Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA

Issue No. 12 Fall 2016

Our Work is the Practice –

Our Practice is the Work

by Dr. Pamela Ayo Yetunde


In Peter Harvey’s book, An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, he references the Anguttara Nikaya in saying that The Buddha said to the monks that women are like black snakes, “…unclean, bad-smelling, timid, fearful and betrays friends; like such a snake, she is also angry, grudging, deadly poisonous – for ‘she mostly has strong attachment’, a forked tongue – for ‘she mostly indulges in back-biting speech’, and betrays friends – for ‘she mostly commits adultery’.” 1  Like Sanford said in her essay about treating sexism as legacy, I initially treated the black snake passage as history until one student in the Women in Buddhism class offered that this teaching is still used to encourage monks to remain celibate.  That admission caused me to pause, and I paused again while writing this conclusion.  I asked the student if it was really necessary for monks to engage in Wrong Speech about women in order to practice celibacy.  The student answered that nuns are told the same thing about men, in order to protect their celibacy, as if that was an adequate justification.  So, what I learned is that some monks and some nuns are engaging in Wrong Speech about the other’s sex group in order to practice Buddhist monasticism.  How can it be true that all men and women, and people who do not define themselves by these labels, are vile and of poor character?  If this is true, then our mothers and fathers are vile and of poor character.  Our sisters and brothers are vile and of poor character, and all of our children are vile and have no possibility of becoming people of good character.  What would be the point of living if this were a view we all shared?  Inherent, innate and “permanent” vileness cannot co-exist as true alongside the view that Buddhism helps people be “purified” and of good moral character.  Fortunately, we have the examples of early Buddhist women who truthfully confronted sexism with the very Buddhist teachings they inherited.


 One example of a wise ancient Indian Buddhist woman was Soma.  Soma, it is said, had a conversation with Mara that went something like this:


Mara:  That place

 the sages gain

 is hard to reach.

 A mere woman can’t get there.


Soma: What harm is it

 to be a woman

 when the mind is concentrated

 and the insight is clear?

 (If I asked myself:

 “Am I a woman

 or a man in this?”

 then I would be speaking

 Mara’s language.)


 Everywhere the love of pleasure is destroyed,

 the great dark is torn apart,

 and Death,

 you too

 are destroyed.2


Like Jitsujo who has permitted herself to take inspiration from the dedication and wisdom of the early Zen women in Tisdale’s Women of the Way, I permit myself to be inspired by those early Zen women and Soma.  Soma, like every other woman, was considered a “black snake,” but through her practice and knowledge of concentration leading to wisdom, she shed the skin of delusion that her embodiment was vile.  Soma challenged Mara, who, from a feminist point of view, represents the archetypal misogyny of fathers offering up their daughters to be raped (Read Greek mythology and the story of Lot in the Book of Genesis for examples.) because Mara offered up his daughters, without their permission, to have sex with The Buddha.  Soma’s dialogue with Mara shows us that Buddhist meditation practice holds the potential to quiet the self-persecutory voices inside our heads.  In my view as a pastoral counselor, it is vital that women have a meditation practice to detoxify the effects of internalized misogyny.


Getting those voices outside of our heads and onto “paper,” a Narrative Therapy-like approach that allows for the externalization of shame (among other self-limiting emotions) is also a practice and path to salvation – the kind of salvation that helps people move, with faith in themselves and humanity, from one stage of life to another. Netschert’s poems have that kind of salvific power!  I feel the power of her poems throughout my body.  They make me want to yell out loud, “Yes!” because I know there is no such reality as a blood-pool hell, and I want to celebrate the lives of all those Japanese women who could not believe in that kind of salvation.  Can you imagine living your natural life as a woman only to know that upon your death, people would place a written condemnation of your damnation to the blood-pool hell in your coffin, no matter how you lived your life?  And what of those women’s descendants and survivors?  How did they live with the thought that their loved one was drinking menstrual blood in hell?


The meaning of menstrual blood as poisonous was not shared by all early Buddhist women in all places.  In Tibet, it is said that the myth-being woman, Yeshe Tsogyel, had a menstrual blood-related incident with a daikini.  According to Rita Gross in her book Buddhism After Patriarchy, Yeshe Tsogyel was near death and while dying, she prayed to her guru.  Her prayer was followed by a visit with a blood-red naked woman who thrusted her “private parts”* against Yeshe Tsogyel’s mouth, where Yeshe Tsogyel drank the red woman’s menstrual blood.  Yeshe Tsogyel was healed by this encounter and consumption. In the U.S., we have choices in how we make meaning of our natural body’s functions.  We can embrace a soul-crushing Buddhism like that of the blood-pool hell type, we can embrace a radical and revolutionary feminist imagination and visualization, like Yeshe Tsogyel and the red dakini, and there are plenty of Buddhisms in between.  I hope the soul-crushing Buddhisms return to their rightful places in legacy-history world.  Keeping teachings in their proper historical places will be made easier the more Buddhist practitioners of all genders reflect and learn from women’s teachings.  In the meantime, we are free to imagine what women's liberation can look like.  Tran's poem reminds us of our imaginal and creative freedom in the here and now.


 Gabriel, in his essay on Chӧd, knows how the persistence of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo and Lama Tsultrim Allione resulted in the 17th Karmapa Ogyen Trinley Dorje’s torma empowerment on women.  The result was not just Palmo’s and Allione’s empowerment, but perhaps the fulfillment of the Karmapa himself in that he had his own previous experience with Machig Labrӧn’s teachings, stating she was the “perfect embodiment” of compassion and wisdom.  Auspiciousness, in this case, was when the persistence of the women, Palmo and Allione, met the readiness of the man, the Karmapa, who had already been prepared by another woman’s legacy.


 Preparing our fathers, brothers, and sons for the days when they will be confronted by women tired of being othered, as well as liberated sisters supporting our sisters to be liberated (as Sanford suggested), is the work of Buddhist women liberationists (in spiritual and mundane senses) in the U.S. today.  Sakyadhita USA will gather us ole “black snakes” together soon to shed our blood-pool hell skins with each other’s help.  What will happen?  Let us be open to surprise!  As we gather, bringing our dharmas, practices, and lineages together, we will be harnessing our power and privileges.  The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution allows us to assemble.  We live in a country where education is affordable and largely accessible.  Women’s literacy is a reality.  Law, education, and a literate society are external systems of support.  But what about internally?  Will we come to the conference with the conviction that our salvation is not determined by men?  If not, can we leave the conference with the conviction that our salvation is not determined by men?  Internal dialogues must take place in external systems of support.  It is our work as Buddhist women in the U.S. to contribute to the revival of Buddhist humanism with respect to the nature and role of women.  Reviving Buddhist humanism with respect to women can be supported by the creation of culturally-specific methods of engaging Buddhist philosophy, psychology, ethics, and religion.  Let this be a new definition of “women’s work.”


What does it mean to be a woman in the U.S. today?  With the recent U.S. presidential election where millions of Americans voted for Donald J. Trump, a man who bragged about grabbing women by their private parts, over Hillary Rodham Clinton, the first woman to be nominated for President by a major party, women in the U.S. need to know what it really means to others to be a woman in the U.S. today.  Moreover, women in the U.S. need to contemplate what being a woman means to them.  Do women believe they need men to lead them, and if so, be led by our private parts?  Do women believe they can lead and still be women?  Do women trust each other to determine the quality of our lives?  What do the Buddhisms offer in the way of wisdom about women and leadership?  Can Buddhist women help each other cultivate our Buddha nature with respect to leadership?  Will we support one another when our attempts to lead meet resistance or hostility by those invested in maintaining androcentric institutions?  Contemplating these questions can help us understand what it means to be a Buddhist woman in the U.S. today.


* I am using the phrase "private parts” to respect monastics who do not use words to describe the vagi _ _.   It is said in the Vinaya, the rules for monastic life, “It were better for you, foolish man, that your penis entered the mouth of a deadly poisonous snake than it entered a woman. It were better that it entered a roasting-hot charcoal pit than it entered a woman. Why is that? For that reason, foolish man, you would merely die or suffer deadly pain, but you would not, at death, pass to the bad bourne, the abyss, hell; but for this reason, foolish man, at death, you would” (Vin.3.21). (accessed November 17, 2016)


1 Peter Harvey. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics (Cambridge, UK:  Cambridge University Press, 2000) 380.

2 Susan Murcott. The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha (Berkeley, CA:  Parallax Press, 1991) 161.


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