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

By the mid-eighties, Buddhist women began looking at their own practice centers through the feminist lens, describing women’s situations in terms of what we did not have: the absence of authority, the lack of equality. But there was something else going on in the women’s movement as it continued a quieter trajectory from the chaos of the seventies through the eighties. Impelled in part by President Reagan’s aggressive nuclear arms buildup and Strategic Defense Initiative—dubbed the “Star Wars” defense by the popular press—and by a widespread awareness of environmental devastation, some political voices in the women’s movement proposed traditional “female” qualities as critical to pulling the world back from the brink—qualities such as compassion, deep listening, nurturing, serving. They identified the so-called “weaknesses” of women as the very strengths that the planet most needed to survive. Yet while this ideology can infuse a context for change, without an internal shift, and one that goes far beyond the issues of gender, its effect will—and has—remained limited.

Within a decade, young women became openly antagonistic to the feminism of the baby boomer generation. “Feminism” itself became a dirty word, and the feminists of the sixties were faulted for advocating a male value system at the expense of female-identified forms. Rather than engage in literal and symbolic bra burning, young women retained the quest for equal opportunities but dressed up in Victoria’s Secret. The quieter feminism of the eighties, which advocated an embrace of female-identified behavior, did not get much play, either. And consequently the very nature of power itself was not questioned. At the same time, the ground for change has been tilled. And the rise of patriarchal fundamentalism and of religious militarism is so untenable that perhaps the time is right to make real shifts in how we understand power.

Perhaps the unmasked politics of fundamentalism, economic domination, and the loathsome consequences of unbridled greed have descended to such horrific lows that, however unwittingly, they can spawn a new story, or uncover an unborn dream by which we can navigate the realities of where we are, who we are, and who we wish to be.

Is it possible to imagine that power might be defined by presence of mind; that the more one is no longer controlled by compulsions, addictions, patterns, habits, the more power one has to act in service of wisdom and compassion? What if we said that power is internal freedom, that power is the capacity for choice? Can we—women and men—stand the heat of appearing to be passive, of remaining like a log? Can we imagine, compassionately, that in our society this might be much more difficult for men than for women?

Following 9/11 there was never a possibility of not bombing Afghanistan. It wasn’t just the President and the politicians who disallowed nonaction; the mindset of the American people demanded retaliation. I use this example not to suggest that inaction in this particular case would have been a more enlightened strategy, but to suggest that “strategy,” or any form of intelligent, wise consideration, was made impossible by the blinding thirst for revenge. A primitive, dualistic response—however easy it was to explain—ruled the day. Remaining like a like log is not a political position. It is neither passive nor pacifist. Rather it describes a state of mind capable of making wise decisions, unplugged from the emotional charge of compulsive reactivity. Remaining like a log describes a mind that has options, one that is not merely being jerked around by selfish responses to external circumstances and that can therefore serve a larger reality with clear, cool insight.

In my own experience, Buddhist practice is indescribably difficult. I know of nothing in this world that is more challenging than the Buddha’s invitation to an enlightened way of life. I don’t think that the actual process of transformation from a selfish, self-oriented, me-first person into a bodhisattva of wisdom and compassion who consistently puts others first is any easier for one sex than it is for another. Yet my hope for all those living on the American sidelines—such as women and Buddhists—is that we use our compromised status to our best advantage; that we capitalize on our experiences and strengths and training to investigate alternatives to conventional views of power. Perhaps it is worthwhile to figure out what it takes—and what kind of power is required—to “remain like a log.”


Helen Tworkov is the founding editor of Tricycle and the author of Zen in America.


Adapted from a talk given at the “Women Practicing Buddhism” conference at Smith College in April 2005.

Image 1: Untitled (I am your reservior of poses), Barbara Kruger; 1982, photograph, 73×48 inches. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York
Image 2: Untitled (We don't need another hero), Barbara Kruger; 1987, photographic silkscreen/vingl, 109×210 inches. Courtesy of Mary Boone Gallery, New York



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