Tricycle: The Buddhist Review

Just Power

Imagine leafing through a pamphlet or perhaps a monthly magazine and coming across a guide to good behavior with advice that included the following:

Put on an ever-smiling countenance.
Do not move furniture and chairs noisily.
Do not open doors with violence.
Take pleasure in the practice of humility.
Always strive to learn from everyone.
Speak with moderation, gently.
Express yourself with modesty.

For many contemporary Westerners the assumption that this advice was intended for women probably runs so deep as to go undetected. Maybe your imagination has already leaped ahead to the idea that this could be a list of idealized feminine virtues of the Victorian era; or a set of guidelines for prim boarding-school girls of the 1940s; or perhaps a compendium of traits that the feminists of the 1970s rejected in favor of male behavioral models. But in fact, these behaviors were extolled in The Way of the Bodhisattva, a seminal text by the great Buddhist sage Shantideva, and delivered to his fellow—all male—monastics at Nalanda University in eighth-century India.

Throughout Buddhist history the enlightened masters have advocated behavior—such as the quintessential bodhisattva ideal of putting others before oneself—that progressive women today can easily associate with a legacy of oppression. And yet, with the world in such perilous straits, and in light of recent patriarchal and god-sponsored warfare, these behavioral archetypes have ramifications that, like the teachings themselves, expand far beyond gender. Putting down the cultural baggage, however, is easier said than done.

A thirteenth-century Zen teaching points to how the mind variously refracts the same object, and offers us a way to approach this issue:

First mountains are mountains.
Then mountains are not mountains.
Then mountains are mountains again.

This saying, first attributed to Ch’an master Ch’ing-yuan, has itself been refracted through many interpretations and differing doctrinal schemes. In the first line, “mountains are mountains” can convey a conventional view of reality based on accepted, collective, perceptual norms. The second line expresses a deliberative remove from convention, in which “mountain” is understood to be a construct of the human imagination, devoid of any independent meaning or existence. In the third line, when once again “mountains are mountains,” there remains only the pure, unfiltered view, neither constructed nor deconstructed, beyond acceptance or denial, beyond the duality of relative and absolute.

Using this Zen teaching as a lens through which to view Buddhism’s prized attributes—those that many Western women associate with oppression—we first see a mountain of human attributes classically associated in the West with the feminine: gentleness, modesty, speaking softly, humility, equanimity, altruism, consideration, obedience, generosity. With the second line we can deconstruct the cultural reality to uncover the myth of normalcy. Here, we are forced to consider that the cultural ideal has often been a very poor fit with the actual experience of women’s lives, that living a life of duty to one’s family, husband, children can be accompanied by tightly harnessed feelings of anger, inadequacy, and humiliation. Here the attributes appear as external masks, so that, say, generosity masks greed, kindness masks anger, obedience masks servility. In this view, not even women embody the so-called female virtues: mountains are not mountains, and women, as defined in the first line, are not women, any more than the traits they exhibit are virtuous. In the third and final line, the mountain appears again to represent the same attributes we see in the first view, but now, generosity is just generosity itself; obedience is just obedience—with no subtext, no gender, no psychology, and no history. Just obedience, just modesty, just humility—beyond female and male, beyond oppressor and oppressed.

It’s important to note that the above traits do not actually lie outside of constructed values, and in this way, do not reflect Zen teachings represented in the third line. Just the same, Shantideva identifies these attributes as those most appropriate for the followers of the Buddha; they are conditioned behaviors allied with taming the ego. By supporting liberation from self-centeredness, they help create possibilities for engaging in the sacred nondual dance of interdependence beyond relative and absolute.

American women have come a long way through hard-won ideological battles and changes in our educational and legal systems. All these efforts have significantly altered the way we live, and have increased possibilities for women. There’s a lot more work to be done, but I think that we’ve come far enough to ask ourselves not only how we can increase opportunities but also what we are going to use them for. The commitment to equality without attention to its application threatens to leave us emulating the flawed system we fought so hard to change. The shift that we’re seeking is not a lateral gender move from, say, George Bush to Condaleeza Rice, although in some quarters, this is precisely what is happening. Consider, for instance, that the commanding officer at Abu Ghraib was a woman, as were two of the six U.S. soldiers charged with sadistic abuses at the prison. For many of us in the West, the photographs of Abu Ghraib, and in particular, the one of PFC Lynndie England holding an Iraqi prisoner on a leash, reinforce the necessity of rethinking women’s strategies for equality; as well, they intensify the need for a whole new experience of what power might look and feel like from an enlightened perspective.

For a half a century, in the name of gender and religious equality and values, American women and American Buddhist leaders have beaten a path from the cultural margins toward the center, as if the center itself held the key to the kingdom. At this point in history, to continue in that direction without examination seems foolish, if not dangerously destructive. We’re challenged to do no less than formulate another view of power, or to adopt one more consistent with our Buddhist values. Returning to Shantideva, his injunction to “remain like a log” provides an apt image around which we might initiate a discussion about enlightened views of power.

Remaining like a log is not an action the American military would associate with the exercise of power. Yet Shantideva uses the phrase again and again to depict internal strength. For Buddhist practitioners who have struggled mightily to overcome the dominance of ego, “remaining like a log” can suggest new definitions of control, of dominion, and of power.

When the urge arises in the mind
To feelings of desire or wrathful hate,
Do not act! Be silent, do not speak!
And like a log of wood be sure to stay.
                                                             (5.48)

Shantideva advocates restraint, discipline, and nonreactivity. He speaks of taming, training, and subjugating one’s own ego. The invitation in Buddhist practice is to yoking, or leashing, one’s own mind, not another being’s.

Considering this nontraditional view of power, it’s perhaps not surprising that when Buddhism entered into the margins of American culture, gender played a pronounced role. In the 1950s we see two distinct streams of attraction to dharma: one was almost all male, the other almost all female. We have an intellectual interest catalyzed primarily by the books of D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, and championed by the Beat poets. But, with few exceptions, this interest did not extend to practice. The Beat scene was pervasively male, and for all its attraction to Eastern philosophies and its pungent and theatrical critiques of the United States, it enshrined the ethos of rugged cowboy individualism as much as Hollywood Westerns.

At the same time—the late fifties—the first Zen retreats were held in the United States. Photographs reveal that almost all the participants of these first Zen retreats were middle-aged women. Taking the time to sit down, keep quiet and “do nothing” was apparently a very unmanly activity, despite the fact that of all the Buddhist traditions, Zen strikes many as being archly masculine. But Japanese Zen came packaged with the so-called Zen arts, such as tea ceremony and flower arranging. And in the United States, appreciation for art (not making art—that was male) was considered a woman’s domain. The refined aesthetics of Japanese Zen went a long way toward legitimizing Zen in this country, and particularly among women. So there was a period when the Beat scene—which definitely popularized Zen—was as solidly male, with its aggressive homoeroticism and its legendary chauvinism, as the Zen retreat scene was female. It would be another few years, and not without the advent of the counterculture, before Zen retreats would have equal numbers of men and women.

The counterculture of the 1960s derived from opposition to the culturally sanctioned Vietnam War. But there was also a division within the counterculture into spiritual and political. The spiritual wing was characterized by, as Timothy Leary famously put it, “turning on, tuning in, and dropping out.” A lot of these people,

Untitled (We don’t need another hero), Barbara Kruger; 1987, photographic silkscreen/vingl, 109×210 inches. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York

including myself, are those who—if we got lucky—found our way to Buddhism.

Both the political and spiritual wings of the counterculture were characterized in part by defying gender stereotypes. While some feminists experimented with decidedly male forms, the spiritual wing embodied a feminized form. Both men and women who dropped out were wearing long hair, loose, braided, beaded; both genders were wearing jewelry and the slogan of that time which best encapsulates this feminization was “Make Love, Not War.”

From within this sphere of the dropout counterculture, Buddhism began to attract young Americans new to dharma. Rejecting the compromised glory of the Vietnam War, many identified with the Vietnamese (and Buddhist) victims of American aggression. So, in completely monolithic, relative, and reductive terms, the hippie movement, which includes convert Buddhism, looks very feminine compared to the conventions of the mainstream middle class.

Through the seventies, we see the growth of several big Zen centers, and we have the development of the Vipassana community in Barre, Massachusetts. And by the early seventies, we begin to see an influx of Tibetan teachers. We see equal numbers of men and women students, but almost all male teachers and a disproportionate number of men with organizational authority.

I started my own Buddhist studies with Tibetan teachers. Then, in 1981, I moved into the Zen Community of New York, where every morning we chanted the names of our “ancestors,” which happened to be eighty generations of Zen patriarchs. What was more subtle and difficult to apprehend was that “the ideal Zen student”—in whatever body, male or female—looked a lot like a classic old-fashioned version of a gentleman’s perfect wife.

Particularly in the Tibetan and Zen scenes you had, more often than not, an authoritative male teacher surrounded by students who were, more often than not,

Soft-spoken
Deferential
Subservient
Modest
Respectful
Receptive
Smiling
Willing
Passive
Without strong views or opinions

Now, it so happens that we see very similar kinds of behavior in people, and particularly in women, with issues of low self-esteem, or with very entrenched neurotic patterns of worthlessness that fit together perfectly with identifying oneself as the servant. And, as it happens, there were a lot of students who, with issues of low self-esteem and/or abuse, were very comfortable with a continuation of certain neurotic behaviors, especially if that meant they were upheld as ideal Buddhist students. This, not surprisingly, became a source of great confusion. After all, we know that the quintessential core of Mayahana Buddhism is putting others before oneself. And that historically the quintessential work of womanhood was—and in many parts of the world still is—to put the needs and wants of husband, in-laws, parents, and children first. Thousands of texts present this bodhisattva principle, but to quote Shantideva again:

With perfect and unyielding faith,
With steadfastness, respect, and courtesy,
With modesty and conscientiousness,
Work calmly for the happiness of others.
                                                                    (5.55)

And so it is that if I want contentment,
I should never seek to please myself.
And likewise, if I wish to save myself,
I’ll always be the guardian of others.
                                                                    (8.173)

We know that to embrace unenlightened female forms may affirm individual and collective patterns of abuse and low self-esteem. If we continue to look at them as expressions of male dominance, then, of course, we will wish to abandon them. Yet to reject these qualities is to reject the teachings of the buddhas. If we trust that they are gender-free Buddhist values, then we may be able to use them to help frame a distinctly different value system.

By the mid-eighties, Buddhist women began looking at their own practice centers through the feminist lens, describing women’s situations in terms of what we did not have: the absence of authority, the lack of equality. But there was something else going on in the women’s movement as it continued a quieter trajectory from the chaos of the seventies through the eighties. Impelled in part by President Reagan’s aggressive nuclear arms buildup and Strategic Defense Initiative—dubbed the “Star Wars” defense by the popular press—and by a widespread awareness of environmental devastation, some political voices in the women’s movement proposed traditional “female” qualities as critical to pulling the world back from the brink—qualities such as compassion, deep listening, nurturing, serving. They identified the so-called “weaknesses” of women as the very strengths that the planet most needed to survive. Yet while this ideology can infuse a context for change, without an internal shift, and one that goes far beyond the issues of gender, its effect will—and has—remained limited.

Within a decade, young women became openly antagonistic to the feminism of the baby boomer generation. “Feminism” itself became a dirty word, and the feminists of the sixties were faulted for advocating a male value system at the expense of female-identified forms. Rather than engage in literal and symbolic bra burning, young women retained the quest for equal opportunities but dressed up in Victoria’s Secret. The quieter feminism of the eighties, which advocated an embrace of female-identified behavior, did not get much play, either. And consequently the very nature of power itself was not questioned. At the same time, the ground for change has been tilled. And the rise of patriarchal fundamentalism and of religious militarism is so untenable that perhaps the time is right to make real shifts in how we understand power.

Perhaps the unmasked politics of fundamentalism, economic domination, and the loathsome consequences of unbridled greed have descended to such horrific lows that, however unwittingly, they can spawn a new story, or uncover an unborn dream by which we can navigate the realities of where we are, who we are, and who we wish to be.

Is it possible to imagine that power might be defined by presence of mind; that the more one is no longer controlled by compulsions, addictions, patterns, habits, the more power one has to act in service of wisdom and compassion? What if we said that power is internal freedom, that power is the capacity for choice? Can we—women and men—stand the heat of appearing to be passive, of remaining like a log? Can we imagine, compassionately, that in our society this might be much more difficult for men than for women?

Following 9/11 there was never a possibility of not bombing Afghanistan. It wasn’t just the President and the politicians who disallowed nonaction; the mindset of the American people demanded retaliation. I use this example not to suggest that inaction in this particular case would have been a more enlightened strategy, but to suggest that “strategy,” or any form of intelligent, wise consideration, was made impossible by the blinding thirst for revenge. A primitive, dualistic response—however easy it was to explain—ruled the day. Remaining like a like log is not a political position. It is neither passive nor pacifist. Rather it describes a state of mind capable of making wise decisions, unplugged from the emotional charge of compulsive reactivity. Remaining like a log describes a mind that has options, one that is not merely being jerked around by selfish responses to external circumstances and that can therefore serve a larger reality with clear, cool insight.

In my own experience, Buddhist practice is indescribably difficult. I know of nothing in this world that is more challenging than the Buddha’s invitation to an enlightened way of life. I don’t think that the actual process of transformation from a selfish, self-oriented, me-first person into a bodhisattva of wisdom and compassion who consistently puts others first is any easier for one sex than it is for another. Yet my hope for all those living on the American sidelines—such as women and Buddhists—is that we use our compromised status to our best advantage; that we capitalize on our experiences and strengths and training to investigate alternatives to conventional views of power. Perhaps it is worthwhile to figure out what it takes—and what kind of power is required—to “remain like a log.”