In my own personal journey I am grateful to many women who have been there for me. When I mentioned that I felt safer with women to one of my therapists, he said “that is where you have been hurt.” Sure, I have been hurt by men, but the beauty of my story has been that many more women have been there for me. For now my Metta (Lovingkindness) practice begins with images of the loving women in my life, to activate Metta within myself. My own mother was beautiful, loving, spiritual and an incredible listener who had plenty of friends.
Buddhist meditation presents many opportunities and challenges in the west. Our culture does not support tranquility, a simple lifestyle, but does value grasping for things that are inherently unsatisfying. Our culture seems challenged to consider the importance of all humans regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. However our western culture is blessed with the freedom to explore emotions, sexuality, connectedness and harmony.
I believe that what is happening in the United States is in the best interest of humanity. The light of awareness is on the brutality on women, people of color and children, and spirituality will guide us to a time when we foster openness, harmony, respect and compassion instead of hate, violence and separateness. Buddhist teachings, the precious Dhamma (teachings and law) are in line with a peaceful world. It is my belief that we, as Buddhist practitioners, need be alert and active in the civil rights of all people
Women are ideally suited to practice the teachings of the Buddha. Women know intuitively the nature of life. Women are intimately interwoven in the cycles of life. Women care for life, throughout their lifetimes. There is something deep within all of us that vibrates with the image of the mother attending to a child. Women live with the wisdom of their hearts. Thus women know the sacredness of life. This innate inherent wisdom of women is not recognized. Feminine values are seen as harmonious, connective, emotional, open, nurturing and receptive As a female buddhist practitioner, you may consider your practice to heal the wounds of women who were not heard or honored. Our world needs women: each woman has a gift to say.Women have a softness that appears like vulnerability but is very powerful, one that nourishes the earth. As the Dalai Lama said that it is not survival of the fittest, but survival is with those who can love and cooperate.
This has been an exciting time for meditation in the west. There are retreat centers springing up in various traditions, and there is an overlay of psychology, neurology and meditation. Researchers are validating the teachers of the Buddha. 50% of lay practitioners are women, there are more and more 1st class female teachers. Meditation groups in the west are more diverse, the teachers are more diverse. There are women only retreats, people of color retreats and young people retreats. These retreats are often wait listed. Men have found that women are outstanding teachers, offering the richness and deepness of the feminine.
Historically, most of the key players in Buddhism have been men, leaving little lineage for women in the Sangha. . However there are many women in Buddhist history that have been strong manifestations of the Dhamma teachings, many that have attained enlightenment.. Most men have been strongly influenced by female teachers, like our teacher Peter Carlson. Peter’s first teacher was Ruth Dennison. I have sat with many female teachers in the tradition of U Ba Kin, such as , Maureen Stuart and Peg Seykora. Recently I attended a retreat taught by Catherine McGee at Insight Meditation Society. Most men in the Sangha are enriched by female teachers, and I hope that the trend continues.
Pema Chodren was asked to become ordained by his Holiness Karmapa, and spent years finding the texts and translating the ordination ceremony. It took her three years to prepare, and opened the door for women to become ordained.. Jiyu Kennett Roshi established Shasta Abbey in Northern California and trained a generation of Zen priests. Ayya Khema defied Theravada prohibitions to take full ordination and established Buddhist centers in several countries. Maurine Stuart Roshi headed the Cambridge Zen Center, which became a refuge for women traumatized by sexual abuse by Zen teachers. Ruth Denison led the first all-women’s retreat in the United States.
Toni Packer left the trappings of her Zen training to establish a center offering Buddhist wisdom without the Japanese formalities. As a very young person, Sharon Salzberg traveled to studied with SN Goenka, Dipa Ma and Munindra. Sharon along with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein established Insight Meditation society in Barre, Massachusetts.
Nevertheless, with the exception of Pema Chödrön, and a few other prominent women teachers, the public face of Buddhism is still often male. Moreover, the fact that women are denied full ordination as bhikkhunis in the Theravada and Tibetan traditions remains a serious injustice, though the recent bhikkhuni ordinations in California inspire hope that the Theravada bhikkhuni sangha will take root here in the West.
A lot of early Buddhist history may be speculative or distorted. It was said that the Buddha was extremely compassionate women and agreed that they were ideally suited for the path. Some women were converted soon after the Buddha’s initial sermon. However being human he was subject to the social order of that time. He initially refused to allow them to join the monastic tradition.
There is the story of the Buddha being followed a large company of upper caste women dressed in yellow robes wishing to become ascetics. They had been led by his aunt Mahaprajapati. They were travel stained and feet swollen from the long walk. They asked 3 times and were rebuffed. A factor of the Buddha’s reluctance was probably his seeing the imbalance in society and families. Finally Ananda the Buddha’s servant appealed to the Buddha’s sense of justice and truth. Were they not just as capable of leading contemplative life and walking the path of enlightenment? Surely the Buddha must have been impressed with the determination and renunciation of these women that he allowed them to establish an order of bhikkhunis.
On the third time the Buddha relented with some reservation, in fact he put more monastic conditions on women that men. The edicts were called the” Eight Rules” and by today’s standards would be considered sexist. Early monastics saw women as inferior and animalistic with uncontrollable sexual desire. Monks were dependent on housewifes for their alms, and their actions appeared misogynist. Speculation is that monk were projecting their anger onto women. For centuries the monastic order has seen women as a challenge to the monastic order, more due sexuality that anything. The eight rules were basically that women were inferior to men and all of them had to take their place behind even junior moks. This may have something to do with eastern culture, that the male model of denying and analyzing is prefered to the female model of opening and accepting. Speculation is that the eight rules and sexism is what led to the disappearance of the female order. This ignorance, this sexism, has been a major roadblock to the ordination of women, and is a threat to Sangha itself. Most practitioners see sexism as antithetical to the teachings of the Buddha.
Nevertheless, women in an oppressive society flocked from all over to receive the teachings and be a disciple of the Buddha. A sangha of Buddhist nuns was truly revolutionary for its times. This the first Bhikkhuni Society flourished and women from all over the country to come. Barriers that had lasted for centuries were broken. The women’s Sangha gave women . “a woman’s space.” At the time of King Asoka, there were said to be 96, 000 Bhikkhunis. Around 900-1000 this order died. Speculation is that between the 8 rules and the oppression of women at that time the order ended.
Some of these women attained realization and were the Buddha’s ablest disciples. There was Kisigotami, Patacara, Lion Yawn and Queen Smirala. King Asoka’s daughter ordained at 18, took a branch off of the Bodhi tree in Gaya, and went to establish the order in Sri Lanka. The order flourished in all Theravaden countries. There are many examples in scriputes of women acting heriocally, courageously and even stronger than men.
Now we move to present time. The first Zen teacher came to the US in 1893. In the late 60s many young people traveled to the east for out of body experiences included meditation. More than 50 years ago the first Zen center was established in the US, and shortly thereafter the first Theravaden Center was established.The first women’s Buddhist publication in the states was in 1979. First women’s only conference at Naropa institute 1981.. However, sexism continued to be an issue. Buddhist meditation practice flourished, yet the problems with sexism continued. Teachers were abusing their power and their students.
One of the more stark stories of abuse was revisited by the founder of Insight Community of Washington DC, Tara Brach.She was a young woman, very determined, my take was that she was filled with energy and joy in her practice. However, She was humiliated in public by her male teacher for a miscarriage. He essentially lamed for this tragedy. Tara was devastated. Thanks to her determination and grit, she has continued to practice, teach and write. She is a gift to all of us male and female practionsers.
In the early ’90s at a Western teachers meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama, two prominent Western practitioners, Jetsun Tenzin Palmo and Sylvia Wetzel, invited His Holiness and the other senior teachers to listen while the terrible conditions for nuns were described to them. Then Sylvia offered a guided visualization where all the male images that surrounded them, the teachers, gurus even the Dalai Lama himself, were transformed into the form of women. Men were welcome to participate, but were asked to sit in the back and help with the cooking. It was a powerful moment for all at the meeting, particularly when His Holiness really understood how deeply disempowering the lack of support and the male shaping of Buddhist forms are for women. His response was to lean his head on his hands and weep.
The late Ajahn Chah was a visionary who trained many Western monks in the final decades of his life. He is the inspiration for more than two hundred branch monasteries, including about twenty across the Western world. Ajahn Brahm, was one of Ajahn Chah’s first Western disciples. Over the years he received Thailand’s highest monastic honor. After research on the issue of bhikkhuni ordination, Ajahn Brahm, his fellow scholar–monk Ajahn Sujato, and others, came to the conclusion that there was no good reason not to support women in taking full ordination.
This initiative added to the challenging work toward gender equality in this Buddhist community. However, in the process it has inadvertently challenged the core of Thai monastic authority, which refuses to accept the validity of Theravada bhikkhuni ordination. Almost immediately after the ordinations Ajahn Brahm was officially expelled from communion with the Ajahn Chah sangha.
And then there was the Tibetan nuns project. In 1959,China occupied Tibet, Some women that rose against Chinese some were never seen again. 80000 Tibetans followed the Dalai Lama to India,and Tibet was a government in exile. Monks could join monastery in India, but not so for nuns.The Tibetan Nun Project gave Buddhist nuns a vision. The Tibetan Nuns Project is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating and supporting female Buddhist monastics in India from all Tibetan Buddhist lineages. It supports nuns interested in study and higher ordination.
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Brach, T. Feminine Principle in Buddhism, Part I. Dharma Seed.
Brach, T. Feminine Principle in Buddhism, Part I. Dhamma Seed.
Boyer, A. “Another Step Forward” Lion’s Roar. November 2010.
Friedman, Lenore. “Meetings with Remarkable Women.” Shambhala 2000.
Thanissara, Cintamani, JItindriya. “The Time has Come. Lion’s Roar. August 2010.
Tisdale, S. Women of the Way: Discovering 2,500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom. Harper 2009.
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Wester, J. “Woman’s Wisdom: Story of Inanna” Dhamma Seed