Spirit Rock Meditation Center hosted its fourth annual “Wild and Wise” Buddhist women’s weekend gathering, September 25-26. Located in the rural hills of California, the retreat was led by Tsultlim Allione, author of Women of Wisdom; China Galland, author of The Bond Among Women; eco-philosophcr and Buddhist activist Joanna Macy; and Deena Metzer, a Bay Arca poet whose latest book is Looking For the Faces of God. Proceeds went to Tara Mandala, the Buddhist retreat center in southwest Colorado, which Ms. Allione founded and now directs.

Every year, presentations and discussions have revolved around a distinct subject, but each weekend has built upon the previous ones—expanding and making more familiar the language and concepts by which women can articulate the concerns that many in the Dharma have confronted alone and in silence.

Last year, “Tracing Our Roots” challenged women to find new role models as we practice in lineages going back hundreds, even thousands of years, without a single named female predecessor. Participants questioned which beings embody realization for women in androcentric Buddhist lineages.

This year’s theme echoed China Galland’s most recent work Fierce Compassion: Celebrating Women In Buddhism. Several hundred participants explored the fierce compassion of the feminine and how it can be activated to serve our communities and ourselves and to meet the challenges of societal violence, global pollution, walfare, and abuse of all kinds. What continued from one year to the next was an exploration of ways to distinguish innate authority, rather than affirm an authority that historically seeks to control and conventionalize our expelience. It seems that a growing number of Buddhist women are coming to understand that our spiritual ancestors need not be only Buddhist teachers, but natural forces: animals, poets, musicians, and friends.

The arrival of repeat participants—including myself—was accompanied by bursts of recognition more reminiscent of joining a class reunion than attending yet one more “conference.” As I looked around, I had to ask: With so many Buddhist centers, activities, and practice opportunities, what drew scores of women of all ages from all over the country to a women-only gathering? Did other women leave the conference feeling connected, renewed, and inspired? What need did a convocation like this fulfill?

The weekend may have had a theme, but there was no theme as to why people came. One young woman spoke poignantly of what it meant to her to attend a women’s conference and to interact intensely and respectfully in matters of the spirit At her college, she explained that women’s studies, discussion of “women’s issues,” or feminism in general were considered passe. “No one talks about them anymore,” she said regretfully.

A gentle, middle-aged woman wept for those people who had perished in the Holocaust, while another, elderly and cheerful, briskly tried to interest others in networking on a specific environmental issue. Several times, the discussions drifted, as they often do among Buddhist women, toward the complex issues of teacher- student relationships, the problematic and chronic abuses of power, and the efforts by seasoned teachers and practitioners, both women and men, to counteract it and promote more wholesome practice situations.

In the closing ceremony, a thin red string was unfurled slowly for each woman in the vast circle to hold for the final prayer/meditation. It was then cut into segments, and as each woman made a commitment—of how she would embody the principle of fierce compassion in her own life, for the benefit or all beings, including herself—the silk string was tied about each woman’s wrist by a partner.

A fifth “Wild and Wise” celebration of women in Buddhist practice is slated for next September. Early registration seems a good plan.

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