Embracing the Feminine in Buddhism
Embracing the Feminine in Buddhism
I am seated at Spirit Rock with two of the new generation of American nuns, delightfully wise and courageous and funny and incredibly dedicated and inspiring. Ayya Anandabodhi and Ayya Santacitta trained for 20 years in the lineage of Ajahn Chah and now run a small and wonderful nunnery, Aloka Vihara in San Francisco. They talk about the joy of having nothing, the commitment to mindful and loving simplicity, the mystery of living on faith in the Dharma without money or even cooking food for themselves. And how satisfying this life is for them, even though it is also wildly challenging to live this way in the midst of modern consumer society. They are part of a magnificent 2,500 year old tradition of Nuns, women who have taken robes to live a life fully devoted to the Buddha’s way.
The Songs of the Sisters are old texts and poems that describe the enlightenments of the first generation of these Sisters. But nuns are accorded second and third class status in most of Buddhist Asia. (See story below..) And so it was a particular and profound happiness last fall for Spirit Rock to host one of the first full ordinations of Bikkhunis in the west. The preceptor, Ven. Ayya Tathaaloka set up the sacred ordination ground in a circle of
flowers in the center of the main hall at Spirit Rock. Inside were senior nuns and monks from many traditions, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Tibet, China. And surrounding them were hundreds of celebratory lay supporters. And now Ayya Anandabodhi and Ajyya Santacitta, both ordained in that ceremony, returned to Spirit Rock to lead a retreat and inspire everyone by their joy and dedication. We are fortunate to have the spirit of awakening and the power of the feminine flowering together with them and in many of Spirit Rock’s programs and offerings.
The world needs to be reminded of stillness, virtue, lovingkindness and inner freedom. Lay teachers and nuns, men and women, it is essential that the wise feminine and the wise masculine join together in this uncertain hour.
Teaching from the Feminine
Since the early 1990’s, I have been involved in convening a succession of gatherings for Buddhist teachers, several hosted by the Dalai Lama at his Dharamsala palace. Here Western and Asian teachers gathered to discuss the ways Buddhist practice might be of help in the modern world, and also to address the difficulties we encountered.
One of my favorite moments was when Sylvia Wetzel, a Buddhist teacher from Germany, talked to the gathered teachers about how hard it was for women and feminine wisdom to be fully included in the Buddhist community. They are excluded from opportunities to receive many teachings, poorly supported financially, badly respected and often used more to support the monks than practice their own. Most significantly, men are seen as higher than women. To get the monks to understand, Sylvia pointed to the many golden Buddhas and exquisite Tibetan paintings surrounding our room, noting they were all depicting males.
Then she instructed the Dalai Lama and the other lamas and masters to close their eyes and meditate with her, to imagine that they were entering the room and that it had been transformed so that they bowed to the fourteenth female incarnation of the Dalai Lama. With her were many advisors who had always been female, and surrounding them were images of Buddhas and saints, all naturally in women’s bodies because it is the best form for becoming liberated. Of course, it is never taught that there is anything lesser about being a man. Despite that, these men were asked to sit in the back, be silent, and after meeting to help with the cooking.
At the end of her meditation, the eyes of every man in the room reopened, slightly astonished, maybe even slightly more enlightened.