Barbara Rhodes was one of the first women in America to be formally recognized as a Zen teacher. A student since 1972 of Zen Master Seung Sahn, founder of the Kwan Um School in the Chogye lineage of Korean Zen, she was given the authority to teach in 1977 and now serves as the Vice School Zen Master of the Kwan Um School of Zen. She has been a registered nurse since 1969 and currently works with patients at Home and Hospice Care of Rhode Island. She lives in Providence with her partner, Mary, and has two grown daughters. Tricycle Editor-in-Chief James Shaheen interviewed her at the New Haven Zen Center in March 2002.
You’ve never expressed much discomfort as a woman in your role, although you trained in a lineage that has been traditionally very patriarchal.
I tend to fill whatever role I think is needed. I haven’t let anything get in the way of my being a mother, or a nurse, a good friend to someone—or a teacher.
You’ve spoken about your first trip to Korea with your husband. Even though he was the less experienced teacher, you say they treated him with more deference and that you responded by working with your own ego. Can you talk about that?
Not just working with my own ego, working with everybody’s ego. When you see it that way, there’s no room for personal anger. Look at how human beings relate to one another. There are lots of problems. I’ve been able to see that gender bias is not personal. I can only help women by being a strong woman and believing in myself. So I don’t get upset; I just see that there’s an imbalance in the way people treat one another.
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