‘Meetings With Remarkable Women’ (1987)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

6 minutes

Lenore Friedman’s pioneering work Meetings With Remarkable Women: Buddhist Teachers in America (1987) provides a brief history of the emergence of female Buddhist teachers in the United States of America. Friedman describes how networks of Buddhist women practitioners coalesced in the early 1980s. Her narrative makes clear that discourse among their members was infused with concerns about widespread sexual abuse from these networks’ very inception:

“At last, here and there, women teachers were beginning to appear. To commemorate this fact, in June 1983, Providence Zen Center hosted a one-day conference with Maurine (Freedgood) Stuart, Jacqueline Schwartz Mandell, and Bobby Rhodes, teachers from the Japanese Zen, vipassana, and Korean Zen traditions, respectively. The response was so enthusiastic that in 1984 they invited six women teachers to a weekend conference that attracted over a hundred participants (mostly women with a sprinkling of men). In March 1987, the first women’s conference was held on the West Coast. Over 150 wome n came together in Berkeley, California, for a Celebration of Women Practicing Buddhism that represented all traditions (including unaffiliated practitioners) and was completely nonhierarchical in structure. The response was beyond expectations—fifty women had to be turned away—and so much energy was generated that plans for a second conference six months later were under way before the first one ended.

By the time of the earlier conferences, however, signs of pain and unrest had been surfacing in a number of sanghas around the country. As intimacy developed during the meetings, some potentially explosive and sensitive issues came into the open. ‘One of these was the issue of sexual relations between teachers and students,’ Deborah Hopkinson reported in Kahawai. ‘This issue was charged with so much emotion and intensity that we decided to treat our discussion of it as unrecorded oral history, and so we turned of the tape recorders for the only time in the conference.’ This report came out of the second Boulder conference, but the subject remained alive at the Providence conferences as well.

Today these issues have come completely out of the closet and are being discussed (some might say overdiscussed) frankly and fully. The key issue for feminists is the inherent abuse of power in such teacher-student affairs. But once opened, the situation is a Pandora’s box of paradox and pain. Lives have been fractured. Mature and immature women practitioners have left Buddhism behind, appalled and disillusioned.

Most of us recognize that this is not a ‘Buddhist’ problem. From a feminist perspective it can be seen clearly as a problem intrinsic to patriarchy itself. Buddhist institutions have unquestionably been strongly patriarchal, here and elsewhere. But right now, in America, the ground just perceptibly is beginning to shift.” (pp. 22-23).

Friedman continues her discussion of the reported abuses:

“This is the stage we have arrived at now. American Buddhism is in the process of finding its own nature. It must be said that the process is a tumultuous one. Upheaval and disarray seem endemic in many Buddhist communities across the United States. One by one, a number of illustrious male teachers have fallen from pedestals that, wittingly or unwittingly, they helped to erect. It is a striking fact that three of the teachers interviewed for this book have broken with the masters from whom they received transmission. Another has severed her ties with a brother roshi in her lineage. Another, embroiled in a situation of painful ferment within her community, has left for an extended period of evaluation in a different state. One woman practiced for years in Southeast Asia, was ordained twice in the Theravada tradition, and became one of the recognized teachers of vipassana meditation in this country. When I interviewed her in late 1983, she had just resigned her teaching position at the center she had helped to establish and has now gone her independent way. ‘I could no longer stand before women and say that I represent a tradition which does not recognize a woman as an equal being,’ she said. (See Chapter 11.)

So structures are being shaken. While the greatest turmoil seems to bewithin Zen Buddhism (by far the longest-established tradition in this country), reverberations plainly cross boundaries everywhere. Everything is up for questioning, from ceremonial procedures to the role of monasticism. One of the more dramatic occurrences was the splitting down the middle of the Rochester Zen Center in 1980 (see Chapter 1), when half the sangha, led by Toni Packer, left behind all but the bare-bones forms of their practice. Some have described this as Quaker Zen. But Toni Packer and her sangha are still evolving, are recently questioning even the term Zen.

Other centers have been less radical, but are gradually letting go of other things: prostrations, chants, robes. The Diamond Sangha in Hawaii, led by Robert Aitken, Roshi, has for years worked on feminizing political and decision-making processes as well as retranslation of sutras, excising sexist language that had been transmitted unaltered down the centuries.

The trend seems to be toward more open, fluid, feminist structures and away from rigid, patriarchal ones; toward democratic consensus processes and away from hierarchy and authoritarianism, toward secular communities of great diversity, centered on practice in the world, in families, in relationships, and concerned with the traditional female values of caring and nurturance.

In recent years there have been rumblings and reevaluations constellating among female adherents of Western spiritual traditions as well. Respondingto similar strains of male-centeredness and misogyny in Christianity and Judaism, groups of women have been creating new forms of expression for their spiritual life. Some have turned to Goddess worship, others to indigenous traditional forms—Native American, African, Hawaiian—more consonant with their values and instincts, while still others are creating a new women’s spirituality. Another response has been to remain affiliated with the original tradition while attempting to change it from within.

‘For some,’ write Carol Christ and Judith Plaskow, ‘the vision of transcendence within tradition is seen as an authentic core of revelation pointing towards freedom from oppression, a freedom that they believe is articulated more clearly and consistently within tradition than without. Others believe that the pre-biblical past or modern experience provide more authentic sources for feminist theology and vision.’ For example, women in the Catholic Church, including many nuns, have for years been militating for ordination of women priests. More recently a second group, rejecting priesthood asa manifestation of patriarchy, have abandoned this ambition and instead are creating their own forms within the structure of the church. Their new forms are nonhierarchical and ecumenical in spirit, such as rituals of baptism and communion based on the circle, open to all. And they are incorporating elements from other traditions, for example the sharing of bread and wine of the Jewish Sabbath. No longer “going along,” no longer battling, they call themselves Women church, and their influence is growing.’

‘That patriarchical religion is unhealthy for women is rather obvious,’ writes Charlene Spretnak, a long-time vipassana practitioner and editor of the groundbreaking anthology The Politics of Women’s Spirituality. ‘To survive and evolve as free women, we must maintain unity and draw on our inner resources.’ On an intellectual level, she says, it was always clear to her that all time (and all space) was of one essence—was now. But, she says,

‘I never felt that knowledge as an experiential truth until I encountered women’s spirituality and discovered that temporal boundaries can be rather simply dissolved by the female mind’s propensity for empathetic comprehension and bonding. Through ritual moments and countless meditations, through absorbing the sacred myths of our prepatriarchal foremothers and passing them on to my daughter, through experiencing in my own daughter/mother mind and body the mysteries celebrated in the ancient rites, I have come to know, to feel oneness with all the millions of women who have lived, who live, and who will live.’

More and more these days, for men as well as for women, these considerations are neither irrelevant nor alien. Here again, for example, is R.H. Blyth:

‘What claim can Zen possibly have to universality when it ignores one half of humanity, and assumes sexlessness, that is halflessness, in the other? Religion has always omitted women, as it has omitted nature, and human nature, but the result has been that religion has omitted itself.’

And Jack Kornfield, a vipassana teacher and cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society, recently stated:

‘Some of the most important changes in Buddhism in our time will be the positive result of reintroducing the feminine. Specifically I mean a return to the heart, the validation of feelings and emotion, receptivity, and connection to the earth. Till now, Buddhism has been preserved in a fundamentally masculine context, with stress on knowing rather than on heart and feeling. And it’s gotten out of balance. Bringing spirituality back into the body and the feelings and the heart is needed to heal both Buddhism and the earth.’

Finally, here is Robert Aitken, one of the most respected Zen teachers in America, writing in Parabola:

‘Vajrayana people are fond of criticizing Zen students for their black robes, black cushions, and solemn faces, implying that we tend to shut ourselves from our natural being. They are right in some respects. Dark, unpatterned clothing and black cushions help to minimize distractions in the dojo, and encourage the deep-dream dimensions of makyō [visionary and other altered states occurring during zazen], but solemn faces and the overemphasis on “great determination” and endurance reflect our samurai inheritance, an accretion on the Buddha Dharma that should be wiped away. For “samurai,” read “male.” In Far Eastern culture, the female virtues in women and in men tend to be covered over. In wiping the samurai from Zen practice, we expose gentle human nature that nurtures our own aspirations and those of all beings.’ (pp. 30-32).

Friedman - Meetings With Remarkable Women-Buddhist Teachers in America (1987) REDUX

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.