I often wonder if our early Zen ancestors knew we were coming. Did they sense they were opening a path for so many of us?
Grace Schireson’s Zen Women opens, onto millennia and across continents, opportunities for us to reimagine women’s places in Zen. The word beyond in the subtitle charges us to pass by the common yet limiting images of our possibilities as Buddhist women and move toward those that make us proud and ready to build an American Zen. Here is a record of stories, beginning with Mahapajapati Buddhi, the Buddha’s stepmother, collected and interpreted by a strong female teacher and from which to build an American women’s sangha. Here are stories of courageous practice and the skills, teamwork and recognition needed to found temples and reshape societies.
This is a mighty task. Schireson writes, “Like a stream gone underground, the women’s order would seem to disappear, only to surface again in a different location. . . . We do find evidence of its persistence, but no linked relationship from teachers to disciples.” In the face of “no formal or continuous lineage of female Zen teachers,” Schireson is making a new record for a future American women’s sangha. She posits a “Matriarchal Zen” order, one whose lineage she defines in modern terms as she retells Buddhism’s stories of women.
Zen Women is the work of a practicing psychologist and recognized Dharma teacher. “By studying these female masters, women can relate more fully to familiar tensions, difficulties with institutions, and personal sacrifices inevitably encountered by female practitioners.” But this work is not a psychological interpretation of Buddhism to be applied to modern women’s development. Rather, Schireson gives evidence of the timeless potential of meditation for women’s learning and leadership. She seeks to resolve contradictions and missing stories in the record not by claiming victimization for women and calling for restitution but by revising the record and reinterpreting the Zen lineage for our own time. The stories function as case studies of women’s social engagement and encouragement for women’s leadership in the sangha and in society. Schireson calls for “family training” beside “Zen training,” and she finds evidence in the record of family-oriented convents. She calls for innovation in developing hybrid forms which integrate lay and monastic life. These are the ways we can shape our Buddhist institutions to align with and transform American cultural values.
Running through Zen Women is a feeling of quiet disappointment with the institutions of Zen and the cultural biases in which Zen has prospered. Schireson gives ample evidence of the conditions that have limited and oppressed women in the form of erased records, physical restrictions, less patronage, limited access to literacy and scholarship, and training styles that lack tenderness. Women are persevering to practice deeply, she makes clear, just as our sisters must have, with the help of one another and with the support of Dharma brothers and male teachers. The most radical and urgent call is for us to rethink how training and practice are realized differently for women and men. This is where Zen Women has its greatest power and appeal to both men and women—to begin dialogue about these differences in our training goals and our gifts as training takes place in coeducational settings or in convents. If this dialogue continues in earnest, then lineages that integrate teachers and students, without giving preference to men or women, will open the path to many.