By the time I walked into the meditation hall, the planning meeting was drawing to a close. The women were clustered in a corner of the large carpeted room sitting in a circle on zafus. As I pulled up a pillow, they offered a quick round of greetings before continuing their discussion.
“Has anyone seen her?” Maggie asked.
Maggie’s one of the meditation teachers at the center. For years she was single, then she married a man who I’d always imagined she’d met at one of those silent retreats where you fall in love with someone across the room whom you’ve never seen before. As you struggle to follow the movement of the breath, in, out, you find yourself obsessing about having Kama-Sutra sex on the altar. It turns out she met him at the library.
“I haven’t seen her,” Joan answered.
Joan, another of the core faculty, had recently split up with her boyfriend who was seventeen years her junior. I was dying to know what had happened, given my own predilection for young men. I hoped we’d have time to chat during the weekend.
“I don’t think she has breasts,” Maggie said, eyes downcast the way women are trained so as not to disrupt the order of things. Nevertheless, a fire swept through her that caught our attention.
I didn’t know who they were talking about but I figured I’d catch on, and given how late I’d arrived I didn’t want to interrupt and ask for an explanation.
“No, she doesn’t have breasts,” Miriam said.
Miriam organizes events at the center and lives on the land in a trailer, which means she’s privy to inside information. She’s usually upbeat and jovial so her solemn tone surprised me. Clearly this was a serious issue, not only for whoever it was who didn’t have breasts but for all of us.
“That’s outrageous! She should have breasts,” Carol exploded with exasperation.
Carol is a professional goddess-worshipper who wears designer tortoise-shell glasses and tackles intellectual issues with the gusto of an NFL quarterback.
“I’ve moved the male ones out,” Miriam said, a Cheshire-cat grin on her face.
“Where did you put them?” Chodron asked, trying to suppress an amused grin. Chodron was officially in charge of the weekend, a Celebration of Buddhist Women, and would be held responsible for any transpersonal psychological offenses that occurred, as well as for any stains on the carpet or broken bones or psychotic breaks. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun by the Karmapa in India who changed her name from Susan to Chodron, but after a string of solitary retreats in caves, she fell in love with a Dutch man in the Himalayas, defrocked and followed the path of childbearing. The women’s weekend was a benefit for both Chodron’s center where she teaches Tibetan Buddhism and the meditation center I attend, Mountain Wood.
“I put them in the closet and in the back office, ” Miriam said with the mischievous tone of a child confiding in her girlfriends, confessing a heroic act which only adults would find nefarious.
Glancing around, I noticed that not a single Buddha was to be found in the vast meditation hall. Miriam had hidden them all—the Buddhas who sit on the front altar and the east altar, the Buddha who stands beside the front door, the Buddha tankhas that hang on the walls.
“Who found her? Where did she come from?” Carol asked.
“David, in Asia,” Maggie said.
“Ohhhhh….” the women all cooed together like a flock of pigeons in a Vatican piazza as they simultaneously understood the complexity of the predicament. I joined in on the last part of the “…ohhh” as it finally dawned on me they were talking about the eight-foot statue of a female Buddha that David had found in Thailand. She had arrived by boat months ago and had been sequestered in a huge wooden crate outside of the dining hall. I’d tried once to get a glimpse of her, but the crate was nailed closed.
Even though the teaching staff is self-described as a nonhierarchical collective, David is the patriarch of the meditation center. He’s charismatic, well-read, brilliant, and laces his dharma talks with just enough irony to cut through any hints of new age pabulum. And every couple of years he authors best-selling books about Buddhism, which seems to be going mainstream. So history simply took its course. Western culture loves a patriarch.
“Well, she has very slight breasts,” Miriam said in a conciliatory tone.
None of us wanted to rock the proverbial boat. The meditation center was our place of refuge.
“We’ve planned for months to unveil her this weekend,” Chodron whispered in my ear. She smelled divine; some essential oil that a tulku had no doubt prayed over and endowed with special curative powers. She was wearing her long dark and silvering hair piled on top of her head, and her full lips were painted with a perfect shade of red.
“Many women have small breasts,” Maggie said. “Our culture worships huge tits. Let’s face it; it would be refreshing to see a female deity with a flat chest.”
“Yeah, I’m sick and tired of seeing those Playboy dakinis. Think about it. Who designed them? A woman sculptor in Chiang Mai? Probably not.”
“So many women get breast cancer these days. It would be good for the female Buddha to have a flat chest. We’ll sculpt a scar into her and make a real political statement: the post-surgery dakini baring herself to the world.”
“If she’s going to be the only girl Buddha presiding over our center, she should have visible breasts. Otherwise she just looks like a guy. We’re not going to have her yoni exposed, and her hair is pinned up in curls just like the boy Buddha’s.”
“We could leave the Buddha in her box until we get this settled,” Maggie suggested.
“But we promised David that the women would install her this weekend,” Joan reminded us. “It’s already in the schedule.”
“A man shouldn’t choose the female Buddha. A group of women from the sangha should go on a search together and they should find her.”
“Right!” we all chimed in.
I imagined a bevy of women starting off on an international quest; like the three wise men looking for Jesus, or Moses looking for the Promised Land, or the Tibetans looking for the next Karmapa.
“We could form a committee of women to discuss the issue of female icons,” Sheila said.
“Who will be on the committee?” I asked, eager to participate in the conversation.
“We’ll have a meeting to make a committee to decide how to make the committee.”
“Right! And we have to invite every woman in the sangha to participate. No elitism.”
“Who will talk to David?” Chodron asked in her deep voice. “I don’t think we can unveil her until this issue is resolved.”
No matter what she says, Chodron always sounds sane, responsible, mature. There was a serious pause.
“I will,” Joan finally offered.
A communal sigh rippled through the circle and that seemed to end the discussion for the time being so we could move on to planning what we would have for the organizers’ dinner on Sunday night after the event was over.
“Should we make that two large pizzas?” Maggie asked, pulling out her notebook.
“I have to have protein. Do they have soy cheese?”
“I’m allergic to soy.”
“Make one half olives and half green peppers, one with cheese, one without, and tell them to sprinkle anchovies on a quarter of one of the cheesy ones so everyone can have a choice.”
The meeting was adjourned, and we all hugged and kissed, leaving tattoos of lipstick on one another’s faces. I love being with women, I thought as I drove away.
The next morning the meditation hall was teeming with three hundred women of all ages, shapes and inclinations. Altars had been built in each of the four directions and floor-to-ceiling banners of life-sized dakinis hung on each of the four walls. There were Kuan Yins, Taras in all colors, red-nippled Vajrayoginis and Samantabhadris. They were sitting in lotus, lying on their sides, dancing on one foot, waving eight arms in the air, wielding knives, floating on boats, flying.
My favorite was a sculpture of Kuan Yin, made from a green-veined stone, that Jennifer had commissioned from an artist in Asia. She was sitting with one hand upturned on her lap and one hand touching the earth. This is the mudra the Buddha reportedly performed the instant before his enlightenment: He touched the earth, calling on the Goddess who is the earth to witness and accompany him in the moment of his awakening. We are told that the Buddha woke up alone. But if we look more deeply at the texts, as Miranda Shaw points out, the Buddha achieved full enlightenment in the company of a Goddess, the living earth herself. No one wakes up alone; we wake up in the presence of each other, in the company of those who have awakened before us, in the the company of the spirits of the earth.
I put my costume and make-up kit in the office they’d allocated as a dressing room. Male Buddhas were stashed on the couch and floor in between the piles of fundraising letters. They didn’t look comfortable; but after all, women had been shoved into back rooms for centuries so I thought they could stand a taste of invisibility. Anyway they were enlightened and beyond preferences.
Refusing to create hierarchy, even geographically, we shifted the focus for each presenter—in the morning we faced east, in the afternoon, south; Sunday morning, west, and that afternoon, north—dutifully rotating our chairs and pillows. As I glanced around the room, I saw myself everywhere: the Buddhas all had breasts. The impact of that moment, steeped in female imagery, was subcutaneous—not an intellectual insight, but a body bolt. For years I had sat at the feet of male Buddhas. I have one in my back yard, and one on my altar, and the head of a Buddha on my mantle over the fireplace. I had spent the seventies in consciousness-raising groups, the eighties attending ecofeminist conferences, the nineties busting the ruling paradigm with systems theory. I knew about Gaia, the anti-feminist backlash, the bifurcation points in chaos theory, the partnership modality of the pre-patriarchal culture. But still, I hadn’t noticed the effect of being surrounded by male images until they were removed and replaced with dancing dakinis. Why are the effects of an image so strong, so subliminal? Can we ever learn to celebrate the particularity of our genderness without being crippled by it? For years I thought it didn’t matter. An awakened mind has no genitalia. But during the weekend I realized it did matter.
All weekend I heard stories of women who had attained full enlightenment. A washerwoman on the way back from the well dropped her urn of water, and as the pottery shards scattered at her feet, she woke up. Another Tibetan woman achieved awakening when she was herding cattle and fell into a visionary sleep near a sacred cave. When she awoke, she understood the nature of all things. It seems that women have a tendency to achieve enlightenment while engaged in life processes: doing the laundry, sweeping, or in the fire of a passionate embrace. This is a different story from the Guatama story: the story of a man who left his wife and child to achieve enlightenment alone under a tree. This is a story that embraces all of life in its vast range of intimate details.
The images we see day in and day out affect the way we see ourselves; we’ve known that for years. If all we see outside ourselves is something other than ourselves, we will not see the truth: Each of us belongs and is held by an embrace of unity.
On Sunday evening, after the crowd had thinned, the organizing committee sat in a circle and ate pizza.
“We have to let the female Buddha out of the shipping crate,” I said. “We need her.”
“And let’s keep some of Jennifer’s Goddesses,” Sheila said. “We can put them in the lobby.”
“And the dakinis need a home as well; maybe the foyer or sprinkled through the forest.”
We agreed to fill the meditation hall and the surrounding forest with Buddhas who had all kinds of breasts: asymmetrical, biopsied, firm, pendulous, diminutive, perky. The Buddha comes in all shapes, sizes, colors; the way we do.
A few months after the women’s weekend, I went to Mountain Wood for the Wednesday night meditation. As usual, the place was jammed with seekers getting their weekly infusion of equanimity. I was happy to be back. David was sitting cross-legged on the small stage, a microphone pinned to his vest, a collection of books fanned out on the floor around him, yellow Post-its flagging the pages. He rang the bell, and I adjusted my posture for meditating. Just before closing my eyes, I glanced at the altar. Kuan Yin sat staring at me, a slight smile on her lips—not the eight-foot female Buddha that David had found in Thailand, but the one Jennifer had commissioned, altar-size. Her breasts were flat. But anyway I was thrilled to see her. Settling into meditation mode, I made a mental note to call Jennifer and have her commission a Kuan Yin for my front porch, under the redwood tree. I hoped I could special order one with breasts: full, but imperfect, like mine.