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Women in Buddhism 2009 – 5

By: Chris Fortin | 12/10/2009
In Topics: Women in Buddhism

Chris Fortin leads the seminar in the fifth talk of a series on Women in Buddhism 2009 based on two texts: Grace Shireson’s “Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens and Macho Masters” and Susan Murcott’s “The First Buddhist Women: Translation and Commentary on the Therigatha”. Chris also speaks on Dogen’s writings regarding women teachers from Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma Book 28 “Getting the Marrow by Doing Obeisance” (Raihai Tokuzui). Unfortunately Chris’ mike dislodged 40 minutes into the talk and the remainder half hour is a low volume.

Women in Buddhism 2009 – 5

By Chris Fortin | December 10, 2009


I want to acknowledge what my qualifications are and why I am sitting here. First, I think it is primarily because I have a woman's body. Second, for the past eight years, I have been leading a women's sangha. I never intended to create a sangha just for women. It just kind of happened that way. We meet weekly, and there are one day retreats every three months. And the third thing is that I have been a psychotherapist for about twenty-five years, and, although I see both men and women, a good portion of my psychotherapy practice over the years has been seeing women. So I have had the rare and precious opportunity to sit with women in intimate space and to hear women's stories and to be a mirror for each other.

It has seemed to me from the beginning of this series [on Women in Buddhism] that what has been quite different is that usually when we come together at seminar, we don't think so much about gender, and we don't register gender on a conscious level. I remember the first night feeling like we were all sitting here, being aware in an almost illuminated consciousness way that we were in different bodies. This hasn't always been so comfortable. Some of us have male bodies, and some of us have female bodies. What a mystery this is! That we were born into bodies at all. That we have a precious human life.

Because I was born into a woman's body – and it is part of my life and conditioning – I am going to tell some stories about women. When I travel in Europe, I love to go into Catholic churches, and I love to light candles. When you go into the churches in France and Italy and Spain, you predominantly see women in the churches. They're praying. That's their life. You can feel that they are the body and the heart of the Church. And every time I am struck by the fact that women can't be ordained in the Catholic Church. They can't take full vows. They can't lead a service. They can't administer to someone. They can't be priests. I am always surprised at how acute the pain and anger is in me that arises around that.

When my partner and I did a pilgrimage to Bodhgaya, we would go everyday and sit under the Bodhi Tree. It was so beautiful, because there were so many people from so many different traditions. There were men and women, but there was something particularly poignant to me about seeing so many women practicing. Old Tibetan women. And I thought, "How did they even get here? They don't have money. How in the world did they get to this place?" They would sit and do their practices. The Tibetan women were doing their 100,000 prostrations. There were nuns – probably Korean and in grey garb. There were some in pink robes. But there was something about the commonality of being in this place with so many different practitioners from different lineages and traditions, and particularly, seeing the women, that really deeply moved me.

One day, a young, Thai monk came up to me. There are different monasteries around Bodhgaya, and he invited me to his monastery for lunch. Bruce and I went, and when we got there, there were a lot of young, male monks. The women nuns were all waiting on them and taking care of them. There was an old, old Thai woman. There was a Western nun practicing there, so she could speak English to me, and she said, "This woman has sat and practiced in caves. This woman is a living sage. She fixes the meals for the monks. All the nuns eat second. And she does their laundry. If you practice and follow the Vinaya, that's the plight of women in this order."

When we were in Sikkim, we were told there had once been vibrant orders for women in Sikkim. I asked, as I was traveling around the country, "Where are they?" They're just gone! You can't find them.

I try never to forget that I am able to practice with all of you – that, as a woman, I sit here and teach, and that we are equals, and that we do this together. There are women across time and space, and in current time, who can't do this. I actually take that as a strong responsibility. There's a sense of grace that that's what I have been given in this life. I do it for myself, I do it for all beings, and I also do it with a strong awareness that I am practicing for other women, who can't express the heart of their own deep religious life in the way that we can.

So, I have been asking myself, "What are we actually doing in this series? Why is this topic important to us now, when the men and women of Everyday Zen practice together for the most part quite harmoniously?" Maybe there is something helpful and healing for us all in witnessing women's experiences in this practice.

When many of us were young, we began practicing at the San Francisco Zen Center with forms that had been created by and for young, male, Japanese monks. Feelings and emotions and a kind of intimate relationship with the body were virtually left out. As a young woman, I thought that was just fine. I felt it was a place where I could really stabilize my life. But I think the turning point came when I gave birth. It became clear to me that this practice wasn't big enough. The fullness of my life couldn't fit into these forms and couldn't fit into a monastic schedule anymore, and I had to leave. And we did leave, with our young child. I discovered that part of growing into the fierce, loving, mother energy that arises when you have a child was that I had to feel and enter my life a whole new way. Eventually I went into therapy. I worked with a lot of frozen emotions and things from my past, and in time, and then I went back to school and studied to become a psychotherapist.

During this time, I also practiced with Tsultrim Allione, who was the first Western nun ordained in the Tibetan order. She remains a really helpful figure to me as a woman teacher. When I first went to one of her retreats, I walked into the room and was amazed that she looked like a woman. She was wearing lipstick, she had long hair, and she was pretty. At Zen Center, we had been, to a very large degree, practicing with a kind of androgyny – except for when we weren't, and then it erupted into crisis! Tsultrim's teachings include the feminine principle that is an integral part of the Tibetan lineage. She embodies these teachings unequivocally as a woman. This was such a relief to me! And it remains a deep relief to me.

I realized that when I was at Zen Center, I had been having subtle body, energetic experiences, that I really thought were not "Buddhist." I couldn't find any mirror to help me understand. I think they were kundalini experiences – but nobody talked about that kind of thing. So I really thought that my tradition couldn't hold or wasn't big enough for me to be in my own body and to hold my own experience. But Tsultrim actually validated my experience. I was so relieved to find that my own tradition actually included me.

Tsultrim's teachings and her book, Women of Wisdom, written in 1984, have a very psychological basis to them. I wanted to read some of the things she said, because I think it's still relevant:

It is difficult to imagine our lives without the life stories of others. We learn in infancy how to be human by imitation. Without the example of others, a child cannot grow up normally. As children begin to grow up, they begin to ask those around them for stories of their lives. All cultures provide biographies in one form or another – be it tales of ancestral heroes, stories of relatives and friends, or formal biographies of cultural and religious figures. However, our culture provides very little life stories for women who are on a spiritual quest. Women's stories have not been told, and without stories, there is no articulation of experience. Without stories, a woman is lost when she comes to make important decisions in her life. She does not learn to value her struggles, to celebrate her strengths, to comprehend her pain. Without stories, she is alienated from those deeper experiences of self and world that have been called "spiritual" or religious. She is closed with silence.

Suffering is a natural part of the cycle of birth and decay. It is relieved by understanding and acceptance by a willing giving over to the dark and light in turn. It is thought the Buddha wanted to be rid of the dark and painful, only to experience the light and blissful nirvana. There is a tremendous emphasis on going beyond, leaving the world, the ideal state which transcends the patterns of light and dark. Women's religions tend to incorporate this duality and hold it sacred. When this duality appears in men's religions, we usually find that the male is associated with the sky and spirit and transcendence, and the female nature with worldliness and murky complications.

In tantra we see the emergence of female images, which are sexual and spiritual, ecstatic and intelligent, wrathful and peaceful. When women are not allowed to incorporate all these aspects of the feminine into themselves, they become distorted and alienated from their own energies.

Tsultrim's Tibetan practices have their origin in the Bon tradition, which is close to its shamanistic roots, so it involves lots of sounds and colors and visualizations. It's pretty wild and beautiful. But what I discovered over time was that that I really missed zazen – that I had a very deep home in the silence and simplicity of this wonderful tradition. So with the grace and generosity of Norman and Everyday Zen, I returned to my Zen practice. And I now feel and know in my bones that this tradition is as big and wide and open and beautiful as the whole sky and earth and ocean. It includes everything. And I am home.

So, now I would like to talk about Dogen's fascicle, Raihaitokuzui, which he wrote in 1240 to address the errors of those who he believed had incomplete views and misunderstandings about women and the Buddhist teachings. It is amazing to me that in medieval Japan Dogen wrote with such unbelievable scorn and passion about male monastics who refused to bow to female teachers. Dogen had women disciples. He was comfortable with women as monastics. He was comfortable with women as teachers, and he was comfortable with women as teachers of men. [And while some scholars debate whether Dogen abandoned these teachings on equality for more traditional monastic and hierarchal views later in his life, there is good evidence that he stayed true to his original beliefs.]

Paula Kane Robinson beautifully documents in her book, Women Living Zen, how 20th century Soto Zen nuns used Dogen's writings to achieve full and equal status with male monastics in Japan. In 1941 the highest rank that a nun could attain in Japan was below the lowest rank of a male monk. Training requirements were more stringent for nuns than for monks, and women monastics were only allowed to head sub temples. The nuns demanded that institutional regulations be rewritten based on Dogen's fascicle, and after a long and courageous struggle, the Soto sect administration granted equality in 1989.

I'll now read from the text of Women Living Zen regarding Raihaitokuzui.

"In the following Raihaitokuzui passage, Dogen clarifies the confusion surrounding female Buddhist teachers. ‘It is irrelevant whether a guide has male or female characteristics, and the like; what counts is that the guide be a being of virtue, of thusness.' He continues with advice on the appropriate way to express respect and gratitude to a teacher of the Dharma regardless of their form: ‘Valuing the Dharma means that, whether [your guide] is a pillar, a lantern, buddhas, a fox, a demon, a man, a woman, if it upholds the great Dharma and attains the marrow, then you should offer your body-mind as its seat and serve for immeasurable kalpas.' His point is that women are competent teachers, even qualified to teach men. Dogen substantiates his counsel with an explanation of the precedents established by those with whom Buddhism flourished in Sung China: ‘Today in certain temples of great Sung China there are nuns who train. When [a nun's] attainment of the Dharma becomes known, an imperial edict is issued appointing her abbess of a nunnery, and thenceforth she expounds the Dharma at her appointed temple. All the subordinates gather together in the hall and stand to listen [to the abbess's words on] the Dharma, and [to exchange] questions and answers of the monastics. This has been the rule since olden times.'"

As with much of Japanese Buddhism and culture, the Japanese turned to the Chinese for inspiration and guidance. Dogen urges the Japanese to continue the equality accorded women and men in China, especially in regard to recognizing the true Dharma in female form. ‘In the case of a nun who has received the treasury of the true Dharma eye through transmission, if [the monks of] the four fruitions, pratyeka-buddhas, and even those of the three wise stages and of the ten holy states pay homage to her and seek the Dharma from her, she should receive their obeisance. By what right are only males noble? The empty sky is the empty sky; the four elements are the four elements; the five skandas are the five skandas. To be female is exactly the same: as for the attainment of the Way, both [male and female] can attain the Way. Hence both should have high regard for the attainment of the Dharma, and not argue about differences between male and female. Such is the most marvelous law of the Buddha-way.'"

"Dogen includes an even more direct criticism of the practices he finds in Japan in a version of the Raihaitokuzui found in the twenty-eight fascicle of the Himistu Shobogenzo [The Secret Shobogenzo]. It is a poignant example of his frustration with Japanese Buddhist practices that helped increase his sense that he was the first to introduce ‘true' Buddhism to Japan. ‘There is a ridiculous custom in Japan: it is the practice that nuns and women are not allowed to enter the places called restricted territories or training halls of the Mahayana. Such a perverted custom has been practiced for ages, without anyone realizing its wrongness in the least. Those practicing the ancient way do not reform it; and those who are learned and astute do not care about it. While some say that it is the work of the incarnated [buddhas and bodhisattvas], others claim that it is a legacy from ancient worthies. Yet all fail to reason about it. Their egregious absurdity is truly hard to believe…If such obsolete practices do not have to be redressed, does it mean that the cycles of birth and death need not be forsaken either?'"

When I first talked to Norman about being ordained, he told me that the foundation and practice of being ordained as a priest is humility, a sense of service, and seeing each person as Buddha. It feels to me that the essence and the marrow of this is humility and a profound sense of gratitude that arises at being part of their beautiful stream of Buddhist ancestors and the immersion of oneself in the Buddha's wise and compassionate teachings. To be able to fully take my place along with all beings, to practice completely as a woman, and to leave nothing out is an all-inclusive practice. The essence of this practice is love, and that is how I want to wholeheartedly spend the rest of my life.

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