Women's Liberation

Sharon Salzberg, Barbara Rhodes, Judith Simmer-Brown & Pat O'Hara

on what it means to be a woman dharma teacher
and how they'd like to see Buddhism in America evolve.

Melvin McLeod (Editor, the Shambhala Sun): To begin with, maybe you could each tell me something about how you became a Buddhist teacher.

Sharon Salzberg (Co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and author): I went to India in 1970 to look for a meditation teacher. It was an incredible time. As Westerners there, we felt like a group of adventurers. We were interested in practical teachings—it wasn’t a question of becoming a Buddhist or adopting a dogma, but really bringing something into our lives.

Most of my early teachers were men, but I didn’t feel much gender bias. The person who actually told me to teach was my first woman teacher, Dipa Ma. She had led an extraordinary life, with a tremendous amount of suffering and very little control over her life in an ordinary Western sense.

When she told me to teach, what she actually said was, “You really understand suffering; therefore, you should teach.” I think that reflected not only what she’d been through in her life, and what I’d been through in my life, but also something within her experience as a woman—an understanding of the depths of suffering and the transformation of suffering into compassion that seemed unique. She was the model for me of how to take the losses, the tragedies and the difficulties of life, and actually use them as enrichment for my understanding of the dharma.

Judith Simmer-Brown (Chair of the Religious Studies Department at Naropa University and senior teacher (acharaya) in Shambhala International): I learned Zen practice from Suzuki Roshi and felt completely in love with the absolute present quality that he had. After his death, I met Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche and felt the same kind of connection with him. As time went on, Trungpa Rinpoche encouraged me to teach dharma and to step as fully as possible into that role. He always encouraged women teachers.

In those days I never really thought much about women versus men teachers, because there were a number of both in our community. It was when my meditation students began to talk to me about the obstacles that they faced as women that I began to think about it more, and I talked to Trungpa Rinpoche about it. He had incredible sympathy for the situation of women. You got a kind of direct transmission from him that on any ultimate level, the issue of being male or female was not a problem, while obviously in our relative experience this was something that we all had to deal with.

As time went on, I realized I had a lot to figure out about what particular strengths I could bring to situations as a woman, and what support I could provide to both male and female students to sort out this issue of gender. I was helped a great deal in this by Khandro Rinpoche, a woman Tibetan teacher. There is one quote from her that I find very helpful, and consider a kind of slogan or koan for my life as a woman teacher: “If being a woman is an inspiration, use it. If it is an obstacle, try not to be bothered.” That helps keep me from being snagged by my sense at times that being a woman is an obstacle, and it also helps me appreciate the qualities as a woman that I can bring to my work as a teacher.

Barbara Rhodes (Vice School Zen Master of the Kwan Um School of Zen): I met the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn in 1972. I didn’t feel any obstacle being a woman, as he didn’t seem to treat anybody like a woman, particularly. It was more like we were all a bunch of really yang Koreans. If you’ve met him, he’s pretty yang, and there weren’t a lot of women around, but I liked him. I really loved his teaching. He just kept stressing: Believe in yourself. Only go straight. Don’t know. Ask yourself who are you. It was pretty much an androgynous practice.

At one point I asked him if there were any women Zen masters in Korea, and he said, “Oh no, of course not. Women can’t attain enlightenment.” He said it with a really straight face and then walked into the kitchen. I followed him in and said, “I’ve been with you for two years and you’ve always said just to believe in yourself. How can you say women can’t get enlightened?” He just stared at me and pointed his finger and he said, “So you’re a woman?” In other words I had grasped man/woman concept. He was saying that you can’t attain enlightenment if you hold on to that self identity. I really liked that approach.

He made a few of us dharma teachers when we were pretty young students—we’d only been practicing with him about three years. He didn’t distinguish whether we were men or women; he just had us start teaching.

Pat O’Hara (Soto priest and resident teacher of the Village Zendo, New York): I started reading dharma books in the late sixties, but as a single parent I found it extremely difficult to enter into any Buddhist community with a young child. It was a difficult time because I knew that I had a passion for the dharma, but I couldn’t find a home that seemed conducive to my idea of mothering.

Finally, when my son was old enough in the early eighties, I began to practice at Zen Mountain Monastery with John Daido Loori Roshi, and right off he started talking about my starting to teach. My attitude was, no, I’m just here to face the wall, thank you, but he was very encouraging.

As an American teacher, he didn’t have any issue of men versus women, and whenever the gender was vague in a koan, he encouraged us to switch it to female. So initially I wasn’t really aware of the incredible marginalization of women that had occurred in the history of Buddhism, of all the women who had been forgotten and their names left unsaid.

Then when I began to study with Taizan Maezumi Roshi, it was like studying with a woman. It was very peculiar. He was this wonderful feminine energy and we would sit in this darkened dokusan room and cry together [laughs].


Melvin McLeod: The prominence of women in Western Buddhism now is unique in the history of Buddhism. How did it come about?

Pat O’Hara: Well, the whole feminist movement was going on at the same time Buddhism was coming to the West, and there had to be leakage back and forth.

Sharon Salzberg: What I’ve seen happening in the Theravada tradition is a kind of movement back to the people. So much of what was taught over the last couple of centuries didn’t necessarily reflect the actual teachings of the Buddha. As a woman you were told to create merit so maybe in your next life you could be a man and get ordained and become enlightened. As Westerners began practicing, that idea exploded. There was the sense that if liberation is really possible, I want to explore it. I don’t want to think about someone else doing it, or doing it in my next life. I want to know how I can actually transform my life now. So the movement toward women teachers is also a reflection of the belief that liberation is real, a real possibility for everyone. For most women teachers I know, there was no self-conscious decision to transform Buddhism. It came from wanting to change our lives, and discovering a tradition that said we really could.

Judith Simmer-Brown: I discovered feminism before I discovered Buddhism and it gave me a sense of confidence and desire for liberation. I very quickly saw that liberation would not come through feminism, but I appreciate what I learned about myself from it. It gave me an enormous yearning to be free from confusion.

Feminism inspired a sense of confidence among so many people in the seventies, and women didn’t hold back spiritually. They may have held back in other areas, but in the spiritual movements, women really have sought liberation.


Melvin McLeod: To what extent is the predominance of women teachers attributable to the character of the particular Buddhist teachers who came to the West?

Judith Simmer-Brown: I’ve studied with quite a few Tibetan teachers and not many of them have shown the kind of encouragement toward women that I experienced from Trungpa Rinpoche. He encouraged women to overcome any sense of shyness and really step into teaching roles.

Barbara Rhodes: I’ve already described Zen Master Seung Sahn. I don’t think he has too many feminine bones in his body. But in Korea, the nuns just love him and most of his students there are women, the ones who practice seriously with him. He has actually empowered women much more than other Zen teachers in Korea. I have to give him credit where credit’s due. He’s that kind of a person.

Pat o’Hara: Maezumi Roshi came to this country as a young man and just fell in love with the freedom and real thirst for the dharma here. He seemed very open to the new traditions, and part of it was that he empowered a lot of women. It’s wonderful.


Melvin McLeod: I’m surprised, because it sounds like overall you haven’t experienced a lot of obstacles in becoming teachers.

Judith Simmer-Brown: I think that at times women face more obstacles from other Western students than from the teachers. My women meditation students tell me about the difficulties they’ve had in many different settings in the Buddhist community. They can find it very difficult to hold their own and have confidence in a variety of situations.

Melvin McLeod: Do women teach the dharma in different ways than men? Are there issues you address in your teaching that are particularly close to your heart because you are a woman?

Sharon Salzberg: I teach so much about loving-kindness, and people often say to me that it’s because I’m a woman. I actually like to think not. I like to think it’s more a reflection of something very basic in the teachings of the Buddha. Now, was I drawn to teach about love and compassion because I am a woman? Maybe, but look at the Dalai Lama. Compassion is what he embodies and teaches, and what people seem to long for. So I’d say no, it’s not about my being a woman.

Barbara Rhodes: I refer a lot in my dharma talks to what I learn from working as a nurse at a hospice, and from being a mother and a daughter. I can’t help but draw on my experience of these roles, and I think if someone compliments me as a teacher, it’s usually because they appreciate how I draw my hospice stories and my mother stories and my daughter stories into the teaching of Zen.

I lead a lot of meditation retreats and I feel so gratified that men come in for their koan interviews and there doesn’t seem to be any thought of whether I’m less than or different; there’s just a nice sense of flow back and forth. Sometimes people do say, “I’m glad you’re a woman,” because maybe I spent a little more time with them, or I said, “Oh you look sad,” when one of our male teachers might not have said that. Sometimes I think that’s a gift, but sometimes I think one of our male teachers might have given a sharper interview that would have been just as or more helpful.

So there is some difference. I think I have rounder corners than a lot of the male teachers and that can be a blessing sometimes. When my daughter was little, I would pick her up all the time, and I think I pick up my students in a way—not physically, but with that same sense of patience and loving their weaknesses if they’re vulnerable, just feeling that and going into it. But of course, fathers have that quality too, and people who don’t have children will have those gifts also.

Judith Simmer-Brown: In the Tibetan tradition, the wisdom aspect of the teachings is associated with the feminine, which is depicted in the form of the dakini, while the skillful means aspect of compassion is more masculine. Without joining the masculine and feminine aspects we can’t become fully enlightened, and I’ve reflected a great deal about how this relates to my gender being female.

One thing I’m aware of is how easy it is to get hooked on gender as concept, and yet how easy it is to ignore gender altogether. In my life, I’m trying to identify the ways in which my gender might be helpful to wake things up for myself and others, and at the same time, trying to step over the ways in which my gender might be an obstacle—getting stuck in particular states of hesitation or emotionality or whatever.

For instance, I have been reflecting on how emotion can be an obstacle for women, and yet how it is also the wisdom aspect we have to offer in many situations. I’m interested in how emotions can be empowering for myself and for others—really seeing emotions in an empowered way, without falling into extremes of emotional indulgence. I have been doing a lot of teaching on romantic love and on working with the emotions of intense domestic situations, such as parenting, and in this I think there are things in my temperament and experience as a woman that might be helpful.


Melvin McLeod: What is distinct about the way a woman teacher relates to her female students, and what is different about the way she might relate to her male students?

Pat O’Hara: For me it’s more about the type of person who is drawn to a woman teacher. In particular, the kind of man who is drawn to a woman teacher is probably a little different than the kind of man who is drawn to a male teacher. I asked some men students why my teaching appealed to them, and most of them said they wanted something that was open to the masculine, yet without the martial quality of traditional Zen. They liked the softer approach I offer, particularly in terms of body work—meditating in a position of ease as opposed to a position of tension, that kind of thing.

Barbara Rhodes: Women will often find me… I don’t know if hard is the right word, but I’ve stuck with this practice and it’s not an easy practice. To stand for this practice is what I try to do as a teacher, so I think they might find me an inspiration, but also too hard.

To generalize, I think women can become overemotional sometimes and men can have a hard time bringing up their emotions. So if there is some overemotionality, maybe I can inspire a woman to move toward the center, to find the strength men often have to overcome emotionality. It’s not that one way’s better than the other, but I do help women to realize that it doesn’t help when you’re overemotional. And it’s the same thing with men. I encourage them to cry. I know they’re right on the verge of tears and I’ll kind of bring out the Kleenex box and encourage it, whereas a male teacher might not.

Sharon Salzberg: I think women tend to bring up their life situations and the traumas they’ve suffered more easily than men. In her very first meeting with me a woman might say, I’ve had a breast cancer diagnosis, or my son died, or something like that. A man might also have a tremendous source of suffering in his life, but it will be much later before he says, this is weighing on me, or I don’t know what I’m going to do, or I feel like such a failure. There’s not usually the same degree of vulnerability and openness expressed right away by a man.

Judith Simmer-Brown: It seems to me that initially in relationships with students there might be more sense that my gender or their gender is an issue. But once you get beyond the first couple of conversations it seems pretty irrelevant. I was talking with a woman just the other evening about her new pregnancy, her fear about being a mother and that kind of thing, and obviously there are certain life situations where gender is very relevant. But it seems the really deep issues of meditation practice are not so gender-oriented. To me, it seems important to get beyond gender-related issues to those core issues that we all share as human beings. The issues we’re experiencing in our meditation practice are usually much more fundamental than these gender-related issues.

Pat O’Hara: I agree with you so much, Judith. I remember giving a talk about not being heard and not being seen as a woman. After the talk, this man came up to me and said, you know, you’re talking about me and my life. That really helped me to see that in dealing with issues of sexism and racism and homophobia and that kind of thing, we’re talking about everybody’s experience.


Melvin McLeod: As women, what changes would you like to see in the way Buddhism is practiced in the West?

Pat O’Hara: I feel I haven’t been paying enough attention to the incredible pain a lot of women feel about the lack of a matriarchal lineage in Buddhism. Women are not often written or spoken about in Buddhism. In our community, we started chanting the names of women throughout Buddhist history, and I saw the faces of the women in the room bathed in tears. Seeing their faces in tears is what woke me up to how important this is to many women.

Now I and other dharma sisters in the Zen tradition have a different attitude towards the texts, the legends and the stories—a little bit more quizzical, a little bit more ironic. You know, how could they all be men? Come on now. This is a constructed quality of all these texts, and we have to know that. It changes the way we talk about things and it changes our attitudes towards forms and services and hierarchy, the whole power relationship. Everything begins to shift a little bit, I think.

Judith Simmer-Brown: I know that women students who find themselves visualizing deities and lineage trees that are all men feel a sense of incredible loneliness and a longing for lineage figures who are female. But also, as the institutions of Western Buddhism get larger and more complex, women are finding it hard to hold their own in a variety of situations. I hear a lot of stories from my students of struggles to be included in the service of visiting teachers and in various teaching situations. These kinds of stories touch me very deeply because it’s easy to miss, especially when you’re a woman teacher. But it’s not necessarily that way for all the women in the community.

There’s another thing that needs to be remembered about the phenomenon of women in leadership positions in American Buddhism right now. There’s a pattern whenever you have a new religious movement that women are often influential at the beginning, but one or two generations later they’re gone. As these movements become institutionalized, the structures become increasingly patriarchal and women are moved out. So we have women Buddhist teachers now, but that may not be true for our children and grandchildren.

Barbara Rhodes: In our tradition a lot of the centers have the same basic type of mural, which is all men. There’s the Buddha and all these deities, who are all men with beards and mustaches and swords and shields. I think I’m out of touch with how programmed I’ve been to accept that. I’ve been fortunate enough to have a teacher who seems to have really respected me, but it’s good to hear what you both just said, because I forget how much this has on some level demoralized me and a lot of other women. I’m just used to it. I need to look at that issue more deeply.

Sharon Salzberg: The motivation that brings so many people to the dharma is looking for a sense of connection. What they find is exclusion rather than inclusion, and that’s a source of tremendous suffering and heartache. So it seems very important to reach into the various traditions and bring forth the elements that provide inclusion and connection and welcoming.

Pat O’Hara: I want to say a little bit about hierarchy, because it comes up all the time in my tradition. I see my dharma sisters doing a lot of work around the teacher not always being at the apex of some hierarchy, but having a different role in different situations. People are working in groups to share the dharma, not assuming that only the teacher is going to be able to say the appropriate thing.

I think that’s a very important aspect of what women can bring to Buddhism. As outsiders, not part of the hierarchy, we feel that we can criticize it, and then we begin to live that criticism and it changes the way things are done. I think that’s an important element also.

Judith Simmer-Brown: Hierarchy is very important in the tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Yet there are ways in which hierarchy may not represent the genuine mandala principle of center and fringe. There can be privilege granted in hierarchy that is different from a true sense of spiritual authority.

I think that’s an area where there may be changes, but it’s hard to know what kind of changes they will be. It’s extremely important for the vajrayana practitioners in American Buddhism to honor our teachers, the lineages, and the hierarchical forms that allow us to really understand what spiritual power is. And I would view the democratization of American Buddhism as a problem if we began to make everything the same for the sake of whatever problems we might have with hierarchy. But there are appropriate hierarchies and there are inappropriate hierarchies, and trying to figure that out is really important.

Sharon Salzberg: I agree. I think we need something like a hierarchy of function which doesn’t demean or denigrate anyone. The distinction really needs to be made.

Judith Simmer-Brown: Earlier, Pat talked about how difficult it was for her to be member of a Buddhist community as a single parent with a two-year-old. I would love to see a solidly lay Buddhism in America that is much more receptive to the needs of families, that incorporates the whole sense of the domestic life, both for mothers and fathers. We need a Buddhism that is much more accommodating to a lay family model, one in which serious practice is still very much the foundation. Our centers and communities need to work with this in an ongoing way, becoming more creative about it.

Pat O’Hara: That’s absolutely on our plate to do. Buddhism is predominently lay in this country and people have families, so for Buddhism to really grow we’re going to have to find those forms that include the family. That’s happening a little in different centers now, but I believe it will happen more.

Sharon Salzberg: And along with that we have to plant the seeds of a viable monastic community. Particularly for women, that’s the container where a sense of lineage and of tradition can be passed on.


Melvin McLeod: Which relates to Judith’s warning that women’s roles can be diminished as Western Buddhism becomes more established.

Sharon Salzberg: I was thinking about that. I was thinking about the young women I know and how, because of the degree that feminism has seeped into our culture, they’re very different than I was at that age, in terms of their sense of confidence in themselves, their right to be included and their sense of self-respect. Reflecting on what Judith said about women’s roles diminishing, I was thinking maybe that won’t happen—not because of Buddhism and not because of institutions, but because of the actual women involved.

Judith Simmer-Brown: Maybe it won’t happen. That would be wonderful.

Shambhala Sun