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Buddhadharma : Winter 2010
buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly winter 2 0 10 38 ForuM • grace SchireSon • chriStina FeldMan • • laMa Palden drolMa • rita groSS • • laMa Palden drolMa • rita groSS • Making Our Way how women are embracing the dharma and challenging Buddhism’s status quo SANDY BOUCHER is the author of Hidden Spring: A Buddhist Woman Confronts Cancer and Dancing in the Dharma: The Life and Teachings of Ruth Denison. She co-leads retreats with her partner, Martha Boesing, and teaches programs on dharma and writing. From 1981 to 1990, there were seven Women and Bud- dhism conferences. The participants, from Zen, Theravada, and Tibetan Buddhist sanghas, generally fell into one of two camps: women who had been involved in Buddhist practice for five years or more and were not particularly involved in the feminist discourse of the times, and feminists who had been organizing and demonstrating for women’s liberation and were newly drawn to Buddhism. When feminists began to frequent Buddhist institutions, they started questioning the hierarchy and power dynamics they encountered. Many of the longtime Buddhist practitio- ners, for their part, were concerned about preserving the tra- dition. Energies for change and energies for continuity met in these conferences, where they were debated, explored, and acted out. Much progress has taken place since then—in scholarship, in challenging traditional hierarchical structures, in feminiz- ing the language of chants and liturgy, and in women being recognized as lineage-holding dharma teachers and assuming leadership roles. Nevertheless, with the exception of Pema Chödrön, who has become something of a rock star in the Buddhist world, and a few other prominent women teachers, the public face of Buddhism is still often male. Moreover, the fact that women are denied full ordination as bhikkhunis in the Theravada and Tibetan traditions remains a serious injustice, though the recent bhikkhuni ordinations in California inspire hope that the Theravada bhikkhuni sangha will take root here in the West (see article by Amy Boyer on page 36). In this forum, the participants are women who have had decades of firsthand experience dealing with the issues facing women in Buddhism. They bring us up to date on progress and obstacles, and present a vision for the future. It’s a refresh- ing discussion that explores the nitty-gritty while still holding a positive view. hen I think of women and Buddhism, I see before me the faces of our Western Buddhist female pioneers. In the relatively easier situation we enjoy today, with the proliferation of powerful women teach- ers and spokespeople, I wonder if we will forget these early women who placed the foundational stones on our path. Jiyu Kennett Roshi established Shasta Abbey in North- ern California and trained a generation of Zen priests. Ayya Khema defied Theravada prohibitions to take full ordination and established Buddhist centers in several countries. Maurine Stuart Roshi headed the Cambridge Zen Center, which became a refuge for women traumatized by sexual abuse by Zen teach- ers. Ruth Denison led the first all-women’s retreat and still teaches her distinctive mindfulness training. Toni Packer left the trappings of her Zen training to establish a center offering Buddhist wisdom without the Japanese formalities. The influence of these women ripples throughout the con- temporary Buddhist world. They were tough, determined, sin- cere, and stubbornly creative. They insisted on their place in Buddhism and worked hard to open the way for the excellent crop of teachers who followed them, including the younger generation of women teachers coming into their own today. Back in 1981, I attended the very first Women and Bud- dhism conference in the United States, held at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. This gathering became quite explosive, as women from Zen centers spoke up about the sexual power abuse perpetrated by their male teachers, and asked for help with this perennial problem. photos l-r: elizabeth vigeon, corey kohn introduction by Sandy boucher