A confession: I read Women of the Way: Discovering 2500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom because it was written by Sallie Tisdale. I know very little about Buddhism.
I have been an admirer of Tisdale’s writing for more than a quarter of a century, ever since I wrote a review of her book Lot’s Wife: Salt and the Human Condition for the Chicago Tribune.
That book, like most of her work, was, in essence, a book-long essay — in that case, about a common, everyday object that we don’t usually give much thought to. Others include The Best Thing I Ever Tasted: The Secret of Food (2000) and Talk Dirty to Me: An Intimate Philosophy of Sex (1994).
This book isn’t like those.
This book is a sort of Buddhist version of the Lives of the Saints books that, as a Catholic, I’m very familiar with. It contains the thumbnail biographies of 60 or so important women in the history of Buddhism.
Tisdale, who was training for the Buddhist priesthood when her book was published in 2006, writes that she has studied as much of the historical record as she could in order to write these profiles, but, often, much was missing. Women teachers and nuns have been given short shrift by the Buddhist establishment — which is to say, men — for much of the history of the religion. So Tisdale filled in the gaps as best she could.
This is not a work of scholarship itself, but a narrative history, using known facts in historical context to tell the story of a life — of many lives. I have used what facts I can find to place the life of each woman in a proper context of time and culture, using her words and her teachers’ words, the events of their time, wherever it is known. But I have had to use my imagination to find the lives of these women. For the imagining, I don’t apologize.
In her introduction, Tisdale focuses on the many ways that male Buddhists have treated and continue to treat female believers as second-class citizens of the faith. That’s all very familiar to someone like me whose Catholic religion, as defined by its male leaders, does the same thing.
One Buddhist tale, for instance, asserts that women prevent others from achieving rebirth and, thus, are “the source of hell…The dead snake and dog are detestable, but women are even more detestable than they are.”
And there’s the Buddhist saying: “The best thing about Buddhist heaven is that it has no women.”
So, there really hasn’t been a book like Women of the Way before. It’s an attempt to recover lives and stories that have been ignored, forgotten, lost.
As I said above, I don’t understand Buddhism. I have only vague impressions of the faith’s core beliefs. So, to adherents of the religion, I offer my apologies for any erroneous statements I make in this review.
To give a sense of Women of the Way, I have focused on Tisdale’s tales of six of the 60-plus women. Each section involves a longish quote from the book. I don’t know how representative these quotes are of Buddhism, but they resonate with me.
In part, that’s because they portray women who are, at times, fierce and tranquil and searching and finding. And also because their sense of the transcendent echoes, in some way, mine. And also because Tisdale’s writing is so luminous.
Here they are:
Sumana was the sister of a king and was restricted by the demands of court life. “Her skin felt wrong much of the time, too tight, too loose — someone else’s skin.” She longed for a hard, plain life.
Even in a life without choices, we make choices all the time. Late on a summer night, unable to sleep, she heard the frogs calling to each other in the garden — brrrbit, rrbbit, they called. Choose, choose! Choose your mind. She went to the window and stared at the heavy moon; an unseen bird gurgled like a baby. Choose — there is only now, this moment, and it is passing no matter what you do with it. It will pass if you spend it doing exactly what you want, and it will pass if you spend it longing for another moment, and it will pass if you spend it wishing for another life.
How could anything possibly be missing when this moment is everything?
One day, walking in a mango grove, Subba was confronted by a drunk young man who barred her way and demanded sex from her. “I love your eyes,” he said. “Your languid eyes like a forest sprite.”
“This body is death,” Subba said, and she tried to teach him, but he wouldn’t listen.
Whatever she said, he parried, and then finally he grabbed for her, catching the belt of her robe, laughing, “I love your beautiful eyes!”
She spun away, tearing the belt out of his hand. “These eyes!” she said fiercely. “These eyes are balls, bubbles, slime!” Saying this, she plucked her left eye out and tried to hand it to him.
“Come here, then! You can have my beautiful eye!”
Teijitsu was a nun who was born with a bad hip and was always in pain. From time to time, she would be afflicted with self-pity and resentment.
As she grew older, she began to see these emotions as a distraction from life.
The waves of feeling would roll past, and she could feel life rising and falling like the deck of a ship — as though her own body were rolling through the waves of time. Arising, abiding, and falling away — this is what the Blessed One taught. This is all it is, she thought, this is it. All things arise, abide and fall way, and we suffer only because we hold to what we are bound to lose.
Pain is a given, but suffering — that we make. This is all he taught, she reminded herself, walking through the rooms of the nunnery as though rowing a raft through the tide — up, down, up again.
This is all he taught, she thought, until it was a mantra, until it was breath; everything rises and falls away, the trees and her hip, the way the sun fell across her lap in a moment of repose, the bit of sweet fruit she loved for supper — all would disappear.
Amid the mahua trees, Maya gave birth to Siddhartha who was to become the Buddha.
His eyes were blue, and his body a shining gold. He immediately stood up, and, as he walked, a white lotus bloomed in each of his footprints. “This is my last birth,” he said. “I am born for the welfare of the entire world.”
Maya saw all this through a veil; she was slipping away already, sliding into sleep, hot and satisfied with the slow pulse of fierce, almost unbearable love, like all new mothers…
Maya was done with this life. Birth and death are just moments, mere breaths, and when the time comes to slide from one to the other, there is no point in resistance. She had grown past the suffering that cannot be avoided by even the luckiest of creatures. She slipped away without struggle into the inexhaustible light of abundance, the sublime, the omnipresent, the unspeakable, the inexpressible — that is, into love.
Over the centuries, there have been times when Buddhist teachers were open to ordaining women. But, in many eras, they pushed women to the periphery instead, denying them access to temples and asserting that females were impure and unable to reach Enlightenment.
Sometimes, this was expressed by demanding that women seeking ordination answer esoteric questions that monks didn’t have to.
One question often used went like this: “What is the gate through which the buddhas enter the world?” A monk asked this of Ninpo, who was abbot at [the women-only temple] Tokeiji at the time. She grabbed the monk’s head and stuck it between her legs.
Wanting to become a Buddhist nun, Dhamma asked her husband for permission. He refused. A year later, she asked again. Again, she was refused. And five years, and ten years, and forty years until he finally died.
But, during that time, she moved beyond frustration and depression even though she was not happy.
At first she had thought being happy was what she’d needed and could never have. But to her surprise, her slow and growing and then vast surprise, she found that she didn’t need to be happy. Enlightenment, which is tranquility itself, isn’t happiness. Her housework and chores became the rules by which she governed her life. Step by step, she turned ownership into austerity. She examined her mind carefully and slowly, slowly, turned complexity into unity; too many choices and decisions into discipline. Her life was often tedious, so she worked at turning boredom into concentration….When Dhamma stopped trying to be happy, stopped needing to have nothing to need, she found herself relaxing into peace. She found herself not happy, but completely at peace.
Patrick T. Reardon