In a talk given at Smith College, Helen Tworkov reflects on a half century of American Buddhist women and reimagines the future of power.
At the same time—the late fifties—the first Zen retreats were held in the United States. Photographs reveal that almost all the participants of these first Zen retreats were middle-aged women. Taking the time to sit down, keep quiet and “do nothing” was apparently a very unmanly activity, despite the fact that of all the Buddhist traditions, Zen strikes many as being archly masculine. But Japanese Zen came packaged with the so-called Zen arts, such as tea ceremony and flower arranging. And in the United States, appreciation for art (not making art—that was male) was considered a woman’s domain. The refined aesthetics of Japanese Zen went a long way toward legitimizing Zen in this country, and particularly among women. So there was a period when the Beat scene—which definitely popularized Zen—was as solidly male, with its aggressive homoeroticism and its legendary chauvinism, as the Zen retreat scene was female. It would be another few years, and not without the advent of the counterculture, before Zen retreats would have equal numbers of men and women.
The counterculture of the 1960s derived from opposition to the culturally sanctioned Vietnam War. But there was also a division within the counterculture into spiritual and political. The spiritual wing was characterized by, as Timothy Leary famously put it, “turning on, tuning in, and dropping out.” A lot of these people, including myself, are those who—if we got lucky—found our way to Buddhism.
Both the political and spiritual wings of the counterculture were characterized in part by defying gender stereotypes. While some feminists experimented with decidedly male forms, the spiritual wing embodied a feminized form. Both men and women who dropped out were wearing long hair, loose, braided, beaded; both genders were wearing jewelry and the slogan of that time which best encapsulates this feminization was “Make Love, Not War.”
From within this sphere of the dropout counterculture, Buddhism began to attract young Americans new to dharma. Rejecting the compromised glory of the Vietnam War, many identified with the Vietnamese (and Buddhist) victims of American aggression. So, in completely monolithic, relative, and reductive terms, the hippie movement, which includes convert Buddhism, looks very feminine compared to the conventions of the mainstream middle class.
Through the seventies, we see the growth of several big Zen centers, and we have the development of the Vipassana community in Barre, Massachusetts. And by the early seventies, we begin to see an influx of Tibetan teachers. We see equal numbers of men and women students, but almost all male teachers and a disproportionate number of men with organizational authority.
I started my own Buddhist studies with Tibetan teachers. Then, in 1981, I moved into the Zen Community of New York, where every morning we chanted the names of our “ancestors,” which happened to be eighty generations of Zen patriarchs. What was more subtle and difficult to apprehend was that “the ideal Zen student”—in whatever body, male or female—looked a lot like a classic old-fashioned version of a gentleman’s perfect wife.
Particularly in the Tibetan and Zen scenes you had, more often than not, an authoritative male teacher surrounded by students who were, more often than not,
Without strong views or opinions
Now, it so happens that we see very similar kinds of behavior in people, and particularly in women, with issues of low self-esteem, or with very entrenched neurotic patterns of worthlessness that fit together perfectly with identifying oneself as the servant. And, as it happens, there were a lot of students who, with issues of low self-esteem and/or abuse, were very comfortable with a continuation of certain neurotic behaviors, especially if that meant they were upheld as ideal Buddhist students. This, not surprisingly, became a source of great confusion. After all, we know that the quintessential core of Mayahana Buddhism is putting others before oneself. And that historically the quintessential work of womanhood was—and in many parts of the world still is—to put the needs and wants of husband, in-laws, parents, and children first. Thousands of texts present this bodhisattva principle, but to quote Shantideva again:
With perfect and unyielding faith,
With steadfastness, respect, and courtesy,
With modesty and conscientiousness,
Work calmly for the happiness of others.
And so it is that if I want contentment,
I should never seek to please myself.
And likewise, if I wish to save myself,
I’ll always be the guardian of others.
We know that to embrace unenlightened female forms may affirm individual and collective patterns of abuse and low self-esteem. If we continue to look at them as expressions of male dominance, then, of course, we will wish to abandon them. Yet to reject these qualities is to reject the teachings of the buddhas. If we trust that they are gender-free Buddhist values, then we may be able to use them to help frame a distinctly different value system.