Grace Schireson, Christina Feldman, Rita Gross, and Lama Palden Drolma discuss how women are defining new roles as Buddhist leaders, teachers, and practitioners.
Introduction by Sandy Boucher
When I think of women and Buddhism, I see before me the faces of our Western Buddhist female pioneers. In the relatively easier situation we enjoy today, with the proliferation of powerful women teachers and spokespeople, I wonder if we will forget these early women who placed the foundational stones on our path.
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 and still teaches her distinctive mindfulness training. Toni Packer left the trappings of her Zen training to establish a center offering Buddhist wisdom without the Japanese formalities.
The influence of these women ripples throughout the contemporary Buddhist world. They were tough, determined, sincere, and stubbornly creative. They insisted on their place in Buddhism and worked hard to open the way for the excellent crop of teachers who followed them, including the younger generation of women teachers coming into their own today.
Back in 1981, I attended the very first Women and Buddhism conference in the United States, held at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. This gathering became quite explosive, as women from Zen centers spoke up about the sexual power abuse perpetrated by their male teachers, and asked for help with this perennial problem.
From 1981 to 1990, there were seven Women and Buddhism conferences. The participants, from Zen, Theravada, and Tibetan Buddhist sanghas, generally fell into one of two camps: women who had been involved in Buddhist practice for five years or more and were not particularly involved in the feminist discourse of the times, and feminists who had been organizing and demonstrating for women’s liberation and were newly drawn to Buddhism.
When feminists began to frequent Buddhist institutions, they started questioning the hierarchy and power dynamics they encountered. Many of the longtime Buddhist practitioners, for their part, were concerned about preserving the tradition. Energies for change and energies for continuity met in these conferences, where they were debated, explored, and acted out.
Much progress has taken place since then—in scholarship, in challenging traditional hierarchical structures, in feminizing the language of chants and liturgy, and in women being recognized as lineage-holding dharma teachers and assuming leadership roles.
Nevertheless, with the exception of Pema Chödrön, who has become something of a rock star in the Buddhist world, 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 (see article by Amy Boyer on page 42).
In this forum, the participants are women who have had decades of firsthand experience dealing with the issues facing women in Buddhism. They bring us up to date on progress and obstacles, and present a vision for the future. It’s a refreshing discussion that explores the nitty-gritty while still holding a positive view.
Buddhadharma: Each of you has been involved in Western Buddhism for decades, so I expect that you’ve seen some changes and hopefully some progress for women over the years. When you look at the way things are today for Buddhist women in the West, would you say there’s cause for celebration or for dismay?
Grace Schireson: We do have cause for celebration, particularly with what Ayya Tathaaloka accomplished recently with the ordination of bhikkhunis at her center in Northern California. But that doesn’t mean all our work is done. It’s like when Obama came to office and people said, “Oh great, there’s no more racism.” The fact that things are moving along in a positive direction for women doesn’t mean there won’t be any more problems.
Rita Gross: There have been a lot of strides for women in the thirty years or so that I’ve been involved. The important question for me has always been, Are there women teachers? There are a lot more women teaching Buddhism in the West, though in the Tibetan system we’re all pretty much teaching under the guidance of a Tibetan, and not teaching independently.
There’s been a lot of improvement in liturgies in terms of gender-inclusive and gender-neutral language, but it’s still not always the case. It’s a big stride that people no longer say, “Oh, that’s not an issue. We don’t need to talk about it.” But the younger generation sometimes frightens me. Very recently I was at a retreat and someone was talking about my newest book, and one of the young residents there said, “Oh, I don’t agree with that at all. That’s just genderizing the dharma. There are no problems.” That’s the perpetual issue we face: women make some gains and then people forget how things used to be. It’s frightening to think of the up-and-coming generation of meditators rejecting the work of feminists as genderizing the dharma, to which I always reply, “We’re not genderizing the dharma. We’re un-genderizing it.” The dharma was genderized thousands of years ago when women were first put in a separate class.
Christina Feldman: There have been really great changes since I began teaching in the West in 1975. In the Theravada tradition at that time there were almost no women teachers and the imprint was still very much a monastic model and lineage. Now we have a wonderful group of senior women teachers and no one is surprised to see them sitting on the stage or standing at the podium. That in itself is quite a turnaround.
With young women, I often find that all they’ve known is gender equality, and most have never been to Asia, so they haven’t seen how hard it is for women practicing there. There’s this sense that “I wasn’t really aware you did any work, but it’s great you did, if you did.” Their feeling is that the work is done. But there is a long way to go in the Theravada tradition in terms of gender equality, particularly in the monastic community, and this issue is a hot potato right now between the lay and monastic communities. Still, I feel heartened by the changes over the last thirty years.
Lama Palden Drolma: One of the optimistic things in the Vajrayana tradition that I certainly experienced from the beginning was that the very high masters just threw out some of the old stuff, saying that it was cultural or whatever. For example, there were Mahakala rooms at the monastery where women weren’t supposed to go. They just said, “Oh no, that’s fine, you can come in,” and they let us live in the monasteries and study.
But there’s quite a difference between the high rinpoches, who have a lot of realization and from the beginning have treated us with respect and love and equality, and what I think of as the “middle management lamas,” who aren’t as realized and are more culturally bound, as well as the monks who live in monasteries and haven’t had much contact with the West. But even male Western lamas often aren’t treated well by Asian monks, so it goes beyond a gender issue into a Western–Asian issue.
However, in general things have come along quite well, and many of the Tibetan teachers have made an effort to ask women to teach. Yet I know a lot of women who are authorized to teach but don’t because the situation is intimidating or they haven’t had enough practical support.
Buddhadharma: In the Tibetan tradition, where you have rinpoches and tulkus, it seems harder for women to get a foothold as senior teachers.
Lama Palden Drolma: I’m not so sure. I’ve received nothing but support to move forward, but the level of realization is the major factor, and in the West we don’t yet have the levels of realization of people such as the late Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, or the Karmapa, or the Dalai Lama.
Rita Gross: Given that 99.9 percent of the people picked as tulkus and trained from an early age are boys, I think it is difficult for women to become senior teachers, and I’m not talking about Westerners, I’m talking about Tibetans.
Christina Feldman: In the Theravada tradition in the West there hasn’t been nearly as much interface between monastics and lay teachers. In a way, there’s been almost a parallel development but not a conjoined development, so lay teachers haven’t been shackled by the monastic tradition. Lay teachers and centers have set off on their own journey, so to speak, without needing authorization from the monastic community.
Buddhadharma: Clearly there’s been some progress for women. What are the main areas where women are still stuck—where we don’t have equal opportunity or support?
Lama Palden Drolma: None of the gains we’ve made in the West are necessarily touching monks who’ve been educated in monasteries in Asia, and they need to be educated about that, so that’s one area that’s been kind of stuck. As Christina was saying, Insight Meditation Society, Spirit Rock, and Gaia House have separated themselves to some extent from the old-country tradition and just moved forward on their own. But in the Tibetan tradition, the situation has been much more mixed.
Grace Schireson: The trainings that have been passed on to us have to do with training young men. When young men come into a monastic situation, because of the way their ego defenses work, they need to learn to harmonize and fit into the community and not to dominate with that sort of raw, intentional energy that young men have. But women, as Palden said, hide behind their ego defenses in different ways. They hide by pleasing others and ingratiating others, and so their training needs to be different. I don’t think this has been specifically acknowledged and worked on as much as it can be.
Christina Feldman: In lay Theravada centers in the United States, and in the centers where I teach, it’s always shared trainings rather than one person handing on a lineage to another. There’s a training program that includes plenty of sustained practice, study, and so on, and that’s led by a mix of male and female senior teachers.
Lama Palden Drolma: I think it’s important to recognize that in Vajrayana countries like Tibet, Bhutan, and Nepal, the ethical standards were completely different in terms of non-monastic teachers having sexual relationships with students. It was considered a blessing in those countries. These days, for example in Bhutan, some don’t want to go along with that, and I think the changes in the West are starting to have an impact over there, but it’s much slower.
Buddhadharma: We recently put up a post on our Sunspace website inviting women to write about their experiences in Western Buddhist communities, and the first posts that went up were all about sexual assaults and abuse by teachers. I got the impression that they weren’t just pointing to Asian teachers but also to male Western teachers. Do you see this problem as part of a cultural phenomenon of an Asian Buddhist tradition coming to the West, or is this also a Western indigenous problem?
Rita Gross: From what I know of Western Buddhism and the Tibetan tradition, there are plenty of male teachers—not necessarily highly authorized teachers, but teachers who have some authorization—who are perfectly eager and willing to sleep with female students.
Grace Schireson: Still this is not only a male problem; this is a woman’s problem as well. Women need to learn not to be confused by the exotic or foreign or new nature of Buddhist practice, and to understand what their tendencies are. We will not solve this problem if we just focus on the male side of it.
Rita Gross: I completely agree. Women need to learn how to know what they want and how to take control of their lives.
Grace Schireson: Even in the Zen tradition, where women have equal empowerments, there isn’t equality in terms of leading large training monasteries and institutions. Women tend to have the smaller places.
Rita Gross: This is one of the areas of gender where we’re stuck—women by and large tend to think men are better teachers. There’s that lingering inferiority that’s so hard to overcome.
Lama Palden Drolma: I notice as a woman teacher that most men will only go to male teachers. For example in my center, it’s completely open and we have some great men who come, but it’s 80 percent women.
Buddhadharma: I want to go back to Grace’s comment about women not supporting women as teachers. I recently read several accounts from women who attended the bhikkhuni ordinations in California and their stories were heartening. It seemed that women were very supportive of the women who took bhikkhuni ordination. Christina, do you feel that women are now supporting other women who want to become either bhikkhunis or senior women teachers?
Christina Feldman: In the Theravada tradition, we’ve sorely felt the lack of ordained bhikkhunis in the West, and now that these ordinations are beginning, they are being greeted with tremendous support and delight and celebration by women who are practicing.
Grace Schireson: I’ve also been behind women’s retreats for a long time, teaching as part of a team of women teachers. When women see other women teach, one of the things they begin to awaken to is that they do prefer men. As a psychologist, I think there’s something about daddy’s distance—in other words, children grow up taking mother for granted. Susan Faludi recently wrote about this in Harper’s magazine, looking at the mother complex and how it’s easy to push mom aside and glorify dad. I think women’s retreats help to awaken women to this tendency.
Buddhadharma: At what point is it more useful to step outside of existing Buddhist organizations and set up new ones based on leadership styles and models that are more supportive of women as teachers and senior students, and where women aren’t looking to men for approval?
Lama Palden Drolma: Well, some of us have done that. I’ve certainly done that—my whole organizational model for Sukhasiddhi is different than the traditional male models. It’s a much more inclusive, collaborative, and loving model than some of the more samurai-style models from the past.
Buddhadharma: Maybe we need more of that?
Christina Feldman: We have changed the model, and that has been an important part of the translation of the dharma into the West—to find a model that also addresses issues that have never been addressed in Asia, such as sexuality between teachers and students, and who gets enlightened and who doesn’t.
Lama Palden Drolma: I completely agree.
Grace Schireson: We are creating independent models, but at the same time we’re acting as a bridge, where we’re visible to a great number of people and where women will have the experience of seeing us stand up. When I practiced in Japan in an all-male monastery, I would go to the lectures and 80 to 90 percent of those who came to hear the teacher speak were Japanese women. They were so heartened to see me as a woman practicing with the men, even though that wasn’t what they wanted to do.
Rita Gross: Looking at it as a scholar of religion, I’d say the whole Buddhist community needs both people who work within the standard conventional institutions and people who go outside of them. I’ve always felt that if you can manage to stay within an institution, and change part of it from the inside, that’s very powerful. You really have an impact if you can stay within the institution and, for example, get a whole institution to retranslate its liturgy so that it’s more gender-neutral and gender-inclusive. But there are many people who are not temperamentally able to take the flak of staying in a traditional patriarchal institution, and for them to start new institutions that present other models is also necessary for the overall progress of the whole Buddhist tradition. It’s often those very institutions that seem so radical that act as a spur for more conventional institutions to actually change from the inside.
Buddhadharma: Earlier you talked about how young women practitioners often don’t acknowledge the issue of gender inequality in Buddhism. Presumably the outlook of the next generation of women is important. How do you begin to talk to young women about these issues?
Grace Schireson: The point I make is that this isn’t something we’re making up. We’re not being grumpy feminists. We want to show them what has happened in the history of Buddhism and the position that women are in with regard to the chanting of the ancestors’ names—the fact that women have been erased. We want to show them that there are parts of the scriptures that talk about women hatefully, and that women, because of the eight special rules, have been in a submissive position. It’s very important for women to see this, because it’s glossed over.
Rita Gross: It’s very important that men see that, too.
Grace Schireson: And we don’t want to see it. We converted to Buddhism because we thought it was a superior practice and religion, and we don’t like seeing that it has the same flaws as other religions. We tend to want to idealize it. In Zen, there’s this idea that to call out gender is to somehow be attached to form and that we should stay on the emptiness side, the equality side, which is to ignore the Heart Sutra, which says form is emptiness, emptiness is form.
Rita Gross: Yes, the men who say, “Let’s not talk about gender because gender isn’t real,” don’t actually take that seriously at all. They don’t apply it to themselves.
Grace Schireson: No, they don’t go to the ladies’ room, they go to the men’s room.
Rita Gross: It’s so comical and yet so tragic to see people who are very clear intellectually about emptiness, but who still cling to gender markers—somehow they can’t imagine gender arrangements being different than they are. It’s such a paradox.
Christina Feldman: It’s easy for timeless habits of aversion and fear to hide behind such spiritual generalizations. But it doesn’t actually address the reality of people’s lives. The Buddha taught that we can find liberation within this body, this gender, this form. So when I hear those kinds of statements, to me it doesn’t have any real meaning.
Buddhadharma: Yet it does seem to stop discussions short sometimes.
Christina Feldman: Only if we let it stop discussions short. Women also need to understand that disagreeing is not the same as being defensive; disagreeing can come from an educated place.
Lama Palden Drolma: I agree, Christina, and that’s why one of the fourteen root tantric vows is not to disparage women, even though that hasn’t necessarily stopped it.
Grace Schireson: This “not disparaging women” is complicated, because there’s a “not disparaging women” that means “don’t beat them up. As long as they stay in their place, let’s not be cruel to them.” But as soon as we start to speak up and say this isn’t quite right, the “B” word comes up. That can be very hard for women.
Rita Gross: This is a very important point, and I’ve written about it for thirty years: how we speak about gender issues is critically important, and if we are speaking out of emotional turmoil, we’re probably going to make the situation worse, not better. It’s important to go through whatever it takes to get to the point where we can speak clearly and calmly, and not defensively. However, it can be hard to get to the point where that’s possible.
Buddhadharma: It sounds like you almost have to don a suit of armor as you prepare to speak out.
Lama Palden Drolma: I don’t think that’s true. It’s more about being centered and grounded, and, like Rita was saying, having worked through our emotional reactivity around it so we can be heard more clearly. We can also model how to rest in the realization of the emptiness of self, and be assertive and clear and step forward simultaneously.
Rita Gross: For me, what it took was seeing that my violent, angry, emotional outbursts were polarizing the situation. They might have provided a temporary relief for me, but they weren’t doing anything to help anybody.
Christina Feldman: If women speak from a sense of need—needing approval or needing to belong—it’s never from a sense of sufficiency. The more that women find that sufficiency within their practice, within themselves, they’re not speaking from a place of need and therefore there doesn’t need to be anger, there doesn’t need to be armor. There’s no need to be defensive, because sufficiency is not reliant upon approval or belonging or acceptance.
Grace Schireson: Still, even if we come from a place of sufficiency, and even if we’re grounded in the realization of selflessness while we’re being assertive, we’re likely to encounter some reactivity in our audience. I think we need to be prepared for that. Whether you call it armoring or not, you do need to be prepared when you speak up on these matters, because no matter how careful we are there’s going to be some reactivity or even an attack.
Buddhadharma: What hope do you see for resolving the issue of gender in Buddhism? Can you share some of your own inspiration?
Rita Gross: One of the things I’ve changed in relating with these issues is that I’m no longer so interested in the outstanding role models like Yeshe Tsogyal, who would be very hard to emulate anyway. I’m interested in the notion that ordinary life is adequate for enlightenment. You don’t have to be unusual and exotic and one in a thousand. That’s not really the goal. The idea of just being oneself and becoming enlightened as one is has been a new take for me, and very refreshing. We really have everything we need, and all we need to do is work with that.
Lama Palden Drolma: Yes, this is such an important point. One other thing I want to share is that high teachers are making corrections. For example, about eight years ago there were empowerments given in the Darjeeling area for a lot of Shangpa practitioners, our particular lineage. In the seating for the empowerments, Bokar Rinpoche put the Western female lamas ahead of the male monastics. That was a big thing, and a statement to the monastic community. I think a lot of the rinpoches are seeing the inequality and wanting to remedy that—there’s the wish for women to come forward.
Grace Schireson: As Westerners become more confident in the practice and in standing on their own two feet, they’re willing to change things, and to me this is the most encouraging point. For example, this ordination of bhikkhunis was made possible because Westerners said, “We can change this. There’s been some mistake in not allowing this tradition to continue or to be revived.”