I found it encouraging to read Marianne Dresser’s Buddhist Women on the Edge, an anthology of writings by American women from diverse backgrounds who practice in a variety of Buddhist traditions. Issues explored in this timely book include monasticism, sexuality, exclusivity of the teachings, creativity, teacher-student relationships, and political and social activism.
I once heard a Tibetan lama say that, ideally, teaching dharma to Westerners would be like pouring nectar from one vessel (Asian culture) into another (Western culture). However, since he did not see in our culture the depth and richness required to hold such nectar, he was forced instead to pass the dharma in the traditional Asian cup. It can be a great challenge to attempt to separate the precious teachings from the traditional vessel—with all of its patriarchal trappings—in which it is often presented to us here in the West. Such a transmission requires an alchemy that must take place slowly in our hearts and minds. The best of the essays in Marianne Dresser’s anthology dramatize this alchemy—careful and heartful exploration. It is apparent that Buddhism has a great deal to offer in the maturing of our culture and, reciprocally, that American Buddhist women offer passion, imagination, courage, scholarship and humor to the development of contemporary Buddhism.
American women have been having a very interesting time with the dharma. It has been, for many of us, the medicine that returned us to an intimacy with ourselves after centuries of acculturation to a way of life that suited more stereotypically male notions of striving, speed and accomplishment. At the same time, in our pursuit of this medicine, we found ourselves smack in the middle of the playing field of hierarchical, male-dominated situations where the traditional female virtues of subservience, quietude and emotional invisibility were valued. In the essay “Persons and Possibilities” Professor Anne C. Klein addresses the danger of misunderstanding the Buddhist notion of self/no-self :
We must not confuse those aspects of selfhood denied in Buddhist philosophy—permanence, independence, or immunity from causes and conditions, for example—with the undeniable existence of persons who laugh, cry, and sometimes seek liberation. But how do we relate to ourselves, and to all that laughing and crying, in the process of seeking liberation from the illusion that these expressions, or anything associated with them, is permanent? If we can expand on this, we might well come to a different view of what laughing and crying is all about. A view we can sustain even as the tears flow and the eyes crinkle.
In “What is the Emotional Life of a Buddha?” poet, translator and Zen practitioner Jane Hirshfield recalls a lecture given by Suzuki Roshi in which he said, “Maybe a true Zen master should not be like a wall or a tree or a stone; maybe he should be human even though he practices zazen.”
As presented in this collection, Buddhist practice is anything but a hiding place for women who might wish to retreat from the conflicts, toxicity and dangers of the world. Taking robes can become a way into the fray, as Kate Wheeler and a number of other former and present nuns describe. While writers Susan Moon, Melody Ermachild Chavis and Barbara Gates see motherhood as a form of practice, Buddhist scholar Rita Gross proposes in the spirit of renunciation that we try giving more energy to our sanghas and less to our nuclear families “…because community is more likely than the typical family environment to foster sanity and tranquillity.” The American nun, Pema Chodron, a student of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche and current director of Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, warns against looking to sangha for “a new family.” She says, “Becoming a Buddhist is about becoming homeless.”
Buddhist Women on the Edge offers inspiration for action on many fronts. Scholar Miranda Shaw, dzogchen teacher Tsultrim Allione, and poet/performer Anne Waldman, all practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, offer testimony to the transformative powers of women’s sensuality, visions, and voices. Michele Benzamin-Masuda, a student of Thich Nhat Hanh, draws on her unusually diverse ethnic and spiritual background to blend meditation and martial arts into a mindful, embodied warriorship. In her eloquently written piece on sexism and racism, bell hooks concludes with these words:
“There is no change without contemplation. The image of Buddha under the bodhi tree illustrates this—here is an action taking place that may not appear to be a meaningful action. Yet it transforms.”
It is extremely challenging to sustain a balanced and spacious view while exploring inflammatory themes such as sexism and racism in Buddhist communities. Buddhist Women on the Edge includes the voices of a number of women who model this effort. There is a lot of work left to do. As a celebration of the journey thus far, an anthology such as this is not only useful but necessary.