By Rita M. Gross
American women are taking Buddhism away from its patriarchal past, participating confidently as practitioners, teachers, and leaders. The job is not finished, says Rita M. Gross, one of Buddhism’s leading feminist thinkers, but the role of American Buddhist women is unprecedented and may change Buddhism forever.
The sheer diversity of forms of Buddhism practiced in North America makes it difficult to generalize about women’s issues in Buddhism. Every denomination of Buddhism is represented in North America; Southeast Asian, Vietnamese, Tibetan, Korean, Chinese, and Japanese varieties of Buddhism are all practiced here. Some Asian forms of Buddhism, especially Japanese and Chinese, have been practiced in North America for four or five generations. Many Buddhists of other nationalities arrived only recently, after changes in immigration policy in the 1960’s facilitated immigration from Asia.
In addition, a significant number of North Americans with no Buddhist antecedents have converted to Buddhism since the late 1960’s. Initially, these converts expressed countercultural dissatisfaction with Euro-American religion and culture, and responded to the many Asian teachers who began to reach out to non-Asian audiences. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, convert Buddhists from ethnic groups not traditionally associated with Buddhism have become part of the American religious landscape. This development adds even more complexity to North American Buddhism, for their concerns as Buddhists are often quite different from those of traditionally Buddhist populations.
Many observe that for immigrant Buddhists, no matter how many generations they have lived in North America, Buddhism is a conservative force, promoting links to and memories of their Asian cultures and ancestors. Usually, they express little dissatisfaction with Buddhism as they have received it and have little interest in “Americanizing” Buddhism.
For converts, becoming Buddhist was part of their protest against conventional American values. But converts have no loyalty to Asian cultural forms either, and often find the traditional forms that encase Buddhism awkward at best. Those curious and radical enough to leave behind an inherited religion often will not hesitate to bring a similar spirit of exploration to their new religious identity. Convert Buddhists have done just that, developing approaches to Buddhist thought and practice that are distinctive to the West. For this reason, rather than because of the ethnicity of its practitioners, the term “American Buddhism” is used to describe convert Buddhism.
Throughout its long history, Buddhism has crossed many cultural frontiers and taken on forms distinctive to each culture. These new Buddhist forms have been developed by indigenous people who became Buddhists, not by the travelers and missionaries who brought Buddhist teachings into a new home. In the same way, it is natural that eventually an “American Buddhism” will evolve, and that convert Buddhists will play a massive role in this development. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the “Americanization” of Buddhism is a controversial topic. But observers agree that the Americanization will include different roles for women than have been traditional in Buddhism, and that convert women will play a large part in these developments.
To understand what is at stake for women in American Buddhism, it is necessary to understand some important features of traditional Buddhism. First, like all major world religions, Buddhism has historically been male-dominated. Traditionally, the meditations and philosophical explorations that many consider the heart of Buddhism were practiced almost exclusively by men. Although according to traditional texts, the Buddha had reluctantly initiated parallel women’s monastic institutions in which meditation and philosophy could be studied intensely, they were poorly supported, without prestige, and have died out in much of the Buddhist world. Therefore, those accorded respect and honor in Buddhist communities were almost always men.
Second, with the exception of Japan, all traditional Buddhist societies are marked by a strong lay-monastic dichotomy. Buddhism began as a religion of world renouncers, and it has never lost that flavor or the demands and values that accompany the choice to leave career, family, and worldly society behind. Female world renouncers, often called “nuns” in Western literature, are found in most forms of Buddhism, but, as already stated, they are not nearly so well supported nor do they have the prestige of male world renouncers, usually called “monks” in Western literature. For a son to renounce the world brings great honor to the family, while a girl who renounces the world to become a nun brings little prestige to the family and can even be embarrassing.
Additionally, the meditative and philosophical disciplines associated with Buddhism have been practiced almost exclusively in the monasteries, which is why they were practiced almost exclusively by men. By and large, lay practitioners, men as well as women, had neither the time nor the inclination to pursue meditation and philosophy to any great extent. Different disciplines, especially merit-making practices that would accumulate fortunate karma for the next rebirth and various devotional practices, were developed by and for lay practitioners.
To date, the way in which American lay practitioners, who also have jobs and families, have attempted to pursue the time-consuming disciplines of study and practice is their most radical departure from Asian models. For converts, Buddhism is study and practice; they have largely ignored other aspects of Buddhism developed in Asia.
Another striking departure is the way in which women participate in American Buddhism. Some Buddhist commentators claim that providing models of more equitable participation of women is the special karmic task of Western Buddhism.
American Buddhist women and men have taken up this task, and already American Buddhist groups look quite different from their Asian counterparts regarding the visible, active presence of women in meditation centers and other Buddhist forums. Some observers claim that this is the most noticeable difference between Asian and American Buddhist meditation centers. This claim is meant not only to draw attention to the presence of women but also to the faithfulness with which Americans have reproduced most other aspects of a traditional meditation center. The iconography is the same and the meditation practices are the same; often the liturgies are chanted in Asian languages, and, in many cases, people wear Asian robes during meditation. But women practice side by side with men rather than being isolated in an underfunded women’s practice center that has no prestige.
Undoubtedly, the strong presence of women in convert Buddhism owes something to the timing of Buddhism’s arrival in North America. Though Buddhists had been present in North America before the 1960’s and 1970’s, these decades saw the influx of many Asian Buddhist teachers and large numbers of Euro-American converts to Buddhism. These years also marked the emergence of the second wave of feminism. The women most likely to be attracted to Buddhism were not about to play a secondary, supportive role to enable men to study and practice while they provided domestic services. These women insisted that if study and practice were good for men, they would also be good for women, and they took up these disciplines enthusiastically. This coincidence, this lucky timing, has forever changed the face of American Buddhism, and may well have an impact on Buddhism worldwide.
The Buddhism that American women initially encountered seemed paradoxical to them. On the one hand, the basic teachings were gender-free and gender-neutral, and many found the practice of meditation not only gender-free but intensely liberating. To many feminist women of the 1960’s and 1970’s, Buddhism and feminism seemed to be allies, for good reason.
On the other hand, the forms through which these teachings and practices were delivered were as male dominated as those of any other religion. The teachers and other leaders were, for the most part, men. Male language abounded in the liturgies, at least those that were translated into English. And, though the basic teachings were gender-free and gender-neutral, deeper explorations into the traditional texts revealed misogynistic passages as well as a strong overall tendency to favor men over women in matters of study and practice. Many women encountered criticism and were ostracized for pointing out these facts. They were told that the dharma is beyond gender and that women were being overly sensitive and divisive when they were bothered by misogynistic stories or institutional male dominance.
The issues faced initially by convert women could be divided into two major areas of concern. They faced the problem of finding their way in a tradition that, by and large, had not been especially concerned with women’s participation in its most valued institutions—the worlds of study and practice. And convert women faced the problem of trying to integrate their traditional feminine pursuits with their desire to participate fully in the worlds of study and practice.
Most convert women who began to practice Buddhist meditation and to study Buddhist teachings in the 1960’s and 1970’s probably were not immediately aware either of the historical significance of their activities or of traditional attitudes toward women. Though gender practices were very different in their Asian homelands, the Buddhist teachers who came to teach in North America did not treat women students differently from men.
That these teachers worked with women students largely without prejudice is one of the more remarkable facets of this story. Asked later why they did not apply the more familiar Asian Buddhist norms and expectations regarding gender in North America, they gave two reasons. First, the women students asked for teachings, and that a student ask to be taught is the most important requirement. Second, given that women participated along with men in Buddhist gatherings, they assumed that North American gender norms were different from Asian norms. The lucky coincidence of feminism and the arrival of Buddhist teachers must be noted again, for if these teachers had arrived ten or twenty years earlier, in the 1950’s, the situation would have been very different.
Nevertheless, women noticed the prevalence of men as teachers and other Buddhist authorities, and the androcentric (male-centered) language of most liturgies. Those who knew more about Buddhist history and traditional teachings were troubled by teachings concerning the spiritual inferiority of women and their inability to attain liberation until they were reborn in a man’s body. However, until they had received sufficient training in the various Buddhist disciplines, women were in a poor position to challenge these views or to suggest alternatives.
Convert women employed many of the same strategies for dealing with Buddhist male dominance as Christian and Jewish women had used in their struggles. The main tasks were to work towards gender-inclusive and gender-neutral liturgies, to advance women into positions of leadership, and, ultimately, for women to become fully qualified Buddhist teachers. The two former tasks were accomplished earlier and more easily in many communities. The last was more difficult, but now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, many convert women have become Buddhist teachers as well.
Though meditation is the main religious discipline practiced by convert Buddhists, chanted liturgies are an important part of many meditations. This is especially the case for Tibetan Vajrayana practice and, to a lesser extent, for Zen Buddhism. Many convert communities chant their liturgies in an Asian language, which means that gender references are less clear to them, but many other groups use English. The early translations were made before the demise of the generic masculine as acceptable English usage, and often the English translations were more androcentric than the Asian originals. Words that carry no specific gender in an Asian language were translated as “son” rather than “child,” or “man” rather than “human,” and the pronoun “he” was always used to refer to the meditator.
Once in place, these translations took on an almost canonical status among some groups. Those who objected were ridiculed and told that, as Buddhists, they should be “above such silly, worldly, unimportant issues, since everyone knows that these terms refer to and include women.” Gradually, most liturgies have been or are being changed at the beginning of the twenty-first century.
A deeper problem emerged. Chanting the names of the lineage ancestors, from one’s own generation back to the Buddha or some other central teacher, is an important part of many Buddhist services. Such chants verify the authenticity of one’s lineage and one’s own place in the transmission of teachings that go back to the foundations of Buddhism. The lineage ancestors, with very few exceptions, are men.
Many women experienced great sorrow at the lack of female ancestors and role models and searched the Buddhist records for such figures. There have been great women practitioners in the history of Buddhism, but they are rarely as prominent in Buddhist memory as their male counterparts. One of the most popular sources for convert women became the Therigata, (“The Songs of the Female Elders”). These stories and poems record the accomplishments of the first generation of Buddhist women, direct disciples of the Buddha who attained the same level of realization as his male disciples. At least one Zen Buddhist community, the San Francisco Zen Center, began the practice of chanting the names of female elders recorded in the Therigata, ending with an acknowledgment of “all the forgotten women ancestors,” on alternating days. However, some male members of the community objected that these female elders were not in the direct line from the Buddha to the teachers of this community and, though they were considered fully realized disciples of the Buddha, a crucial transmission had been given only to one male disciple, who became the direct ancestor of all Zen teachers. Most members of the community, nevertheless, continue to regard the lack of known and named female ancestors as a problem. As research continues, previously unknown, highly accomplished women emerge from historical records.
More central still is what some feminist convert Buddhists began to call “the problem of the male teacher.” This “problem” has two aspects, one of them limited to a specific time and set of circumstances, the other more fundamental. The first concerned a series of sexual scandals that devastated many convert communities in the 1980’s. A number of Asian teachers participated freely in the sexual license that characterized the 1960’s and 1970’s, conducting frequent sexual affairs with their students. In some cases, this behavior was open and known by everyone in the community, but in other cases, these affairs were secret. Although teachers who conducted secret affairs usually had many fewer partners, the secrecy proved extremely problematic in the long run. By the 1980’s, mores had changed considerably and many women expressed outrage at male teachers they felt had taken advantage of them. There was also considerable discussion about the ethical propriety of sexual intimacy between partners so unequal in power. The eventual result of this turmoil is that almost all convert communities now have explicit guidelines discouraging sexual activity between teachers and students, and the sexual safety of female (and male) students is a high priority.
The more basic “problem of the male teacher” concerns Buddhism’s long-standing practice of limiting the teaching role almost exclusively to men. Some commentators have identified the lack of female teachers, historically and in the present, as the most important issue for women in Buddhism. Historically, this lack results in the problems that occur with the absence of women in the lineage chants, as well as the lack of role models and the wisdom of women practitioners that is missing from the tradition’s teachings. The practice of having only male teachers sends a strongly discouraging message to women students. To take seriously Buddhist claims that the dharma is beyond gender is difficult if almost all those who embody and teach it have male bodies.
Fortunately, women teachers are becoming more common among convert Buddhists. It takes many years for a student of Buddhist meditation and philosophy to become qualified to teach, and the first students to be authorized by their Asian teachers to teach the dharma were men. But, especially among practitioners of Zen Buddhism and vipassana meditation, women were authorized to teach relatively soon after men. Only among practitioners of Tibetan Vajrayana Buddhism are almost no women teachers found, but almost no convert men have been fully authorized as teachers either. Many observers comment that convert practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism are about a generation behind practitioners of Zen and vipassana in becoming fully trained as teachers. In recent gatherings of Western Buddhist teachers, nearly half the teachers present were women, ample indication that American Buddhism may indeed be fulfilling its potential to address some of Buddhism’s long-standing difficulties.
Even though study, practice, and teaching are at the forefront of many Buddhist women’s concerns, many convert lay practitioners are also involved in family life and therefore have unique concerns relating to that part of their lives. This activity presents different challenges to women practitioners: how can one combine child care with the demands of practice and study? Traditionally, this question did not arise because most practice was done by men; the women who practiced seriously were almost always nuns, childless by definition.
By and large, convert Buddhist communities have responded that the problem of integrating child care and practice should not be left to mothers alone. Commonly, Buddhist fathers take on significant childcare responsibilities. Dharma centers often provide child care during programs so that parents can participate more fully. Many parents find the arrangements inadequate and wish for more help and support, but nonetheless they are encouraged to continue to practice and study in a serious way while they are raising children, rather than waiting for the children to grow up before resuming their own practice. This attempt to combine child-rearing with the demands of intensive practice and study is a major Buddhist experiment. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it remains to be seen how well that experiment will proceed and whether it will persist from generation to generation.
Another problem encountered by converts who become involved in family life is how to raise Buddhist children in a non-Buddhist culture. Asian-American Buddhists also encounter this problem, but their situation is different. At least their children have many Buddhist relatives and a more cohesive Buddhist community. Converts usually live among non-Buddhists and most or all of their relatives are non-Buddhists. Furthermore, not having grown up as Buddhists, converts have little idea how to present their Buddhist practice, which is not especially child-friendly, to their children. This is truly uncharted territory for them. Larger Buddhist communities have sometimes sponsored day school intended primarily for their children, and many centers try to combine some Buddhist education with child care during meditation periods for adults.
As we survey the issues important to Buddhist women, it is easy to see why people have such drastically different impressions of Buddhism. The public face of Buddhism as seen in its Asian cultural context is very male-dominated, so much so that many women would not consider exploring Buddhism because it is clear to them that Buddhism is just another sexist religion. Others who have explored Buddhism more personally have found Buddhism so intensely liberating that they devote much of their life to its study and practice.
Paradoxically, both impressions are correct. Buddhism has been quite disadvantageous to women, and yet Buddhism can provide freedom, dignity, and peace to women. It all depends on how Buddhism is practiced, and much of that depends on the initiative, courage, and imagination of women practitioners, especially those who pioneer a gender-neutral and gender-free way of understanding and practicing Buddhism. These women practice a middle path of neither ignoring obvious sexist practices in Buddhism nor being so alienated by that sexism that they abandoned Buddhism. We will need to stay on that middle path for some time to come. It would be naive to assume that Buddhist patriarchy is gone for good in such a short period of time, given patriarchy’s venerable place in Buddhism throughout its history.
Rita M. Gross is author of the influential book Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism and many other books and articles. She is a senior teacher under Khandro Rinpoche, and also studies with Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche.
Copyright © Rita M. Gross, from the Shambhala Sun, July 2005.