Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Do women experience greater distractions?

In the Diamond Sutra, chapter two, the Buddha answers Subhuti’s question about how a “noble son” or “noble daughter” should act as they embark upon the path of the bodhisattva.

In the edition translated by Red Pine, there is a quote by Chiang Wei-nung that says:

In Buddhist sutras it is sometimes said that women experience such great distractions that they cannot become buddhas, but must first be re-born as men.

Wei-nung then goes on to say that the Buddha did not see male or female and that the dharma is shared by all.  However, he makes an interesting distinction between love and compassion, which supposedly explains why women are so easily distracted:

Still the distractions of women are great.  First is the distraction of motherhood.  Second, they frequently confuse love for compassion.  Compassion is impartial.  It knows neither direction nor degree.  Love, meanwhile is a river of life and death, of endless rebirth.

Of course, being a 21st century American woman, the idea that a man is more suited for spiritual practice is outrageous to me.  It does seem like a very old idea that has certainly pervaded religions for thousands of years.  [An example is the attitude toward women found in the ancient Upanishads, where women are likened to cows, and where re-birth as a man would definitely be an excellent idea!] 

I wonder about the impartial “compassion” of the supposedly great Zen teachers such as Genpo Mertzel and Eido Shimano, who had to dis-robe due to sexual predation.   Perhaps there are female sexual predators, but this seems to be the domain of men – the ones more suitable for the bodhisattva path – or so it is said.

But as I was reading this while parked at Linda Mar beach, I was somewhat startled to see that I am easily distracted, certainly by love.  I have a deeply devotional nature and have loved my two gurus and now my Zen teacher.  Although this love has inspired me all my life to dedicate myself to meditation, reading, service, etc, it has been painful, and it has been a distraction.  After a lifetime of inspiration and terrible disappointments, I think that it might be a good idea to be impartial in my love and compassion.

Well, that sounds good.  It sounds like some kind of spiritual maturity.  But is it?

We have idealized impressions of Buddha’s disciples as leading a life of absolute discipline.  We have impressions of monks living in their cells, undisturbed and undistracted by human emotions such as anger, lust, boredom, attachment, and doubt.  We have this idea that with enough practice and resolve, we also can be free of these distracting [and degrading] human emotions.

I think that this is not possible nor even desirable.  Although we can witness our emotions in meditation and can gradually move to some peace of mind, and although we can step back for a few blessed minutes in zazen, we are human, and it is good to love and be attached and passionate about our lives.

It is difficult for me to imagine compassion devoid of deep, painful human experience and suffering.  How helpful would a friend be –how compassionate could she be – if she had not also suffered the attachment and the confusion that can often be found in loving another?

I suppose there must be a middle way between being thrown about by human emotions, on the one hand, and being completely detached from emotions, on the other.  And I suspect that applies to men and women alike.