AMERICAN BUDDHIST WOMEN
Quarterly e-lectronic MagaZine (eZine) from Sakyadhita USA
Issue 12 Fall 2016
We must acknowledge the relevancy of our lived experience, even within the absoluteness of our being, beyond our material embodiment. There is a relational self on the path of spirit. In other words, our identities in terms of race, sexuality, and gender cannot be ignored for the sake of some kind of imagined invisibility or to attain spiritual transcendence. We are not capable of being “unembodied” selves, nor are we meant to be.
Zenju Earthlyn Manuel – The Way of Tenderness
It is difficult to articulate how it feels to be a woman. It may be that being a woman is so close I don’t see it. However, I wonder if there is denial or a desire to distance myself from a gender that is disempowered, weaker, less important, or second-class in this world. I am currently a Zen priest in residence at the Zen Center of Los Angeles (ZCLA). I am also a professor of Buddhist chaplaincy at University of the West (UWest). My intention for this article is to write about being a woman in the role of priest, professor, and spiritual leader.
I lead and teach multicultural, interfaith, and multi-gendered classes within the Masters of Divinity program to those seeking to become interfaith chaplains grounded in Buddhist wisdom and values. Students come to Buddhist chaplaincy seeking a new way to serve themselves, others, and communities in ways that benefit all sentient beings. Students predominately come from Asia and the US with a similar intention—to learn more about Buddhist history, philosophies, teachings and practices, and to find right livelihood.
The bulk of my Zen training occurred within a shared-leadership model1 based on the mandala of five Buddhist wisdom families.2 For me this model was realized through participating in service positions of Zen rituals. Practices that support this model are the Way of Council,3 Nonviolent Communication,4 and the Three Tenets.5 I bring these practices into the classroom. Students learn to be leaders and followers. Together we learn to understand our relationship to authority/power, and develop our inner authority/power. We practice rotating leadership, and sharing authority/power amongst ourselves. Thus we learn to identify and respect what each individual has to offer. The Buddhist chaplaincy department also utilizes shared leadership and horizontal practices. In fact the educational culture at UWest values Learning Communities and Whole-Person Education.
I have only trained at Zen centers run by women.6 Taizen Maezumi Roshi, founder of ZCLA, created a pathway of ordination for Zen Buddhist woman in the U.S. Many women he ordained are spiritual leaders within the White Plum Sangha and Zen Peacemaker Order. I benefit directly from this. There was never a position in a Zen ritual, training or practice that I was not allowed to do.
In many traditions and countries women are not able to ordain in a way that is equal to men. Buddhist women in many traditions throughout Asia, and in the US, are not able to lead, teach, or take part in certain rituals, trainings and practices. In these traditions men hold a higher status and stature within the sangha. Although this has not been my experience, this is the experience of many UWest students. I find it difficult to see discrimination clearly without either becoming entangled in the injustice, or dissociating from the reality.
Sallie Tisdale, in her book Women of the Way7 compiles the history of fifty key women in Early Indian Buddhism, Chinese Chan, Japanese Zen, and U.S. Zen, as well as female mythical ancestors. At ZCLA we chant the woman’s lineage twice a week as part of the morning service ritual. This woman’s lineage is not a linear transmission line. I was struck by what Tisdale wrote in her introduction:
I realized at last that most of the huge body of literature is all about men, written by men, and addressed to men….many commentaries and histories of Buddhism do not discuss the experience of woman at all—literally, not at all….Woman are a different matter; they exist in the footnotes and parenthesis asides, where they exist at all.8
A deep sadness wells up within me as I connect to those that are forgotten, those that exist only in footnotes, parentheses, and in the margins of the main text of this life. How to see such invisibility clearly? How to be with this being forgotten, gently denied, not answered to at all, or deserving any explanation as to why? This invisibility extends into the ten directions throughout space and time, and yet it is right here, right now, within our lives. One way or another we all experience this. It is in my classroom. It is in my Zen practice. It is in me.
How does is feel to be YOU? This question was asked to actor Bill Murray at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival. Murray answers by saying:
The only way we will ever know what its like to be YOU is if you work your best at being YOU as often as you can, and keep reminding yourself that that is where home is.9
In my Buddhist Homiletics course this semester, I invited the students to look more closely at: How it feels to be YOU? I love this question so much, because the moment I ask it out loud, I am no longer thinking about me! My mind immediately extends beyond myself and into YOU! WHAT—IS—YOU? Perhaps, YOU is Buddha Nature, formless form, store house consciousness, emptiness, or God. So then, how does is feel to be YOU?
During my Buddhist pilgrimage to India this past summer, there were countless times someone thought I was inadvertently going into the wrong restroom. A voice called out and when I turned, someone would point to the men’s room. I would stand there for a minute to see it they would naturally see that I am a woman, but if nothing transpired, I had to use my voice. I repeated “I am a woman,” over and over again. Part of my ordination ceremony included the shaving of my head. Head shaving is a ritual that goes back to the time of the historic Buddha. It is symbolic of letting go of worldly attachments. For many women this may include attachments to beauty, but for me, it included a desire to look less like a woman, to become more gender neutral.
I was taken by the story of Chinese Buddhist Miaodao (1090—1163). As a young girl her father noticed qualities of confidence and strength that made him uncomfortable, and which might make it difficult for him to find her a husband. One day, she proposed the idea of becoming a Buddhist nun. As Miaodao’s father was considering, she went about her business in the palace. Tisdale writes:
The more Miaodao heard, the less she said—not that anyone asked her opinion or would have listened if she’d given it. She began to feel an oceanic silence inside, a silence that was not opposite of speaking—a silence in which speaking couldn’t be imagined.10
Her father agreed to let her ordain. She trained with many teachers “cultivating the sound of not speaking and the meaning of light and dark”11 until one day everything turned gray. At which point she began to doubt if there really was such a thing as a great awakening. Soon after she went to investigate The Great Matter of life and death with Dahui Zonggao who instructed her to sit with a koan of Chan Master Mazu. After several failures attempting to realize this koan, one day Miaodao believed she had finally found the doorway in. She went to Dahui and said:
“I found the doorway in.” Dahui smiled kindly, suddenly like a mother to her, and said, “It is not mind, it is not Buddha, it is not thing. How do you understand this?” Miaodao responded, “I only understand this way—” Dahui interjected, “That’s extra!” Suddenly the words cracked open—she fell with a crash into a silence so deep it seemed to echo upon itself. This was not the silence when no one was talking, she realized. This wasn’t the silence between the words when someone was talking. This was the silence inside the words—the silence of words. She was home.12
“I am a woman.” I began my lecture Addressing Gender to my Buddhist Homiletics class in this way. The moment the words came out of my mouth I immediately felt uncomfortable. How does it feel to be a woman? How does it feel to be home? How does it feel to be YOU? Where is the doorway in? Where is the key? The Dharma gates are everywhere—this is how I enter them.
2 Rockwell, Irini Nadel. The Five Wisdom Energies: A Buddhist Way of Understanding Personalities, Emotions, and Relationships. (Boston: Shambhala, 2002).
3 Zimmerman, Jack M., and Virginia Coyle. The Way of Council. (Las Vegas: Bramble Books, 1996). http://www.centerforcouncil.org
4 Rosenberg, Marshall B. Nonviolent Communication: A language of Life. (CA: PuddleDancer Press, 2003).
5 "ZPO Rule: Three Tenets: Notknowing, Bearing Witness, Taking Action," Zen Peacemakers, http://zenpeacemakers.org/zpo-rule/
6 The Village Zendo with Abbot Roshi Pat Enkyo O’hara, Hermitage Heart with head priest Sensei Bonnie Myotai Treace, Sweetwater Zen Center with Abbot Anne Seisen Saunders, and Zen Center Los Angeles with Abbot Wendy Egyoku Nakao.
7 Tisdale, Sallie. Women of the Way: Discovering 2,500 Years of Buddhist Wisdom. (San Francisco Calif.: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006).
8 Tisdale, Women of the Way, 4.
9 Trent Gilliss, "Bill Murray's Dharma Talk on What It's Like to Be You," On Being with Krista Tippet, http://www.onbeing.org/blog/bill-murrays-dharma-talk-on-what-its-like-to-be-you/7353
10 Tisdale, Women of the Way, 168.
11 Tisdale, 169.
12 Tisdale, 172.
Rev. Dr. Tina Jitsujo Gauthier is an Assistant Professor in the Buddhist Chaplaincy department at University of the West. She teaches courses in Buddhist Homiletics; Spiritual Care & Counseling; Power, Privilege & Difference; Buddhist Ethics; and Research Methods, for both M.Div. and D.B.Min. programs.
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