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.
McLeod (Editor, the Shambhala Sun): To begin with,
maybe you could each tell me something about how you became
a Buddhist teacher.
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 teachingsit
wasnt a question of becoming a Buddhist or adopting a
dogma, but really bringing something into our lives.
of my early teachers were men, but I didnt 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.
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 shed been through
in her life, and what Id been through in my life, but
also something within her experience as a womanan 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.
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.
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.
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.
Rhodes (Vice School Zen Master of the Kwan Um School of Zen):
I met the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn in 1972. I didnt
feel any obstacle being a woman, as he didnt seem to treat
anybody like a woman, particularly. It was more like we were
all a bunch of really yang Koreans. If youve met him,
hes pretty yang, and there werent a lot of women
around, but I liked him. I really loved his teaching. He just
kept stressing: Believe in yourself. Only go straight. Dont
know. Ask yourself who are you. It was pretty much an androgynous
one point I asked him if there were any women Zen masters in
Korea, and he said, Oh no, of course not. Women cant
attain enlightenment. He said it with a really straight
face and then walked into the kitchen. I followed him in and
said, Ive been with you for two years and youve
always said just to believe in yourself. How can you say women
cant get enlightened? He just stared at me and pointed
his finger and he said, So youre a woman?
In other words I had grasped man/woman concept. He was saying
that you cant attain enlightenment if you hold on to that
self identity. I really liked that approach.
made a few of us dharma teachers when we were pretty young studentswed
only been practicing with him about three years. He didnt
distinguish whether we were men or women; he just had us start
OHara (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 couldnt find a home that seemed
conducive to my idea of mothering.
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, Im just here to face the wall, thank
you, but he was very encouraging.
an American teacher, he didnt 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 wasnt 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.
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].
McLeod: The prominence of women in Western Buddhism
now is unique in the history of Buddhism. How did it come about?
OHara: 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.
Salzberg: What Ive 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 didnt
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 dont 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.
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.
inspired a sense of confidence among so many people in the seventies,
and women didnt hold back spiritually. They may have held
back in other areas, but in the spiritual movements, women really
have sought liberation.
McLeod: To what extent is the predominance of women
teachers attributable to the character of the particular Buddhist
teachers who came to the West?
Simmer-Brown: Ive 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
Rhodes: Ive already described Zen Master Seung
Sahn. I dont 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 credits due.
Hes that kind of a person.
oHara: 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. Its
McLeod: Im surprised, because it sounds like
overall you havent experienced a lot of obstacles in becoming
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
theyve 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.
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?
Salzberg: I teach so much about loving-kindness, and
people often say to me that its because Im a woman.
I actually like to think not. I like to think its 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 Id say no, its not about my being a woman.
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 cant help but draw on my experience
of these roles, and I think if someone compliments me as a teacher,
its usually because they appreciate how I draw my hospice
stories and my mother stories and my daughter stories into the
teaching of Zen.
lead a lot of meditation retreats and I feel so gratified that
men come in for their koan interviews and there doesnt
seem to be any thought of whether Im less than or different;
theres just a nice sense of flow back and forth. Sometimes
people do say, Im glad youre 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 thats 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.
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 waynot physically,
but with that same sense of patience and loving their weaknesses
if theyre vulnerable, just feeling that and going into
it. But of course, fathers have that quality too, and people
who dont have children will have those gifts also.
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 cant become fully enlightened,
and Ive reflected a great deal about how this relates
to my gender being female.
thing Im 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, Im 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 obstaclegetting stuck in particular
states of hesitation or emotionality or whatever.
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. Im interested in how emotions
can be empowering for myself and for othersreally 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.
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?
OHara: For me its 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 workmeditating in a position of ease as
opposed to a position of tension, that kind of thing.
Rhodes: Women will often find me
know if hard is the right word, but Ive stuck with this
practice and its 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.
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. Its not that one ways
better than the other, but I do help women to realize that it
doesnt help when youre overemotional. And its
the same thing with men. I encourage them to cry. I know theyre
right on the verge of tears and Ill kind of bring out
the Kleenex box and encourage it, whereas a male teacher might
Salzberg: I think women tend to bring up their life
situations and the traumas theyve suffered more easily
than men. In her very first meeting with me a woman might say,
Ive 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 dont know what Im
going to do, or I feel like such a failure. Theres not
usually the same degree of vulnerability and openness expressed
right away by a man.
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 were experiencing in our meditation
practice are usually much more fundamental than these gender-related
OHara: 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, youre 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, were talking about
McLeod: As women, what changes would you like to see
in the way Buddhism is practiced in the West?
OHara: I feel I havent 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.
I and other dharma sisters in the Zen tradition have a different
attitude towards the texts, the legends and the storiesa
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.
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 its easy
to miss, especially when youre a woman teacher. But its
not necessarily that way for all the women in the community.
another thing that needs to be remembered about the phenomenon
of women in leadership positions in American Buddhism right
now. Theres a pattern whenever you have a new religious
movement that women are often influential at the beginning,
but one or two generations later theyre 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
Rhodes: In our tradition a lot of the centers have
the same basic type of mural, which is all men. Theres
the Buddha and all these deities, who are all men with beards
and mustaches and swords and shields. I think Im out of
touch with how programmed Ive been to accept that. Ive
been fortunate enough to have a teacher who seems to have really
respected me, but its 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. Im just used to it. I need
to look at that issue more deeply.
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 thats 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.
OHara: 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.
think thats 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
thats an important element also.
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.
think thats an area where there may be changes, but its
hard to know what kind of changes they will be. Its 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.
Salzberg: I agree. I think we need something like a
hierarchy of function which doesnt demean or denigrate
anyone. The distinction really needs to be made.
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.
OHara: Thats absolutely on our plate to
do. Buddhism is predominently lay in this country and people
have families, so for Buddhism to really grow were going
to have to find those forms that include the family. Thats
happening a little in different centers now, but I believe it
will happen more.
Salzberg: And along with that we have to plant the
seeds of a viable monastic community. Particularly for women,
thats the container where a sense of lineage and of tradition
can be passed on.
McLeod: Which relates to Judiths warning that
womens roles can be diminished as Western Buddhism becomes
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, theyre 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
womens roles diminishing, I was thinking maybe that wont
happennot because of Buddhism and not because of institutions,
but because of the actual women involved.
Simmer-Brown: Maybe it wont happen. That would