Just Power

In a talk given at Smith College, Helen Tworkov reflects on a half century of American Buddhist women and reimagines the future of power.

Helen Tworkov

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,Barbara Kruger 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.

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jackelope65's picture

I think this discussion pertains to both men and women. I grew up as a male in a coastal and dairy community of Australia. I did not have role models of men or women talking loudly about their own deeds in an exaggerated manner. I was quite surprised when I was forced to emigrate by my parents at age 16 to the North Eastern part of the USA in 1965. At first I only became aware of the most vociferous people in school who were not shy about exaggerating their own thoughts and actions. Fortunately, I came to meet more humble people especially distance runners on the track team. I found that many of the thoughtful, self effacing people came from families whose parents or grandparents had also emigrated to the USA, kind, hard working people. My wife's family also had many "old world" values. Our own actions should speak most loudly not our voices. My children and grandchildren also share this humility and we find it somewhat embarrassing to be in the presence of grandiosity. Shantideva's instruction to remain like a log is not necessarily passive in nature as was pointed out by Ms Helen Tworkov and, I think, many of our politicians this day, men & women, should heed this well expending more energy listening to the general public and thinking before blurting out responses that often undo them. I think the popularity of the present Dalai Lama and Pope is more related to their great humility and actions in addition to their well thought out but tempered speeches. When I reflect upon the other most respected people of modernity that have greatly benefited mankind( Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Mother Theresa, John F. Kennedy), they also shared these qualities.

robbenwainer@verizon.net's picture

Honestly I think feminism during the age of the baby boomers or the first baby boomers needs to be discussed. Women were just winning the victory of the right to vote. The ERA still needed to pass, and women were struggling to find a way to become successful by incorporating the responsibilities of motherhood in society. Today women are very successful, and have authority in every area of decision making and pursuits. Women have taken complete ownership of their voice in education, their decisions about raising a family, if that is their choice, and have even earned a voice in the public mainstream based on their expertise based on health, social issues and human welfare. in some ways women of the present day have earned their equality more than any other group of the oppressed, I feel if anything we still need to give rise to the voices of feminism that are inclusive of minority women, African American women, and lesbians.