Women in Buddhism have a complicated history. It is a history of great heroines such as Mahaprajapati Gotami, who led the first women’s march in recorded history to campaign for women’s ordination. It is the history of a profound philosophy that posits the innate equality of all people based on teachings such as emptiness of self, the five skandhas, and buddhanature. Yet it is also a history that bears the weight of misogynistic literature describing women as demonic, hypersexual temptresses whose female birth makes them ineligible for enlightenment. A mere fraction of the Buddhist histories that have been written down include stories of women, who even then remain largely unnamed. Still, voices both for and against gender equality in Buddhism have been present throughout its history.
No one bears the weight of this history more directly than those Buddhist women who serve as teachers, lineage holders, abbots, tulkus, and leaders of Buddhist congregations. We may feel the responsibility to express and interpret tradition faithfully even as we are thrust (whether we choose it or not) into constructing an experimental new world in which women have more authority, education, and leadership in Buddhism than ever before. Much progress has been made—though not as much as necessary.
It is possible to envision gender equality — but that possibility relies, in large part, on the female leaders who live and teach today.” -Pema Khandro Rinpoche
I believe we stand at the threshold between eras. In the new era, it is possible to envision gender equality—but that possibility relies, in large part, on the female leaders who live and teach today and upon those who support them. We all have a part to play in this new era—male, female, nonbinary, transgender. We all must collaborate in articulating—through our practices and through our lives—Buddhism expressed as its highest potential, as a system that affirms the dignity of all beings.
My journeys as a Buddhist and as a feminist were intertwined as I made sense of my place in the world as a woman of color. I had been introduced to Buddhism as a child, and during my teens, I avidly explored world religions. However, in that exploration, I was continuously disturbed by racism and sexism. In the end, only Buddhist philosophy helped me make sense of the cruelties and beauties of the world, feeding all the drives that steered me toward a Buddhist vision of liberation from suffering for all beings.
I first proposed the notion of an all-women’s issue last fall to editor Tynette Deveaux, through whom this issue was brought to life. At that time I already had in mind a panel discussion among women teachers. That wish was deeply personal—I bear the brunt of certain gendered realities on a regular basis, but I rarely have occasion to speak about them with other female teachers. This silence is present even in my life, as a teacher who travels the world speaking about gender equality in Buddhism! There is just so much that needs to be said aloud but has previously only been spoken in whispers.
One of my favorite sutra passages reads, “The Buddhas neither wash ill deeds away with water nor remove beings’ sufferings with their hands, nor transfer their realizations to others. Beings are released through the teachings of the truth, the final reality.” I have treasured this as an affirmation of the power of education. Whether we are buddhas or buddhanature-beings, we all have the same instrument of education to make use of: words of truth, which can educate and can liberate.
I invite you to join me now in reading this intimate conversation, which went far beyond my expectations. These voices present to us the greatest untold story of dharma—the story of women in Buddhism.
Pema Khandro Rinpoche: One question I’ve been excited to ask is this: what was the moment when you knew it was going to be your life’s work to be a Buddhist teacher?
Myokei Caine-Barrett: It was not that I wanted to teach so much as I wanted to be of service; my family has always been service oriented. My dream was to follow—and this sounds funny now—but Audrey Hepburn in that movie, The Nun’s Story, which I saw when I was about eleven or twelve years old. But when I became a Buddhist, also around that age, I didn’t know about nuns in the Buddhist tradition, especially the one I was in. So I kind of put that dream aside. I was part of Soka Gakkai, and when I left and joined Nichiren Shu, I met my teacher and found out I could become a priest and a dharma teacher. That brought back my original dream to be of service to people in congregations, to people in need of teaching. So, I became a dharma teacher.
Narayan Helen Liebenson: I’d been practicing, I don’t know, it feels like my whole life, but I had no money, and I wanted to sit. I wanted to do long retreats—that’s really what I wanted to do in my life, but I didn’t know how to pull it off. At a certain point, thirty-five-some years ago, a senior teacher asked me to assist on a retreat, and I found out if I did that I could sit for free at IMS. So I almost feel like I was bribed to teach. Of course, I said yes. And when I taught that retreat, I felt like I was home in a way that was different from any other time in my life. I felt like a fish in water, like this is what I am meant to do. There was a strong satisfaction and happiness and joy. I was nervous, of course, and I was shy, and I didn’t know how to talk. But I felt like the environment I was in was the right one. After that, I just wanted to share the dharma in whatever way I could.
Pema Khandro Rinpoche: I love this phrase, “a fish in water.” That’s how I felt myself. I started teaching at a very young age, and it was just natural. It was the one thing I never questioned—it just had its own factuality about it.
Rebecca Li: I actually have not thought about this question at all. I think for me, it’s not one moment. It happened gradually after I started practicing with Master Sheng Yen, my teacher. I’d fly from California to New York for retreats starting at 4 a.m., and then when I completed my doctorate and was looking for a place to start my career, I gravitated toward an area close enough to be able to practice with him. I think it was in those micro-moments that I began slowly devoting my life to the dharma. Not like, oh, I’m going to be a teacher, but like, this is the most important thing, so I shaped and prioritized all my decisions with that in mind.
Myoan Grace Schireson: I was at UC Berkeley in the sixties and I remember riding my motorcycle across the Bay Bridge to meet Suzuki Roshi. That encounter scared me to death. We were dressed in our hippie garb, and he said he knew why we were there—that we had come to learn how to get high. And he said, “The more you practice, the more you’ll realize that life is suffering.” I couldn’t get out of the building fast enough. Then, maybe a couple months later, I was saying goodbye to my boyfriend who lived in a psychedelic school bus. I was standing on the sidewalk barefoot when I looked up and noticed there was a convalescent hospital with people sitting on the porch in wheelchairs. And I said, “Oh, that’s what he meant.” I felt like the course of a river had shifted under my feet, that my whole life was changed in that moment. So that was when I knew the dharma had me; it owned me from then on. That was some fifty-two years ago.
Pema Khandro Rinpoche: I want to ask about female role models. I had one teacher, Ani Dawa—we called her Moma-la—who was ninety-four at the time I received teachings from her; she recently passed away. But meeting her was such a revision of how I saw myself and how I saw my life, because in her I saw this really powerful embodiment of realized energy as a woman. I wonder, are there particular women teachers or role models you’ve looked to in your life?
We must encourage younger women teachers to find their own voice and to find a kind of authenticity within their own experiences, whatever their experiences have been.”
-Narayan Helen Liebenson
Myoan Grace Schireson: One was closer to me in status but still my senior sister, Saisho Maylee Scott, who started a community in Arcada. I remember thinking that it wouldn’t have been possible for me to stay at the Berkeley Zen Center without her. The other teacher I worked with quite closely was Blanche Hartman, and she was very motherly. Both Maylee and Blanche had children—Blanche had I think four, and Maylee had three—and I have two sons. The idea that we belonged in this community, that we belonged in the depth of the dharma as women with children was kind of new to us and also to the male teachers. When I was ordained, my teacher said that having a family was getting in the way. But Blanche had a kind of warmth that just made you feel cared for. She told a story about visiting a friend who had just had a baby: when Blanche saw the baby, she had to run out of the room, leaving her purse behind, because she already had four children and being around this baby made her want another one. She was very human and very feminine and very caring. That was wonderful.
Rebecca Li: Hillary Richards, a teacher of Western Chan fellowship in the UK, traveled at one point to New York to co-lead a retreat with me and Simon Child; it was a difficult retreat to lead, and she was one of the people who trained me to do it. She has three children and a feminine energy about her, but she’s able to hold her own in the Chan hall. In my tradition, the teachers are monks, and my two other teachers are men, so it was really lovely to train with her, to see her being in that space as a woman.
Narayan Helen Liebenson: The woman who comes to mind for me is Dipa Ma, who was known not just as a teacher but as a master—it’s unusual for a woman to hold that kind of authority and designation. I met her only a few times in casual situations, but just the fact that she was alive and had such an ordinary life, and that she could practice so intensively and to such a great depth—which was obvious to anybody who met her or knew her—was quite remarkable to me.
Myokei Caine-Barrett: All of the women who taught me about Buddhism were Japanese war brides. My mother did not like religion, but these were her friends. The women, especially in the early days, were the teachers, showing us and teaching us how to practice our way through our difficulties. They dealt with alcoholism, with the loneliness of being women with children while their husbands were away in service to the country, and also with being foreigners in a land filled with hatred toward them. Through all of it, they imparted a lot of deep training in how to use Buddhism to live your life in such a way that you could be happy. As I get older, the teaching has gotten deeper, but it’s still along the same vein as what I learned from those women, who shared their problems and the difficulties they overcame. They taught us how to take care of each other and be there for each other.
Pema Khandro Rinpoche: I’m wondering, did any of you face any great external obstacles to being a teacher, some kind of resistance or difficulty that you experienced because you were a woman?
Narayan Helen Liebenson: I received a lot of support from my male colleagues, and I’m grateful for that. But given that I began to teach so young and I was a woman at a time when there were very few women teachers, it was definitely tricky. People wouldn’t necessarily complain to me, but things would get back to me about the way I was expressing myself—comments that I felt were about being a woman rather than just being young. So I experienced that as something I had to make my way through. As much as I was being encouraged by others, by teachers, I still had to find my own inner confidence.
Over the years, I found there was a certain age of a man who oftentimes would question me. I was fine with older men, I was fine with younger men, I was great with women, but the men who were my age or a little bit older seemed to want to challenge me. So I took it on as practice and even started almost enjoying it. How could we find a real connection in the midst of what initially seemed like a sense of separation?
Myokei Caine-Barrett: As a leader and teacher in Soka Gakkai, it was always surprising when someone would say to me, “You’re after power.” It wasn’t about power at all. So I really had to go deep within to be able to continue, while at the same time standing up for what I believed to be the correct way of doing things.
Once I became ordained in the Nichiren tradition, the leadership was mostly occupied by men. Those ego spaces are still a challenge—I think men aren’t used to dealing with the way a woman does leadership versus how a man does leadership. They don’t like the approach I’m taking; they think I should be more aggressive. I have learned to just stand my ground and continue to move forward. I try to help them see there’s another way.
Myoan Grace Schireson: My teacher couldn’t see women—wives, mothers—becoming priests, even though my sons were in college or had finished college. He tried to convince me to become a lay teacher, something that they were just coming up with in the Zen world. So I said, “If I became a lay teacher, I wouldn’t have to shave my head, I wouldn’t have to go to Tassajara for a monastic practice period, and I wouldn’t have to give up my work. Is that what you’re saying?” He said, “Oh, I can’t believe you’ve opened your mind in such and such a way.” I told him I’d think about it. And then the next week when we met, I said, “I thought about it. I don’t want to do that.” That was the end of his pushing the lay teacher position on me. Later, when he did ordain me, he said, “I realized I was hung up on you being a wife and mother.”
Pema Khandro Rinpoche: What about internal obstacles? As you assumed the role of a teacher, of a leader, did you feel any hesitation or resistance within yourself? And, if so, how did you overcome it?
Rebecca Li: I was the oldest among my siblings, so I don’t have this discomfort with being in a position of authority. But I’ve also never thought of it in terms of power, because that role always comes with responsibilities. When I went through teacher’s training with Master Sheng Yen, he always emphasized the importance of remembering you’re not there to posture as this teacher. We are really practicing together. For me what that means is, yes, I’m the teacher, so that is how I’m practicing. I’m practicing by being in this teacher’s role, which has its own unique set of challenges that I have to resolve.
Pema Khandro Rinpoche: I resonate with that—that it’s a role you do, and that’s how you’re practicing with your sangha. I feel like leadership is a role that I’m studying together with the sangha. I play my part, you play your part, but we’re all equally doing a practice.
Myokei Caine-Barrett: Early on, the person who taught me about leadership was my dad. He always said that, as the leader, you must never ask someone to do something that you yourself won’t do. That’s always been a guideline for me. I think I fell into leadership—I always saw problems, and if no one else was going to fix it, I decided I had to fix it. But the greatest lesson I’ve learned about leadership is to raise up others, to learn how to share leadership with other people, and to find the areas where other people might be capable and show them it’s okay to share that capability.
Honestly, I hate to do everything myself. I’m the eldest child, so I always had to do everything; as I’ve gotten older, I’ve felt like I need to retire from doing everything. So I’ve had to work on finding the capabilities of others. I have to teach others to learn how to respond to what they see, because I see, as a Buddhist, that our practice is about response, and about relationship, and how we put those two together.
Pema Khandro Rinpoche: I also get a lot of joy from sharing—sharing power, sharing authority, training other teachers, training people to take leadership in the sangha. I often say we’re a sangha of leaders, not followers, because I really believe that the idea of altruistic enlightened intent, or bodhicitta, empowers us to take responsibility for ourselves and our world. I try to train my sangha in that way.
Myoan Grace Schireson: I remember my teacher telling me to teach my sangha a specific thing—a hard thing—and my saying, “Well, I’m sure someone else can teach it.” But he insisted, “No, you need to do this.” I didn’t want to be disliked for being bossy and being an authority, and I thought, Oh shit, I have to do this. This is a problem. I’m going to have to be disliked. It’s still painful for me; people still dislike me when I have to stand up as the teacher. I don’t know any particular practice that magically makes it go away. It’s still uncomfortable.
Narayan Helen Liebenson: Early on, I took on the practice of saying yes at times when I would have preferred not to be visible. I decided I was just going to say yes to all things that were asked of me, as long as they were reasonable and teaching oriented. “Sub for this person—give a talk on a Wednesday night.” This person everybody’s coming to see is not going to be there, and you are going to disappoint them by being there—nobody said that, of course, but I knew that would happen. I told myself to just do it anyway. I think that resolve was really a good training. It forced me to make my way through whatever teaching situation I was in and to stay steady in the middle of it.
Pema Khandro Rinpoche: It seems to me we have exaggerated stereotypes out there of women Buddhist teachers, which makes it all the more important to see actual human women teaching and modeling the whole range of characteristics that are possible. With Ani Dawa, what was especially potent for me was that she was really sexy. She was ninety-four, but she was really sexy and powerful and juicy, and there was zero sense that she had to become like a man or embody masculine qualities. She was just expressing a raw, playful, sexy energy at ninety-four. It showed me so much—not only about aging but also about the possibility of playing with the idea of what it means to be a woman and using that play as a vehicle of transmission. Everyone regarded her as this enlightened dakini, this enlightened female master, so there was room, I think, for her to play joyfully and be sassy. It was also so potent to receive instructions pointing out the nature of mind in the vehicle of a woman’s body. That was especially because in so many of the portrayals I had seen before of female Buddhist teachers, and in Buddhism generally, there was an implicit dropping of sexuality.
Rebecca Li: I’m part of an organization that has both laypeople and a monastic community, and my key challenge is that there is no one like me in the whole institution. I’m a lay teacher, a woman with full dharma transmission. When my current teacher gave me dharma transmission, he did it very differently from Master Sheng Yen. Master Sheng Yen just said, “I’m going to give you a dharma transmission. Make three bows.” My current teacher told me ahead of time, “This is what I would like to do, but why don’t you go and think about it? Especially talk to your husband.” Because he understood very well that devoting my life to the dharma at this level would affect my family as well as my relationship with my husband.
I’m a woman. That’s going to shape other people’s response to me. So rather than making it a problem, how do I practice?” -Rebecca Li
I feel like it’s not so much people having ill will or opposing me being a teacher but rather we’re experiencing the effects of a long history of a patriarchal institution. People are used to seeing a teacher in a certain form—mostly monastic men—and here’s this non-monastic, non-man teacher. What do we do with this person? That’s a great part of my experience. I’m here. I’m a woman. That’s going to shape other people’s response to me. So rather than making it a problem, how do I practice?
Pema Khandro Rinpoche: I really resonate with that. For so long, I was a young female teacher and a tulku, which is someone enthroned as the reincarnation of a predecessor, and I didn’t quite fit in people’s boxes. People would often ask me, “Who’s the lama of your centers?” And I would say, “Well, I am.” I think it’s important to highlight what it’s like for women—or people who are underrepresented in these communities—to come into the role of the teacher. How can we make that into an opportunity and a practice? I don’t think it’s always an easy thing to do.
Myokei Caine-Barrett: From the sense of my intersectionality—being Black, Japanese, and a woman—it’s been very odd at times. My first rebellion in Japan was when all the women were serving tea, and I flat-out refused to do it unless the men of my same rank were required to do it as well. So they haven’t quite known what to do with me when I show up. My role models, in many instances, are some of the younger Japanese female priests who are now making steady strides toward being leaders in their temples. They’re doing things quietly, but it’s garnering a lot of attention.
Rebecca Li: You’re talking about resisting or not conforming to the gender norm given to us in a dharma community. It’s challenging, because we engage in the practice of cultivating humility, and you don’t want to be seen as saying, “Oh, this is below me.” But a lot of the “women’s work” is understood to be lesser, associated with a lesser status. As women dharma teachers, we have to juggle these in our minds.
Myoan Grace Schireson: I wanted to bring up one more obstacle, which is if you’re married and your husband is a practitioner. Wherever I went, people would assume that my husband was senior to me, that he was a teacher and I was the wifeykins. This caused a lot of tension in our marriage. It was hard for him, as a man, to acknowledge this kind of entitlement he was receiving. Even when we went to Japan and with our primitive Japanese explained that I was the senior, they start bowing to him as a senior. And he had to say, “No, no, it’s her.” If you appear with a man and he’s your husband, people are very uncomfortable with what they see as a reversal of power.
Pema Khandro Rinpoche: Thank you—that’s a vulnerable thing to share, but I think it’s such a common experience. If I appear with another lama who is of equal rank, people often assume that I’m his consort. Otherwise, why are we together? I was really surprised at first when that started happening, and now I’ve gotten used to it. Or they just assume I’m the sidekick.
Myokei Caine-Barrett: We’ve been calling for a training for priest spouses. It was originally called “priest’s wife training,” but then there was a gay couple and also my husband, so there were two men in the class with all the rest of these women—they were taught how to fold robes and serve tea.
Narayan Helen Liebenson: I had been teaching at the Cambridge Insight Meditation Center for ten years before my ex-husband started to teach there as well; for ten years, it was always my name on the schedule. And then when he started teaching there, his name appeared in the schedule before mine. It was so interesting to have to deal with it because, of course, it doesn’t matter, right? On a certain level, who cares whose name is first? It seems so petty, and yet I saw it as something that had been internalized, so I felt I had to speak to it. It’s not just about me. It’s also about being a model as a woman teacher, something that so many women needed and still need.
Myoan Grace Schireson: I think one important thing we do is to go against the grain of being humble and respectful in our leadership. It’s not just about us—it needs to be done for other women.
Pema Khandro Rinpoche: It’s so true. One of my favorite quotes attributed to Trulshik Rinpoche goes, “Every act matters; even though everything is empty and like a dream, every act matters.” What we do now matters for future female teachers and practitioners.
I love the idea of refusing to serve the tea unless the men also had to serve the tea. It makes me wonder about how new or younger practitioners are meeting these issues. What can we do in our sanghas to change how we approach gender roles and foster equality for everybody?
Narayan Helen Liebenson: Well, I guess I feel it’s changing anyway—gender roles are getting more mixed up than they used to be, and there’s a natural flow behind that change. I remember years ago a group of young people met with a very traditional Burmese teacher, an older male teacher, and it was clear that to him, women were not as good as men. Younger people encountering those attitudes today aren’t going to continue to practice. They’re not even going to care about it, because they know that’s not the truth. Younger practitioners and younger people are a bit freer in that way, maybe, than we were.
Rebecca Li: I agree that it’s changing already. And I believe it’s less about advice than about how we act as teachers, how we model ourselves. For example, when we run a retreat or run the sangha, we can stay away from the established gender division of labor. In some dharma centers, there is “women’s work” and then “men’s work”: the women are the ones who do the cleaning, the cooking, the reception, and things like that. The men do the leading, manage the people, teach, and talk in front of the group. That’s not unique to dharma centers; it mirrors the larger society. At the beginning of every retreat, during the very first meal, we don’t yet have the work practice assignments, so I always have to ask for volunteers to do the dishes. And I always make sure that I bring in both men and women to do that job, to make it very clear to everyone that we are not perpetuating a gendered division of labor. Part of our practice is simply to challenge our pre-existing views, the ones that come from growing up in this society.
Myokei Caine-Barrett: If men object to doing work they consider women’s work, I generally tend to couch it as a training, an opportunity for them to understand what real service is about. Especially when it comes to cleaning bathrooms, men have to do that, precisely because women are always doing it. I think modeling is essential, so people can see that women can do everything and also that men are not the sole owners of status or authority; they aren’t the only ones with the capacity to teach and lead. Women just do it differently. I don’t think we have to act like men to be respected. We’re all different. People who see a variety of styles and ways of holding leadership roles will learn a great deal about themselves as well, because they’ll have different kinds of models to emulate.
Myoan Grace Schireson: I wrote a book about women ancestors—it shows examples of different kinds of women practitioners. I teach workshops on that, and the message is that wherever you are as a woman, whatever role, whether you’re in a temple or you’re in a family, you can find a way to come forth. Once, when I went to a Tibetan center to give a talk on female ancestors, I was interviewed and asked what I thought about the fact that men had a superior birth. Why, they asked, would we want to recognize female ancestors if they were inferior? I said, well, there are two possibilities. One is that what you’re telling me is not true and somebody just made it up. The other is that it is true and, therefore, it’s like a dog speaking English—if these women can teach, given this inferior birth problem, then how miraculous! I think there’s still a lot of work to be done toward making a space—lots of spaces—for women to teach and educating them about the history of women in their tradition.
Pema Khandro Rinpoche: In our sangha, we take on these topics explicitly: What is the difference between gender and sex? What is androcentrism? What is misogyny? I point it out when it’s in the literature. I also try to bring up points of view in Buddhist literature that argue against misogyny, so they can see that there’s more than one perspective in Buddhism and our own lineage about these ideas. Even if students don’t notice it on their own right now, at some point they’re going to come across a text that talks about women being inferior. When that happens, I want them to be ready. I want them to know the philosophical arguments.
Myoan Grace Schireson: I do think young men are changing. But in my tradition, there are many older men, and there are lots of Zen centers where these roles, including the teacher as a beloved one to be served, play a big part. Young women get pulled into that because they get to have a closeness with the teacher; they get a sense of being special. We like to please, we like to be liked, and this kind of being pulled in by the teacher is a problem that I still see a lot of.
The biggest thing for me is teaching women how to support other women. For whatever reasons, maybe because there are fewer women, women tend to see each other as competitors. It’s a zero-sum game—there aren’t enough positions to go around. As a result, women don’t necessarily support women. Teaching them how to is important.
Pema Khandro Rinpoche: What advice you would have for a young female teacher who is just starting out?
Myokei Caine-Barrett: I would say to follow your heart, because we are all uniquely equipped. My assumption is that once you’re already a teacher, everything you’ve gone through has already shown you how to fight through a lot of the stuff we’ve been talking about. You’ll need to get to a certain point in order to teach, to understand in your heart and through your intuition the circumstances in which you find yourself—rather than looking elsewhere, you’ll need to go deep into yourself, find your own strengths, and learn to rely on those pretty exclusively. You’ll also need a good support system, other women just to talk to, to let it all out. You need the freedom to be absolutely truthful to at least one other person. And practice a lot, a whole lot. Continue to deepen faith and practice, and never stop studying, because the more you know, the more you will grow through all of the experiences that you need to have.
Pema Khandro Rinpoche: I love this idea of going to other women, having that support, because it can be so isolating as a teacher.
Myoan Grace Schireson: I agree it’s important for a young female teacher to have a peer group to talk with about some of these things that come up. Teachers can go off the rails when they don’t have other teachers to talk to about what’s bothering them or what’s happening. I also think, as a psychologist, that women tend to be a little more emotional than men, and because of that, we’ve been taught to suppress our feelings. We’re considered too emotional, even hysterical. As a female teacher, as you enter the fray, when you feel something, make a note of it, review it, explore it. Don’t just push it away, saying, “Everything is em