Nancy Baker Sensei, a professor of philosophy at Sarah Lawrence College for the last twenty-seven years, is also a dharma successor of Bernie Glassman Roshi and the founder of No Traces Zendo in New York. Here she discusses the intersections of Buddhism and feminism with three young women from Tricycle: Alexis Rubenstein, who graduated from Columbia University in 1997 with an emphasis on Tibetan religion and language; Tammy Greenstein, a musician who began Zen practice in 1998 at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center in California; and Christine Dzialo, a student of Khyongla Rato Rinpoche at The Tibet Center in New York City.


© Marin Buschel
© Marin Buschel

Alexis: Many of us came into Buddhism at the same time that we came into feminism, at least the three of us, and so we were wondering for you, how these two isms, Buddhism and feminism, are complementary and how are they contradictory? I find them complementary, and it’s probably because my personal and academic interests in feminism have been about the self and the formation of gender. I teach a course called “The Construction and Deconstruction of Gender,” which almost sounds like a course on Buddhism—in both cases it seems to me that the practice is about letting go of the labels and identities that limit us. I’m not sure I have ever found feminism and Buddhism in conflict. Because I see any feminist issue—like any issue ever, anywhere in the universe—as a Zen issue. My teacher, and my teacher’s teacher, always used to say, “Zen is life,” and to emphasize that nothing is excluded.

Tammy: Has there been a time when you had to choose whether to respond to a situation as a feminist or as a Buddhist? No, I don’t think so. The idea of responding to a situation as a feminist raises issues for me about being a victim, which I always see in terms of the dharma. If nothing else, the dharma is about being free, in other words, not being a victim of anything, especially my own conditioning. Victims of oppression like Nelson Mandela, Susan B. Anthony, Martin Luther King, Jr., or the Tibetan monks and nuns who have been imprisoned never took on the identity of being a victim.

Alexis: But as feminists we may be expected to get angry and to react. How are we supposed to respond to sexism, racism, violence, if not with anger? It is important to feel the anger that is justifiably there. Otherwise, as we know, it goes underground and just adds to the damage being done. But feeling, allowing, acknowledging anger is not the same as acting it out. Acting it out is not only reacting to the situation but also to my own feelings.

In both of your questions you use the word “respond.” Maybe responding with anger is different from reacting with anger. In an oppressive situation where anger is in some sense appropriate, we need to think about different ways of being angry. If I just blindly react with anger, it’s not very productive compared to responding with something like righteous indignation, which has some dignity and rationality about it.

Alexis: Can you say more about the difference? In the latter kind of anger—the nonreactive kind—there is space, which allows for choice, for freedom, and for compassion, especially for myself. What we need is what my teacher Bernie Glassman calls “bearing witness,” or what, in my sitting group, we call “compassionate allowing.” In both there is a slowing down and a taking in of what’s happening. Unless you can see clearly what’s happening you can’t really do anything about it. Any kind of transformation of a situation requires this, whereas reacting just leaves things as they are—in effect it condones them.

Tammy: There’s certainly something to be said for clarity and being present to the situation and not just reacting to it. But how does resistance happen when you’re bearing witness? I know that compassionate allowing sounds like condoning, but that isn’t at all what’s meant here. I could allow you to stay out late or allow myself one more piece of chocolate in the sense of giving permission. But “allowing” also means the opposite of rejecting. It means to be completely open to the truth of what is. When I reject anything—inner or outer—without having fully allowed it beforehand, it will surely come back to haunt me.

Bearing witness, like compassionate allowing, is a necessary step, but it is only a first step. It might sound like doing nothing, but again, that is not at all what is meant. Look at nonviolent resistance. It’s a form of bearing witness. When I react, attention goes to me and is taken away from the perpetrator, whereas not reacting reveals the truth of the situation to others, including the perpetrator. If I am going to help other women and not just myself, the truth of oppression has to be seen for what it is by everyone.

I need to invite the whole world to bear witness with me. When Rosa Parks refused to go to the back of the bus, she sat still long enough so that everyone could see the truth.

Christine: How does that figure into your own life? Like many women of my generation, I have had a great desire for integrity but a real fear of autonomy. The problem was not that I was intent on reacting or acting out my anger, but that I was more likely to fail to respond at all. With my own teacher I had to learn to express disagreement in an autonomous way without the need for or expectation of any acceptance of my point of view. This was a tremendous practice, and one that evolved through learning to trust myself.

Tammy: Can Buddhism inform our notions of gender identity, how we identify ourselves in terms of gender? There’s a strong streak of anti-essentialism in feminism, just as there is in Buddhism. It is the understanding that something like gender is not fixed or absolute, that not all women or men have some masculine or feminine essence that defines us. To put it in Buddhist terms, gender has no “self-nature.” It’s unrealistic to treat this as just a theoretical problem, as certain contemporary feminists do, namely to attempt somehow to deconstruct gender philosophically and say, “Well, it’s just a myth” or “It’s merely a construction.” It is a construction, it is a myth, it is a delusion, but it’s a very deep one, and our psychology is largely made up of such delusions. Buddhism knows this.

Alexis: So, hypothetically, should it be or is it our goal as Buddhists and as feminists to get beyond that essential definition of what it is to be a male or a female? Is that ultimately the goal? Yes, to go beyond all definitions, all descriptions and identities. But I would make a distinction—as Wittgenstein put it—between “description” and “expression.” For example, I’m an American. I don’t feel like an American, I don’t think about it, it’s not an identity that I am attached to, I don’t carry it around as a description of myself. It’s not a self-image that I have, that I’m likely to become defensive about in any way. But it is something that I express, and any expression is something I’m one with—I’m not necessarily aware of it, it’s just there.

So with gender, I’m not going to be free of gender, but I can be free of the description of myself as male or female. What Buddhism has to offer feminism here is the idea that when I react I am seeing myself as a description: “woman.” And moreover, being a “woman” means being inferior or being an object.

So I react. How can I be free enough of the notion that I am a description, so that I can express who I am without any defenses, and treat others in a way that allows them the same?

One of the problems for new Buddhists in the West is the delusion of “being a Buddhist,” in the sense that “being a Buddhist” is not an expression but a description, an identity. When that happens I become a “this” as opposed to a “that” and I end up reifying one thing and excluding something else.

There are some wonderful koans about description and expression and practice. Zen Master Ummon accuses his monks of sitting with a “sit-view,” eating from their bowls with a “bowl-view”—in other words, of having substituted identification with practice for real practice.

Christine: You see some of Wittgenstein’s ideas as parallel to aspects of Buddhist philosophy. Are there other aspects of contemporary Western theory that can inform our understanding of the Buddhist path? Well, one of the things feminist theory has come to understand and to articulate well is the role of the “other” in creating self—in other words, we don’t have a self except in relation to an “other.” Simone de Beauvoir’s great book, The Second Sex, is about woman as the “other” in a male-run society. In dharma communities it sometimes happens that the person with authority, the one who is empowered, becomes a person with power, a person who dominates, a person who uses the “other” for a sense of self.

But when we take on the identity of victim, when we blame, gossip, and basically fail to tell the truth where the truth needs to be heard and in an manner that it can be heard, we are also using that “other” for our own identity.

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Tammy: If this reflex—this use of the “other” to create self—is so pervasive, what can we do? We need to assume responsibility, to compassionately allow what’s happening to us without “other-ing,” or resorting to blame.

When two or more people get together and exclude someone else—whether it’s racism, sexism, war, or gossip—they create false intimacy among themselves. This is exactly what straight men do to women, especially in casual conversation. As feminist scholar Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick has explained in her book Between Men, one of the main ways they connect to one another is “across women’s bodies.” It’s an amazing notion. So if we blame, exclude, scapegoat, gossip, we’re doing to men, to our fellow/sister students, to our teachers, what men have always done to women. And then we’re stuck, we’re not moving anywhere.

Christine: What does it mean to assume responsibility when you have no authority? In the first issue of Tricycle there was a conversation between two male teachers about the issue of male teachers and female students. They were trying to be helpful but ended up having a very condescending patriarchal point of view, namely that male teachers have to take better care of women students. Men, of course, were subjects, and women, objects. This is just the other side of the victim coin—the benevolent dominant. Students—male or female—need to be responsible for who they are and for all the childish idealizations that got them into abusive situations to begin with. It takes two to tango.

One of the problems with identifying as a victim is the expectation that somebody else is going to get me out of this, that all the perpetrators in the world are going to come down my street on their knees asking for my forgiveness. That’s the wish, and there’s no empowerment in that whatsoever. To have the dominants be nicer, more responsible, more aware is not going to solve the problem either.

I’d like to ask you: What is the problem in Buddhist communities in America? Is there one?

Christine: Well, there is an imbalance of power—women students usually with a male teacher. And if a woman ever addresses this kind of issue, or asks about female teachers, it would be regarded kind of as a sensitive matter or something that you would need to transcend. So I see things being pushed aside. And who’s supposed to take the action?

Christine: That’s what you were supposed to tell us! If there is real abuse happening, the student has to ask herself what exactly is keeping her there. This kind of inquiry can be unbearably painful, but if one has any integrity at all it must be undertaken. You can’t just sit around hoping that the community or the teacher is going to bail you out.

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Tammy: Is there ever a case to be made for a victim, when it’s something very serious like a sexual violation or some kind of psychological manipulation? I mean we’re taught to completely trust our teachers. We do these full prostrations to them— It’s not to them, it’s to the dharma. It’s to your true nature. Of course the notion of “surrender” comes up here, but we have to ask ourselves when surrender is a description, an identity—or as Ummon would say, “a surrender-view”— and when is it the real thing? As I’ve heard a Christian monk say, the practice of obedience is never the substitution of someone else’s will for my own will. The student has real grown-up responsibilities here.

What is so striking to me are the occasions when we think we are being a victim, being dominated, having our freedom taken away, and that isn’t what is happening at all. My teacher is someone who didn’t encourage independence among his students—he was too busy getting done what he had to do and making use of our eager availability along the way. He turns out also to be someone who recognizes and honors independence faster than anyone I’ve ever known, but that independence has to come from the student. When I got over the fear of being myself with him, I discovered a new reality, one that had been there all along.

Male teachers in our 21st century, free-world patriarchy face a great temptation when they take over a community of “surrendered doormats.” To see clearly here what needs to be taught, what distinctions need to be made, what the enlightened way would be, is a very great challenge and responsibility. Though the world has changed since I began practicing with a teacher in a community, the fact is that we still live in a patriarchy. It is easy for both teachers and students to forget that.

Alexis: What difference do you think women teachers make, either in the university or in the context of Buddhism? A lot of people ask this question—and I suppose one could ask what difference women students make. Many people think of Zen as “masculine,” to use that term metaphorically. It appeals to the “samurai” in us, which just might be another word for “superego.” I began Zen practice in an atmosphere that seemed very competitive. Sometimes it seemed to be about who could climb the highest mountain in bare feet, but often it seemed to be about who could “serve” the most—maybe carrying the baggage of the whole sangha up the mountain in bare feet. One woman student who had practiced in my lineage in the early days said to me that the zendo was like “the boys in the gym.” My teacher said to me once that practicing then for him was “like the Olympics.” I remember his also saying that he and “the boys” used to compare notes on how few breaths per minute each of them could take while doing zazen! By the time he told me this, of course, he was able to laugh about it.

Alexis: Did you ever want to be a “samurai?” Well, in a way, yes. But for me, that meant giving free rein to a harsh superego and to suffer horribly, because my practice never lived up to the unrealistic standards I created for myself. The worst part about that atmosphere was having certain students constantly held up as being the best “servants.” It not only encouraged comparing—which, as one Zen master has said, “is like putting your head in a pot of glue”—but even the winners of the competitions ended up struggling to get and maintain newer, better identities.

In treating practice as a competition it is easy to forget that practice is not about how I’m doing compared to others; it is about me. It is in that sense utterly individual. It takes a long time to realize that. We have so many ideas about what practice should look like and what the outcome should look like that we forget the main ingredient: myself. Women teachers—or at least the “feminine” (again, a metaphor) in any of us—may be quicker to make that obvious to students. That side of us tends to be more personal, more able to identify empathically with an individual student, more comfortable with our inner emotional selves, and less likely to encourage competition and “discipline” as description.

Tammy: Has there been much opposition to the new styles of teaching being developed by women teachers?American Zen practice has been accused of becoming “soft,” a word we associate with “feminine.” Women teachers have been accused of being too “psychological.” What we so often associate with Japanese Zen and with the “masculine” are words like “rigor,” “discipline,” “energy,” “intensity,” and “concentration.”

I think there are a number of things we American Zen students and teachers haven’t fully worked out yet. One is how easily these seemingly “masculine” Zen ideals can be turned into “descriptions” as opposed to “expressions” of practice. Another is how we confuse discipline and rigor with external conditions or behaviors as opposed to inner attitude. And yet another is how we make the so-called “psychological” play the role of the feminine “other,” not understanding that nothing is excluded from what is. There is a peculiar sexism in all this that we have barely begun to explore

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