Master Shiche asked his student, the nun Qiyuan Xinggang, “Buddha nature is not illusory. What was it like when you were gestating the spiritual embryo?”
She replied, “It felt solidified, deep and solitary.”
“When you gave birth to the embryo, what was it like?”
“It was like being completely stripped bare.”
“When you met with the Buddha, what was it like?”
“I took advantage of the opportunity to meet the Buddha face to face.”
Shiche said, “Good! Good! You will be a model for those in the future!”
Qiyuan Xinggang (1597–1654) can be considered the matriarch of seventeenth-century women Chan masters, not only because she was the one of the first to set foot on the stage in that century but also because she left seven women Dharma successors, one of whom wrote a relatively detailed biographical study of her. This is a wonderful and very unusual awakening story because the imagery used here, that of gestation and birth, are not typical of the more male-oriented traditional stories. Those stories often entail a spirit of confrontation or warriorship, the path of the solitary hero.
The spiritual embryo is a traditional Taoist image, and I think anyone who has done any length of meditation understands that feeling of nurturing something within us. You can call it a spiritual embryo, maybe you can call it Buddha nature, but when we sit zazen we can feel that we are nurturing something very tender within our hearts.
I like the teacher’s opening statement that Buddha nature is not illusory. In other words, it’s not just an idea. We really do have this very grounded, very sane, wakeful quality within us. And then he asks the student – what’s that like for you? What is it to nurture that part of yourself? And her answer is very personal: solidified, deep, and solitary. This is a practice we have to do ourselves, and while we have the support of good spiritual friends, ultimately we must go deeply within ourselves, and the practice of nurturing this quality within our hearts is indeed solitary. We can talk about it with others, but ultimately it’s our own path and our own experience.
The image of childbirth as a metaphor for awakening is beautiful and Qiyuan’s response is certainly accurate: it is like being completely stripped bare. When my wife was in labor with our daughter, not quite a year ago, I was completely awed by the totality of her effort. For those who have experienced it, either as a mother or as a father present and witnessing the woman’s effort, you know what I mean. In Zen, we talk a lot about making a wholehearted effort. Dogen talks about our practice as “total engagement with upright sitting.” A woman in labor is truly totally engaged. The way I thought about it was that Jessica was “all in”. All her chips were on the table. There was truly nothing left out, nothing held back in her effort. It was extremely humbling.
What is it to be stripped bare in our spiritual life? Is that something we can do through our own effort, or is it something that just happens to us? Can we do a spiritual practice half-heartedly? Can we live half-heartedly? Certainly, Qiyuan is pointing toward a particular quality of effort that we should make in our lives. Are you up for that?
The teacher then shifts the question: “When you met the Buddha, what was that like?”. In other words, when you have made this effort and really come face to face with this ground of reality, what is that for you? How do you do that? And Qiyuang tells her teacher that she met the Buddha face-to-face.
Our tradition places a particular emphasis on the face-to-face meeting with the teacher, sort of in the same way that we are taught to meet our experience directly in zazen. The transmission of the dharma from generation to generation is often described in terms of face-to-face transmission, or warm hand-to-warm hand transmission. It’s a very intimate meeting between teacher and student.
Continuing with this metaphor of the spiritual life as childbirth, and how we may meet that difficulty or challenge face-to-face. What’s that like? Is there some fear there? Some excitement? But ultimately here the question is: can you meet that face-to-face, and what does it mean to meet face-to-face anyway? It also reminds me of that profound moment when you first see your baby. Did you meet her face-to-face? This is the direct experience of meeting your own heart.
The teacher then congratulates the student, and I don’t think he’s being snarky or ironic: Good! This kind of effort and willingness to meet one’s own experience is exactly what will inspire future generations of students. When you’ve had that kind of intense experience, and especially if you were able to meet it head on and not try to swerve around it, it changes you. You become a different person, and others will see that in you. You can see the change as a woman becomes a mother, or as a man becomes a father, and you can see it in a person of practice who has met their experience directly, over and over again. That’s what we are practicing here.
–Taisan Joe Galewsky