Leaning slightly forward in a posture of urgency and appeal, Lhakpa begins to speak to us. Her eyes in her high-cheekboned face shine with a fierce insistence. “My name is Lhakpa Dolma,” she says, “and I want to tell you about what is happening to women in Tibet.”
The twenty women listening to her sit knee-to-knee in the small living room of the Center for Women and Religion house on the north Berkeley campus of the Graduate Theological Union. We comprise a delegation that will go this fall to the NGO (Nongovernmental Organizations) Forum on Women that will take place in Beijing, parallel to the official United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women. The NGO Forum, which will draw some 35,000 women social and cultural activists from every country in the world, will consist of a conference on such issues as reproductive rights, poverty, state and individual violence against women; a sharing of strategies for work in these areas; and a celebration of women’s visions and arts worldwide.
Lhakpa Dolma, a small woman wearing the chuba (brocaded robe) and brightly striped apron which is the traditional costume of Tibet, speaks to us from under a photograph of the Dalai Lama. Her hands which are holding her notes tremble. But she steps into her nervousness and rides it, her eyes seeking the gaze of first this woman, then that one.
She tells about the torture of Buddhist nuns, the forced sterilization of laywomen in Tibet. Then she shows the film Satya, or Prayers for the Enemy, by Ellen Bruno. It presents a chilling picture of the methods employed by Chinese officials to subdue Tibetans in their own country. Particularly it reveals the courage of the maroon-robed Buddhist nuns who have demonstrated against the government and have been incarcerated, humiliated and tortured by the soldiers. A nun says that she and her sister nuns take the lead in demonstrations against the Chinese because, not having children or spouses, they are more free to risk their lives. Another nun says that war must be avoided because not only people but also animals and birds and insects suffer when there is fighting.
I sit with tears in my eyes, moved both by the message of the film and by Lhakpa’s presence among us. In a concrete, embodied way, she affirms our participation in an international community of women, the majority of them Asian, who follow the Buddha way. She and her countrywomen are a model for us of how to embody Buddhist spirituality in our everyday lives and how to pursue political activism from a nonviolent Buddhist ground. In exile, they have built a community with their men and children, maintained and transmitted their culture, worked peacefully to win back their country. They teach us to pray for our enemies, as the title of the film reminded me, to acknowledge the great interconnectedness that is all life.
When the film is over and Lhakpa has finished answering the questions of the women in my delegation, there is a moment of awkwardness. How to make closure on a presentation so powerful and painful? Kathryn Poethig, the coleader of the delegation, asks me to say something. I draw upon my metta practice, asking all of us there to open our hearts to the brave Tibetan people, to support and wish them well in their struggle. When I open my eyes, I see Lhakpa bent over, tears streaming down her face, under the picture of the Dalai Lama.
These months of preparation for the trip to Beijing bring many such moments. And I see in them portents for the future of American Buddhism. We need to learn from the Buddhists on the other side of the world and to integrate what we learn with our own experience of sitting, walking and studying here in the West.
This is not always comfortable for me as a Western woman. Buddhist nuns, particularly in Southeast Asian countries, often are deprived of the opportunity to practice and study, and receive little or no support or respect from the sangha. Westerners who come in contact with Asian Buddhism may be uneasy with this reality. The Buddhist path as followed by millions of Asians in their countries seems to manifest more as a way of life or a devotional observance than the formal meditation practices we are used to. We may be put off in a Burmese temple by seeing a Buddha statue with a gaudy neon halo. Such an encounter challenges our Western view of things Buddhist and throws us into the soup of contradiction that is the life of any culture.
So we are called on to be patient with our limited awareness and partial understanding. We need to ask our minds and hearts to grow bigger, to expand to welcome the reality of Buddhism as it is practiced on the other side of the world in the complexity of many different cultures.
Think of the contradictions so obvious in China. Many women who will attend the NGO Forum in Beijing do so with ambivalence, troubled by China’s recent appalling human rights violations. But China is also the country whose response to the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara, the quintessential Buddhist embodiment of compassion, was to transform him into the lovely and strong female figure of Guan Shi Yin (or Kuan Yin). She was for centuries the reigning goddess of the Chinese people; even now Kuan Yin’s presence is felt in China.
I cherish Kuan Yin, “she who harkens to the cries of the world.” In my workshops, we visualize her in a meditation that I think Lhakpa Dolma and her Tibetan sisters might recognize, a form that expresses both our deep connection with women across the centuries and around the globe, and our understanding of our own yearnings as late-twentieth-century Western women.
This meditation may be done by the light of the full moon or simply by the light of our imaginations:
Sit in a comfortable chair. Close your eyes; let your body relax, and for a few moments pay attention to your breath.
Now transport yourself to a beach on the ocean. Imagine your favorite stretch of sand next to water and place yourself there. It is a cloudy night. Hear the steady mutter of the waves; feel the warm sea breeze, smell the salt air.
Now look up to see a beautiful round full moon which has just risen.
Watch the moonlight shimmer on the water.
Gaze at the moon for a long time.
Now see it get brighter and brighter until you can barely look at it.
Gradually the moon becomes Kuan Yin herself, her body surrounded by a glowing aureole.
Slowly she descends toward you until she stands on a lotus blossom that floats on the waves. She is a mature woman with Asian features, an ornate headdress and flowing robe.
At sight of you, Kuan Yin smiles a beautiful smile, and tears of happiness shine in her eyes. She is so glad to see you.
As she comes closer, let her radiance enter you; let her strength, her peace and her compassion become a part of you. Let yourself open to her so that she merges completely with you.
In this moment, you feel bottomless compassion for yourself and all other creatures.
Your difficulties, your weaknesses, your inadequacies; all those ways in which you do not measure up to your own standards; all those moments in which you acted carelessly or unskillfully, or when you were immobilized by confusion; all your pain that sometimes seems endless, rising up when you least expect it—let these aspects of yourself be utterly accepted by you.
Feel your suffering and confusion surrounded by the love that Kuan Yin awakens in you. Let yourself surrender into her compassion for all life. And stay there as long as you need to.
Finally it is time for Kuan Yin to leave. You see her in front of you again. As she moves away, she becomes smaller and smaller. At last the sea and sky vanish too, and you rest in contemplation of the beautiful empty space that is left. Let yourself open into that space and experience it, so restful.
When you are ready, come back into this room, into your body.
The understanding that illumination, truth, the great mystery of the universe are laced through the moments of our daily lives counters the tendency in patriarchal religion to strive to escape the body and the stress-filled world. The Buddhist female emanations, such as Kuan Yin and the Tibetan figure of Tara, encourage the meditator to embrace the infinite complexity of each embodied moment. Such goddess figures empower women, for they give us a way to connect with the great ground of being through our human female bodies. Through them we experience the arising, falling away, and arising again—that we know from our vipassana practice—acted out in the world of matter: the cycles of birth, death and regeneration. As we work with such concepts, women and men alike open to physical and mystical dimensions of our practice that lead to caring for the earth and all living beings.
Who knows, perhaps American Buddhism will give birth to a female emanation as powerful as Kuan Yin! The transformations of dharma that have occurred in other cultures could lead us to imagine such a radical development. Who would she be? As Tara expressed a Tibetan appropriation of Buddhist energies, as Kuan Yin embodied a version consonant with Chinese culture, what form would our own female emanation take?
Such questions can bubble in the stew of American Buddhism. I celebrate our continuing freedom to ask them.