Ilia Shinko Perez, Roshi, MA is the co-spiritual leader of the Great Mountain Zen Center and abbess of Maitreya Abbey in Berthoud, Colorado. She received transmission in the Zen tradition from Shishin Roshi in 2000, after 20 years of practice with Shishin Roshi, Philip Kapleau Roshi, and Pat Hawk Roshi. Her most recent book is The Zen Priestess and the Snake: A Woman’s Path of Transformation and Healing Through Rediscovery of the Great Mother Tradition (Sumeru Books 2020). Read Buddhistdoor Global’s interview with Shinko Roshi here.
The Priestess and the Snake
In 2015, I formally received inka transmission from Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao, abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles, and I could call myself a Zen roshi or Zen master. After so many years of searching, I had finally found a woman of wisdom in my own tradition and my own lineage! Roshi Egyoku understood my experiences and encouraged me to spread the Wisdom Seed of the Great Mother.
Roshi Egyoku wrote the following verse on my empowerment rakusu, the vestment a Zen Buddhist wears as a mark of his or her commitment to follow the Way of the Buddha. The name Ekai means Ocean of Wisdom. It was the name given to me in 2004 during my empowerment ceremony by Shishin Roshi when I became a sensei, or independent teacher.
Ekai Shinko, life after life, birth after birth,
May the Body of Light illumine the Great Ocean.
Do not let die the wisdom seed of the Great Mother of the Buddhas!
Truly, I implore you.
As a Zen roshi, I hold dokusan or private interviews with those who practice meditation and want direction in their practice, or who want to hear my suggestions regarding some problem they might be having in their lives. Sometimes they just want me to listen to them.
Priestesses in ancient Mesopotamia were considered sacred holy women who were able to see into the future. Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization, was the old name for the regions between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, which ecompass present-day Iraq, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Kuwait, and parts of Iran. From Greece to Mesopotamia, the remains of numerous temples and oracular shrines dated to the Neolithic era have been found. In these temples, the priestesses of the Mother Goddess gave military, political, and personal counsel to those who came seeking it. For the priestesses, the future was not something determined by uncontrollable fates but was malleable—something that we could act upon if we could know the most beneficial actions to take.
Psychic abilities are something that can happen as part of developing a deep meditation practice. However, this is not something that we pursue; it is more like a side effect. Since, at a deep level, we are all connected and time doesn’t exist in the absolute sense, it is not surprising that sometimes we can see fragments of the future.
On 7 September 2001, before I received inka from Roshi Egyoku, I had an important dream when I was at Great Mountain Zen Center with Shishin Roshi. I was inside a building in flames. I saw other buildings collapsing. Time stopped inside the dream. I had a message that I had to gather the people and start prayer circles. I did that in the dream. I gathered the people who were around the city and we started prayer circles. It was a disturbing dream. It was so real. In the morning I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I painted it over and over. I showed my paintings to Shishin Roshi and I said to him: “It surely looks like New York City.”
He was going on a trip to Utah for a week and he left me in charge of the Zen center. A few days later, the terrorist attack took place at the World Trade Center, the Twin Towers, in New York City. That same day, I started the prayer circles at the Great Mountain Zen Center, and this is the prayer that arose. We call it the Prayer for Peace:
All Buddhas, Bodhisattvas,
Protectors of the Dharma,
And the Three Treasures,
With all sentient beings
I open my heart to transform,
Ignorance, violence, and suffering,
May healing and Peace prevail
Throughout the Dharma Worlds.
Maha, Prajna, Paramita
Nineteen years later, we continue reciting this prayer as part of our chanting services during retreats.
It seems clear to me now that the origin of the Catholic practice of confession was a deviation from the priestess tradition of giving advice. In Christianity, the body and the flesh and even our human nature are seen as sources of evil—see Galatians 5:19-21 and Romans 7:5 as examples.
Conversely, Zen Buddhism can bring us to experience that our nature is a source of pure goodness. This is in part why I love Zen Buddhism so much. However, this nature is obscured due to our deluded thoughts. Through meditation we can see beyond the veil of thoughts into our own true nature of goodness. To do this takes practice and determination, but anyone can realize it.
How do the Goddess Practices work?
The Goddess Practices redirect the energy of the thinking mind to create an inner space in which you can be at ease and open to receive the healing energies of your own awakened nature. During the practices, you will be guided on how to use the powers of concentration of your conceptual mind to connect with your own healing energies, symbolized by the different goddesses.
Our feelings and emotions are always an expression of our own compassionate energy, which is constantly arising from our deepest nature. When this energy is obstructed or encumbered due to our reactivity, it gives rise to the unwholesome energies of pride and arrogance; anger and hatred; greed and attachment; jealousy and envy; ignorance and fear. Our usual tactic is to freeze the energy that naturally emanates from our deepest nature due to our habits of attraction and revulsion. We grasp at emotional energies that we judge as good feelings and we try to avoid or push away emotional energies that we consider to be uncomfortable or painful. Then the naturally arising compassion solidifies and no longer flows in a beneficial way. The Goddess Practices are skillful means to begin to allow this conceptualized emotional energy to return to its natural flow. These practices are here to help us unfreeze the ways in which we have solidified our own emotional energy, and to enable that energy to flow again in its natural form manifesting the five wisdoms.
The Goddess of the Earth’s Light helps to transform pride and arrogance into the wisdom of equanimity. The Goddess of the Water’s Light helps to transform anger and hatred into mirror-like wisdom, a wisdom that helps us to see clearly without the projection of the ego mind. The Goddess of the Fire’s Light helps to transform attachment and greed into the wisdom of discernment. The Goddess of the Air’s Light helps to transform envy and jealousy into all-accomplishing wisdom, which is the wisdom to accomplish our deeper purpose on this Earth. The Goddess of the Space’s Light helps to transform ignorance and fear and to realize the endless spring of unconditional love in our own hearts.
Zen and Goddess Practice
As Buddhism migrated east from India, it adapted to the mind and culture of each country in which it took root. In India, it evolved from a focus on individual liberation to include the liberation of all beings. This new form is known as Mahayana or Great Vehicle Buddhism, and it created the notion of the bodhisattva as the ideal of one who devotes oneself to awakening all beings before oneself.
When Indian Mahayana Buddhism migrated to China, it was merged with Taoism to create Chan Buddhism, which was further refined as Zen in Japan, with its culture of the samurai and the aesthetic arts of tea, flower arranging, and calligraphy.
When Zen Buddhism arrived in the United States in the 20th century, it took on at least three characteristics that distinguish it from the Buddhism of Japan, Korea, and other countries of origin. These differences include: (1) a preponderance of lay people practicing in the US in contrast to the preponderance of monastics and priests in Asia; (2) women and men practicing as equals in the United States, whereas women are in an inferior position in Asia; and (3) Americans are vastly more concerned with their emotional and psychological well-being as part of practice. That element is often ignored in Japan. These elements challenged the patriarchal heritage of Zen and gave rise to an interest in a lineage of women adepts. Veneration of the Goddess in Zen is a natural consequence of these changes. Women are awakening to their expression of the feminine wisdom of Zen and to the rediscovery of the Sacred Feminine in and as themselves.