top of page

An Alternative to Patriarchy? Women’s Search for Non-Christian Religious Routes

In this century, there has been a growth of Eastern religions in this country. Although Taoism and Hinduism have found adherents, the greatest growth can be found among the various varieties of Buddhism. So many people have entered Buddhism in the United States that Rick Fields, author of a well received history of Buddhism in America, calls the United States “one of the most vital Buddhist countries in the world” (Fields, 358).

Some Buddhists are immigrants from Buddhist countries such as Viet Nam or Korea or the children and grandchildren of immigrants. These ethnic Buddhists remain closely tied to their home cultures, and few people enter these groups who are not members of those cultures. Other Buddhist groups are composed primarily of American converts and their children. One of these, Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana) mixes Tibetan immigrants or exiles with Americans. Zen Buddhism and Theravadan Buddhism, in contrast, draw primarily Americans.

Buddhism entered this country gradually, first through the writings of intellectuals and Oriental scholars and groups such as the Theosophical Society. In America, it was primarily intellectuals and people who have lived in Asian countries, such as Japan or Burma (sometimes under war conditions), who were the first to call themselves Buddhist. Teachers from these traditions arrived in the United States as early as 1905.

The numbers of students gradually increased. In the 60’s and 70’s, many Americans were searching for a more vital religious path, and strong groups of students sprang up around Asian teachers. Some Americans went overseas to train in monasteries; others became members of monasteries and lay groups in the United States. From these students came a second generation of American-born teachers.

In the Seventies, American-born teachers began to have centers of their own. However, almost every teacher was male. Some centers were strongly male in membership. Although others were balanced between men and women, there was a problem for women entering Buddhism: a patriarchal, hierarchical system which left women, in the words of one woman Zen student, “with a sense of alienation and dissatisfaction with our Buddhist practice and with the organizations” (Dougherty 6). Traditionally in Buddhism, women have been seen as inferior. When the Buddha was selecting disciples, he turned women away initially, even his own stepmother, and was persuaded only with difficulty to set up spiritual training for women. Some teachers, such as Thich Nhat Hanh, explain that the Buddha was slow to include women only because he had to manage the prejudice of the people in that time, and these teachers stress that in fact he did make a way for women to enter the training (Thich Nhat Hanh, 26).

Scholars such as H. W. Schumann disagree, speculating that Buddha, as a product of his culture, himself had a low opinion of women (Wheeler, 27). This bias against women is only now changing and is so institutionalized that in some countries there are no monastic orders for women that parallel those for men. If a group follows the traditional monastic rules, where there are nuns they are subordinated to men and subjected to 84 additional rules for behavior.

Reflecting patterns that date back to the time of Buddha, the highest woman practictioner in some countries is supposed to bow down even to new male entrants or boy monks to honor the male’s superior status (Wheeler 27). Only in the last few decades in Japan, reports T. Griffith Foulk, have nuns been allowed to ordain disciples or to become the heads of temples, and even now these are rare occurences (Foulk,175).

Women students who have read Buddhist history are very aware of the closed doors to women . A student at Rochester Zen Center commented, “As I read some of the older parts of Buddhism mostly Theravadin . . . , there’s such hatred of women, such hatred of the body, it almost knocks you over ” (Kieburtz, et al., 10). Kate Wheeler, a Tibetan Buddhist and contributing editor to the Buddhist magazine Tricycle, wonders whether after seventeen years in Buddhism she might not need her head examined. “What am I doing in a religion whose formal expression is a highly defended, medieval, male, sexist hierarchy?” she asks (Wheeler, 26). This history, she explains, makes her angry and undermines her confidence in her potential to grow spiritually. One direct result of the patriachal bias in Buddhism was a lack of female models and support.

Then in the 70’s and 80’s, ordained women teachers began to appear, one or two in the second generation of teachers, many in the third generation, as Buddhism began to adapt to American culture. With these teachers some of the problems eased. It became possible for students like myself, more interested in practice than history, and a student of a second generation woman teacher, to practice for years without even realizing there was a problem for women in Buddhism. Fine women teachers exist now in all the traditions, teachers like Joan Rieck and Joko Beck in Zen, and Ane Pema Chodron in Vajrayana. Women students know of these teachers, can seek out these teachers, and they no longer need wonder, as some confess they did, whether women are capable of reaching enlightenment or of being effective religious leaders.

As American Buddhism has adapted the old systems, some problems have eased, but some lines of teaching have continued in highly traditional patriarchal forms and many contain traces of the anti-woman bias. This bias can be seen in a number of ways. In some groups there is a much higher percentage of men than women; an even higher percentage of males take leadership positions in such groups.

Though it could be argued that Buddhism simply appeals more to the masculine mind than the feminine, the equal proportions of men and women in groups taught by women argues otherwise. Similarly, equal participation can be found in groups led by men teachers such as Albert Low or Thich Nhat Hanh who have made a strong effort to be sensitive to women’s needs.

Sometimes the barrier to women comes in the form of outright discrimination. As one example, the Venerable Kalu Rinpoche, a Vajrayana teacher, chose the men out of a group of students finishing a three-year retreat and offered them the title of lama. To women he offered the lesser title, ani. It is a sign of progress that later many of these women he later changed to lama status, but some people criticized the Venerable Kalu not for the original difference in status but for his later elevation of the women (Wheeler, 32).

Worse yet, some women have been seduced by their teachers, giving rise to a string of scandals and much rethinking in centers across the country.

Some barriers are indirect. Because of the emphasis on monasticism rather than lay practice, traditionally a child was viewed as a fetter. Some women experience poor support for family participation or female caregiving. Women find themselves unable to attend lengthy training sesions. They complain that though guidance is given to the use of awareness in traditional activities like gardening or the martial arts, it is not given in caregiving and childcare as a sacred activity (Gross, 61).”Is there a place for this powerful part of being a female?” asks one zen student (Kieburtz, et al.,10).

This barrier is lessening. Buddhism is taking primarily a lay form in the United States, and although many centers started with many unmarried young people, those people have matured and most have families. “Children didn’t have a place when I first came,” commented one Zen student (Kieburtz, et al., 13). Now Buddhist centers have responded with family activites, ceremonies which include children, and retreats in which partial attendance is possible or childcare is shared. Still, mothers worry and feel that they must choose between sufficient care for their children and full participation in the training. One mother commented, “It meant leaving for five to seven days. And for a little kid that’s an eternity!” (Kieburtz ,et al., 16 )

One subtle problem is that of language. Metaphors and examples in sacred texts, teaching talks, and books often engage males more fully than females. The Tibetans speak of Buddhist practice as the way of the warrior, a metaphor used in other sects as well. A group of women students from the Rochester Zen Center joked with each other about the inappropriateness of the language used there. They were pleased that the writing at their center was not so full of he and him any more, and one said, “It was hard as a woman to enter into that.” But when onecommented, ” I get so tired of hearing encouragement talks couched in terms of men,” and another replied, “It’s changed somewhat. Tell me it’s changed,” they laughed out loud.

Survival in the arctic and boxing, they said, were metaphors they “found hard . . . to relate to” and childbirth would be a metaphor they’d enjoy (Kieburtz, et al.,18-19) Some women feel the necessity to withdraw from Buddhism, or at least from a Buddhist group which they experience as a negative environment.

One woman teacher, Jaquiline Schwartz Mandell, resigned from her Theravadan Center because, in her words, she was unable any “longer to represent a system that subordinated and discriminated against women” (Fields, 363). Others women never enter a group but instead study from afar.

Bell Hooks, a Zen commentator who considers Thich Nhat Hahn her teacher and also considers him excessively traditional about family and women’s roles, has held back from meeting him. She says, “I’m afraid to. As long as I keep a distance from that thread, I can keep him–and I can critique myself on this–as a kind of perfect teacher. Reading about his attachment to certain sexist thinking in a book is one thing, but actually experiencing it in a gathering would be another. That would be sad for me” (Tworkov, 51).

Since the teacher-student relationship is so vital to progress in Buddhism, Bell Hook’s reluctance to meet Thich Nhat Hanh may harm her practice. When Bell Hooks says, ” I can critque myself on this,” what she means is that she is aware that she is to some degree trying to idealize her teacher and that is not healthy for her practice. If the teacher is above perfect, then it is hard for the student to feel capable of matching that teacher’s attainment.

At a 1987 conference on women and Buddhism, Sue Schmall, a Vajrayana teacher, described what she called the “‘not worthy of enlightment’ neurosis” common among women, evoking groans from her audience (Dougherty, 8). She warned her students that self-deprecation was a strategy of the ego just as much as puffing up the self.

Some women students regard the situation as an opportunity to diminish their attachment to self, a chance to see when the self gets stepped on and how anger arises. They speak of “bowing, of throwing oneself away”, even of “submission” (Besserman,16). At a 1990 Celebration of Women in Buddhist Practice, descriptions of this solution were met with scorn (Besserman, 15), but this response works for some practicioners.

These kinds of psychological issues have outer components–fellow Buddhists who reward women students for what they perceive as humility, and groups who idealize their teacher and reject anyone who criticizes. Still, the most relevant change is an internal one. The speakers at the 1990 Celebration of Women in Buddhist Practice conference urged students to observe and work with mindsets that harmed them spiritually (Besserman, 16).

Along with inner work, comes outer. By confronting the teacher or the organization, some women help a group evolve. A student writes of Thich Nhat Hanh being confronted by women students because of the traditional and patriarchal view of family that Bell Hooks writes of. She says that Thich Nhat Hanh listened carefully to the criticism and “took it seriously”(Anderson, 6).

Of course, the more hierarchical and patriarchal the group, the more difficult confronting the teacher is.

It can be done, however. In 1993, a group of Western representatives visited the Dalai Lama. Among their concerns was the discrepancy between the treatment of monks and nuns. Although the Dalai Lama was perceived to be cold to some of the comments, he promised to convene a group of Vajrayana monastics who he would encourage to change a portion of the Vinaya, the monastic rules, which subordinate nuns (Kjolhede, 6-7). This was a surprising concession from such an orthodox leader.

Solidarity with other women members has been one response. Some women seek out a woman teacher. They speak of the “tender” quality , the “humaneness,” and the the balancing of an overly intellectual practice with the emotion women teachers offer (Dougherty, 7). Some women students join nuns’ orders. Some meet specially as groups of women within the Traditional organizations. One such group in Robert Aitkin’s sangha published a magazine for eight years called Kahawaii, aimed at women Buddhists.

Some centers offer special workshops for women, such as the Insight Meditation Society’s annual Women’s Spirituality Course. Conferences to discuss women and Buddhism are frequent, and many women attend them and report back. On the other hand, some women practicioners have reservations about practicing too much with women alone. A student at the Rochester Zen Center, who broached the idea of a special women’s sesshin, got a mixed reaction from women at the center. Some of her hearers rejected its exclusiveness and warned that “there would be feelings of separation”( Kiebutrtz, et al., 18).

Yvonne Rand, a Soto zen teacher at Green Gulch, warns against isolating ourselves as women:

“Back in 1967, when I started practicing zen,” she said, “the role models were all men. Now there are important visible women models. I don’t want to be locked into practice with women only . . . especially today, when there is more of a ‘feminist’ mind among men practioners” (Besserman, 16).

One effective solution to the problem has been to look at the deeper teachings of Buddhism, rejecting harmful surface forms. Dr. Joanna Macy advises other Zen practioners, ” We do not have to buy into hierarchical understandings of what power is, because the central teaching of Lord Buddha himself–the vision of dependent co-arising–shows that power is essentially relational and reciprocal.” (Kraft, 187)

A student of Robert Aitken comments that despite barriers in the Zen group of which she is a member, her personal practice, “in the absolute realm, is non-sexist, nonhierarchical” She quotes her teacher, “When it comes to forgetting the self, there is no male or female” (Dougherty, 6) This response is shared by students in all the traditions.

Reality has two faces: emptiness and form. Though there are problems for women in the relative world of form, emptiness is beyond dualities of any kind, including male and female. The frequency of this response is not surprising since it is a search for this deeper side of reality that brings most women to Buddhism.

For this generation of Buddhist women the solution to this problem cannot remain in the hands of authority. Each woman must choose a way to respond to the situation. The drive for spiritual insight is strong in Buddhist women, and they will go through a lot to learn from this teaching. Already we have seen much change in the way Buddhism is practiced in this country, including the way women are perceived and taught. As Buddhist women continue to work for change, we should expect a great deal more of it in the next century.

Sara Webb lives in Oklahoma, and attends sesshins at the Maria Kannon Zen Center.


WORKS CITED Anderson, Shelley. Letter. Tricycle Winter 1992: 6-7. Besserman, Perle. “A Celebration of Women in Buddhist Practice: One Woman’s Response to the Third Conference of Women Buddhist Practicioners.” Blind Donkey Nov. 1990: 12-18. Dougherty, Trish. “Forming the Circle: Women in Buddhism. Blind Donkey Nov. 1990: 6-10. Fields, Rick. How the Swans Came to the Lake: A Narrative History of Buddhism in America. Boston: Shambhala, 1986. Foulk, T. Griffith. “The Zen Institution in Modern Japan.” Kenneth Kraft. Ed. Zen: Tradition and Transmission. New York: Grove Press, 1988. 157-177. Gross, Rita. “After Patriarchy: Sacred Outlook and Everyday Life.” Tricycle. Winter 1992: 58-62. Hanh, Thich Nhat. “Opening the Door . . . and Letting the Ladies in.” Tricycle. Fall 1991: 26-29. Kieburtz, Vicki, et al. “Female Modalities in Zen Practice.” Zen Bow. Spring/Summer 1993: 7-18. Kjolhede, Bodhin. “The Dharamsala Conference.” Zen Bow. Special Supplement, 1993. Kraft, Kenneth. Ed. “Recent Developments in North American Zen.” Kenneth Kraft. Zen: Tradition and Transmission. New York: Grove Press, 1988. 178-198. Tworkov, Helen. “Agent of Change: An Interview with bell hooks. Tricycle. Fall 1992: 48-57. Wheeler, Kate. “Bowing Not Scraping.” Tricycle. Winter, 1993: 26-32.

Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • Twitter Basic Square
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page