I have thought of myself as a feminist since 1969, when I moved to Berkeley and joined the Women’s Liberation Movement. Seven years later, in 1976, I began to study and practice Buddhism at the Berkeley Zen Center. Feminism and Buddhism both remain central issues in my life.
When I first began to sit zazen, I looked around me—after the meditation period was over, of course—and my enthusiasm was tempered by a nagging concern about woman’s second-class status in Buddhist practice. Buddhism as an institution is highly patriarchal and Zen Buddhism, the kind I practice, comes from Japan, which itself is a particularly male-dominated and hierarchical culture. Nevertheless, I was drawn to the meditation practice and to the philosophy, insofar as Zen has a philosophy.
At the Berkeley Zen Center I studied with Mel Weitsman, and from time to time I heard lectures by visiting teachers, and went to retreats with other teachers at other practice places. I encountered and learned from Maezumi in Los Angeles, Richard Baker at San Francisco Zen Center, Bill Kwong in Sonoma County, Robert Aitken from Hawaii, Katagiri from Minnesota. I went to thought-provoking lectures, classes that deepened my understanding, private interviews that supported me and pushed me further at the same time. But for many years, all the teachers with whom I came into contact—and they were good teachers—were men.
“So? Good teaching is good teaching,” you may say, “whether it comes out of the mouth of a man or a woman.” Yes, but the teaching comes also out of the whole body, out of the very skin, out of the hair, or lack of it, out of the life. And I believe there is a cumulative effect when, time after time, the body of the priest that is clothed in special robes and sits in the honored spot to deliver the lecture is observed to be the body of a man. “How far and how deep will I be able to go with this Buddhism business?” a woman may begin to ask herself.
This has changed, and in Meetings With Remarkable Women, Lenore Friedman, herself a practicing Zen Buddhist, chronicles the wonderful flowering of women Buddhist teachers in America which has taken place over the last few years. In a scholarly introduction, Friedman summarizes the historical role of women in Buddhism, both as they are represented in the teachings and as they have participated, or been unable to participate, in the social institution. Then, chapter by chapter, with an easy combination of warmth and intellectual acuity, she paints the portraits of seventeen Western women who teach Buddhism in the United States. (Interestingly, five of them grew up in Europe, a sixth in New Zealand and a seventh in Canada. Does this indicate that for Western women interested in Buddhism, the United States is the country in which new things are possible?)
Friedman draws extensively on verbatim interviews. She puts each of the women into her own context, telling us where she practices and how she got there, how it fell out that she became a teacher of Buddhism, who were her teachers and what is her tradition, if she even sees herself as part of a tradition. We meet Zen teachers of various schools and lineages, as well as teachers of vipassana and Tibetan Buddhism. And there are telling photographs of most of the women, showing them in what must be their natural habitats: temples, gardens, suburban yards. If the cumulative effect of encountering only male teachers was once discouraging to me, the cumulative effect of reading about these indeed remarkable women, one after the other, was both remedial and inspiring.
Most of the women teachers described in the book do not consider themselves to be feminists. The place we are all trying to get to—or the place we already are, if we only knew it—is a place beyond feminism, beyond gender. But in the conditioned realm in which we live, these are all women who have developed themselves to an unusual degree, who have crossed boundaries, who have come forward and achieved responsibility in a patriarchal system, who have extended themselves courageously into the world as teachers. So they don’t need to think of themselves as feminists to provide inspiring role models. I’m grateful to them for doing what they are doing. In her introduction, Friedman comments, “In many respects, Buddhism and feminism reflect similar values and perceptions. They are both deeply experiential and intuitive. They both sense the fundamental interconnectedness and relatedness of all beings. They both instinctively include rather than exclude.”
The book is an achievement simply in terms of scholarship and research, of assembling and organizing an enormous amount of material. And it must also have been fun, actually, to travel all over the United States in order to visit Buddhist centers of different traditions, to interview teachers and to participate in retreats. But Friedman adds a more important dimension: She gives us her personal response to these women, so that the title is entirely appropriate. (The title, incidentally, is presumably a reference to a fascinating book by the Sufi teacher Gurdjieff, called Meetings With Remarkable Men.) The book is not only about the teachers, themselves, but also abut the author’s meetings with them, about how she felt with each of them. This personal perspective, with its resulting sense of immediacy, is what I like best about the book. Because we, the readers, feel ourselves meeting these women, too.
Here is Friedman speaking of her first meeting with Toni Packer, in Rochester, a teacher whose lectures she had only heard on tape.
It is already dark and the ground and hedges are wet with recent rain, the evening I arrive at Genesee Valley Zen Center. There are no lights on in the windows of the big stone house, and no one answers my knock after I haul my valise up the big front steps. Then . . . I see two people walking up the drive. The tall one, a young man, introduces himself as Kenin. “And this is Toni,” he says. I automatically say, “Hi, Toni,” and then stop. “You mean TONI Toni?”
We all laugh. I have been taken aback because Toni of the powerful voice is just a person: in a knitted cap and down jacket, face pink from outdoors, smile welcoming me, eyes blue and very bright, short silver hair showing just under the cap. Just a person. I recognize the voice, but the kindness in it now touches me.
A little later, Friedman is sitting at the kitchen table, getting a head rub from Toni’s assistant, Sally, because she has a bad headache.
I close my eyes, breathing deeply, almost wanting to cry. Her fingers now gently touching my head, she says, “This is a bad one, isn’t it?” . . . Someone sits down opposite us on the other side of the table. Through flickering lids I see it’s Toni. She has a cup of tea and sits there, very quietly . . . As my body relaxes, I feel Toni’s presence quite palpably. Utter stillness. Non-intrusive being there. Over the next few days, and in subsequent encounters elsewhere, I learn that Toni brings these qualities with her, into whatever room or situation.
Although she is no slouch as a scholar, Friedman is not afraid to depart from traditional academic form. A woman writing about women, her style moves beyond the strictly logical. She begins several chapters with gentle poems of her own about her subjects.
Some of the conversations we are invited to listen to are quite intimate, turning, for example, on the author’s feelings about herself and her strategies for psychological survival, so that we almost feel as if we are visiting a therapy session. I find her openness about herself disarming.
She speaks of a retreat she participated in at Providence Zen Center, where a strict and difficult schedule is followed, with not a moment to lose during mealtimes. “Since one has to finish every morsel of food in one’s bowls before washing them, and since each phase of the complicated dance has to be completed by everyone before the next one begins, I found myself desperately resorting to shameful tactics. Once I stuffed almonds up my sleeve. And once I pressed cherry tomatoes under the elastic ankle bands of my sweat pants.” She goes on to tell us that Bobby Rhodes, the teacher she was interviewing there, suggested that she could take a tiny amount of food during scheduled meals, and eat more later. But I must admit that what stays with me is the image of her hiding the cherry tomatoes in her sweat pants.
One of the most interesting themes of the book is the teacher-student relationship. In recent years we have seen many abuses of this relationship in Buddhist and other spiritual communities, so I was curious to learn how these women understand their authority as teachers. PemaChodron, a teacher of (Tibetan) Buddhism and herself a student of the late Chogyam Trungpa, believes that “there is a natural hierarchy in the world . . . Once you have trust in the teacher, and respect, then there is willingness to go along with what you’re told, because sometimes that’s the only way to get through when your habitual resistance starts coming up.” But most of the teachers in the book take a less traditional approach, focusing on teacher as friend and helper, rather than authority figure. Yvonne Rand, of San Francisco Zen Center, likes the concept of a “spiritual friend.” She says, “If my experience can be helpful to another, that is great. And if it is not useful or helpful, that is all right too. We can, in any event, walk this path together.” She believes that people in teaching positions should meet together in small group consultations with their peers, that they need to be part of a “feedback system” so as not to fool themselves. Ruth Denison, an innovative vipassana teacher, feels that the teacher should be in the background, like a good friend, lest “people get so hooked on the personality of the teacher that all their attention flows into that.” Toni Packer, probably the most revolutionary teacher described in the book, says, “There is no need to impose respect. You have to impose respect where there is a fear of possible violence or disrespect. If there’s no disrespect; there is no need for respect!”
Would a man want to read this book? Yes, if he is interested in the development of Buddhism in the West. Friedman quotes Jack Kornfield, well-known vipassana teacher, as saying, “Some of the most important changes in Buddhism in our time will be the positive result of reintroducing the feminine. Specifically, I mean a return to the heart, the validation of feelings and emotion, receptivity, and connections to the earth.”
Meetings With Remarkable Women is of interest to non-Buddhists as well. It is important for us to recognize that women are finally coming into their own as teachers in many spiritual disciplines, bringing new energy to old forms and creating new forms. It was not so long ago that a woman who spoke up out of her own spiritual understanding, who preached the interconnectedness of all beings, was in danger of being hung as a witch. But now we begin to see women as teachers not only of Buddhism, but of martial arts, psychic development, Protestant religions and Judaism, to name a few. The Pope, on his recent visit to the United States, let us know that the Catholic Church will be one of the last spiritual institutions to knuckle under to this subversive trend, but I’m willing to bet that when women at last become Catholic priests, as I’m sure they will if both the human race and the Catholic Church stick around long enough, it will be in the United States.
Americans, both men and women, seem increasingly eager to integrate some kind of spiritual practice into their everyday lives, to value what is generally thought of as the feminine side of their nature—the intuitive, right-brain, nurturing anima—and thus to accept, and even seek out, women as spiritual teachers.
The women who are described in this book are like people we know, and we can identify with them. At the same time, they are pioneers of the human spirit and their life stories are often extraordinary. Thus, Meetings With Remarkable Women is excellent reading simply at the level of biography. Lenore Friedman has done us a great service in celebrating these teachers.