For as long as Buddhism has existed, there have been female teachers. Yet because Buddhism evolved in patriarchal societies, women were seldom viewed as masters of the tradition or encouraged to teach.
Zen Buddhists are regarded as masters only after their teacher has given them dharma transmission, recognition of their enlightenment. According to the traditional Zen Buddhist account, Shakyamuni Buddha gave the first dharma transmission to his male disciple Mahakashyapa, which began an unbroken chain of master-to-disciple transmissions that created the all-male lineages of the Zen schools that exist today. While these accounts are valuable in that they represent the hopes, values, and accomplishments of practitioners of the past, they are not literally true and were more likely constructed by men wishing to legitimize their lineages.
According to tradition, one of Bodhidharma’s three Chinese heirs was the nun Zongchi. And recent scholarship on mortuary inscriptions in caves from 5th- and 6th-century China show that nuns meditated, studied the dharma, and engaged in ascetic practices such as fasting. The inscriptions tell of nuns performing miracles, “ceasing karmic causes,” and attaining complete enlightenment. In the 6th century, the monk-scholar Baochang wrote a collection of biographies called Lives of the Nuns, which became a Chan classic. And during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), innovative Linji teachers named women to positions of authority over the objections of Confucianists. In medieval Japan, women formed convents in which they studied, attained enlightenment, and taught disciples. However, these convents later fell into ruin as a result of fires, poverty, and lack of official support, making it difficult for historians and practitioners today to ascertain how women practiced and in what capacity they taught.
Within the last 50 years, women practitioners around the world have fought for the right to full ordination (the ability to receive the complete ethical precepts), equal institutional standing, and the right to have disciples and run their own temples, and they have made progress. In Taiwan, for example, women monastics outnumber men.
Today, women lead some of the major Zen centers in the United States but continue to struggle to thrive, exercise authority, and tell their stories in a largely male-dominated sangha. However, the women (and men) who advocate for equality are calling out sexual harassment and abuse in Buddhist communities, and creating resources for support.
The Soto Zen Buddhist Association, for example, recently approved a female ancestor’s document for use in daily chanting, to supplement the previous all-male lineage chart.
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