There’s a joke I love that makes the men around me uncomfortable. It goes, “A feminist man walked into a bar; it was so low.” We often heap praise on men for showing women basic forms of respect because we set our expectations so low.

Last month, an article on Trike Daily asked what Dogen Zenji would say about #MeToo. It pointed to Dogen’s criticism of his misogynistic contemporaries as evidence that the Zen master was a feminist.

To his credit, Dogen had several female disciples and wrote favorably about them. In particular, he praises the nun Ryonen in the Eihei Koroku (Extended Record). He also argued that women have equal capacity for spiritual development and awakening in the Raihaitokuzui (Bowing at the Attainment of the Marrow) chapter in the Shobogenzo, as well as in Bendowa (Points to Watch on Practicing the Way).

But was Dogen really a pioneer of his time, a proto-feminist, or is this just idealistic projection on our part? Many (male) historians have argued that Dogen’s rhetoric was “merely theoretical equality.” (See William Bodiford, Soto Zen in Medieval Japan. Steven Heine also argues something similar.) In other words, they point out that while he paid lip service to the idea of equality, he may not have taken steps to actualize this equality.

I’m reminded of my teacher, who loved to quote Raihaitokuzui and claimed to respect women. But, coincidentally enough, it was always women who were serving tea or acting as personal assistants to provide him emotional support.

Compared with later disciples, mainly Kangan Giin (1217–1300) and Keizan Zenji (1263–1325), Dogen did not take major steps toward institutionalizing women’s authority or creating resources to help women practice, such as establishing convents or placing women in positions of authority. He undoubtedly “respected” women, yet he did not establish a practice space for them.

Unfortunately, there is no historical record indicating whether or not women were allowed to practice at Dogen’s temple, Eiheiji. Dogen had personal connections with several nuns, including one who took care of him when he was dying, but it is not clear if any of them resided at Eiheiji.

But even if women were allowed to practice at Eiheiji, that wouldn’t necessarily be ideal. Mixed-gender practice spaces were not always preferable to convents. For the majority of Buddhist history, women have practiced in all-women spaces (or at home) for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to freedom from sexual harassment and abuse.

What we do know conclusively is that Dogen did not establish any convents. Instead, Kangan Giin was most likely the founder of the first Soto Zen convent, Ho’onji, which was established on the Japanese island of Kyushu around the year 1260. (A 1990 archeological study found that Ho’onji was probably co-founded by a nun named Hoe, who went by the pseudonym “Jodo Daishi.”)

And Keizan Zenji was the first in Dogen’s lineage to transmit the dharma to a woman, the nun Ekyu. Keizan also established the Entsu-in practice space for women at Yokoji temple in Ishikawa prefecture. Keizan installed the nun Sonin, a major donor of Yokoji, as the first abbess of Entsu-in.

Feminism means more than just saying you believe in equality of the sexes; it means taking actual steps toward restructuring institutional power imbalances. So while I still think Raihaitokuzui is a masterful and elegant treatise on nonduality and gender, it is perplexing to me that Dogen did not establish practice spaces for women, or have any direct female dharma heirs.

Additionally, we need to be careful about using the category of “women” as a monolith. Wealthy women played a substantial role in Keizan’s community, but poorer women would not have had the same prestige. In fact, it is quite likely that an upper-class woman during the Kamakura period would have had more in common with an upper-class man than a female servant. In the Ritsu school’s convent Hokkeji, for example, women were placed in tracts that were segregated by class. Upper-class women had more opportunity for upward mobility toward full bhikkhuni status.

Where does all of this history leave us? It underscores two things for me. The first is the need for institutional support and structuring, rather than words, to be the measure of egalitarianism in Buddhist communities. Dogen was not alone in believing women had equal potential for awakening; many prominent leaders of the time were also rethinking the traditional views that women could not obtain enlightenment. The second is that it is crucial for us to have an intersectional analysis of women’s history. It is easy to say that “Dogen respected women” and that there have been many prominent women teachers in Buddhism. But which women? Did poor women have the same access as wealthy donors? Similarly, in reacting to something like the #MeToo movement, is the accountability about sexual abuse being extended to the most vulnerable women, who are poor, trans, of color, and so on? Are we restructuring institutions in such a way that the most vulnerable are not going to be subject to abuse again?

It is understandable that we want the founder of our religious tradition to be a supporter of women. I get it. And I think he was, in his own way. I’m reminded of my teacher, who loved to quote Raihaitokuzui and claimed to respect women. But, coincidentally enough, it was always women who were serving tea or acting as personal assistants to provide him emotional support.

Dogen was in many ways a genius. But it should be obvious that a 13th-century celibate monk is not the best person to look for advice about #MeToo.

If you are tempted to ask yourself, “What would Dogen have said about #MeToo,” I would politely suggest you ask yourself instead, “What have women been saying about sexual assault, now and since the beginning of time?” History helps us contextualize Dogen’s views on women, and reminds us that the bar for feminist allyship should not be lowered just because we crave belonging and identification with our spiritual tradition.  

This article originally appeared on Gesshin Greenwood’s blog thatssozen.blogspot.com

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