Liangshan couldn’t answer Tongan’s question. Tongan said, “In studying Buddhism, if you don’t reach this state, that is most miserable.” The history of Buddhism is the history of people suffering great adversity and going to great lengths to encounter the dharma, to practice and realize that which is true, to dedicate themselves to a genuine spiritual path. The question is why? Why do people do this?
We live at a time when we’ve been conditioned to think that everything should be easy. This is a dangerous thought. At no other time in the history of humanity have people thought such a thing in the way that is commonplace for many of us today, to feel that we’re entitled to a life of ease. In fact, adversity has always been understood as a part of life. With modern technology, we have made life easier and more comfortable. That’s not a bad thing. But one of the consequences is a shift in our way of thinking. We’ve learned—been conditioned—to assume that everything should be easy.
To take up the most fundamental questions of life and death, of human existence, questions that have gripped human beings since we have been walking the earth, is not just to take them up philosophically. It’s to actually look deeply at our lives through those questions, to gain some genuine understanding about what this life is, about the nature of things, about the nature of our own existence. Who am I? What is the nature of this I? What is the real nature of suffering? Why does it arise? What is the nature of peace and equanimity? Why do we both yearn for peace and yet fight against it? It’s unrealistic to think that we can take up these most essential questions without great effort, that we can want to transform our lives in the most profound way possible and yet expect not to be inconvenienced or not to have to shift or rearrange anything in our lives. Most of us would never say that we expect that to be so, but we may still be confused and distressed when our practice requires significant time, energy and resources. It’s as though we want everything to change and we want nothing to change.
One of the female ancestors whose name we chant each Sunday is a Japanese woman named Ryonen Genso. Ryonen lived in the seventeenth century, and she grew up in a family of nobility. She received a fine education and at a young age was assigned to be the companion of the granddaughter of the Empress which allowed her to experience a great deal of privilege. Yet through all this, and from a very early age, she had always wanted to be a nun. Her brothers were both monastics, and she would ask them endless questions about the dharma and the religious life. However, her father wanted her to marry, and she was obligated to do what her father wanted, but she managed to work out a deal with him. She agreed to marry and bear a child for her husband if after doing so she would be released from the obligation. Her father and husband agreed, and so she went on to not only bear a child but also found another wife for her husband and was then released.
She immediately went to a nearby monastery and was ordained. She left after about a year because she was dissatisfied with the training—it wasn’t rigorous enough. Then she went to another master at a temple named Kofukuji. She was denied admission by the abbot because she was a woman. She left and went to another, smaller hermitage temple to study with another master in the same lineage, and he also refused her because she was a woman. Some versions of her story indicate that she wasn’t allowed to enter because she was a particularly beautiful woman, which could have led to problems for the male monastics. In any event, when she was refused entry a second time she went to a nearby inn and scarred her face. She then returned to one of the previous masters, knocked on the door, and seeing how determined she was, he took her in and gave her ordination. It’s pathetic and tragic that she had to do this to gain entry—that her sincerity was not taken seriously until she hurt herself. But it’s also a testimony to what was happening within her. She so deeply wanted the dharma that she was committed to finding a way in. What is it that drives someone to do that?