Monday, March 25, 2013

From Our History to Our Future

by Sandy Boucher

Women began voicing the Dharma two and a half centuries ago during the Buddha’s lifetime. The Buddha’s aunt, Pajapati, led the first women’s liberation march to demand ordination, a successful demonstration that resulted in the Buddha’s establishing the bhikkhuni order.

Now 2,500 years later, we are continuing that legacy and addressing the still-unfinished business around the world of changing patriarchal dominance and exclusion into equality and justice. In the United States, we have made large strides in the last twenty-five years since 1980 when I first did zazen in a Zen center where I found my Theravada teacher Ruth Denison and began the vipassana practice that I continue to this day. We have participated in the great adventure of Buddhism’s coming to the West and have transformed many elements of this spiritual path in the movement toward the evolution of a distinctively American form of Buddhism. We can be proud of our accomplishments. But for successive generations of Buddhist women to come, there is much unfinished business!

I want to give a brief appraisal of what feminist work in Buddhism has accomplished, and perhaps what it has failed to do.

Our Work So Far

We can probably agree that the activism and scholarship of feminists has transformed the intellectual landscape for Buddhist women. The question is whether we have had sufficient impact on the field of Buddhist practice and study, and on Buddhist institutions as a whole.

Back in 1981—thirty-two years ago—I attended the very first “Women and Buddhism” conference in the United States. It was held at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado and was organized by Judith Simmer Brown (now chair of the Religious Studies Department at Naropa, but who was then a new Tibetan Buddhist practitioner and beginning instructor).

Between 1981 and 1990, there were seven such conferences: two in Boulder; two at the Providence, Rhode Island Zen Center; three in northern California in Christian venues that we rented for the occasion.

These conferences were organized by women who practiced Buddhist meditation, a few who lived in Zen centers, many who did vipassana, and some who followed Tibetan Buddhist teachers. Women attended the conferences from all over the country. (These were almost exclusively white Western women who were converts to Buddhism, and women newly interested in Buddhism.) The conferences were tremendously exciting and often quite explosive. They exemplified two discrete elements.

They expressed the conflicts and cooperation of two groups of women who were coming together in Buddhist environments. There were the women who had been doing spiritual practice for the preceding five years or more and then there were the women who had been out in the streets organizing and demonstrating for women’s liberation. The feminist women had begun questioning the hierarchy and power dynamics in the Buddhist institutions they were beginning to frequent. Many of the longtime practitioners, for their part, were concerned to preserve the tradition. The energies for change and the energies for continuity met in these conferences and were debated, explored, acted out.

The second element that propelled this coming together of women Buddhists was the revelation of sexual power abuse by prominent male Buddhist masters. The women in the sanghas led by these men came to the conferences to express their hurt and anger, to learn ways to demand transparency and accountability in their spiritual practice centers. So, the sleeping women woke up and began to make changes.

Books were written—by Diana Paul, Rita Gross, Tsultrim Allione, my own Turning the Wheel, Lenore Friedman, Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Anne Klein, Miranda Shaw. Many other theorists and commentators, both in academia and in Buddhist practice environments have investigated sexist bias in Buddhist texts and practice, and explored the actual experience of Western women and Asian women practitioners. They have rethought the traditional hierarchical structures in many Buddhist environments and have taken steps to change them into more horizontal and egalitarian arrangements. For instance, to create a balance between practice and childraising for women, to accommodate family life, to allow for collaborative decision making and shared authority, they have rewritten traditional male-only Buddhist language to include the 300 million Buddhist women in the world, and reshaped Buddhist liturgy to honor female as well as male forebears and acknowledge female participation.

More and more women received transmission as teachers and functioned in leadership roles: Blanche Hartman at San Francisco Zen Center, Pema Chodron at Gampo Abbey, Karuna Dharma at the International Buddhist Meditation Center, Sharon Salzberg at Insight Meditation Society, Joko Beck at the San Diego Zen Center, my teacher Ruth Denison at Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Center, Sylvia Boorstein at Spirit Rock. Others. And the ones who are no longer with us: Sister Ayya Khema, Maurine Stuart Roshi, Prabhasa Dharma Roshi, Jiyu Kennett Roshi.

Women have assumed a central position in the burgeoning activism of “engaged Buddhism.” Maia Duerr has been the most recent director of the national Buddhist Peace Fellowship. The editor of Turning Wheel, the magazine of the BPF, is a woman, Sue Moon. Stephanie Kaza, environmentalist and peace activist, teaches, writes and speaks consistently. Joanna Macy has been a major inspiration for Buddhist social activists and deep ecologists for years, and many of the most dynamic programs of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship such as the prison program and Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement were developed by women.

Issues of inclusion having to do with sexual preference, race, and ethnicity are being addressed in many Buddhist centers; this investigation often spearheaded by women. There is a lesbian Buddhist sangha in Berkeley that has explored the Buddhist path for ten years now.


You can probably count on the fingers of one hand the men who have read even one book by a feminist-Buddhist author.

With the exception of Pema Chodron, who has become something of a rock star in the Buddhist world and who was even interviewed by Bill Moyers on PBS last summer, the public face of Buddhism is very much male. Robert Thurman, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, various handsome, fresh-faced Tibetan monks—these are the folks who appear over and over on the magazine covers of our own Buddhist magazines, as well as in general publications like Time and Newsweek to represent Buddhism.

The plight of non-ordained women constitutes a major piece of unfinished business in my own Theravada tradition and in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The fact that women are denied full ordination is a moral outrage that causes material and psychological damage to many thousands of women, most particularly in Asia. Yet the plight of these women is generally ignored by people who do a Buddhist practice in this country.

The conditions for women in general in Buddhist developing societies, rife with prostitution, child sexual slavery, domestic violence, and AIDS is not a subject of interest to the majority of American Buddhist women or men or to the men and women who edit the Buddhist magazines.

For example, after attending the Sakyadhita conference last summer in Malaysia [2006], I proposed writing an article about the efforts of Buddhist women in developing countries to combat the social evils that afflict women and children there. I sent my proposal to three Buddhist magazines, all three of which had accepted articles from me before and knew my work. Only one of them even responded to my query, saying the magazine had already covered this subject. (Note: the Buddhist Peace Fellowship’s Turning Wheel did accept the piece, which will appear in its spring [2007] issue .)

The habit of venerating men and dismissing women still operates in our sanghas. In some Buddhist environments, it is a woman teacher who has stepped in to repair damage done by the male master and who has steadfastly labored to hold the center together for years. Yet people are often drawn to the center to learn from a male teacher who may be considered more charismatic and has achieved more visibility.

In many Theravada and Zen centers you will see statues of Kwan Yin. If you ask who that is, you will be told she is the Celestial Bodhisattva of Compassion. But you will receive no further description, nor will you be given chants and other practices to connect with this female energy. I had to go to a Chinese Buddhist monastery to learn the traditional chant to Guan Shih Yin and it was the Sufis who taught me the Kwan Yin dance that I lead in my retreats and workshops. I know how comforting and inspiring a connection with the beautiful female emanation Kwan Yin can be and how hard it is to find practices to cultivate that.

And what about academia? If a student wants to study Buddhism from a Buddhist feminist perspective, could she find a coherent program at an American university? If there are few places to study and train in the field, will the gains and the progress of the past twenty years be carried forward?

While we have successfully raised issues and established intellectual benchmarks, I ask you, have we changed the accepted bias of the field of Buddhist Studies across the board? Do male colleagues join us in asking feminist questions and examining their own sexist assumptions? Or, do Buddhist feminist scholars find themselves isolated, with very little acknowledgment and support, and therefore having little influence on the larger picture?

Taking Out Our Own Garbage

We have work to do. But to do it, both in academia and in our Buddhist practice environments, we need to recognize the extent of our privilege—economic, racial, religious, and national. We need to make visible the hidden mindsets and accepted frameworks that have limited our views.

Most of us began as Christians or Jews and converted to Buddhism, so we do not have the long familiarity with our tradition that indigenous Buddhists have. We inhabit the most affluent Western country, with advantages in healthcare and education not shared by most of the world’s population. The majority of us are heterosexual and benefit from that privilege.

We may have a colonialist mentality when we approach Asian cultures or even people of color in our own society—that consciousness that says, “We white folks know better than you how you should conduct your life.”

While in the early years of our Buddhist practice, we generally focused strongly on turning inward to ground ourselves, establish our Buddhist meditation centers, move wholeheartedly onto the path of Dharma, as we matured in our practice we began to open up. We began to learn, over these past twenty years, how and why we needed to move past our limitations to extend our concern and resources to women and children both at home and internationally in order to work for justice for all.

Feminism had been going through a similar transformation. The movement of the early seventies began with an exclusive focus on gender rights. Over the years, white feminists have been challenged by African American (womanist) critics, by Asian and Latin American women to acknowledge their needs and realities. So over the years, feminism changed and took on the commitment to address racism and colonialism to protest economic and ecological injustices.

Our Buddhist feminism needs to expand into a similarly broad, informed commitment, which could include establishing relationships with the immigrant sanghas in our tradition. I hope that we white Western Buddhist women have begun to listen to our sisters and brothers of color in this country and to the voices of Buddhist women in Asia. Sakyadhita, the International Association of Buddhist Women, offers us an excellent way to connect with that world. In informing ourselves about social justice within our own religious tradition, we may find that there is more at stake than religious freedom, that in certain situations one’s actual physical survival may hang in the balance.

We need to listen to the voices of Buddhist women worldwide and hear in what ways we can support their work by following their lead.

Moving Forward

So what does the future ask of us? Something we have been doing for a long time is crossing boundaries between the Buddhist traditions to unite as women practicing, whether Mahayana or Theravada, Chinese humanitarian Buddhism, Pure Land, or Vajrayana, or other. We need to think of ourselves as part of a multiethnic, multireligious global project.

We seek to unite and build, acknowledging our differences—ethnic, class, and sexual-preference identities—and moving beyond them to commitment, to sharing the fruits of our work in the service of social change.

We can welcome each woman as an agent of her own transformation on her own unique terms. That is, I cannot tell anyone else how to pursue her practice or conduct her life. As an older white lesbian Buddhist feminist activist, it is clear to me that we need to listen to the voices of younger women scholars and spiritual teachers, and work with them to create venues like the women and Buddhism conferences in this country and Asia, in which Buddhist women can share their struggles and their insights.

In the early eighties there were several publications by and for Buddhist women— Kahawai from Hawaii, NIBWA (Newsletter on International Buddhist Women’s Activities) from Thailand, and a journal from Canada. Did they disappear because they had served their purpose, making way for new work? Or might we benefit from such a publication now, in a time when women’s and children’s needs and contributions in many parts of the world are often shoved to the background. What role does our Sakyadhita Newsletter perform for us?

Together we must continue to challenge sexist and exclusionary elements in the Buddhist environments we frequent—and to support the women who are doing this or who might do it if they knew we would stand behind them.

We need to support our Buddhist women teachers. Acknowledge their work. Take them on as our teachers. Attend their retreats and lectures. Learn from them and also challenge them to address gender and other inequities in their own centers and in their own thinking. We might look at the heterosexist assumptions that may operate in our sanghas, or in our intellectual work, and challenge those.

We have been at this exploration for a long time. The challenge now is different and more complex than the one we faced twenty-five years ago, though just as crucial to the health and growth of Buddhism in America and its transformation in other parts of the world. We are more sophisticated in our analysis than we were. We are larger in numbers. We are more diverse in our perspectives and because of all the work that has been done in the preceding decades, we have rich resources from which to develop future work.

I bow to the women who began this exploration and have steadfastly carried it on for a quarter century, some of them my esteemed friends. And I say to the young Buddhist feminist practitioners and scholars, “Lift your voices! Realize your full potential! Surprise us! Wake us up!”

Republished with permission from the “Women Voicing the Dharma” conference, Chicago, February 24, 2007.

To view a complete list of Sakyadhita newsletters visit our website.

Sandy Boucher, Writer, Teacher & Consultant

Sandy Boucher, author of five books on women’s participation in Dharma, was named an Outstanding Woman in Buddhism in 2006. She leads retreats such as “Meditation and the Spirit of Creativity,” “A Dharmic Approach to Writing and Painting,” and, with her partner Martha Boesing, a New Year’s retreat, "Transitions." She has guest-edited several issues of Inquiring Mind. Her latest book is Dancing in the Dharma: the Life and Teachings of Ruth Denison, and she is at work on an art-and-text book about the Bodhisattva of Compassion Kuan Yin. To learn more about Sandy visit her website.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting this wonderful essay! I had not read it before, and am grateful to have come upon it while researching Buddhist social feminists on google. All the best wishes upon Sakyadhita's Buddhadharma activities and those who are actively working toward social justice within all our communities, ani drubgyudma