Swimming in the Bowl of Milk
By Catherine Seigen Spaeth
“Two frogs were dropped in a bowl with steep sides and full of milk – the very smart frog realized that there was no way to get out, and said “There’s no point in struggling and swimming!” and he drowned in the milk. The other frog was rather stupid – like most of us – and said “There must be something here to do.” And so he kept swimming, and he swam and he swam and he swam until the milk turned to butter, and he climbed out of the bowl.”
The parable above was offered to us by Grace Schireson as the introduction to her dharma talk on Sunday, August 15th. The wiser frog clung to what he knew, but it was the empty-handed one who in ceaseless activity and failure – but also with a sense of responsibility – refused to let a bad situation become worse. This swimming is the nature of our compassion, she said, where “our purpose is to transform ourselves, to take in suffering and to churn it into compassion. And so everyone is counting on us to take part in this big bowl of milk.”
On the heels of her new book, Zen Women, Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens and Macho Masters, the parable of the frogs and the bowl of milk was offered as an encouragement to acknowledge the role of gender in our lives and to honor our female ancestors. It is a responsibility that involves not being the one who is drowning in the milk, or walking forward from and as the wound, but to keep churning that butter with the full knowledge that there will likely only be a thin layer through which we are likely to fall in the end.
Schireson spoke strongly of the need for women – always associated with extravagant emotion – to express their emotions through and as their practice. The story of Yasodhara’s lament upon the Buddha’s home-leaving is in a sense the mythical origin of female practice, a painful lesson in overcoming abandonment and attachment. In my own reading I have found this, a writing from Thailand that conveys the hardship Yasodhara would have endured in her culture as a woman abandoned. The Buddha’s wife is speaking to her infant son:
Oh my beloved Rahula. You were a misfortune for your father from the very beginning. I have suffered as a widow; men look down on me; they do not respect me. A royal carriage is symbolized by its banner; a flame depends upon fire; a river exists because of the ocean, a state devoid of a ruler cannot survive. Just so, Rahula, you and I have been abandoned as persons of no account. Everyone accuses you of being illegitimate, and people look down on me as a widow. My suffering brings only tears. How can I continue to live? I am ashamed before everyone. It is better for me to take a poison and die or to put a rope around my neck and hang myself from the palace.*
In Zen Women Schireson quotes from the literature of the contemporary Buddhist conversion movement in India:
Tell me one thing, Yasodhara, how did you contain the raging storm in your small hands? Just the idea of your life shakes the earth and sends the screaming waves dashing against the shore. You would have remembered while your life swept by, the last kiss of Siddhartha’s final farewell, those tender lips. ****
Personal, sensual, and mythical in scale, these words are borrowed from a literary movement that began in the mid 20th century and as the expression of the largest caste of untouchable women in India who converted en masse to Buddhism.** Schireson is citing an excerpt from the poem “Yasodhara” by Hira Bansode and first published in 1981 – you can read the full poem here. In Schireson’s text Hira Bansode’s words are removed from their 20th century context and situated without authorship as an expression of the origins of a gendered Zen Buddhism. In this way Schireson amplifies the mythical power of Hira Bansode’s words.
It is Mahapajapati, the Buddha’s stepmother who raised him, who came to the Buddha three times to be accepted upon the spiritual path. Having accepted untouchable men as his followers, the Buddha denied Mahapajapati at each request, leaving her no choice but to shave her head, don the robes, and walk for over a hundred miles with her followers – largely the abandoned women of Siddhartha’s harem and widows of a recent war.*** Mahapajapati then appealed to Ananda, the “male insider,” who could speak on her behalf.
With the above parable in mind, it is as though Mahapajapati fell into the milk the moment that she realized that she had nothing worth keeping, and donned her robes with no encouragement from the child she had raised. Even Ananda would have to plead with the Buddha three times over until women could be accepted and in short order the eight rules would appear, giving nuns of lifetime practice inferior status in relation to the male novice, and with no right to speak against him. By whatever means available we are perpetually treading in the milk, only finding our hold in thin skins and slippery clumps of butter as they appear.
In Schireson’s book, the female gender appears in it’s varied yet limited and even mythified forms. The purpose of the book, however, is to reach beyond these myths in order to retrench them in the actually lived conditions of women as practitoners. I leave you with another poem cited by Grace Schireson, by the Korean nun Song’yong Sunim (1903-1994):
Outside the Zen Hall of Naewonsa
The snow-covered world
Is the garment of Avalokitesvara
Expounding, like flowing water,
The Dharma inexpressible by the body,
Inaudible to the body, Invisible to the body,
Inexpressible by, and inaudible and invisible
So who is this wonderful person
Who expresses, hears and sees it?
Avalokitesvara, ever responding to the cries of the world, spreads her robes upon it as the inexpressible, inaudible and invisible refuge of no separation. Who is wearing these robes?
*Donald Swearer, trans., “Bimba’s Lament,” in Buddhism in Practice, Donald S. Lopez, ed., Princeton University Press, 1955, as quoted in Ranjini Obeyesekere, Yasodhara, the Wife of the Bodhisattva, NY: SUNY Press, c. 2009, p. 8.
**The poem that Schireson cites was found in the article by Eleanor Zelliott, “Buddhist Women of the Contemporary Maharastrian Movement,” in Jose Ignacion Cabezon, Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender, SUNY Press, c. 1992, pp. 91-107. Grace Schireson does not mention the author of this beautiful poem or the context for it. The writer’s name is Hira Bansode, and the poem was first published in 1981, in the publications Stri. Excerpts from Zelliot’s article, including an appropriate footnote crediting the poet, can be found here.
***Susan Murcott, First Buddhist Women: Poems and Stories of Awakening, Paralax Press, c. 1991, pp. 26-27.
****Grace Schireson, Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens, and Macho Masters, MA, Wisdom Publications, c. 2009, pp. 46 and 106, respectively.
Copyright © 2008, Empty Hand Zen Center. All rights reserved.