no winning and no losing anymore. That’s real freedom: freedom from life and death, from winning and losing, from pride and arrogance. Freedom from everything. ... [This] is Zen—being able to answer the next moment with no trace of the last. ...


Your job when practicing is to first perceive that all five skandhas (form, feelings, perceptions, impulses [reactions], [personal] consciousness [the constituents of individual personality]) are empty [because impermanent]. After you have done that, your mind will be complete and you will understand ... the truth. ... When you can find the source of your breath, then you will understand all of life’s happenings. ...Don’t be attached to anything ... We must let go of all ideas, even what we consider wise and compassionate ideas and just ask, “What is this?”  Pay complete attention. Moment to moment, what are you doing right now? ... Buddhas and deluded beings are all just you, ... and you are just them. Here I am giving you more bad speech! [24]




Danette Choi / Ji Kwang (contemporary; Chogye Zen and Mahāyāna; Korea-Hawaii):


[She speaks of meeting her teacher in Korea:]  I searched and searched and finally I met one man—he was a monk, an enlightened one. He didn’t want anything to do with society so he lived in a cave. When at last I found him, he knew who I was, he had perception. ... He was about ninety, a really old man... He had a very high status and could do many miracles. He finally taught me and I practised with him for three months. One day, at last I knew who I was, why I existed, and what I had to do in this world. I was eighteen. He was the head of a special tradition of Buddhism that follows the scripture of “The Lotus Flower of the Wonderful Law” [Saddharma-pundarīka] and he gave me a special transmission. ... When I came down from the mountain I saw people very clearly—a person’s past, present and future. But I became very upset because I could not see how I was going to fit into things. I could see people getting married, giving birth, fighting, making money, getting fame, dying—this is how all people lived and it seemed to me an animal life.


Many people came seeking for me. One day a hundred people lined up to ... see me, but I didn’t feel like it—that was not what I wanted. I could perceive somebody’s karma and I wanted to teach people not to make karma.


[After going to college, eventually getting a Ph.D., running a business, getting married, having a son:] A lot of things happened to me both on purpose and sometimes without my purpose, as though my karma was taking over. I wondered, why am I going through all these experiences? When I meditated I seemed to be told that I was to go through all this. Finally I ended my business and ten years ago [late 1970s] I started teaching Zen. ... Now, even though I see people’s karmas very well, I don’t want them to be attached to my advice [as a psychic]. That is why I never say anything about the future because if I did they wouldn’t be able to practise to eliminate their karma. My great desire is that they should find out who they are. The whole world is one family, one mind, there is nothing to be scared about, we can do our duty and function in everyday life very smoothly—in that way we can really appreciate our human form. So I prefer teaching to perceiving somebody’s karma, but I must perceive their karma in order to give them the correct individual direction.

The creation of the world was by unconditional love but we human beings live by conditional love. We come from an absolute world, we could say like a white wall. But through our actions and thoughts we make a lot of scratches on the wall and then we think the scratches are the real world and our true self. But that isn’t the truth. So we should eliminate the karmic scratches and see what the truth beyond them is. To be born as a human being is a very blessed thing and we should be thankful, but many times people suffer with that scratch, scratch, scratch ... What is beyond it [the karmic illusions and suffering]? That’s what people call God, or energy, or Mind. I hope everybody attains that. ... It is complete, clear like a mirror. That consciousness creates all the universe—mountains, trees, everything—that’s what we call great energy. This great energy, if you want to put a name to it, it is love.... unconditional love, it does not have right or wrong in it. There is no “I-my-me.”


When you are still a self-centred “I,” wanting to be in the centre, then you are just “scratch I,” making your scratches of karma.


We make [do, think] everything just for our own convenience, as though the world exists merely as a background. When you find out this is false, then you are not the centre any more. You are no longer self-centred and then you find that everything you thought was just the background is now living in its own right. So then you are one with the universe and part of this marvelous living world. When the mind is clear then your mind and universal mind—everything—becomes one. So then you move with the universe, do things with the universe, the universe is you.


Our basic human nature is pure and clean. Everyone has this great treasure. When you perceive this deeply, then wisdom and compassion appear.


Meditation is ... a tool for opening your heart and your mind ...


How do you attain nothing-mind? ... Nothing means no “I-my-me,” no hindrance, so this mind can change to action-for-all-people mind. ... Nothing-mind neither appears nor disappears. If you do correct meditation, nothing-mind becomes strong and you perceive your situation clearly: what you see, hear, smell, taste, and touch are the truth, without thinking. So your mind is like a mirror. Then moment-to-moment you can keep your correct situation.


Practice—meditation—means ending karma and bringing yourself into balance. It is very important that you find out what this person is, who you are. Correct meditation means freedom from life and death. Our true self has no life and no death. If you attain your true self, then if you die in one hour, in one day, or in one month, it is no problem. ... If you do correct meditation, being ill sometimes is all right; suffering sometimes is all right; dying some day is all right. [25]




Gesshin Myōkō Midwer (contemporary; Zen; Germany-United States):


[A major teaching of the Mahāyāna Buddhist scriptures known as Perfection of Wisdom is that] a Bodhisattva [enlightening being, the ideal in Mahāyāna Buddhism] does not have the notion of a person or a being. A Bodhisattva does not take his stand on anything. So what does this mean for us? We should not have the notion of a person, being a woman or a man. We should not take our stand on anything. That is the highest path, the path of transcendental wisdom. ...Freedom does not mean just willfully to do anything that comes into our minds. It is to be free from being stuck in the conditioned world, free to follow the Dharma [the true Way of Enlightenment]. ... What that means in my life is to become transparent. There is no greater joy than to strip yourself of all the stuff, to take virtually everything off. You can only do that when you have realized that which is indestructible—your true nature. The true nature cannot be ... destroyed or enhanced by anything. Therefore you can become vulnerable, because that which can be destroyed should go. ... When you realize yourself truly, you have realized all. Then you can stand up and say like Jesus said, “I am the Way. No one comes to truth but through me.” That means the Dharma. The Buddha also said, “I am the Dharma...” Each one of you should get yourself in the position where you realize this and can manifest it in the world. ... In German when we speak of living [we say] “laubenspiel zag auf”—life plays itself off. There is always the word “play” in it. We are here in the world to play with the universe, to enjoy our true nature. [26]




Flora Courtois (1916-2000; Zen; United States):


[Concerning the major breakthrough experience she underwent years ago:] Trying to recapture that awareness of open, empty space in all directions ... I finally decided that Reality must be unlike any preconceived idea I might have of it and reached a point of just waiting and letting be. For long periods I simply sat, saying inwardly, “No, not this” as if waiting, for what I knew not. Sometime in April, Easter vacation arrived and I went home to Detroit to spend a week with my parents. There, about three days later, alone in my room, sitting quietly on the edge of my bed and gazing at a small desk, not thinking of anything at all, in a moment too short to measure, the universe changed on its axis and my search was over. The small, pale green desk at which I’d been so thoughtlessly gazing had totally and radically changed. It appeared now with a clarity, a depth of three-dimensionality, a freshness I had never imagined possible. At the same time, in a way that is utterly indescribable, all my questions and doubts were gone as effortlessly as chaff in the wind. I knew everything and all at once, yet not in the sense that I had ever known anything before. All things were the same in my little bedroom yet totally changed. ... One of the first things I realized was that the focus of my sight seemed to have changed; it had sharpened to an infinitely small point which moved ceaselessly in paths totally free of the old accustomed ones, as if flowing from a new source. So released from all tension, so ecstatically light did I feel, I seemed to float down the hall to the bathroom... With a wondrous relief, I began to laugh as I’d never laughed before, from the soles of my feet upward.

     Within a few days I had returned to Ann Arbor, and there over a period of many months there took place a ripening, a deepening and unfolding of this experience which filled me with wonder and gratitude at every moment. The foundations had fallen from my world. I had plunged into a numinous openness which had obliterated all fixed distinctions including that of within and without. A Presence had absorbed the universe including myself, and to this I surrendered in absolute confidence. Often, without any particular direction in mind, I found myself outside running along the street in joyous abandon. Sometimes when alone I simply danced as freely as I did as a child. The whole world seemed to have reversed itself, to have turned outside in. Activity flowed simply and effortlessly, and to my amazement, seemingly without thought. Instead of following my old sequence of learning, thinking, planning, then acting, action had taken precedence... Yet nothing ever seemed to go out of bounds; there was no alternation between self-control and letting go but rather a perfect rightness and spontaneity to all this flowing activity. ...

     I knew with absolute certainty the changeless unity and harmony in change of the universe and the inseparability of all seeming opposites. It was as if, before all this occurred, “I” had been a fixed point inside my head looking out at a world out there, a separate and comparatively flat world. The periphery of awareness had now come to light, yet neither fixed periphery nor center existed as such. A paradoxical quality seemed to permeate all existence. Feeling myself centered as never before, at the same time I knew the whole universe to be centered at every point. Having plunged to the center of emptiness, having lost all purposefulness in the old sense, I had never felt so one-pointed, so clear and decisive. Freed from separateness, feeling one with the universe, everything including myself had become at once unique and equal. ... All was meaningful, complete as it was, each bird, bud, midge, mole, atom, crystal, of total importance in itself. ... I now saw that wholeness and holiness are one. Passing the campus chapel, I remembered how I had been taught in church to think of myself as here on earth and of God as above and out there, to aspire to heaven as in some future time and place, to emulate the lives of others. How tragic it seemed that anyone should be distracted in this way from a first-hand knowledge of Reality. My entire education had taught me only to stand in the light. ... The delusions of this education [were now] removed. I knew now that eternity is here always, that there is no higher, no deeper, no separate past or future time or place. How could love be other than this all-encompassing Oneness to which we can do nothing but open ourselves? I felt that I was done forever with all seeking, all philosophic and religious doctrines, all fear of dying or concern for the future, all need for authority other than this. ...

      Years before I had sought a rule that would apply to everything I did, even to washing the dishes. Now I simply washed the dishes. ... Living was transformed. I had never felt so completely whole and in one piece or enjoyed my bodily feelings so much. Breathing had changed, had become deeper, more rhythmical. Hands, eyes, voice, all seemed quieter, more relaxed. With seemingly boundless energy every task became effortless and light. ...

      As for my relations with others, another person now filled my shoes. Laughter and delight seemed to fill my life. Somehow I had become more human, more ordinary, more friendly and at ease with all kinds of people. Apparently I appeared happy and smiling too, for strangers often came up and spoke to me. ... I felt the most inexpressible gratitude for ... these miraculous changes. ... But of all the changes that had occurred, the one that seemed to me in some mysterious way to be the key to everything else was the change in vision. It was as if some inner eye, some ancient center of awareness, which extended equally and at once in all directions without limit and which had been there all along had been restored. This inner vision seemed to be anchored in infinity in a way that was detached from immediate sight and yet at the same time had a profound effect on sight. Walking along the street I was aware of the street flowing past and beneath me, the trees or buildings moving past all around and the sky moving above as if I were immersed in one flowing whole. A child-like unknowing pervaded perception. The immediate world had acquired a new depth and clarity of color and form, an unalloyed freshness and unexpectedness. Rooted in the present, every moment opened to eternity. Along with this, there was a sharp single-pointedness to the focus of attention which caused me to feel that I was looking straight and deeply into whatever entered my attention. Yet paradoxically I felt blind. ... It was as if my attention were now rooted in some deeper center so that my everyday sight, my eyes, released from their former tension to reach out and see the world outside, were now as free as if they had been blanked out, eliminated altogether. ... I also found other people’s eyes fascinating, as well as those of animals, looking into them as if into my own. ... I believe it is right here that the measureless moment of enlightenment comes, if it is to come at all, when attention telescopes to point zero at the center and simultaneously opens to infinity at the periphery. Yet neither center nor periphery remains.... At this moment there occurs a 180° turn in the center of Being, bringing with it an instant shift of perspective from within finite, partial form to the infinite ground of Consciousness itself, in which all things may be seen to unfold with incomparable clarity.

      Yet ... [this] is only a beginning. Grandiose descriptions of enlightenment tend to obscure the fact that once this Way of Seeing becomes the natural matrix of everyday experience, its practice is a rather homely affair, requiring a continuous, intimate attention and discipline. Once having learned to be generally quiet and deeply relaxed, then slowly, gently, and without effort, one may learn to release any random, infinitesimal movements of the eyes or throat into a stillness so deep that no eyes, no larynx, seem to be there at all. They have been replaced by total emptiness. Gradually perception sharpens and clarifies. ... All forms of perception begin to acquire ... clarity. ... Every moment of attention, however seemingly trivial, opens to infinity as the perceptual field becomes ever more articulated and clear, without limit. So ever present that we seldom recognize it, this primary mode of perception is available to each of us at every waking moment. We can experience it by doing nothing more special than not doing what we spend the better part of our lives doing. We have only to sit quietly, breathing naturally, becoming aware of small eye jumps and subvocal dialogue by letting them quiet down. Neither tracking nor following anything, we then open the field of perception to whatever occurs, neither clinging to what has just passed nor anticipating the next event. A bird may fly across the field, a child call, a car start—that’s all, no more. All the principles of Zen practice are embodied in this radically simple attention. ...

      Deep, fully alert silence is the most wholing and holy of states. It is the fallow field in which the seeds of enlightenment flourish. There is literally nothing that cannot be done, and done better, within its nurturing embrace. I now feel quite sure that when eyes and voice are stilled one cannot perceive from an egoic perspective. The separate self is a boundary phenomenon, largely embedded in speech and thought. When these subside, the ego gives up its dominance and sinks into a subsidiary role. ... So long as we remain an “I” who meditates, or an “I” who aspires to enlightenment, we remain trapped in the age-old contradiction. [27]




Maria Rowe Kim (contemporary; 7th Dan sword master in Korean Zen martial art Shim Gum Do; U.S.):


Perfection for the Zen Warrior is balance where one does not succumb to hot or cold, love or hate, high or low, yet allows these extremes to deepen one’s understanding of humanity and awaken love and compassion. [28]




Ching Hai, Wu Shang Shih (b. c1940; Mahāyāna Buddhism; Vietnam-Taiwan):


If we want to help all beings, if we want to recite any secret mantra to rescue the ghosts, we must first become a Buddha... To reach this end is the ultimate aim of all the real practitioners, and to reach this aim we must find our true self, our greatest source of power within, till we ... become a different class of being—all powerful, all merciful, all pervading, like Buddha, like Jesus Christ. ... Anything we wish to do is up to us, because we have got the real power of our own, the so-called Buddha power, Master power. Having this inner power we can accomplish anything, save anyone we like, appear anywhere with our light bodies, and help whomever in need whether they know us or not. ... While having this physical body we should utilize it to achieve our greatest aim, to practice unification with the Lord ... [so that we will] be able to save countless sentient beings... whether they are ghosts, devas, or human beings. (77-8) [29]


To tell you the truth, Shih Fu [“Teacher,” referring to herself] “neither goes nor comes,” but surely people have been seeing her coming to aid them when necessary. It was not Shih Fu, but my transformation bodies [that] went down the mountain to help them. Right now I’m lecturing here—it’s a real Shih Fu who lectures [to] you, whose body will feel the pain if you beat her; but most of [the] other work is usually done by my manifestation [in the form of] the light bodies. After finding our real nature, we will begin to really benefit the world, without moving our hands, without any sense of being a grand ... saviour of the race, etc. because there will be no one who’d be saved by us, there will be no separation whatsoever ... Without thinking any particular thing we will have all ... done naturally, spontaneously; hence the saying of [ancient Taoist sage] Lao Tzu: “Doing but not doing.” [“The sage does nothing, yet nothing is left undone.”] ...Therefore it is said that Buddha had thousands of manifestations (light bodies)—[but] never did he have to really move a finger at all! (74-5)


Anyone who truly has compassion and [the] will to rescue beings would never feel superior, never feel proud. (71)


The ancient great Masters ... endured so much hardship during their salvation mission on earth for the sake of sentient beings, while forgetting themselves, the little self, the ego self, completely. But today [some of] the so-called “Masters” not only encourage people to indulge in sensual pleasures but they themselves also do likewise. (31)

Both Shakyamuni [the Buddha] and Jesus Christ teach us the same thing—virtue. Without virtue or mercy, one should not practice any method. ...

Some people eat meat, drink wine, are lewd and they think they are the Buddha. This is not possible. (240-1)


There are two kinds of sounds: the worldly sound and the superworldly sound. ... The superworldly sound [the primordial vibration] draws us back to God or the Buddha land. ... This [superworldly] sound [is] the Source of all Love, Bliss, and Power, simply described by many as God, Tao, or Buddha Nature. ... This inner melody can heal all wounds, fulfill all desires and quench all worldly thirst. It is all-powerful and all Love. It is because we are made of this Sound, that the contact with it brings peace and contentment to our heart. ... The Surangama Sutra says that all the Buddhas rely on this sound stream to save sentient beings, and the Bodhisattvas or Saints and other beings rely on this sound stream to go back to their original source. ... In the Fa-Hua Sutra ... the Buddha declared that those who practice this will be able to hear all outer and inner sounds equally clear, even the sound of devas (heavenly beings) and of the ghosts, the sounds of different worlds and beings, because his inner hearing is open. ...These sounds are very familiar to those who practice the Quan Yin method. ...After listening to such Sound, our whole being changes, our whole outlook and viewpoint ... alter greatly for the best. Our karmic burdens or the bad influences of the past misdeeds will fall off and the bondages of this physical world will break away from us. All this visible and more invisible Grace will follow the minute we are reunited with this Sound, the Source of all Love, Bliss and Knowledge. We do not have to wait for long and arduous years of prayers and ascetic practice to reap the due Blessing. For “lo and behold, the Kingdom of God is within you.” The Wondrous Sound will cleanse off all the undesirable traces of the so-called previous karmas... Since all things are made of this Word or Sound, sin or karma are of no exception! So we can rely on this original Source of all things to cleanse off its own “mistakes”! This Inner Sound is the Great Creative Force of the cosmos. It is a vibration that sustains and nourishes all things. Its manifestation in the outer world can be heard as the natural melodies such as the sound of the wind, the water, the birds, insects, etc., which are the lower manifestation and can be heard by the physical ears. But there are more subtle and higher Sounds which are inaudible to the mortal sense, because they vibrate in the higher dimensions different to that of our physical world. To catch these higher Sounds we must raise our own levels to those worlds beyond our senses. [And Ching Hai recommends a strict keeping of the precepts of virtue to do this, especially a vegan diet, as well as two and a half hours daily of meditation on the primordial Sound, which is brought into awareness via initiation by Ching Hai into the Quan Yin method.] ...

      The Way to [the] higher dimensions lies in the Sound itself, which we simply follow back to its original Source. All the worlds, high or low, are “strung” together by this inner Sound; all these worlds are made even by this Sound or Word. The so called original sin or karmas are also made by it. ... Originally there was no sin, no defilements... If we “sin” it is only the surface appearance, the infections of the outer environment. It was not inborn within us. ... [But] understanding intellectually only will not do. To get rid of this great burden [of karma] which we have collected since time immemorial, the Inner all-powerful vibration or Superworldly Sound [of Quan Yin] is needed. (91-7)


While practicing, there are many “side effects” which are bound to happen. One should know how to avoid or minimize them to our best advantages. If initiation [by a Master] means only to give people the method or how to fold their legs, while ignoring other problems, then it cannot be called perfect initiation, and the “Master” is far from being worthy of the name. Because if one is a real Master, he should give the student [the] complete method including protection power. He cannot only give 50¥ and leave the student in danger. (22-3)


If a seeker doesn’t have a perfect master to guide him, or doesn’t have a good method to protect him, or has such impure aims as supernatural power, fame, money, admiration, then Asura [the demonic forces] will be happy.  They will make use of the greedy thoughts and show him some supernatural power to make him believe they are Buddha or Bodhisattva. They will say, “Because you like cultivating [doing spiritual practice], I come to teach you.” They can preach sermons or something else. They even take him to some false spheres to go “sight seeing.” ... There are so many Asura and other beings in the world. If your wisdom-eye is open, you will be able to see them. ... It’s not so easy to see a Buddha. We must work hard with a sincere, pure heart. It [the heart] should be transparent, without any impurities. (236)


Naturally while practicing for enlightenment there will be some obstacles, some painful-karma-influenced moments, but we should not take too much notice of it. After much practice, our hearts will become peaceful and calm... so that pains and pleasures of this world [will] no longer have such intense effect on us. Our attitude will be more noble, quiet and loving. ... We will no more be affected by the ups and downs of the world. Because real Quan Yin practicers ... have compassion, wisdom, and boldness; to them there is not much difference between pain and pleasure... They know in reality there is no misery in the world and that Real happiness cannot be found in world enjoyments such as drinking, sex, or other lowly habits, which will only lead people eventually into the depths of sorrow. (37)


This Sa-pu (earth) world is in reality only a dream-like world, not our real home, [it] is just the place we sojourn. ... Now we’re just temporarily living in a borrowed world, the longer we borrow from it [by grasping for pleasure], the longer we are bound by it. (30)


Those [initiates] who practice self-denial can [ultimately] attain inner happiness from the depths of their hearts, though probably for a moment [during the process] they would experience some unhappiness, some obstacle, because they would have to endure two kinds of karma (bad effects) [the old fixed karma, or “storehouse” karma, and the “immediate karma,” the destiny for this present lifetime], more than the normal people who only have one kind of karma [the immediate karma]. Why is it so? Because the Quan Yin initiates who come to Shih Fu have only one motive in their heart—to get liberated in one lifetime, and therefore during this life have to settle up all [karmic] debts... Nevertheless, their problems and seeming hardships will be definitely for the last time. Whereas those who, despite the bad deed they are performing seem to enjoy life now, will suffer their consequence in the near future, maybe in this present life or the next ones. (3³-5)


My duty is only to tell you who you are; so do not bother to criticize my outlook or actions. How the Master takes her meal, how her voice sounds ... —these things have nothing to do with your own status, or your own kingdom. I only come to tell you that your position was very high, the highest in the world; and that if you want to recover your lost position I’ll help to get it back. That’s why when we come to learn at the Master’s feet, do not criticize her actions or look at her appearance, as she is only an ambassador appointed by the king to escort you back home, letting you enjoy your original status. (8³-4)


When one gets into the great state of deep meditation, he’ll come to realize that there exists nothing and no one; no human being, and no Buddha—no feeling of discrimination. (172)




Osono (1774-1853; Jōdo-Shin-shū Buddhism; Japan):


Osono, a lay saint of the Pure Land tradition, was entreated by a woman’s husband, “Hey, Osono-san, please share with me something that is meaningful, anything... please.” Osono responded: “Oh ... there is nothing to think about nor to say; Amida has already stated that He will save you.”


Once Osono rushed over and paid homage to a snowman she saw. When asked why, she answered: This snowman reveals to me the form of my shinjin [mind of faith and awakening]; therefore I’m grateful. The snowman will melt as the rays of the sun shine upon it. Just like my shinjin, the rays of Amida’s compassion shine upon and guide me. The more I listen to the teachings, my shinjin melts away, nothing remains, everything disappears. For this, I’m grateful to the snowman.


When Osono lay on her deathbed, a fellow devotee came to see her and asked, “Can you explain your understanding of the Buddha-dharma to me?” Osono answered, “I don’t have any understanding to explain. Only that during my lifetime I have come to realize that any understanding is beyond me.” [30]



*** Sayings of women of the Tibetan Vajrayāna Buddhist tradition:


Yeshe Tsogyel (fl. 8th-9th century; Nyingma Vajrayāna; Tibet):


[While traveling in Nepal Yeshe Tsogyel was asked to resurrect a couple’s dead 20-year old son:]

The universal ground is Kuntuzangpo [pure space],

Undeluded, primally pure,

And the path is manifold apparitional form,

Emanation of the six kinds of beings [humans, animals, hell-dwellers, ghosts, demons, and celestials],

Where positive or negative karmic action

Causes certain inevitable results.

Knowing this, why persist in folly?

I am a yoginī, Mistress of the Tantra,

Embraced by the compassion of Pema Jungne [Padma Sambhava, her Guru],

And neither life nor death holds terror for me.

Instantly I can remove the afflictions of others.

Now pray and grace will flow! (52) [31]


Mind unbiased, free of pleasure, pain and indifference,

With patience enduring the good with the bad in every situation,

That is the forbearance of Tsogyel of Tibet. (54)

[Song of gratitude to Guru Rinpoche, Padma Sambhava:]

Lord Guru, Pema Jungne, I bow to you!

This pile of dust accumulated from beginningless time,

You, Lord Guru, have transformed into the Sacred Mountain,

And now this mountain of mind will serve others. ...

This ocean of accumulated droplets gathered from beginningless time,

You, Lord Guru, have transformed into the Seven Lakes of Enjoyment [enlightenment factors]

And now this Lady of the Lake will serve others. (75-6)


[During her period of isolated meditation she incurred demon attacks:]

All “phenomena” are only tricks of the mind;

I see nothing to fear in inner space.

All this is nothing but clear light’s natural radiance;

There is no reason at all to react.

Since all activity is my ornamentation

I should remain in mute meditative absorption. ...


Since I entered the dimension of dynamic space,

Reaching the Mind of the Great Mother [Transcendental Wisdom], absolute, empty being,

The heart of the ten transcendental perfections,

Enjoying profound and perfect insight,

I am not to be cowed by visionary experience.

Every situation is a play of empty being,

The magical illusion that is the Lama’s compassion:

Now stir my creativity still more!

Since I entered the dimension of spontaneity, ...

Enjoying the unstructured quality of every occurrence,

I am no coward in the face of my thought-forms.

Every event is a display of mental projections,

The thought-forms that are the Lama’s compassion:

Now excite my creative skill still more!

Since I entered the dimension of pure pleasure [non-dual joy],

Reaching the Mind of the Lotus Born Guru [Padma Sambhava] ...

Enjoying the mind’s immaculate nature,

I no longer possess a sense of impurity. ...

Since I entered the arena of mystic practice,

Arriving at the heart of the mahāyāna mysteries,

Enjoying the identical flavour of pleasure and pain,

I have no preference for good or bad. ... (80-2)


[Song of gratitude to her Guru:]

Out of your kindness, Supreme Guide,

I attained the siddhi [power] of the Tantra;

I accomplished the miraculous powers of the eight great siddhis,

And I became master of both sūtra [Buddha’s discourses] and tantra [secret later oral tradition].

My birth was low but my merit was great;

Now my body has been transfigured

And ordinary vision has permanently vanished;

The samādhi [meditative absorption] in which all is illusion has arisen,

And I control the five elements [earth, water, fire, air, space].

Now my speech has become mantra [sacred syllable],

And useless, vacant gossip is a thing of the past;

The vajra [diamond]-like samādhi has arisen,

And intuitively I know and use the modes of sūtra and tantra.

Now my mind has become Buddha [awake],

And my ordinary thoughts have vanished into empty space;

The samādhi of a Bodhisattva has arisen

And my Mind is identical to Vajradhara [primordial Buddha-nature].

What great kindness, Lord Guru! ...

Such great kindness as yours I can never repay. (87-8)


[After describing her highest level attainments of siddhi (accomplishment), she sings:]

[Phenomenal] reality is disclosed as an ornamental display.

I have no hope for higher states nor fear of the hells,

But my vision is not nihilistic, not extreme,

For I possess the conviction of profound Emptiness [the “fertile no-thingness”];

I have reached the goal, Dzogchen’s [the highest teaching’s] pure potential,

Where all pervasive Ati [original Buddha nature] is spontaneously accomplished.

My mind is co-extensive with space,

My compassion is more radiant than the sun,

My blessings are more extensive than an immense cloud

And my siddhi falls faster than gentle rain.

So you of the future with faith, ...

I will guide you out of the lower realms ...

My compassion will not forsake you,

And karma exhausted, you become my converts. (95-6)


[Final song of instruction to her eleven root disciples:]

Now when I have gone it will seem that we have parted

But do not be depressed, my friends;

Pray with penetration and concentration.

Immerse yourselves in the pure potential of Dzogchen [the highest teaching]

For there is no other way to transcend the misery of existence. (152)


The substance of Ati [original Buddha-nature] is contained in this unsurpassable teaching,

This teaching upon Vision, Meditation, Action and Goal:

Vision is freedom from analytical mentality;

Meditation is experiential knowledge of primal purity;

Action is characterised by imperturbable relaxation;

And the goal is natural expression of the Buddha’s three modes [on physical, subtle, and absolute levels]

This, then, is the quintessence of the teaching. (154)




Yoginī Siddhā Manibhadrā (n.d.; Vajrayāna; Tibet):


When my mind was enshrouded in ignorance,

Critical thought attended every sound;

When reality was revealed as my own nature

The nature of whatever appeared was reality itself. (313) [32]


Sentient beings from beginningless time

Break their vessels, their lives ended,

But why do they return home [reborn again into this world]?

Today I have broken my vessel

But abandoning my saṃsāra home [of life in this world]

I go on to pure pleasure.

The Guru is truly wonderful!

If you desire happiness, rely on him. (313)



Yoginī Siddhā Mekhalā (n.d.; Vajrayāna; Tibet):


All inner and outer phenomena [are] perceived as mind,

Meditating with detachment, all has the same flavor.

In supreme meditation without effort or striving,

I found non-dual pure pleasure and perfect Buddhahood. (317)




Yoginī Siddhā Mekhalā and her younger sister, Yoginī Siddhā Kanakhalā (n.d.; Vajrayāna; Tibet):


Through the grace of the Guru’s instruction...

We destroy the distinction between saṃsāra and nirvāna [play of forms and formless Reality]. ...

In the union of vast space and pure awareness

We destroy the distinction between self and others. (318)




Yoginī Mahāsiddhā Laksmīnkarā (n.d.; Vajrayāna; Tibet):


Firstly, the wise man creates enlightened vision,

Secondly, he meditates unswervingly upon empty being,

Thirdly, with constant intuitive, mystical experience,

He does what he must with modesty and grace. (372)


[To King Jalendra:]

All beings on the wheel [caught in the cycle] of rebirth suffer,

For in saṃsāra [worldly existence] there is not a moment of bliss.

Even superior beings, men [humans] and gods, are tormented,

While the lower realms [hells, ghost realms, animal realms] are pain itself,

Where ravenous beasts constantly devour each other,

Some beings ceaselessly tormented by heat and cold.

Seek the pure pleasure or release, O King! (373)




Nangsa Obum (11th century; Nyingma Vajrayāna; central Tibet):


[When young, Nangsa Obum told her parents:]

Listen to me, father and mother!

Without a doubt you are my parents,

But I also have my outer, inner, and secret parents. ...

The inner father is Avalokitesvara.

The inner mother is the white and blue Tara.

The secret father is Mahāyāna Mahāsuhka, “The Great Bliss of the Great Vehicle,”

The secret mother is Prajñā [Wisdom], clear and pure.

Homage to the outer, inner, and secret parents in

their union of bliss and emptiness. (68-9) [33]


[After her death experience:]

Before I died I stayed in luxurious houses...

When ... [I] was alive, I lived with many servants,

But when I died I had to go alone;

So all that is meaningless!

When .. [I] was alive, I wore a lot of jewels.

But when I died I could not take any of it with me...

When my mother’s daughter, Nangsa Obum, was alive,

She used to eat very well,

But when she died she had to leave her body,

So now I do not care about my body! (95-6)


Please listen to me ... friends!

The precious human body is difficult to attain.

If you do not practice Dharma there is a great danger

Of falling into the lower realms.

Life is as brief as lightning between clouds. ...

Our life is like a drop of water on the grass,

Which can evaporate from little heat.

Life is like a rainbow in the grass,

Even though it looks nice, 

It has no real worth. ...

Our life is as long as that of a butcher’s sheep,

We are doomed to death. ...

Life is like the setting sun,

It looks strong and beautiful, / But before you know it, it is gone. ...

Life is like a waterfall cascading from a high mountain,

Even though it makes a big sound,

It lasts only a moment then you pass it and it is gone. ...

Life is like a beautiful face,

It is with us when we are young,

But when we get old it will become ugly. (113-4)


Even those with the worst karma can rectify it. (126)




Machig Ongjo (12th century; Kagyü Vajrayāna; Yug, Tibet):


The Dharmata [Truth] is as pure as the sky.

The mind itself is unstained and luminous.

The root of the ego is not connected to the natural state. ...

The time of death is not known. It is much better not to procrastinate,

but practice the teachings now. ...


When I practiced the meditation with prāṇa [breath] and nāḍīs [subtle-energy pathways] my mind did not wander. I realized the Great Bliss of the undefiled natural state. Knowing this, my mind flows like water. ...

Knowing the essence of my own mind; whatever discursive thoughts arise, I am not distracted and remain in a state of awareness. ... The distinguishing factor of all phenomena is emptiness. Spontaneous liberation is the Great Bliss itself. It is Dharmakāya [Absolute Truth], beginningless, beyond name and words. I know this only because of the guru’s kindness. The natural state, spontaneity, arises by itself. This is the bliss of knowing myself as not separate. (217-8)




Drenchen Rema (14th century; Kagyü Vajrayāna; Tibet):


From the age of eighteen until the age of seventy-one, I have been staying in retreat and meditating. I have not been roaming about aimlessly and I am not dependent on anyone. These are my miracles, but probably you will not understand them. (228)  (Nevertheless, she had great psychic powers, subduing demons, healing people, prophesying.)




Gelongma Khechog Palmo (1911-77; Kagyü Vajrayāna; U.K.-Tibet-India):


Everybody is liberated whether they know it or not. The point is, do you know you’re liberated? ... There are two aspects to the search for enlightenment—which is actually realizing enlightenment within oneself because it is already there. One aspect is for the sake of one’s self and the other is for the sake of all beings. ... The Enlightenment Mind is not just “I should help others.” That is a dual concept. It is that state or depth of consciousness where the boundaries of  I and others cease to have any meaning, where we are all one or, shall we say, not two. [34]




Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969; Vajrayāna; France-Tibet):


Liberation is achieved by the practice of non-activity, say the Masters of the Secret [orally transmitted] Teachings [of Vajrayāna]. What is, according to them, non-activity?—Let us first of all notice that it has nothing in common with the quietism of certain Christian or oriental mystics. Ought one to believe that it consists in inertia and that the disciples of the Masters who honour it are exhorted to abstain from doing anything whatsoever?—Certainly not. In the first place, it is impossible for a living being to do nothing. ... What then is this activity from which one ought to abstain?—It is the disordered activity of the mind which, unceasingly, devotes itself to the work of a builder erecting ideas, creating an imaginary world [of “me” and “my”] in which it shuts itself like a chrysalis in its cocoon. ... Why is this mental activity, calculated on false data, an obstacle to liberation?—Simply because it is this activity, builder of mental constructions, of castles in the air, which, incessantly, builds afresh the edifice of the world of illusion in which we are prisoners, and that, outside of our mind which creates it, this world does not exist. ...According to the Secret Teachings the origin of things is not situated in any place or moment of past time; it is produced now, at each instant, in our minds. At every moment the subjective image which is the world arises in our mind only to sink back and dissolve in it the moment after, like the “waves which arise from the sea and fall back into it.” ... [Because of the impermanence and insubstantiality of the ego and its world, Buddhist masters say the worldly life is like a collective “dream.”]  Most of humanity are unconscious of the fact that they live and move in a world of phantasmagoria. However, some have perceived this and have discovered in themselves the origin of this phantasmagoria. ... They remain in the position of those sleepers who, although conscious of the fact that they are dreaming, continue to dream and even follow with interest the adventures of their dreams. [This phenomenon is now called “lucid dreaming.”] But the scenes which they meet no longer affect them. Perceptions and sensations leave them unmoved, glide off them without arousing desire or repulsion. ...

      The student who has succeeded in understanding that his life is a dream which he himself supplies with agreeable or terrifying scenes, can ensure that the dream does not become a nightmare. He can strive to furnish this relative world, his own creation, with things likely to lead to his own wellbeing, his happiness. Illusory objects, pictures like those offered by mirages, are nevertheless, efficient, that is to say, real for the dreamer, made of the same substance as they are and sharing with them the same degree of illusory existence.

      On the other hand, the well-informed dreamer may cease taking pleasure in dreaming. He may stop imitating those dreamers who, enjoying the phantasmagoria which they watch and in which they play a part, persist in wishing to remain asleep. In truth, why do the dreamers fear awakening, why do they imagine in advance other dreams of hells and heavens which await them after death? It is because they fear that with the disappearance of the “images seen in dreams,” the illusory “Ego” which is an integral part of them will disappear. They have not yet perceived that the real face of this chimerical “Ego” is the face of Death. As long as the idea of this impermanent Ego lasts, this simple mass of elements which other causes will separate, death also subsists. The Dhammapada [an early Theravāda Buddhist scripture] alludes to the disappearance of this phantom from the field of our mental activity when it refers to whom “death does not see,” that is, he for whom death does not exist. The awakening is liberation, salvation. The Secret Teachings propose no other object than this to their pupils.

      To wake up... The Buddhas have done nothing else than this, and it is this awakening which has made them become Buddhas. [35]




Sangye Khadro / Kathleen McDonald (1952- ; Vajrayāna; U.S.):


Everyone wants happiness yet few of us seem to find it. In our search for satisfaction we go from one relationship to another, one job to another, one country to another. We study art and medicine, train to be tennis players and typists; have babies, race cars, write books and grow flowers. We spend our money on elaborate stereo systems, home computers, comfortable furniture and vacations in the sun. Or we try to get back to nature, eat whole-food, practise yoga and meditate. Just about everything we do is an attempt to find real happiness and avoid suffering. There is nothing wrong with any of these things; there is nothing wrong with having relationships and possessions. The problem is that we see them as having some inherent ability to satisfy us, as being the cause of happiness. But they cannot be—simply because they do not last. Everything by nature constantly changes and eventually disappears: our body, our friends, all our belongings, the environment. Our dependence on impermanent things and clinging to the rainbow-like happiness they bring cause only disappointment and grief, not satisfaction and contentment. We do experience happiness with things outside ourselves, but it doesn’t truly satisfy us or free us from our problems. It is poor-quality happiness, unreliable and short-lived. This does not mean that we should give up our friends and possessions in order to be happy. Rather, what we need to give up are our misconceptions about them and our unrealistic expectations of what they can do for us.

      Not only do we see them as permanent and able to satisfy us; at the root of our problems is our fundamentally mistaken view of reality. We believe instinctively that people and things exist in and of themselves, from their own side; that they have an inherent nature, an inherent thingness. This means that we see things as having certain qualities abiding naturally within them; that they are, from their own side, good or bad, attractive or unattractive. These qualities seem to be out there, in the objects themselves, quite independent of our viewpoint and everything else. ...

      Our mistaken idea is deeply-ingrained and habitual; it colours all our relationships and dealings with the world. We probably rarely question whether or not the way we see things is the way they actually exist, but once we do it will be obvious that our picture of reality is exaggerated and one-sided; that the good and bad qualities we see in things are actually created and projected by our own mind. According to Buddhism there is lasting, stable happiness and everyone has the potential to experience it. The causes of happiness lie within our own mind, and methods for achieving it can be practised by anyone, anywhere, in any lifestyle—living in the city, working an eight-hour job, raising a family, playing at weekends. By practising these methods—meditation—we can learn to be happy at any time, in any situation, even difficult and painful ones. Eventually we can free ourselves of problems like dissatisfaction, anger and anxiety and, finally, by realizing the actual way that things exist, we will eliminate completely the very source of all disturbing states of mind so that they will never arise again. ...

      [The] ultimate aim [of meditation] is to awaken a very subtle level of consciousness and to use it to discover reality, directly and intuitively. This direct, intuitive awareness of how things are is known as enlightenment and is the end result of Mahayana Buddhist practice. The purpose of reaching it—and the driving force behind all practice—is to help others reach it too.


The idea of devotion makes some people uneasy because they equate it with blind faith and mindless submissiveness. But proper devotion is not like that. It is, in fact, a very positive attitude: to be devoted to one’s family, friends or work is to have love, care and responsibility. In this sense it means going beyond our usual narrow, self-centered thoughts and concerns, and dedicating our energy to others. Of course, if our devotion is not well-founded or its object is unreliable, we will only be disappointed and feel doubt and resentment. But if it is based on clear, correct understanding and its object is one that will not let us down, the experience will be rich and positive. In Buddhism, devotion is associated with refuge, the first step on the path to liberation and awakening. Refuge is the attitude of relying upon, or turning to, something for guidance and help. In an ordinary sense we take refuge in friends for love and security, in food and entertainment when we are hungry and bored and so forth. But such external sources of refuge can satisfy our needs only temporarily because they, as well as the happiness they bring, are impermanent and unreliable. Buddhist refuge, on the other hand, involves discovering and utilizing the unlimited potential that lies within each of us. There are two aspects of refuge, outer and inner. Outer refuge is appreciating and relying upon the three jewels: buddha, dharma, and saṅgha. Buddha refers both to the enlightened state itself—the removal of all negative qualities and the perfection of all positive—and to those who have attained enlightenment. Refuge in buddha means opening our heart to the love and wisdom offered by these beings and accepting their guidance on the spiritual path. Dharma refers to wisdom, the realizations that comprise the progressive stages of the path to enlightenment. The literal meaning of the Sanskrit term dharma is “to hold”—it includes any method that holds or protects us from problems. Buddha’s teachings are known as dharma because they come from his actual experience of eliminating every trace of confusion and negative energy from his mind. Refuge in dharma means practising the prescribed methods, aspiring to awaken within ourselves the wisdom that every enlightened being has discovered.

      Saṅgha refers to the spiritual community, those who have wisdom and give us inspiration and support. Buddha and dharma provide us with the basis of our practice but sangha provide the help we need to make the practice actually work. Talking with like-minded friends, for example, can give us answers to questions and solutions to problems; meditating together gives us strength and encouragement; a community of meditators offers a peaceful haven from the craziness of city life. Refuge in sangha means respecting such friends and accepting their help. Inner refuge is refuge in ourselves, in our ultimate potential. The three refuge objects have their internal counterparts: the inner buddha is the seed of enlightenment that lies in the mind of each sentient being, without exception; the inner dharma is our natural wisdom that can distinguish real from false; the inner sangha is the guidance and inspiration that we can give others. As human beings, we have the potential to develop unlimited love, compassion and wisdom and to free ourselves from all negative energy—in other words, to reach the same level as a buddha. ... It is possible to be completely satisfied and happy, whatever the situation, by relying solely on our inner resources. The external refuge objects exist to awaken us to these resources, to our inner buddha, dharma and saṅgha. When we recognize and nourish this potential, we have found the real meaning of refuge. [36]