Zen Women

When I prepared for Jukai, to receive formally the Ten Precepts that express in words the aspirations that had developed in me over many years of study and practice, I made – as everyone is asked to make for this occasion – a personal copy of the ‘lineage chart’, tracing the ancestral line of teachers from six generations before Siddartha Gautama, all the way to our beloved Robert Jinsen Kennedy and Patrick Kundo Eastman.  Names of many teachers whose works I appreciate, and some I dearly love. Eighty-nine names in all.

Eighty-nine male names.

I wept as I counted them off.  What on earth was I doing, aligning myself with a tradition where for over 25 centuries women literally didn’t count? I knew they were there, of course, hidden in the gaps between the male names. Women who bore and suckled, nursed and fed these men. Loved and served them.  Made them laugh and cry. Taught them, too, in a thousand ways that in the end didn’t count.

It is wonderful if we can honestly say ‘from this time on we do things differently.’ Wonderful that so many women have in the last generation been recognised as teachers, whose names will now appear in the lineage charts of their students.  Wonderful to see how many of the licensed teachers of the White Plum tradition are women.

But that by itself isn’t enough. There’s more to do.

First, we need to reclaim history where we can. In the Wild Goose Sangha, we have from time to time honoured in our formal service ‘those women ancestors whose names are forgotten.’  In 2007 North American practitioners and scholars created a ‘women’s lineage’, listing some of the names that we can retrieve; although there is no suggestion that there is a ‘line of transmission’, these are nevertheless some of our ‘women ancestors’, and it is good to ensure that their names are no longer forgotten. In the Holland House sitting group, we have been chanting this women’s lineage as an addition to our practice. When Kundo Roshi gave me the precepts, I presented not one lineage chart but two, the male and the female ancestors. There is now a growing number of resources: a ‘zen women’ website, and books containing delicious stories of women Zen practitioners through the ages.

Second, we need to bring a critical approach to our practice. Our experience in the wider world has taught us that the presence of women is by itself not necessarily enough: there can still be norms, practices, expectations, ways of speaking and behaving that subtly exclude, that turn women into ‘caryatids’ who hold up structures in which maleness is the measure and the norm. We should turn a critical eye towards the roles played by men and women in our Sangha’s life, to how often women’s voices are heard. We should feel free to ask questions about the ways we talk about practice-and-experience, to ask what is overlooked or undervalued in our inherited tradition.

When Siddartha Gautama chose to establish no institution other than an egalitarian monastic Sangha, and to insist that his monks and nuns would own no possessions, but rely upon the alms of the laity, he ensured that the Sangha would never be able to set itself too far apart from the cultural norms of the society upon which it depended for survival. Not long after his death, the cultural norms of the ancient near East ensured the suppression of women’s orders and the discounting of women’s experience.  Buddhism’s long history of gynophobia was set in train.  Nevertheless, regular reform movements have over and again returned to the founder’s practice of a fourfold Sangha: male and female monastics, male and female lay practitioners. In the process, some wonderful texts of resistance emerged – the Lotus Sutra’s story of the Dragon King’s Daughter, and the Sutra of Queen Srimala, are cases in point. The Dharma has now at last entered a culture whose norm is an aspiration to full gender equality, and the work of adapting the tradition to that culture is ours to do. We have ancestors to remember, and texts to read. We have the imagery of the Tathagatagarbha, the matrix or womb of Buddha-nature in each one of us; we have the energies of Maha Prajna Paramita and Kanzeon to invoke. When we chant the Gatha of Atonement, we have the opportunity to atone for all the exclusions of the past, and to ensure they are not perpetuated.  Once the women are fully included, who else will still be missing from our tradition? And what can we begin to do about it?

JP Myotai Williams