The number and scope of different Buddhist traditions might overwhelm non-Buddhists reading my ramblings or any other writings about Buddhism. Even Buddhists, as those who come to Manchester Buddhist Convention, of which I am a co-organiser, every year discover new Buddhist groups that have been hitherto unknown to them.
All these traditions claim to be an authentic form of Buddhism and those that are concerned with such things, trace direct lineage of teaching coming all the way from the Buddha. As the editor of the volume “Buddhist Scriptures” Donald S Lopez Jr notes (Penguin Classics, 2004), such diversity requires certain means of ensuring that this school’s particular teachings are still in line if not with the letter, then with the spirit of the historic Buddha’s teaching.
This could be a daunting task, considering that any Buddhist schools were and are being born now centuries and millennia later, and continents away from north India of 2,500 years ago.
One example of such alighting is given in the collection “Buddhist Scriptures,” in the chapter “A Zen master interprets the Dharma.” It is from the work “Muddying the Water” by the Japanese Zen Master Bassui Tokusho (1327-1387).
A layman comes to a Zen Master and starts the conversation by expressing doubts in Zen’s sincerity when it defines itself as a “transmission separate from the teachings, one which does not rely on letters,” as Zen similar to other Buddhist traditions has many writings and disciples learning a lot from teachers. The Zen Master replies by talking about the Zen mind, which acts of itself. (pp. 532-533)
Afterward the Zen Master reinterprets, in a Zen way, some major precepts of lay and monastic Buddhist life. For instance, the very first precept that both lay and monastic followers of the Buddha recite, the precept against killing is re-interpreted in the following way. “A person who has not yet seen nature drowns in a sea of thinking, thereby killing his own mind-buddha.” (p. 534)
The precept against stealing: “When confusion arises, it damages dharma assets and destroys merit. That is theft.” (p. 534) The rest of fundamental moral Buddhist precepts – against false speech, improper sexuality and intoxication – are explained in a similar way.
Even such a specific monastic precept as not eating after midday is given a new taste: “The true afternoon fast is embodying the way of no-minding [mushin] so that [outside and inside are] smashed flat together.”
Therefore, we can see that an external observer, when comparing Theravada and Zen vision of the said moral precepts, would not be able to tell they sprung from the same spiritual founder – unless expressly told so. Nevertheless, neither Theravada nor Zen authorities have any problem with this fact and never excommunicated each other from the more general “Buddhism.”
I believe that the reason for this is that both Theravada and Zen practitioners understand that the inner conviction indeed does not come from letters, either Pali Cannon or Zen Koans. More interestingly, Zen teachings claim very strongly that the ultimate goal of the practice – Enlightenment – paradoxically lies outside practice or effort. Instead, it is a birth right of all sentient beings.
Moreover, although a great emphasis is made on practice and self-discipline in Theravada, one image is brought up again and again by Theravada teachers. It is that of the young Prince Siddhartha sat relaxed under a tree. It was a hot day and his Father the King was performing a ritual of first ploughing of the land. The young boy fell into the rhythm of the oxen walking, the plough treading the earth, the men walking behind it, the breeze rustling through the leaves and who knows what else.
Years later, unsatisfied with every existing spiritual teaching that Siddhartha mastered, he remembered that moment of complete peace from his childhood, and sat under a different tree, which has since came to be known as the Bodhi Tree – the tree of Enlightenment.
I feel that similarly, in feminism, we can learn a lot from books. We can find arguments to support what we have felt instinctively. We can attain tools for the struggle. We can learn techniques to effect positive change.
However, I feel that my true feminist conviction does not come from books or much of what I learnt in later life. It comes rather from my early childhood; from the way my Mom was treated by my Father, by her colleagues and by society – as an independent human being, equal to men around her. I also witnessed women in positions of power, authority and expertise. I assumed the same future awaited me.
So when I entered adult patriarchal world my conviction has shown me that the patriarchal order was wrong, not me. I am very lucky to have had feminist pioneers start the fight for me, and I am very lucky to have fellow feminist support me on the path. And that initial sparkle of knowing what’s right still sustains me.
Other people might have different feminist inspirations: it might be a matriarchal Grandmother who held the family together, or a character from a children’s cartoon. I feel that these are just as helpful on the feminist path as book knowledge.
Oxana Poberejnaia is a content writer at http://content4you.org. She was an Officer of the University of Manchester Buddhist Society while studying for a PhD in Government, and has been involved in organising the Manchester Buddhist Convention, now in its 10th year. Oxana is now exploring the Sacred Feminine through marking seasonal festivals, working with her menstrual cycle, frame drumming and shamanic journeying, while keeping the practice of Buddhist meditation. Oxana is an artist and an author. Her works can be found on her blog. http://poeticoxana.wordpress.com