Bowing to the Unseen

Zen ancestors with disabilities

by Rev. Jundo Cohen and Kokuu Andy McLellan

In 2010, a list of female Zen ancestors to complement the existing all male lineage was produced and accepted by the Soto Zen Buddhist Association,.  This was a much-needed reminder that even if the established lineage chart is entirely male, the history of Buddhism, and Zen Buddhism in particular, has included people of both genders.

At Treeleaf Zendo, we similarly wanted to recognise that Zen Buddhism has included people whose bodies and/or minds have presented extra difficulties in practicing the way, and that those difficulties continue to exist until this day.  Being able to physically access a Zen centre can be difficult for those who are less than able-bodied and understanding the teachings may prove difficult for those who are not neuro-typical.  Disabled people often feel unseen by society and underrepresented in history and we hope that honouring their place as Buddha ancestors will in some way help to change that.  The fact that one of us (Kokuu) lives with disability and illness has been a motivating factor towards inclusivity.

Acknowledging that people with disabilities have been present in Zen practice throughout its history may give a sense of recognition to similar students who follow the Zen way today, as well as reminding others that we should try to make the buddha way as accessible as we can.  Physical and mental limitations often involve considerable suffering and this can be exacerbated by the attitudes of society to people with disability.  Zen reminds us that whether we are without a limb, or with limbs that work improperly, a brain that has a chemical imbalance or other impairment, we are complete and whole in and of ourselves.  However, that does not mean that modifications do not need to be put in place to promote the inclusion of people with disabilities where they may struggle to gain access.

Using an annotated bibliography from 2013 entitled ‘Buddhism and Responses to Disability, Mental Disorders and Deafness in Asia’, one of our sangha members compiled a list of notable figures in Asian Buddhism with disabilities.  This is far from an exhaustive account and many names have doubtless been forgotten.  However, it represents a starting point for a list of ancestors to be chanted in our Zendo.  We include it here for anyone wishing to do similarly.

( * = Bell and Deep Bow)

The Venerable Bhaddiya (Lakuntaka Bhaddiya) Dai Osho
Whose body was bent, and who met with scorn, but who persisted without resentment, and was praised by the Buddha for the highest attainment.

The Bodhisattva as Baby Prince Dai Osho
Who lived in a body without hearing, speech or free limb, in protest of injustice and cruelty in this world.

Khujjuttara Dai Osho
Bent of back, she cleansed her own heart, and was praised by the Buddha as “most learned.”

Cakkhupala Dai Osho
Without sight, he saw clearly the true effects of malice and of killing which most others cannot see.

Patacara Pancasatalsidasi Dai Osho
At the deaths of the family she loved, left emotionally troubled and living homeless in the streets, a victim of derision from passers-by, the Buddha showed her the True Path and True Home through Impermanence.

Sanu Dai Osho
Prone to fits then little understood, seizures once thought an evil curse, he opens all our eyes.

Jianzhen (Ganjin) Dai Osho
Courageous and learned, without sight, he came from China to Japan to bring Buddhist Teachings and arts of healing.

Suppabuddha Dai Osho
Living with leprosy, he teaches not to judge by appearance or false beauty when many would turn away.

The Moso Dai Osho
Without sight, barred from Priesthood but with lutes in hand, they brought the Teachings to others in music and tales.

Arya Chudapanthaka Dai Osho
Slow to read and learn in words such that others gave up, the Buddha taught him to polish without and sweep the mind within.

Toju Reiso Dai Osho
Quick to forget, the slow student who persevered, a protector of Buddhism in difficult times, mender of sandals as his only gift, yet becoming the Abbot of great temples.

Those men and women, each and all Teachers in their way, who have struggled with addictions, confusion, depression and mental conditions often misunderstood. To all the many other honored ones, same yet diverse beings through the generations, to whom the doors were closed, or whose names have been forgotten or left unsaid. We now seek to welcome all with doors flung open, halls unbarred.

As we observed earlier, this list of Zen ancestors with disability is far from complete and if anyone can add to it, we would be very grateful to hear of other names to bring to light.

May all beings be free of suffering; may all beings feel safe and still.
May all beings be free of enmity; may all beings be loving, grateful and kind.
May all beings be healthy and at ease in all our ills.
May all beings be at peace, embracing all conditions of life.

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