Zazen and Menstrual Blood Hell

In medieval China and later Japan, a Buddhist cult developed around a sutra called the "Blood Bowl Hell." At that time, people believed women were inherently impure due to menstrual blood and pregnancy, and so this sutra described a special hell for women in which, I kid you not, women were trapped in giant pools of menstrual blood, abused by demons, and forced to drink the blood. Women believed that if they carried around copies of this sutra, or were cremated with copies of the sutra on their bodies, they would be able to escape the Blood Bowl Hell. There are some pretty fun illustrations of this hell.

Many religions and cultures have viewed women as inherently impure, and Chinese and Japanese Buddhist culture was no different. Throughout the Buddhist world, it was widely believed that women could not attain enlightenment and needed to be reborn in the body of a man to achieve salvation, and different traditions and institutions have different takes on this. What's interesting to me about this legacy is the apologist take on it-- that women are spiritually limited not because of their uterine lining shedding every month (or whatever), but simply that a woman's life is harder; it's filled with more household responsibilities, children, taking care of your husband, as well as pervasive sexism, danger of rape and abuse, etc.

This rationale is easier for me to get behind, although not entirely. I am a straight-up modernist and I believe Buddhist cosmology is a useful psychological tool, not a literal reality. Like other Buddhist modernists, I think that hell is a metaphor for our mind. And so the Blood Bowl Hell is a metaphor for those FUCKING FIVE DAYS OF A MONTH WHEN EVERYTHING IS TERRIBLE.

[Important disclaimer: not all women have vaginas! And not all women have periods. Just think about that for like 5 seconds. Ok. Carrying on]

People with vaginas-- and people with penises who live with people with vaginas-- know that for about five days every month, everything in the universe is terrible. For me there is about three days in which I am irritable and angry at everything, a mood which can only be ameliorated with chocolate or greasy Chinese food. This is followed by 3-4 days of inconsolable weeping over nothing.

Zazen teaches us to see, and to really know, that all emotions and thoughts are impermanent. Uchiyama Roshi brilliantly wrote about this Opening the Hand of Thought,

This is zazen. Yet again thoughts arise by themselves. Again you return to zazen and they disappear. We simply repeat this; this is called kokusoku (awareness of Reality). The most important point is to repeat this kokusoku billions of times. This is how we should practice zazen. If we practice in this way we cannot help but realize that our thoughts are really nothing but secretions of the brain. Just as our salivary glands secrete saliva, or as our stomachs secrete gastric juices, so our thoughts are nothing but secretions of the brain. 
From the mind of zazen, thoughts and emotions are just a secretions of the brain. And indeed, his observations about the mind pretty much echoes scientific understanding of hormones. Take a look at this handy chart of monthly hormones for people with vaginas:

I mean... look at all that estrogen and progesterone spiking! The struggle is real. But the older I get and the more I practice zazen, the more I've come to understand that my consciousness is like a tornado: the outside is moving about erratically, but the inside is calm. My job is to be fully at both the center and the edges of the tornado, to be in touch with all aspects of human existence. On the outer edge of a tornado it is chaos-- the wind is whipping around, uprooting trees and houses--, but inside, in the eye of the storm, it's perfectly still.

This month the brain secretions of the blood bowl hell hit me pretty hard. I spent a day and a half crying over nothing. The tornado was pretty wild and reckless, and yet, a small part of me was able to understand that this state of mind would change, that these feelings were just secretions of the brain. At the center of the tornado there was an understanding of impermanent nature of these emotions. I don't mean to say the tornado wasn't brutal. It was. Houses were destroyed. But the inside was calm.

It's not entirely true to say our emotions are just secretions. They are just secretions, but they are very real secretions. The heart sutra says, "Form is emptiness and emptiness is form," but Dogen added, "Form is form and emptiness is emptiness." Here we inhabit the entire tornado.

In the Satipatthana Sutta, the Buddha said, "When a practitioner walks, he is aware, 'I am walking.' When he is standing, he is aware, 'I am standing.' When he is sitting, he is aware, 'I am sitting.' When he is lying down, he is aware, 'I am lying down.' In whatever position his body happens to be, he is aware of the position of his body." We can add to this and say, "When a person with a vagina feels everything in the world is terrible, she is aware, 'I am PMSing.'"

Another famous saying about Zen is, "Before I began practice, mountains were mountains. After practicing deeply several years, I saw that mountains were not mountains. After several more years I understood that mountains were just mountains." We can say, "In the beginning of practice, PMS is PMS. When we practice more, we see that PMS is not PMS. After more realization, we see that PMS is just PMS."

For this reason, I don't believe we are doomed to a hell of drinking our own menstrual blood while being abused by demons. In fact, I think people with vaginas are uniquely suited for this practice. In the eye of the storm, there is room for all of it. And when we are able to inhabit and know both the center and edge of the tornado, we are more human. We are closer to truth.


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My class on feminism and Buddhism runs the month of April at Angel City Zen Center. Please consider signing up if you are interested http://www.dogensanghalosangeles.org/events/buddhism-bodies-gender-identity-throughout-buddhist-history-part-1/. Student discounts are available.

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