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Print Dance of Gender: A Woman's Guide to American Buddhism


Author Sandy Boucher introduces the American Buddhist scene—its issues, weaknesses and strengths—to women interested in taking up Buddhist practice. 

Buddhism has traditionally been a male-dominated religion. That characteristic extends both to most temples or centers in Asia and to those founded by Asian immigrants, which tend to be headed by male teachers.

Buddhist centers that cater mostly to Westerners are more open to women's leadership. In Zen centers you will see women officiating as priests and giving dharma talks. In Vipashyana settings, many women have distinguished themselves as teachers. Tibetan Buddhism relies heavily upon the leadership of male lamas from Tibet. Now and then a female lama is recognized, but this is rare. Very often in Buddhist settings-as in other religious traditions and also secular institutions-women may be given responsibilities and earn leadership positions while the power to make decisions and guide the institution remains in the hands of men.

It may take you a while, in any particular Buddhist environment, to understand the dynamics of leadership. A seemingly egalitarian situation may turn out to be tightly controlled by men, with women participating only as underlings and enablers. On the other hand, an institution that may seem hierarchical and excluding of female input may in practice offer women greater opportunities.

I personally believe that an egalitarian Buddhist institution is possible only if the very top leader or teacher is a woman, and one with socially enlightened views. This is not to dismiss or diminish the status and contribution of women in centers headed by men. They have struggled diligently and valiantly to break down male hierarchies and open the way for women, often with considerable success. But the symbolic significance of looking up to see, at the front of the room, yet again, a man, simply reinforces ingrained social patterns. The assumptions that gather around a male leader like a gang of sprites, reach deep into the conditioning of his female followers and elicit a subservience that may be obvious or subtle but is extremely hard to shake.

Women Teachers

Already in our young American Buddhism, we have seen a tradition of strong women teachers. There have been several "generations" of female teachers, and it is possible to find and study with most of these women now.

Teachers of the first generation, like Maurine Stuart Roshi of the Cambridge Buddhist Association, Roshi Jiyu Kennett of Shasta Abbey, Ruth Denison of Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Center, Ayya Khema of the Nuns' Island, Prabhasa Dharma Roshi of the International Zen Institute, and Charlotte Joko Beck of the San Diego Zen Center, have been part of the Buddhist scene in the United States for twenty years or more. They were part of the generation of teachers who studied with Asian masters and founded centers in which students could practice.

Some of this generation of women, now in their sixties or seventies (Stuart died some years ago), kept to traditional practices; some were quite innovative in their incorporation of Western elements into meditation practice. At least part of what they represent and were able to accomplish came from their experience as women, their flexibility, their nurturing and compassionate relationship with their students.

The women who came next, also seasoned with decades of practice and teaching, offer Buddhist practice in newly relaxed and adaptive forms. They include Toni Packer of the Springwater Center; Yvonne Rand of Goat-in-the-Road; Sylvia Boorstein of Spirit Rock; Barbara Rhodes of the Providence Zen Center; Pema Chodron of Gampo Abbey; Tsultrim Allione of Tara Mandala; Arinna Weisman, Julie Wester, Sarah Harding, and others. Many of these women are concerned with making the practice more accessible to ordinary Americans; some seek to combine spiritual practice with social service.

It was important to me when I first began practicing to have a woman teacher, for several reasons. First, as a feminist activist, I was used to working with women and trusting women. It felt natural to seek the guidance of a spiritually seasoned woman. Then also, having had experience with male authority figures all my life, I did not want to have to deal with yet another, no matter how wisely or gently he told me what to do.

Some women have been sexually molested as children or sexually abused as adult women by men, or have experienced battery at the hands of men. These women often do not feel safe in male-dominated environments. When they become interested in meditation practice, they look for a female teacher.

Another reason that many women seek out a woman teacher is the conviction that women are differently connected to life than are men. In this view, women have a heightened sensitivity to nature, to human beings and other beings, and a different way of experiencing truth or reality; thus they may offer the Buddhist teachings in ways more compatible with women students' needs.

Who Is Welcome?

One of the most beautiful aspects of my early encounters with Buddhism was that, whatever environment I entered, I was welcomed and given a place. It was clear that Buddhism is for everyone, for me as well as for the people there who knew more about it.

Perhaps I was particularly moved by this warmth of welcome because in my early life I had often felt like an outsider. To be received and given a place in a group came to me like a gift and a teaching in itself.

I felt this as I watched my first teacher, Ruth Denison, in her dealings with students. I have been a careful person where human relationships are concerned. I don't leap easily into intimacy, particularly with people in authority; so I stood back and watched Ruth Denison for a long time to see if she was a trustworthy teacher.

One of the first qualities I observed in her was that she treated everyone the same. Whether she was interacting with a movie producer from Los Angeles, a mentally disturbed man, an African-American Lesbian in boots and Levi's, or a young mother, she responded with steady warmth and attentiveness, and I could discern no difference in her attitude based on anyone's appearance, profession or income. She seemed to see past each person's physical characteristics and worldly baggage to the deeper, more authentic person inside.

But while I felt, and continue to feel, welcome in Buddhist settings, I saw that there were people who did not feel welcomed or comfortable in Buddhist environments. People of color sometimes encounter unacknowledged, unconscious and subtle racism. Some meditators of working class backgrounds like myself have encountered assumptions that alienated us, like the expectation that everyone has ample funds and leisure time to devote to practice.

As a lesbian, I have always been comfortable in Ruth Denison's sangha, but I have sometimes received the confidences of lesbian and gay meditators objecting to the subtle heterosexist assumptions of other Buddhist teachers or the homophobia expressed in some Buddhist settings.

In recent years Buddhist sanghas oriented to Westerners have been challenged to develop their consciousness of difference and to open themselves more to the input of people other than mainstream white middle-class Americans. (The immigrant sanghas are people of color, of course, and a white American might feel out of place among them. And Soka Gakkai, which has quite a diverse following, is unusual in its outreach to and appeal to the poor and people of color.)

An organization called the Interracial Buddhist Council was formed on the West Coast to address issues of inclusivity and to probe race differences in Buddhist contexts. Including both white people and people of color in its membership, it offers discussion meetings and retreats.

A few women teachers such as Arinna Weisman in Massachusetts offer retreats just for lesbians, and there are ongoing lesbian meditation groups in some communities, such as the one led by Carol Newhouse in the San Francisco Bay Area. Class differences have rarely been confronted by Buddhist groups and teachers, but a few voices now and then speak up on this issue.

In no way do the Buddhist teachings serve to exclude anyone from receiving the instruction. Like Jesus, the Buddha welcomed everyone, even those people considered unclean or beneath notice by the prevailing Hindu religion: women, prostitutes, sick people, criminals, beggars, and members of the untouchable caste. Some of his enlightened teachers came from these groups.

Most Buddhist teachers I have known have been extremely open to all people and accepting of all lifestyles. A few teachers and some of the people who sit in Buddhist centers may hold prejudiced views that, even if not openly expressed, may subtly invade and infect. As the Buddha taught us, all people are victims of greed, hatred and delusion and often act in wrong, uninformed, aggressive, and uncaring ways. On the other hand, because we are human beings, we also have the capacity for loving-kindness and compassion to other beings, the welling up of sympathetic joy for the good fortune of others, the quality of equanimity or peaceful evenhandedness in ourselves.

I find most Buddhists to be people who are sincerely trying to be good, who struggle to know the reality of any situation in which they find themselves, who go out of their way to be compassionate to other people. If you feel welcome and accepted among the members of a particular sangha, then perhaps these are the people who will be your companions on your spiritual path. If, for whatever reason you feel uncomfortable, you may wish to talk to the teacher or practice leader about your perceptions, or you may seek out another Buddhist group for meditation that will suit you better.

Do Women Do It Differently?

Do women take a distinctive approach to the elements of the Buddhist path? I believe they do, because our life experience differs in many respects from men's. Girls receive early social conditioning that is, in most cases, different from the training of little boys; women encounter particular expectations, dangers, and obstacles as well as encouragement to develop specific qualities in themselves, perform certain roles, follow particular paths.

Because of this conditioning, the inner life of women is bound to be different from the subjective universe of most men. Certainly women are capable of doing any work that men do, and we have the examples of female doctors, lawyers, electricians, athletes, carpenters, C.E.O.'s, spiritual teachers, ministers, scholars, and scientists to convince us that no intellectual, spiritual or physical achievement lies outside the realm of women's abilities. But we can surmise that women in these professions may approach their work in a distinctive manner or may view its practice and significance differently from their male colleagues.

In some cases women's participation may change the nature of the profession itself. Female spiritual teachers in the Buddhist tradition have and continue to offer the teachings in innovative and often recognizably female-oriented ways. Women may take a more psychological approach to teaching, adapting their message to the twentieth-century, psychologically-oriented consciousnesses of their students. Women teachers may be more accepting of the expression of emotion by their students. Some women practitioners tell of spending time in male-run environments where emotions were suppressed, and then going to a female teacher who encouraged them to acknowledge and fully experience whatever strong feelings might be coming up in them.

Often women teachers do not limit themselves to the traditional forms of practice but strike out to devise new methods or incorporate elements of other traditions. At a woman-led retreat you may find yourself dancing in a circle, reaching to the sky, touching the ground. You may be led on journeys of guided imagery. You may be invited to pay particular attention to the natural environment in which you practice, noting the life of trees, animals, rocks and streams and how this is interrelated with your own life.

How Have Feminists Affected American Buddhism?

Those of you who are interested in the issues raised by the most recent women's movement may wonder whether it has made a mark on the institutions and practices of American Buddhism.

The answer is a definite yes. Since the early 1980's, two groups of women have come together in Buddhist practice situations, though sometimes with difficulty: the women who had dedicated themselves early on to Buddhist practice and institutions, and the women new to Buddhism who had engaged in feminist political activism. Each group brought something crucial to the mix. Feminist women new to Buddhism insisted on equality, critique of hierarchy, identification of misogynist texts and practices, and altering of sexist language. Women with years of Buddhist practice brought patience, seasoned spiritual perspective, and a spacious view to the dialogue.

A series of conferences on women and Buddhism, held across the country, allowed women to break out of their isolation and talk with other women and a few supportive men about the issues that concerned them. They allowed us to experience the teachings of some female Buddhist "masters" who came to give talks, and we were able to discuss volatile subjects like sexual abuse by male teachers.

Women expressed their differences in perspective: creative, innovative practice versus more traditional forms; insistence on equality and non-hierarchical relationships in Buddhist centers versus a trust in the usefulness of traditional hierarchical structures; incorporation of goddess worship, shamanic and Native American elements into the practice versus a holding to the pure Buddhist forms.

The conferences built understanding and trust among women Buddhist practitioners of all persuasions and gave many women the sense that they were not alone but had become part of a collective questioning of the forms within American Buddhism. They drew strength to challenge oppressive or abusive situations when they identified them within their own Buddhist environments.

As a result of the persistent, courageous efforts of these women and others, many Buddhist institutions have become more sensitive to women's particular needs, more open to women's spiritual leadership, and less hierarchical in their structures.

One particularly dramatic contribution of feminism to Buddhism has been the shift in perspective on sexual power abuse by teachers. Through the efforts of determined women and a few men, the veil of secrecy previously obscuring the issue of sexual abuse has been drawn aside, and a lively public debate has ensued about how to approach such incidents. While abuses still occur, there is much more openness in confronting and dealing with them. Some Buddhist teachers are making efforts to establish a code of conduct to which all Buddhist centers would agree to subscribe.

Can Women Be Buddhist Leaders?

If you grew up in a Catholic household, you know well that women's participation in the hierarchy of the Catholic Church is strictly circumscribed. Again and again I have heard the discouraging story of the little girl, fired by religious zeal, who asks to be the child who assists the priest at the altar. She is told that only boys can help to celebrate the mass. When those little girls grow up, they are acutely aware that only men can be priests who give the gift of God to the community.

Can Buddhist women wear the robes and carry out the duties of religious celebrants? The answer is as varied as Buddhism itself. In most Western Buddhist settings, women perform the same religious offices as men. At a Zen monastery you will see probably an equal number of women and men wearing black robes, ringing the bells, beating the drums, and giving the dharma talks. Women are very visible and influential in the Vipashyana establishment.

Tibetan Buddhism's attitude toward women leaders is more complex. The tradition was brought to this country by maroon-robed monks in exile from their native Tibet, and in their Western sanghas, these foreign monks remain at the top of the hierarchy. But these monks have ordained Westerners, including a very few female lamas. Each of the four separate traditions or "schools" within Tibetan Buddhism takes a somewhat different approach to hierarchy and practice. Notable Tibetan Buddhist women leaders include Pema Chodron, an American woman who heads a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Nova Scotia, and Tsultrim Allione, who has broken away from male-led groups to establish her own center and teaching schedule. Many other Tibetan Buddhist women hold positions of authority in the male-run centers, but always subordinate to male leaders.

Soka Gakkai is as open to women's leadership as men's. They operate from a Japanese model, in which women's and men's activities are often pursued separately. The immigrant sanghas generally reflect the traditional gender hierarchy maintained in Asian cultures. Men are usually at the top, and women support their work. There are, of course, exceptions, as the sanghas become more Americanized. For example, a Japanese-American woman serves as a fully ordained priest in Shin Buddhism, a largely Japanese denomination.

Obstacles and Intimations

I have observed the dance of gender in American Buddhist institutions for more than fifteen years now, and have seen some of the choreography refined into a model of sensitivity and creative adaptation, while other dancers simply clump along. I remember a Buddhist teacher remarking to me how ironic it was that people involved in a spiritual path dedicated to clarity of mind and open awareness should lag behind the general secular public in our consciousness of gender justice. We still have much to learn and clarify in this area.

Recently I have come to know a brilliant woman who is a sincere, longtime practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, a mother of grown children, a university professor of religion, and passionate feminist. Some years ago she chose to move into a Buddhist center organized around the presence and teachings of a charismatic lama from Tibet. It seemed the perfect living arrangement for this woman, for it offered a strong practice schedule and close ties with sangha members while allowing her to continue her academic career. It was a near-monastic lifestyle; she planned, after some years of living there, to take the robes of a Buddhist nun and dedicate herself fully to spiritual life.

This woman committed herself to the daily practice and regular empowerments the lama gave to her fellow and sister sangha members. But one day she began to be uneasy, for she realized that the head lama was treated by some students with an obeisance that bordered on fawning, and that he sometimes misused his considerable power. Another day she looked up from her practice to find herself in an atmosphere in which young women gazed starry-eyed at the handsome, charming lama in his maroon robes. And she saw that the lama, while giving the teachings in challenging and illuminating ways, also engaged in subtly seductive behavior with female students. Finally she realized that he was having sex with several of the women.

Disturbed by these revelations, my friend tried to talk with her sangha brothers and sisters. To her surprise, they were not particularly responsive. Some thought that sexual relations between teacher and student were perfectly normal and acceptable. A few wondered whether she was being prudish in not understanding that their Asian master transcended ordinary Western mores; the majority reminded her that he was a deeply accomplished teacher whom they felt lucky to be able to study with and so she was urged not to jeopardize this arrangement with complaints about his amorous encounters.

My friend's suffering has become intense. The sexualized atmosphere at the center distracts her from her practice. And the lama's behavior seems so blatantly wrong that she feels betrayed by her teacher and disillusioned about the practice and community life at the center.

My former radical-feminist-lesbian persona wants to advise, "Just leave! Get out, go somewhere else to practice and live."

And indeed that may ultimately be what she has to do, if the other sangha members do not become more receptive to her view of the situation. But I have been following such scenarios for long enough to know how complex the feelings are. And I know something of the experience of women who were sexually abused as children, who must struggle to establish appropriate boundaries; I know that women battered by husbands or lovers sometimes find it very hard to break away from their abusive partners. My friend committed herself to this Buddhist center and this teacher; the practice is her very life blood, this sangha her spiritual brothers and sisters on the path. She engages with them in myriad deep and subtle ways and to leave would be a loss like death.

So I can only offer my support in assuring this woman that, yes, she has the right to express her honest reaction. The process in which she is engaged is painful, to be sure, and at times to me seems wasteful of her precious energy, but it is her process and she must make her way through it in the manner that best serves her own urgencies.

Again I am reminded that the world of human beings who choose to follow the Buddhist path is immensely complex, with no easy answers to difficult problems. Some Buddhists argue that sexual flirtation, seduction and sexual relations within a practice setting can be wholesome and may even function as part of the transmission of teachings. A more widely held view, and one that I share, is that teacher-student sexual liaisons are inherently exploitive, ultimately causing pain to female students and jeopardizing the existence of Buddhist institutions.

To women who have suffered in these difficult situations, I like to suggest, "Start your own center." I don't say it lightly. After all, some of us must become the teachers we have always wanted to find.

We have around us many examples of women who have done so, and also women who choose to practice on their own or with the minimal involvement of a teacher, perhaps in circles of like-minded men and women and families. In our present appallingly profit-oriented, callously uncaring American society, many people are investigating the Buddhist path hoping for spiritual depth and guidance in their everyday lives. Women Buddhist leaders and teachers welcome these seekers and are often able to give the teachings in particularly powerful and relevant ways.

I think of Dr. Thynn Thynn, a Burmese-born physician-mother-Buddhist teacher in northern California who is currently establishing a foundation and residential community for low-income and aged people, to teach the Dharma, to offer comfort and training and support, to involve families and individuals in learning to live the Buddhist principles in daily life. All over the country highly trained, good-hearted Buddhist women are creating such gatherings and institutions.

Not many of them appear in what I call fast-lane Buddhism: the circle of eminent scholars and commentators who speak at conferences and publish interpretations of Buddhist texts and philosophy. The women's relative invisibility is what prompted me to create the Resources section with its "Directory of Women Teachers" at the end of my book, so that readers can find their way to women teachers and women-led centers.

As for myself, I am blessed to live in a part of the West Coast where Buddhist opportunities abound. It is Sunday morning, and I drive from my house in Oakland, north to Marin, to the green slopes of Mount Tamalpais. Halfway up the mountain, in a meadow that bows out like a ship's deck into the fresh morning air, I and others sit to chant and meditate with Lama Palden Drolma.

Palden, with twenty years of Buddhist spiritual training behind her, and drawing on her profession of psychotherapist, teaches traditional practices within a non-hierarchical feminine perspective that honors and facilitates the inner wisdom of each seeker. Periodically she meets a group of us on the mountain to lead a Green Tara meditation, invoking the power of this great female emanation to inform our practice. Seated in the meadow, I look far out to the green Pacific glistening in the sunlight. And it seems to me that while our participation as women in American Buddhism sometimes meets obstacles, still it opens in promise as vast as this huge expanse of sky and ocean before me.

Led by Palden Drolma's strong voice, we chant the sacred syllables to Tara, and when finished we sit in silent meditation. Boundaries fly away. All is possible.

Adapted from Opening the Lotus: A Women's Guide to Buddhism, published by Beacon Press. ©1997 by Sandy Boucher.

The Dance of Gender: A Woman's Guide to American Buddhism, Sandy Boucher, Shambhala Sun, July 1997.


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