Why gender and embodied practice matters in zen

“The least admirable part of Buddhism is its attitude to sex. The Buddha accepted women into the Sangha with the utmost unwillingness, and indeed prophesied that they would be the ruin of his system….When we look back over the history of Zen, we find not so much an antipathy to sex or a perversion of it such as seen in monastic Christianity, but rather a sublime indifference to it. Women do not appear in the anecdotes of the Hekiganroku or the Mumonkan. A book entitled Zen for Women has yet to be published.” (R. H. Blyth, 1960, in Meetings with Remarkable Women, Lenore Friedman, 2000.)

In 2018, I stumbled upon a series of dharma talks by Zen teacher Chris Fortin of Everyday Zen, discussing the zen women ancestors and like a thunderbolt, I was struck open to a new understanding of practice—and pain. I studied many zen texts, but I never really heard about our women ancestors. Who were they? This started a new page for me in practice. I was also encouraged reading an article in Sakyadhita newsletter (Vol. 16, Summer 2008) that Roshi Egyoku Nakao, abbot of the Zen Center of Los Angeles also had this startling awakening to the absence of women in zen forms, lineage chants, and stories. At her transmission retreat in 1996, she asked her teacher Roshi Bernie Glassman, with some urgency, Where are the women!” She wrote that for thousands of years, “women have practiced, manifested, realized and accomplished the Buddha Way….Where were the women to mentor me? “ She started chanting the women’s lineage in 1997 and has not looked back. She wrote, “All the great masters know that paying homage to female adepts and females acquiring the essence is the living spirit of the ancient Buddhas. The lineage of the matriarchs is to be revered. Now this lineage lives as you. Please cherish this forever.”

The dharma is not limited to any form. The dharma gates are boundless. And yet, the question arose in me. What have I missed by not having the stories or teachings of the women who practiced the dharma just as fervently as any man? The women are hidden from most of religious history and zen is not alone in this. As a woman, I found an appreciation that zen is an embodied practice and that when we practice, we become more awake to our conditioned human nature from our individual vantage point, our very lives, our very bodies. I asked, Maybe women’s bodies and hearts experience the world in ways that men’s do not? Beside our biological differences, cultures and attitudes about gender have prescribed certain “conditioning” that creates forms, feelings, thoughts and attitudes, that we are all called to practice with. And, the experiences we have in our own bodies provides us everything we need to practice with, and often that is gender related. Bodies are strong or soft, bleed and give birth, break and mend.

The pioneering study of women in medieval Japan, Engendering Faith: Women and Buddhism in Premodern Japan, point to the myriad ways women were given a “place” in the culture, and the home was the main place they could practice spiritually. The historical documents and zen stories show this, describing the five “obstructions” that women carry to hinder their enlightenment.

Soto Zen founder Eihei Dogen (1200 -53) wrote an essay about women to correct this misunderstanding. He wrote that women and men are equally able to practice the dharma, and in his treatise, raised up zen masters who were women teachers as examples. He also wrote “Those who are extremely stupid think that women are merely the objects of sexual desire and treat women this way. The Buddha’s children should not be treated this way. …Both men and women attain the way. You should honor attainment of the Way. Do not discriminate between men and women.” But even the cultural norms of his day prevented this essay and teaching to be released for 800 years.

Roshi Wendy Egyoku Nakao, also wrote (in Meetings With Remarkable Women, page 353), “What are the forms that we women will create? What practice structures will come out of our own lives? What skillful means will we bring forth out of our being? People say, ‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, and I say, “What is the baby? What’s the bathwater?’ Throw it all out and let’s see what arises from the vast unknowing.”

I discovered The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-five centuries of Awakened Women/ edited by Florence Caplow and Susan Moon, and I brought up this to my teacher who encouraged me to start a dharma study group in 2018 and we call ourselves the Tea Ladies. I am encouraged by the many faithful women who come to study every month. We named ourselves after the traditional stories in Japan, China and Korea—the many unnamed wise women on the sides of the road, selling tea and dispensing wisdom. We bring these stories into our discussion and our lives. We chant the women’s ancestors lineage.

I realize that we can all practice to realize the truth of of our wholeness in our own engendered bodies. Our bodies are the Way. In stories in The Hidden Lamp, the Tea Ladies have discovered that women’s bodies were big problem to the first male monks. Nuns were mostly prohibited from studying with or being near male zen adepts and there are many koans about the troubles women had. However, the nuns had enough wisdom and compassion from their practice to see through this, and many of the male monks and masters also had their eyes opened.

I discovered the wonderful book Zen Women by Grace Schireson as a companion book for our Tea Ladies’ The Hidden Lamp study group. Buddhist and zen practice started out as primarily a male monastic practice, first excluding women, then allowing women to practice but under restricted and diminished “conditions.” Monasteries enforced rules and practices under the premise that any contact with women would ruin a male monk’s practice. Nuns persisted and opened convents, accepted significantly less state financial support, and were prohibited from entering monasteries to access the teachings. The nuns made their own way; nuns created businesses to make money to support themselves, and developed the first forms of “engaged buddhism” by taking in women who were divorced or widowed, or single, with no means to support themselves. They created art forms for practice including flower and tea ceremonies because they were denied access to the teachings and teachers. Many male zen teachers did break through the cultural barrier and did ordain and teach nuns.

Zen is a practice of vastness and cannot be held down. We have many more women zen teachers today in America and abroad, for which I am grateful. The women’s lineage and women’s teachings are able to be incorporated more and more into our practice, teachings, and forms.

The Heart Sutra which we chant in our Sangha is a condensed teaching on Mahayana Buddhism, the Way of Compassion. “So in boundlessness, there is no form, no sensation, conception, discrimination, awareness. Not stained, not pure, without loss, without gain. Form is exactly vastness, and vastness is exactly form. With no hindrance in the mind, no hindrance and therefore no fear.” In zen practice, we can all trust our true nature, and our own forms, and women and men can both share tears of grief and expressions of joy. We can all be encouraged to practice to see, to hear, to touch, to taste, to sing, to help, to be soft, to be uncovered, to be free. Our bodies move us around and take care of us and others. Our bodies basically interact with all the phenomena of the world and with all beings. Our very bodies and breath, in their many forms, old or new, male or female, are our teachers. May women and men, gay or lesbian, transgender, of all races, abilities, and bodies continue to be aware of embodied ways to practice and expand the dharma treasure.

Martine Palmiter, Dharma Holder, One Heart Sangha, 2019