My sangha chants a lineage of female ancestors, alternating day by day with our traditional lineage. When we began doing this a few years ago, it was like harvesting fruit from a very old tree. The seeds were planted when Mahapajapati became the first female Buddhist monk and leader of a thriving women’s monastic community in ancient India.
From the beginning of my Soto Zen practice, I’ve known both male and female monks, priests and lay students, and have seen men and women holding equal ranks. In my own sangha, men and women serve in varying roles without gender distinction.
I practiced for years before I realized that equality is not the norm for most Buddhists. In Shingon and Rinzai Zen, there are no women at the highest rank. Tibetan Buddhism expresses reverence for feminine qualities but excludes its nuns from the positions of greatest authority. Theravadan Buddhism holds all women perpetually below men, regardless of seniority. While men and women train together at several small Soto temples in Japan, the Soto-shu doesn’t admit women to the main training temples.
When I began to see these inequities, I didn’t react with anger. What I felt was disbelief. Such inequality is so clearly at odds with basic Buddhist principles that I found it difficult in my initial idealism to understand how it could become policy. Buddhism was founded outside the cultural restrictions of its time, breaking through the Indian caste system and other social barriers to equality. But within a few hundred years of its founding, sexism (and in places, genuine misogyny) became embedded its institutions.
In the Pali canon, the “Admission of Women to the Order” has Shakyamuni saying he doesn’t want to ordain women, predicting that Buddhism will survive only five hundred years if this happens. He relents only after Ananda’s insistence.
I simply don’t believe this was the Buddha’s position. I don’t say this lightly, but from the heart of my practice: to give such weight to an ephemeral and changing quality, to segregate half of humanity from the monastic order, to make the truth subject to human desire contradicts the rest of his teaching—a teaching that has, after all, survived much longer than five hundred years.
It is easy to dismiss these problems as the inevitable result of delusion—impermanent flaws in our human expression of dharma. Gender is just conditioning, a type of karma that literally shapes our bodies, and shapes our lives in turn. Prejudice on the basis of gender is just conditioning, too.
If we admit this, a policy of equality is the necessary result and is in fact the rule. Policy, however, doesn’t always translate into experience. When such a policy exists, complaints about mistreatment may be dismissed as signs of attachment to form, a lack of understanding about the Absolute.
The real irony in Buddhist sexism is that it actually gives karma more, not less, control over our lives. To treat men and women unequally means acting as though gender were inherent, essential—exactly the opposite of Buddhist teaching. We cannot dwell in either form or emptiness, and the fact is that sexism is a real problem for the majority of Buddhist women today, whether or not it should be.
The Buddhist written record is marbled with local and personal agendas. One of the most common ways of condemning women is by claiming that they impede the practice of men by stimulating sexual desire. This experience of men is then used to justify the control and even punishment of women. The Vinaya (traditional monastic rules of conduct) is longer for women than for men, restricting women’s movements partly as a response to rapes and assaults against them. In some stories, women are described as less sincere than men, weaker, less compassionate, or limited in their Buddha-nature. In many other old stories, a woman is presented as a deeply enlightened being whose role nevertheless is only to serve as a foil to male awakening. In some traditions, rebirth in a male body is considered necessary to enter the realms of gods and kings.
There are times I can laugh about this. Monks who are expected to manage icy winters, sultry summers, swarming insects, hard labor, and many other difficulties, are thought to be unable to cope with the presence of women. Women are the one insurmountable obstacle to their practice.
Confronted by a difficult past, we may feel impotent, vaguely guilty, or helplessly angry at injury long done. One woman in our sangha suggested that we chant only the women’s names for a time—perhaps “for 2,500 years,” she said, laughing a little. I think there is value in asking the men to imagine how that would feel, value in putting ourselves in each other’s place. One of the uses of a women’s lineage is that it provides a graceful opportunity for men to experience exclusion and hiddenness. But to blame men would only be to repeat the mistakes of the past.
An important point in Buddhist practice involves searching for deeply held assumptions, the false notions by which we conduct our lives. We are products of the past; the past conditions today, and it is simply foolish not to try and see both clearly. I think one of the gifts we in the West can offer Buddhism is our willingness to work at liberating ourselves from cultural constraints. That isn’t the same as already being free of them; we all contain prejudices of several kinds.
To borrow a phrase from Sensei Bonnie Myotai Treace of the Mountains and Rivers Order, we need to “see the problem but drop the objection.” So we work at dropping the argument about gender even as we acknowledge the hurt that is still being done around the world in the name of dharma. In this way, we become better than the problem—we learn to contain the problem in a bigger space than the one that gave birth to it. We can change the meaning of the past by coming to understand what happened, and why. Buddhism is optimistic, joyful with the possibility of our liberation. We can find harmful tendencies in ourselves, begin to free ourselves from our conditioned responses, guilt, and grief. Individuals do this; communities do this; religions and nations can do this.
In so doing, we change the future, which is created right now. How to practice with this is an open question. Part of my own answer is in lineage—in honoring and investigating the lives of the ancestors. Such study should not be marred by rigidity.
Many of our ancestors were real people whose lives and awakening can guide our own. Many are more mythic than real. The Zen lineage is clearly documented only after the Sixth Patriarch of China, and even then there are gaps. For the most part, our ancestors are archetypal figures, their stories told in grand and poetic language. Even the most carefully documented line misses many to whom we owe a debt, since the lines that we know consist of the names of those who survived political and cultural wars. Lineage is a kind of myth, and like all myths, lineage and how we practice with it must grow and change. Opening the meaning of lineage invites us to include the many unknown people who gave their lives for our practice today.
Several years ago, I began casually collecting the names and stories of women important in Buddhist (and especially Zen) history. They came to form an ancestral line—a line representative of the larger sangha—old and young, lay and monastic, from all classes. I tried to build a women’s lineage that stood equal and parallel to the traditional male lineages. I expected this to be difficult, but to my surprise I found a bounty of names. In spite of gaps, our history is rich.
The day came when I realized that my list had grown significantly longer than the traditional one, and for this I bow with deep gratitude to the many scholars, women and men, historians and translators, who have labored to bring these stories to us today. The line now includes some of the determined and powerful women of Buddhism’s first days, disciples of Shakyamuni himself, a few of the dozens of female masters recorded in the transmission histories of China, and the first Buddhists of either gender in Japan. Many of these women are related to the men of our traditional line—dharma “sisters” and “cousins” who trained side by side with men, some as their teachers. Here are disciples of Bodhidharma, Dogen, Keizan, Rinzai, and Hakuin.
Lineage represents eternity. Whether we know names and dates, despite wars and purges, regardless of human error, we know an unbroken transmission of truth because we can meet it today. Shakyamuni’s awakening radiates freely throughout space and time, crossing all barriers of form, time, and space. If it can’t cross barriers, it isn’t awakening. On our cushions—on Buddha’s seat—we can recite any lineage in gratitude, awe, bewilderment, in humility and love. As long as we practice, none of the ancestors are dead—our fathers are alive, our mothers are alive. The breadth and depth of teaching are seen when we expand our ancestry this way.
Certainly, with the best effort, a women’s line has gaps, and I’m certain that scholars will find details with which to quibble. I consider this a compromise between precision and the reality of history. The story of women in the world, as well as women in the dharma, is a story partly about fragments—about invisibility, broken lines, and separation. But it is also about persistence, strength, and the ability to awaken in all conditions and in every form. This line won’t be complete until we learn to tell these stories. Even when we know about the lives and experiences of our female ancestors, we haven’t made their lives our myths. The stories aren’t yet written in the timeless language of archetypes. The work that remains is bringing these women into our hearts, their words into our turning words. ▼
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