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All the unknown women

by Susan Murphy

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Every sutra session we chant or listen to a dedication to 'All the unknown women...' Sometimes it's good to chant with no thought at all, like the roar of cicadas when the heat rises. But it can also be good to stop and turn and stare at the words we all agree to share in this powerful way, and to let them turn strange under our stare. To let them take us down to where we are new and still forming, and have fewer opinions to hold the world at bay.

When John Tarrant first introduced this dedication to our sutra service in Sydney many years ago - I think to help to name a powerful structuring absence in our tradition...the feminine - still some women found it a mixed gift, and undertook to alter the words a little. The feminine is always an untidy fit in this present world; it has no comfortable Procrustean bed anywhere in the present Logos. This gives it a strange, ungainly and unbounded power. The words are:



All the unknown women

centuries of enlightened women

who hold our zazen in their arms

(no dai osho)

but still you hear a few little dai oshos break out unconsciously sometimes, and why not! There are some names that are not unknown, that can be venerated. And anyway, when did being unknown ever stand in the way of a 'great master'?

I wish I could remember all the suggested changes and the one that survived until John's next visit.... I think it was:



All the untold women

generations of enlightened women

who hold our zazen

dai osho

To make the holding power of zazen maternal was somehow thought to be a limiting image of the feminine. Another case could be made for it as the truest and most commanding magic in the human universe, one that has been haunting men with envy and contorting social relations from the moment it was first noticed. But putting that aside... the power of this image is not actually limited to the maternal, feminine as it may be. We are also held in the arms of a lover. We are held too in the arms of all beings, who support and are supported by our life. We are 'interbeings', whirling together in the dance of life and sex and death.

'Untold' was kind of interesting. Un-tolled... un-announced, as by a great tolling bell of death and history.... un-storied... as well as untold in the sense of inestimable. But the very return we made to the words, 'All the unknown women', was itself a surprise gift, because now the word 'unknown' leaps out a little each time it is gravely sung out. Words can be like hatchways and we can fall through them into depth, the moment we take them not for granted, but as granted to us.

After a similar resistance arose in the sangha in Perth around the maternal quality of this invocation, Ross Bolleter offered the words of the dedication as a new Miscellaneous Koan. Luckily, he just added to the confusion. They are words with the power of anomaly, the prick of a needle in them. Along with consciously celebrating something often in danger of being carefully 'overlooked', they test our toleration, our preparedness to live with a measure of discomfort. The koan in the words opens here. (I have heard that one woman responded to the koan with, 'Emptiness bleeds'. A powerful response!)

So I would like to do a little free-falling through the words of the dedication. We could start with the obvious mystery - who are all the unknown women? 'Generations' implies a lineage. We know the one on the charts in the backs of Zen books, Shakyamuni Buddha, Mahakashyapa, Ananda.... on to Bodhidharma... down to Dogen, Keizan, Hakuin...and right on down to the present head of this temple... Now there's a fine array of unknown women, already! 'Men', 'women' - where is that distinction in our heart of hearts? At the deepest level of deepest practice, with that water of unknowing on your lips, can you say if you are a man, or a woman?

Moving in a little closer to your own set of bones as presently assembled on this earth... Who are your generations of enlightened women? You could include some of those kindly old grandmothers, like Bodhidharma, certainly. You could give a thought to Shakyamuni's wife, who stayed back to hold the baby. You could ask yourself this question: what is 'leaving home' for a woman with children? A good question, with some great wide answers in it, as well as some sharp, wounding realisations embedded in it.

I would want to include my huge old fierce Aunt Kay, who never married, but who once ran down seven flights of steps and then up a very steep path to a cliff-edge to save my twelve-year-old brother Michael from being pushed off the cliff by the Bodgies who had invaded our little beach. (In fact, they'd already grown bored with the idea by then and were simply throwing sticks and insults at him. I forget, if I ever knew, what he had done to deserve this. Some tiny premature assertion of his fledgling masculine self, no doubt.)

You should not overlook yourself, the present head of this temple, every time you take the one seat and hold the world in zazen, cradling it in your mudra. A case could be made for the four pink sinuous angophora trees that hold hands together down by the creek at the back of my house. And the hands of your lover - yes! now there are infinite generations of enlightened women who hold your zazen in their hands... dai osho!

Rumi has a lovely expression for the ecstatic unknown in one of his Mathnawi verses:

like the ground turning green in a spring wind

like birdsong beginning in the egg

His image calls up that extraordinary dream within a dream that is the human ovary. Once I learned that in the microscopic ovaries of a female foetus, some four hundred ova are already formed in stately waiting succession within the spiral folds of the ovaries, each of them already a potential female life with its own minute spiral in time, and back and back.... or is that forward and forward? You can see how we lean infinitely forward and back in time, and how enfolded we are in the Implicate Order of the physicist, Boehm, who holds our zazen in his arms, dai osho. The birdsong beginning in the egg....

All true human beings are unknown, but some human beings' stories are more untold than others. That 'unknown', 'untold' is, in the karmic sense, regrettable and must be mourned. Kuan Yin weeps for all the untold stories and completely holds all the cries of all the silenced women. But that 'unknown' is also a vast reverberant fertile ground that fills us all, trees and clouds and we ourselves, and can be filled by all of us.

We are unknown territory in the most direct and tangible sense - our bodies are wild, as Gary Snyder has pointed out, wild animal bodies. What knowing lies beyond all words in that! We surround ourselves with domestic animals (and dream that we are running with the wolves and hunting with the big cats...), but look closely and you see the strange and arresting fact, that - at least until next week or so - we are the only animal in the house that is untamed, unshaped, undomesticated at the level of 'genetic improvement', and for our own convenience, we surround ourselves with genetically altered animals.

I read an essay by Barry Lopez on the plane coming here... He once spent hundreds of days and an endless loop of timeless time travelling in the bellies of freight 747's, with the extraordinary assemblages of things we apparently believe we need - and we need it now! I began to really think about what else might be down there in the huge holds below our untamed human feet... He says:

If you ask pilots which loads they most remember, they mention either costly objects - a $319,000 Bentley, flying 70,000 pounds of gold into Riyadh - or animals, the things that are animated in a freight shipment. Vietnamese potbelly pigs are the worst creatures to haul, their stench so permeating that pilots have to strip off their uniforms, seal them in plastic bags, and fly in clothes that they later throw away...

When large animals - draught horses and bull - kick their stalls in mid flight, you can feel the plane shudder. Goats and ostriches will chew at whatever cargo they can reach. One pilot told me about going down one night to look at a white tiger. Believing she'd been sedated, he drew close to the bars to peer in. She charged as ferociously as the cage permitted, sending the pilot reeling onto his back. The animal's roar, he said, drowned out the sound of the engines and nearly stopped his heart
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Rumi tells of the farmer who goes out to check his mule in the dark barn without a light. A lion has lain down in the place of the mule. The farmer unwittingly feels the shoulder of the lion in the utter darkness. His heart strangely stirred to beat faster, he reassuringly pats the shoulder of God. If he could see what he was doing, he would die. The unknown is the roaring in us all and in every leaf coming forth in the light; to hear it is to be devoured by it, torn free from all habitual familiarity into a familiarity far more profound and terrifying.

Deep practice reaches all the way back in to the seven-year-old, still there, who knew she was a girl but was more profoundly a human child, not male, not female. The woman who has lost a breast to breast cancer now incarnates that mystery: one side seven-years-old and free of sexual meaning; the other unmistakably woman, weighted with that karma. That breast is itself a mystery: it is a sweat gland transformed that itself transforms blood (greed, hatred, ignorance, passion) to milk (life, love, sustenance, compassion). And yet the chests of a seven year old girl or boy, with the same tender blue rivers of blood pulsing beneath the skin, cannot be told apart: another mystery!

All true human beings are unknown, as unknown as all the unknown women not recorded in the lineage. The mystery of this is met face to face in the fire light of dokusan as well. Transmission of the mystery between teacher and student is utterly direct, from unknown person to unknown person. In this strange lineage we grow 'indistinguishable' from our teacher, and we grow so much more ourselves than we could have dreamed, that only the seven-year-old we once were would know us. Practice is the cultivation of intimacy with the other, training is constantly facing the shock and terror of meeting the other, and the dark path of unknowing is deepened and darkened by the attentive teacher. So this move into intimacy is a move into the joyful terror of unknowing. What is it? What is it?

All the strong relationships of our lives - with our parents, our children, our partners, our dearest friends - are a covenant with the unknown. In joining ourselves to one another we join ourselves to the unknown. We can join one another only by joining the unknown. This unknowing is the ground of unconditional love. We do not know what this moment of opening to the other will lead to, and we open to the mystery, the unknownness, of the other. The other acquires a deep familiarity, in time, but any truly alive relationship works hard not to preserve familiarity at the terrible cost of extinguishing the unknownness of the other. The pull into relationship is the unknown in the other, and relationship becomes the conscious tending of this mystery.

Mysterious affinity, that powerful attractor that arranges all our karma as if in advance, may be paradoxically this very recognition of the unknownness of the other. We recognise it because we have met in some degree our own portion of this mystery, which is Dante's 'love that moves the stars and the other planets', and which circulates in our own veins.

This is not offered as bland reassurance of anything at all. It guarantees precisely nothing. The wilderness at the heart of the universe and of ourselves is, as Wendell Berry says, 'somewhat hospitable to us but it is also absolutely dangerous to us (it is going to kill us sooner or later), and we are absolutely dependent upon it'. Mortality and mutability and infinite variety are our terrifying condition and the place in which we make our home. The cliff-edge of birth and death, the shoulder of the lion in the apparently familiar and hospitable dark...

Zazen is intimate encounter with the (mystery of the) other: a lover's meeting with all its terror and delight, which is prefigured in the most ancient early days of our life by the way we are held in the arms of our mother. Practice is the ground of true eros, of beginning to really live the life of the body, becoming a true member of the feast. Eros is the knowing of the heart-mind; it is inter-being. To be held in the arms is to be held right against the heart, breast to breast, belly to belly, eye to eye, undefended, like a lover.

When you let down your guard, then the unknown can leap from within yourself to join some thing other in that realm of unknowing - let's call it an unknown woman - and take all of you mercifully away. It may be someone sneezing that undoes you, and as if that was not enough following it up with a nose-blow that finishes you off completely. It may be noticing how the floor exactly meets the wall. It may be a crumpled beer can on the shore, a softly repeated wink of light from a leaf-tip, or the ecstatic touch of a lover's hand... It is the ecstatic touch of the Beloved's hands, and it chooses us, exactly who we are, exactly as we are.

And at that moment of being brushed by the hands of the Beloved, who on earth are we? No-one knows. No-one is there to know.

There are degrees of intimacy with this not-knowing - and it can never be confused with not really being quite sure. Jizo's Most Intimate (Case 20, Shoyoroku) touches on such degrees, like the light stopping down as the night descends:

Jizo asked Hogen, 'Where are you going?'

Hogen said, 'I am wandering at random.'

While Hogen had been literally moving widely about between monasteries, at this moment there is also the sense of surrender to not knowing, agreeing to getting a little lost. Letting the light fade on needing to know.

Jizo said, 'What do you think of wandering?'

Hogen said, 'I don't know'.

[The dusk deepens.]

Jizo said, 'Not knowing is most intimate.'

[Very ripe indeed.]

Hogen was suddenly enlightened.

[And now, the fruit falls. A soft thud untraceable in the vast dark.]

There is an exquisite sense of the dusk of enlightenment deepening by degree throughout. And of every stage being exactly right; nothing at all missing in any degree of intimacy. 'I don't know'. That's it! 'Not knowing is most intimate' There it is again! Jizo's words hold Hogen in their arms so he can fall through to eternity.

And so we wander gladly into the dark, and meet our end.

Last time I was in sesshin here this time last year, I had one of those dreams that you seem to witness, like a vision. And it had words in it that I almost had to go and check, although nobody spoke in the dream, but its enamelled, jewelled detail was almost literary in its force, like lapidary art. Here is the dream:

Out of a dark, tangled forest a fast-travelling palanquin almost tumbles forward into a clearing. The palanquin is pitch-black, the almost shiny curtains are tightly drawn against the light. It is borne on the shoulders of four bearers, four silent men, who set it down gently onto the brilliant green grass of the forest clearing. They stand back and rest a while. After a moment or two, the curtains are parted by the one who is within. She tries to get out. At last she can crawl out onto the wet green grass on her hands and knees, but she is fully grown, a woman who is obviously noble, every rich red fold of her dress shows it clearly. And so she gets at last to her feet, blinded by the light, unable to take anything in at first, utterly dazed. And then, gradually, as the light clears for her, she begins to see the detail of where she is. She goes about the glade in rapt silence, taking in the endless minute variation of the leaves, their tiny movements in the light, the butterflies lifting off the flowers, the tiny flowers almost lost in the grass, the touch of each thing under her fingertips, the flash of light off the jewelled drops of dew, the birds flitting overhead like sudden thoughts... And she is just beginning to unfold into the total ease of being there...when the four men indicate to her that she must fold herself back into the pitch-black palanquin, the curtains are once more tightly drawn, and it is raised aloft again onto their shoulders, and once more they hurry from sight into the dark, tangled forest.

So that's the dream. Is it a dream? Who is the unknown woman? When will we have another chance like this!?

I was reminded by the dream of a vision of the Venerable Bede that John once told in distant times in teisho. As I remember the image, a tiny bird flies in an open window from out of the howling night storm. It finds itself in the sudden rich light of a great banquet feast laid out upon long tables lit by huge candelabra... The finely dressed people are moving about in joy. Do they even notice the tiny bird skimming across the room? But there is no time to even think about this because another window is open at the far side of the great room, and like a magnet the bird is drawn back into the dark, wondering, perhaps forever, What was that dream? What did I see?

And so we take our place in the generations of unknown women only for a brief eternity, and then we are back outside of time again forever... We must never forget even one of the unknown women, the fierce profound strangers we live amongst and love. They are not here for long. Yehuda Amichai says it best, in a poem, called 'Try to Remember Some Details':

Try to remember some details. Remember the clothing

of the one you love

so that on the day of loss you'll be able to say: last seen

wearing such-and-such, brown jacket, white hat.

Try to remember some details. For they have no face

and their soul is hidden and their crying

is the same as their laughter,

and their silence and their shouting rise to one height

and their body temperature is between 98 and 104 degrees

and they have no life outside this narrow space

and they have no graven image, no likeness, no memory

and they have paper cups on the day of their rejoicing

and paper plates that are used only once.


So - please take care of all the unknown women. St Benedict's Rule for his monks included a powerful injunction in the Rule of Hospitality: 'Receive all guests as Christ.' Why? Because they are unknown, and therefore may well be Christ. Please let them care for you, as they have always done since there was no time at all. And attend to them as they have needed you to do and called to you to do since your first birth cry rearranged the stars. Don't miss your chance. The paper plates are used only once.


© Susan Murphy 1998

October Sesshin

St Dorothy's Rest, Occidental, California



Reprinted with permission from Mind Moon Circle, Sydney, Summer 1998/9.


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