A number of years ago, I was the manager of a thriving Buddhist meditation center in a large urban center. The community was full of sincere, deeply committed practitioners, many of whom had turned to the dharma after experiencing trauma or addiction. I loved the sangha deeply and was committed to serving what had become a refuge for so many. However, it was also an extremely male-dominated sangha where many of us felt the weight of a subtle sexism that slowly eroded the fabric of a community we loved.
When the meditation center first opened and we began to develop its programming, I remember advocating for a sitting group for practitioners who identify as women. It felt important to me given the dynamics of the sangha, but was dismissed—until Donald Trump was elected president.
By that time, I had resigned as manager, but I joined a cohort of incredible people to co-create and lead this fledgling women’s sangha. Things changed quickly, and a year or two after the women’s sangha began, the meditation center it was born from collapsed following the sexual misconduct of its founding teacher. It was a heartbreaking time for countless people.
As the community dissolved, the women began to talk with each other in ways they hadn’t before. Deeper truths came out. I heard experience after experience of women feeling less valued, less seen, and less respected than their male counterparts in our sangha. The stories I heard weren’t about sex or harassment. They were the kind of small, subtle incidents that you feel afraid to name because people will tell you you’re overreacting, or you might get labeled as being “difficult” or “crazy.” The stories I heard reflected my own experiences—not one horrific event, but a slow accumulation of moments that illuminate the knowledge that you’re not as valued or respected as other people.
Years later, as a practitioner and counselor of Depth Hypnosis (a therapy that draws on Buddhism, hypnotherapy, and shamanic wisdom), I still occasionally work with members of that sangha as they grapple with that experience of shattered trust, as well as many others who have experienced harm in spiritual or religious communities. I’ve witnessed and known deeply the kind of spiritual harm that corrodes an entire community when women and other groups are not treated fully as peers. That is some of what’s on my mind now as Roe v. Wade is overturned.
For all of us who are members of a sangha, we must acknowledge that more than half of the people in our community are currently faced with a deep and painful spiritual question:
How do we navigate our relationship to faith, to community, and to ourselves when we are living in a society that no longer deems us worthy of bodily autonomy?
This question will touch all of us, but particularly the most marginalized members of each sangha. For many, this will be far more than a spiritual and philosophical question. It will be a question about survival. How do we survive and practice the dharma in a world where crucial choices around health, our bodies, and our lives can no longer be exercised? How will we respond as the overturning of Roe v Wade disproportionately touches the lives of our sangha members who are women, but also women who are poor, disabled, queer, transgender, or from BIPOC communities? As practitioners, leaders, and as sanghas, these are questions we must answer.
Lama Rod Owens shared on Instagram earlier this week, “Just to be clear, as a spiritual teacher I will continue not abiding by any law, tradition, belief, or etiquette that jeopardizes access to basic resources supporting the safety, happiness, and health of myself and others. I will also continue helping others do the same.”
As Buddhist practitioners committed to ethical conduct and to liberation from suffering, it is appropriate to question (and at times actively disobey) the rites and rituals that take us farther away from truth or that cause harm and suffering to others. Even if those rites and rituals are handed down to us from the Supreme Court.
So how do we address this in our sangha in the days and months that follow? Here are some possibilities for communities to explore:
1. Understand the impact on your community: It is important to understand that many people in your sangha are reeling right now. Their ability to safely choose whether or not to bring a child into this world, whether they can seek legitimate medical care for an ectopic pregnancy or other deadly condition, or address pregnancy after incest or rape has been deeply jeopardized. This has medical, psychological, financial, legal, and spiritual implications for everyone involved. This will be a life and death issue for some.
2. Honor the emotion, lack of safety, and trauma that arises: It is also important to know that the fear, grief, and anger your sangha members feel today is connected to all the places where their bodily autonomy and sense of value or belonging in society has been violated in the past. This ruling may leave members of your sangha reliving the times they have been harassed, assaulted, or made to feel small and powerless. They carry the weight of their own trauma, and perhaps also the trauma of their mothers, grandmothers, and beyond, as a sort of epigenetic shadow. It is our task now to do everything we can to ensure their safety, respect, and wellbeing. I mean this directly around access to safe and legal abortion, but also relating to lifting up their place and belonging in the sangha.
3. Uplift the voices and stories that need to be heard: As we move forward, people in your sangha may need to share their stories—of abortion access, of childbearing, of bodily autonomy, and of the many ways that patriarchy has colored their lives. They will need to see these stories reflected and honored by the voices of their teachers. They may need to come together to make meaning, to deeply grieve, and to express their fear and anger. This is part of the immense healing capacity of being in a sangha—if we choose to make it available.
4. Take action: Your community may feel called to organize and find ways to advocate for change and this may be an impactful way for your sangha to explore, or continue to explore socially engaged dharma. Members of your local community (or people in other states) may also need practical help and support—money, travel assistance, mental healthcare, childcare, and more. This is something that your community can actively organize around.
A final note: It is important to remember as we grapple with the spiritual and practical issues of bodily autonomy, safety, and belonging, that we still have a choice. We have the choice to be there for each other. To acknowledge that this issue impacts all of us, whether we can become pregnant or not. To respond with compassionate action. Making this choice is how spiritual survival can occur, and how we can live deeply into the truth of our interconnectedness with one another.
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