Two substantial gifts that the West has brought to Buddhism are the ongoing exploration of women’s treatment and participation in Buddhist institutions and women’s increased shouldering of leadership roles. Women have been proactive in writing ethical guidelines for Buddhist centers to confront sexual power abuse, and have developed alternative, less hierarchical structures to allow for equal participation. Women have taken the lead in raising consciousness around misogynist texts as well as the more subtle sexism that is alive in our communities. Courageous women on the Buddhist path continue to press for full ordination of nuns. And women teachers have recognized the value of women practicing together.
Since 1988 when my Turning the Wheel: American Women Creating the New Buddhism was published, twenty-five years have passed and much has changed in American Buddhism. We can celebrate strong progress, and there is more to do to create truly inclusive communities.
Inquiring Mind has invited four women teachers into conversation to explore recent changes in emphasis and perspective in our community: Anna Douglas, cofounder of Spirit Rock Meditation Center and co-creator of the women’s retreats there; Gina Sharpe, cofounder and guiding teacher of New York Insight Meditation Center, a retreat teacher and a teacher of retreats for people of color, including the first such Insight Meditation Society retreat; Erin Treat, co-guiding teacher at Vallecitos Mountain Ranch (New Mexico) and student in the Dharma Teachers Training Program at Spirit Rock and Insight Meditation Society; and Arinna Weisman, founding teacher at Insight Meditation Center of Pioneer Valley (Massachusetts) and the first out queer teacher, with Eric Kolvig, to lead LGBTQI retreats.
In November 2014, Inquiring Mind editor Barbara Gates and I met to conduct a phone conversation with these teachers, prompted by a set of questions we had sent them to contemplate. For example: What is the particular quality and value of women practicing together in women’s retreats? How does this contribute to awakening? What unique capacity do women bring to the teaching seat?
Three of the women spoke from the perspective of long practice and teaching, one from the generation that will carry the work forward. They joined in offering an expansive and hopeful view.
Anna Douglas: The path of liberation begins by making contact with the truth of our actual experience. This puts us in touch with our conditioning, the trance of thoughts and feelings and beliefs that we have learned to call “me.” To awaken from this trance is our task—to discover an enlarged sense of self that is both intimately connected with all of life and free from that which constricts and keeps us trapped in a spin of confusion. Patriarchal ideas and images of what it is to be a “spiritual woman” are often one source of such confusion. In thirty years of leading women’s retreats, I’ve found that it is easier for many women to wake up from the trance of their conditioning and access their empowered authenticity when they are free from the pressure, however subtle it might be, to conform to a male-dominated, masculine style of teaching and practicing.
Many women, including myself, have had the experience of leaving parts of ourselves at the door of the meditation hall, accepting a tacit assumption that aspects of our experience are unacceptable. For example, no big emotions! Many women have experienced being judged for their emotionality by men who are uncomfortable with emotions, so, of course, that concern arises when they practice with male teachers. There is also the subtle taboo against speaking about the impactful experiences of being in a woman’s body—like menstruation, pregnancy, the labor of giving birth or the grief of losing a child, the consequences of having an abortion, the experience of being sexually assaulted, menopause, being a mother. These experiences are rarely openly named or acknowledged in conventional vipassana retreats. Instructions are given on mindfulness of the body, and reflections on “this precious human birth” are offered, but until now, the female body in the Theravada tradition has been viewed with ambivalence. In some texts, the female body is presented as a wicked temptation for the male monastics to avoid at all costs. Other texts tell us that to be born into a female body is bad fortune and will prevent spiritual awakening. To develop a compassionate and appreciative awareness of what it means to live without shame in a woman’s body is an important step in a woman’s practice. This healing needs to happen for women to feel fully at home in the lineage, worthy of spiritual awakening.
Erin Treat: The women I have been with on women’s retreats describe the ease that arises for them, a kind of relaxation that is new for them, as if they have been carrying tension that they didn’t even realize was there until they came into the experience of a women’s retreat and felt a great welcome. I’ve heard similar stories shared by friends who have attended people of color retreats and other retreats for distinct populations. A special type of sangha develops, often with the same yogis returning year after year to an annual women’s retreat which carries a sense of “coming home.” There is a palpable sense of power, support and intimacy as women gather to practice on retreat. This felt sense of belonging invites a deepening of calm, concentration and mindfulness—all helpful for the practice.
Women students also find it empowering to walk into the hall and experience feminine imagery. In a recent retreat I led with Anne Cushman, we graced the hall with different representations of the feminine body, the body of awakening, from Green Tara and black Quan Yin to a curvaceous dark-skinned woman and a figure with a turtle-shell head covered with stones and feathers. These images brought an invitation to inhabit the experience of womanhood in an embodied way.
Gina Sharpe: What strikes me most poignantly listening to Anna and Erin is the similarity of response to the women’s retreats to the response to POC (People of Color) retreats. I’ve never been on a women’s retreat, nor have I taught one. But the first time I led a people of color retreat, I was surprised by the relaxation that I felt as I walked into that hall. Hearing your stories set my thoughts going about how interesting it is that we all carry a sense of tightness that gets relaxed only when we feel that we are in a familiar and welcoming landscape with people of similar cultural experience. As Maya Angelou said, “The ache for home lives in all of us—a safe place where we can go and not be questioned.” This kind of relaxation happens because there is a shared experience that offers a safe space.
So whether it is a shared experience of people of color or of gender or of sexual orientation, there is something we can learn not only in the context of these kinds of targeted retreats but in the whole community. For one thing, we learn to use language that is inclusive of a broad spectrum of beings rather than the patriarchal language to which Anna referred, and we learn not to assume that our own experiences are the same as everyone else’s. We are so conditioned to talk about experience in patriarchal language rather than in a more inclusive way that helps everyone to truly arrive. How can we be more deeply sensitive, for instance, to the inherent nuances in mindfulness of the body practice?
Arinna Weisman: I experienced deep insight through body practice in the women’s retreats that I went to as a student of Ruth Denison. By the way, she was the first laywoman to lead women’s retreats in the U.S. Sometimes in the meditation hall and sometimes outside, when Ruth shared some teaching—it could be how to take care in drying a salad bowl, or how to connect to body sensations—I could feel my brain structures changing. In those moments I was aware that I was receiving a transmission and in that reception something was physiologically metabolized in my body-mind process.
AD: I’d like to tell a story about mindfulness of body that illustrates how it often opens us to a deeper level of connection with ourselves. In a group interview at a women’s retreat I was teaching, a professional woman, a corporate lawyer in her thirties, revealed that she was pregnant but that her husband and work colleagues were largely disapproving. She seemed emotionally shut down and confused. I slowly and gently encouraged this woman to feel what was happening in her body. She closed her eyes and very tentatively began to speak about what she experienced—the stirrings of her baby in her womb and the tenderness she felt. The other women in the group started making soft empathetic sounds as she was speaking. Finally the floodgates opened and she began to cry and cry and cry. It was like she had been waiting for somebody to acknowledge that this pregnancy was a positive, life-changing moment for her. The loving response of the other women allowed her to embrace her body and her pregnancy in a way that would likely not have been possible on a mixed retreat or in an interview group led by a man. It is only out of deep acceptance of the truth of our experience, whether it be shame or unworthiness, rage or grief, or heartfelt tenderness, that we heal, become whole and awaken.
ET: In the women’s retreats, we may metabolize for ourselves what awakening looks like for a woman. As Anna illustrated with her story, this may include a fuller way of relating to the experience of body and sensation, opening more directly to the riches of emotional life, and moving beyond the idea that the path to freedom needs to be still, quiet, not messy, without the full range of our creativity.
GS: What I’m reminded of when I am listening to you, and thinking about awakening in the context of a women’s retreat, is that the Buddha didn’t have a one-size-fits-all Dharma. Certainly in a patriarchal society there is invisible privilege to being in a white body and certainly a real invisible privilege in being in a male body, and suffering in the absence of those privileges. But suffering is universal; it comes in many different personal packages. What the Buddha taught was a way of addressing the particular needs of a particular student as each one came to him. So if someone wasn’t a particularly intellectual type, he wouldn’t sit there and do his professorial thing of parsing through the teaching; he would engage them in some other way by examples from their specific lives.
So when we talk about these kinds of retreats or teachings that are suited to women or these experiences such as the one that Anna talked about, I think it’s totally in line with how the Buddha taught and what he had in mind when he escaped from the prison of Brahmanism and the caste system and decided that he would go out to all places and all people and attract whoever had some passion for what he was teaching. They could be part of the community that received the teachings that he was imparting for freedom. He saw that all people were capable of freedom no matter what category we put them in. So I think that having retreats with these particular frames, whether they are for people of color or women or LGBTQI or any other ways in which we can talk to people’s particular experiences, is not un-Dharmic. They set the context for everybody to be able to say, yes, I can see myself in this Dharma. I understand what the Buddha was talking about. In this particular body, whether it is a body of color or a female body or a transgender, intergender or any other kind of body, with this particular experience and this particular lifetime, I can recognize suffering as suffering. I can understand the way in which I cling and that clinging causes my suffering. I can see the possibility of being free in this particular body, in these particular circumstances. I can certainly see myself adapting to and fitting into this path in this body. I can bring my full self to the task.
AW: That acceptance of one’s whole self was expressed in Ruth Denison’s teachings. I loved the transparency between Ruth’s private life and her Dharma life as a female teacher. I would knock on the door of her private home and she would invite me in even though she might be in the middle of changing her clothes. There was a natural flow of her “personal life” and her life in the Dharma hall. In the context of many stories of unethical behavior in our lineages with male teachers where some of their lives have been hidden in secrecy, Ruth’s openness created a depth of safety for me.
Ruth was very relational with her students and that became a condition for my own experience of being seen and known. The experience of insight was not separate from, but actually only happened in, the context of our relationship. I felt as a student, and now as a teacher, that the relationships we build in retreat and outside are so important in the transmission of the Dharma and the awakening process.
Most of my deep realizations and openings have happened in the context of sitting with Ruth in small women’s retreats over many years. This is so important to me that now, as a teacher, as a women’s queer teacher, most of my teaching happens in smaller contexts outside of larger institutions.
GS: There is something about what Arinna has been saying that takes me into a different head space or heart space. What she said felt almost tactile and so relevant to one of the things that I think as women and as teachers we bring to the community that’s different somehow from what we received—in my case, because I had mostly male teachers over all of these years. Arinna was touching on something that to me is very relevant to us as women. There is something different that we bring which goes beyond style. There is a fundamental feminine principle that is brought to the teaching seat when a woman sits on it that is a very different method of delivery of realization. There is something there that I think is fundamentally important for women to express and to be explicit about. For me, I can talk about it more in teaching than in having female teachers, but certainly I feel that the teachings that I received from my male teachers, which were wonderful and marvelous, still left it to me to translate them in my own teaching. Arinna spoke about this so beautifully. She didn’t have to translate the teachings because she had Ruth as a model. But many of us, certainly I myself, have had to make that translation. I would be interested in hearing from Anna and Erin whether it’s true for them too. It’s taken many, many years to be true to the tradition and yet to express it in a way that is authentic and feels really true to my whole being—which, of course, it didn’t when I received it from my male teachers, as grateful as I am to all of them. There was another step that had to be taken by me to truly express it in a way that felt consistent with my femininity and that didn’t have the aspect of shame and insufficiency that Anna hinted at very early on in this conversation. That speaks to the importance of women’s retreats and the freedom they offer to be fully feminine, to understand the power of the feminine and its expression in our practice.
ET: As we speak I feel the heart space that Gina named emerging. As a newer teacher, I am still finding my most connected expression in the Dharma seat. Something shifted in terms of my own relaxation and energy in teaching after I did some womb work with Debra Chamberlin-Taylor, and became more comfortable sitting at the front of a hall of a hundred people as a woman connected with my own womb. And there is a collective wisdom that comes forth from the groups in the women’s retreats, like that in Anna’s story, that has been truly a teaching to me.
AD: For me it’s been a journey to find my own voice, my own expression. For so many years it seemed to me there was this “problem” about women. That has slowly evaporated for me. Now I feel much more a sense of “Wow, we have learned how to weave the beautiful Dharma teachings into women’s experience in a way that empowers women and makes the ancient teachings a living force in women’s lives.” Also, teaching with women has been an important revelation of the power of true collaboration, with nobody dominating anybody else but rather appreciating and making space for our differences.
The nagging sense of deficiency that was present for so many of us early women teachers has evaporated. There is also a growing sense of being part of a global movement of women who embrace and embody the feminine face of the path of liberation. As an elder teacher, I find satisfaction in seeing these changes and feeling that the younger women teachers like Erin will continue to support women to fearlessly explore the teachings of Dharma without having to diminish themselves. Being a woman doesn’t feel like a problem anymore!
AW: As we talk about the ways that we’ve been welcomed in Dharma settings, it really also brings up the ways that we haven’t. I want to acknowledge that while more and more women are teaching and being acknowledged, at the same time, many of our institutions in the vipassana world and outside the vipassana world, in Tibetan and other lineages, continue to express the unconscious sexism, racism, homophobia and elitism that we’ve been conditioned to. It is so important to look at our failings as well as our accomplishments, because if we don’t acknowledge these harmful dynamics, they continue unintercepted. Enlightenment means the liberation of all beings—none of us can be free when others in our communities are not seen in the wholeness of their being.
I want to acknowledge not only the lingering, deeply programmed sexism at work in our own sanghas, but the even more extreme situation of women in Thailand and Burma in the Theravada tradition, where women practitioners are denied support and opportunity. In our communities here in the United States, there continue to exist decision-making dynamics, ways of relating that are not respectful and not inclusive and that have profound impacts on us as women, queer, people of color, differently abled and poor. It feels important in our conversation that we name that, so we can connect as allies for each other in the continued effort to transform it.
GS: When we talk about the impact of inequality, remember that it is mostly invisible. We also mean that it affects not just those who are excluded, minimized or disrespected but also, importantly, that it has a profound impact on the entire community. That is something that needs to be emphasized and deeply understood. As Arinna said, if equal access and respect are denied, we can’t all wake up, and if we can’t all be liberated, then none of us is free.