Meet Four Inspiring Buddhist Women of Wisdom

These four women Buddhist teachers are shaping Buddhism in America. Meet Doshin Mako Voelkel, Bonnie Duran, Lama Tsomo, and Myokei Caine-Barrett, Shonin.

Lindsay Kyte
6 July 2023
Photo credits listed below.

Doshin Mako Voelkel

It was a scary movie that eventually led Doshin Mako Voelkel—the abiding abbot at San Francisco Zen Center—to Buddhism.
“When I was fourteen, my mother, who’s a non-English speaking, Japanese immigrant, was watching a scary movie late at night and wanted company,” she says. “After the movie ended, there was an infomercial on meditation. My mother turned to me and said, ‘Do you wanna learn?’ It was a transcendental meditation group, so I learned how to do the mantra meditation.”

Voelkel attended Catholic school, which was not a fit. “I felt like an atheist,” she says. “My older sister used to hold classes with her stuffed animals and give them lessons in moral behavior: how and when to say you’re sorry and such. She was a guide in my life more than any organized religion.”

In college, Voelkel studied political science, women’s studies, and philosophy. The areas in philosophy that were most gripping to her were large human questions. She wanted to know: What’s the difference between belief and knowledge? What’s the fundamental nature of reality, and can we know it? Philosophy became a system of belief for her, but meanwhile Voelkel kept meditating and started to teach others.

Photo by Jen Siska.

Her studies in developmental biology led her to think about gender constructs in new ways. “I felt fairly nonbinary. I always wanted to press up against and play with gender,” she says.

Voelkel dropped out of grad school and moved to San Francisco, where in 1997, she found her way to the San Francisco Zen Center, moving into the building and doing as many retreats as she could. Then in 2002, she left a philosophy teaching position at City College of San Francisco in order to enter monastic practice at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Voelkel received priest ordination and was shuso (head student) in 2009.

After ten years at Tassajara serving in a variety of positions, Voelkel departed for a yearlong pilgrimage through Asia and Europe, making her way eventually to the Austin Zen Center. Yet San Francisco Zen Center called her back, and on March 11, 2023, she formally became abiding abbot.

Voelkel says identity is still a subject she contemplates. “In San Francisco, there are a lot of identity questions,” she says. “People are noticing power structures and how white-bodied some Buddhist communities are. We’re trying to talk about difference and sameness in a mutually respectful, compassionate, and curious way.”

Voelkel struggles with the shifting culture’s request to say preferred gender pronouns at meetings: “Like when you introduce yourself, you say, ‘My name is Mako, and I use she/her or they/them pronouns.’ While I understand and appreciate the need to be supportive of those who are nonbinary, transgendered, or intersex, is this introduction welcoming, or is it putting a spotlight on someone who may not want to have to formulate an identity—whether it’s an identity around gender or race or whatever? I’m biracial, and the question I get is, ‘Are you Japanese or are you Caucasian?’ I’m always like, ‘Stop trying to put me in a box!’”

As for the future, Voelkel is excited about renovations for San Francisco Zen Center. “We’ve been fundraising for changes that have been talked about for twenty years,” she says. “We’re going to redo the plumbing and address accessibility questions because it’s not an accessible building. So while that will help welcome more folks in the future, our big questions now are how to sustain community, spirit, and practice through the renovations.

“I mean, we found a way to connect during a pandemic,” Voelkel says. “We’ll find ways through this.”

Photo via Center for Human Rights, University of Washington.

Bonnie Duran

Bonnie Duran did what students often did upon college graduation in the 1970s—she travelled to India. Someone suggested she check herself into a monastery until she acculturated. So that’s how she found herself on a one-month retreat in Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha had attained enlightenment.

“As soon as I heard the dharma, I knew it was true,” Duran says. “And to be in Bodh Gaya for my first retreat? Talk about karma.”
Duran is now a dharma teacher, public health researcher, professor at the School of Social Work, and a faculty member of the Indigenous Wellness Research Institute at the University of Washington. She’s also a faculty member of a graduate program in Indigenous research at Sitting Bull College on the Standing Rock Indian Reservation in North and South Dakota.

After her experience in India, Duran sat every retreat she could, including a POC retreat in 1980. She laughs when she remembers that—of all people—it was led by the white Insight teacher Joseph Goldstein.

“You have to be a dharma teacher,” he told her when the retreat wrapped up.

“I already have a job!” Duran answered.

But, she now recalls, “Joseph was committed to making sure our beloved convert Buddhist tradition got more diverse.”

She became a certified dharma teacher in 2016 after completing a four-year training program through Insight Meditation Society and Spirit Rock. She’s also the first Native American to join the Spirit Rock Teachers Council.

Duran says her Indigenous spirituality complements her Buddhist beliefs. “They have a lot of foundational principles that are the same. There’s a Lakota Dakota term that means ‘All my relations.’ It’s a profound principle about interconnectivity. It’s ‘Hey, guess what? We’re all related.’ It’s also a Buddhist concept, and it’s the truth.”

As a public health researcher, Duran focuses on improving the health and well-being of Indigenous communities through community-based participatory research. By welcoming Indigenous Peoples to lead and codirect the research process, Duran collects data on their culture-based strengths and resilience practices and, as she puts it, “decolonizes research.” She often travels to reservations around the United States, bringing meditation and mindfulness practices to Indigenous communities.

“I face challenges as a woman of color,” Duran says. “I do a lot of mindfulness meditation, so I notice inherent unconscious bias all the time. I see racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism. It would be crazy if we didn’t have those things; we were raised in a settler colonial culture. But one of the tasks of the Buddhist path is to decolonize.”

As a professor, Duran says she sees young people realizing that not everyone is the same; not everyone thinks the same or should think the same. “They’re wanting to explore their own ethnic heritage, social identity, sexual identity, gender identity,” she continues. “And that’s a wonderful thing.”

As for her own practices, one of the groups Duran belongs to is an all-women sangha. “I used to have a group that met at my house called ‘The People of Color and Allies Sangha,’” she says. “But getting older, we changed it to ‘The Crones Sangha.’ It’s a group of women taking in our innate badass-ness.”

Duran laughs humbly at the idea of being a bridge between different ways of viewing the world. “I’m part of a bigger movement that’s trying to decolonize greed, hatred, and delusion,” she says. “Our well-being is never determined by anything outside of us.

Our well-being is first and foremost determined by how well we’ve cultivated positive mental factors within us.

“I’ve been lucky to get to do this work with so many wonderful people.”

Photo by Erika Peterman.

Lama Tsomo

For Lama Tsomo, humor is a way to cope. “I come from a Jewish culture, in which the harder life gets, the more jokes you tell,” she says. “The Tibetans also joke a lot, even while they’re teaching. So, I brought my humor with me into Buddhism.”

Lama Tsomo is a Buddhist teacher, psychotherapist, philanthropist, and author. Yet her upbringing was far from her present. She was born Linda Pritzker, an heiress and member of the family who founded the Hyatt Hotel chain. An introverted child, she gravitated toward inner practices.

“When I was little, I remember blowing out my birthday candles, and what I wished for was happiness,” Lama Tsomo says.
At age twenty, she left her psychology studies and became a homesteader. She raised animals and three children, got married and divorced. Then she turned to meditation to find her next steps.

“Pretty early on I had the sense that meditation was a good idea,” Lama Tsomo says. “I just had no idea how to do it. I was living in the country and the cows weren’t explaining it [laughs]. So, I had to go find out how.”

Lama Tsomo moved to Boulder, Colorado, where she went on a weekend meditation retreat with Sharon Salzberg and Joseph Goldstein. “Buddhism really appealed to me because of its lack of narrow-minded dogma,” she says. “The Buddha encouraged us to really try this practice on and to develop our minds to the point where we can see for ourselves how reality really is.

“Plus,” Lama Tsomo jokes, “Sharon Salzberg had amazing skin, and I was like, if meditation gets me that, I’m in!” In all seriousness, Lama Tsomo says she knew that with meditation, she’d find happiness from within.

Lama Tsomo later went back to college for several degrees, had a career in business, and found tuning into herself through meditation led to making decisions that were right for her. She explored several Buddhist traditions, eventually finding her teacher, Gochen Tulku Sangak Rinpoche, and learning to speak Tibetan to communicate with him. She trained in the Nyingma and Kagyu lineages—completing extensive study and retreat in the U.S. and Nepal. Then in 2005, she became one of the first American women to ordain as a Tibetan Buddhist lama.

“We women bring something to the dharma that’s needed,” says Lama Tsomo. “Whenever you have just one point of view, it’s going to be impoverished. So we need all of the demographics, and I’m excited that American Buddhism seems to be including more and more people of different identities. I think that’s going to enrich our brand of Buddhism. Historically, whenever Buddhism has landed in a country, it has become woven into that culture. The same truth is there in the teachings, but now it’s clothed a bit differently so that people in that culture can relate to it and grasp it. That’s what’s happening here.”

Today, Lama Tsomo teaches all over the world, has written three books, and runs the Namchak Foundation in Western Montana, which offers online learning and in-person retreats in various locations in order to give people tools for reducing suffering, increasing happiness, and waking up.

“I’m encountering a lot of loneliness in people, a yearning for connection and community,” says Lama Tsomo.

Resentment seems to be building in America, and people are excluding others from their hearts. As Lama Tsomo puts it, it’s as if people are saying, “I love all beings but George.” To break down these divisions, “We need sangha,” concludes Lama Tsomo. “We need each other. We need humor. George needs love, too!”

Photo Courtesy of Myokei Caine-Barrett, Shonin

Myokei Caine-Barrett, Shonin

Myokei Caine-Barrett, Shonin, is the first person of African-American and Japanese descent—and the only American woman—to be fully ordained as a Buddhist priest within the worldwide Nichiren Order.

“I was brought up in the company of Japanese war brides, so community was inherent,” says Caine-Barrett. “But I learned later that most people don’t get that kind of experience, that deep bond of sangha that welcomes you no matter what.”
Born in 1951 in Tokyo, Japan, Caine-Barrett grew up in a military family, and over the years they moved to Okinawa, Germany, and Texas.

When a friend’s mother took Caine-Barrett to Soka Gakkai meetings in her teenage years, her parents told her not to join. “And we see how that turned out!” she laughs. “Don’t ever tell a teenager not to do something!”

Caine-Barrett practiced in the Soka Gakkai tradition for thirty-six years, and then she discovered Nichiren Buddhism.

“I knew I had come home,” she recalls. “Buddhism says it’s up to you. You are responsible. You take charge of your own life. Everything you need is within you; you just have to bring it out. That was heaven for me. I was raring to go, and I never looked back.”

Caine-Barrett is now the bishop of the Nichiren Shu Order of North America, the first woman and the first American to hold this position. She’s also resident priest of Myoken-ji Temple in Houston, and she’s been engaged in racial healing and managing conflict since the early 1990s. Caine-Barrett is the founder of two prison sanghas and is involved with Texas for Heroes, which is dedicated to helping veterans and their families heal from the spiritual injury and emotional trauma of war.

As a woman of color, Caine-Barrett sees the landscape of Western Buddhism changing. “I don’t suppose I’ll ever be satisfied because, being mixed race, there’s always the issue of being an outsider no matter what,” she says. “When you’re mixed, you’re not at home in either one of your ethnicities. So it’s trying to deal with it and to be comfortable in your own skin and forge your own identity.”

She’s encouraged by the interfaith work she’s involved in. “It’s interesting how the different religions are trying to work together,” Caine-Barrett says. “I think rituals are what uplift people and allow us to transcend the difficulties of living every day.”

According to Caine-Barrett, her work in prisons has taught her a lot. “Three of us went at first—three women of color to a group of white men who were connected to the neo-Nazi movement,” she says. “But they were curious about Buddhism. So we changed each other by opening up. We try to keep it real. The people in prison are learning to value themselves more, learning to appreciate the fact that, yes, they’ve committed a crime, but that doesn’t mean they’re throwaway people. It doesn’t mean they can’t contribute. So even though there are some who are on life sentences, there’s always the opportunity for change. Something could happen. And something did happen when a man who had a life sentence was released on parole because he’d changed so dramatically.”

Caine-Barrett says she’s surprised at her age that there’s still opportunity to find her own identity, to reaffirm who she thinks she is, and to stand up for who she thinks she is. At the same time, she knows she’ll never get to the point that she can declare, “This is exactly who I am.” After all, she says, there will always be more to encounter.

Lindsay Kyte

Lindsay Kyte

Lindsay Kyte works as a freelance journalist, playwright, and performer.