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Building Patriarchy on the Fields of Alaya

Building Patriarchy on the Fields of Alaya

by Nancy Thompson

I remember being in religious instruction in second grade and wondering whether Jesus had, in fact, died for my sins since everything was about men; he was a fisher of men, he redeemed man’s sins. I asked the teacher, who explained that women were included under the umbrella of “man.” I was not convinced.

As I grew up, I became less convinced about the validity of much of what the Roman Catholic Church had to say, and I stopped expecting it to meet my spiritual needs. About six years ago I became a Buddhist. Buddhism, at its base, is genderless. The Buddha taught to both men and women, and he taught them the same techniques to achieve liberation from suffering. But since that time Buddhists have built a lot of male-dominated structures on that space.

Roshi Joan Halifax, the head of Upaya Zen Center, wrote in an essay on sexual abuse by Zen teachers:

“For too long in the West, and I am sure in the East, gross misogyny has existed in the Buddhist world, a misogyny so deep that it has allowed the disrespect and abuse of women and nuns in our own time, and not only throughout history, and not only in Asia. The misogynistic abuse is not only in terms of the usual gender issues related to who has responsibility and authority (women usually don’t have much, if any), but it is as well expressed through mistreatment of women, through sexual boundary violations of women, and the psychological abuse of women.”

Originally an oral tradition, Buddhism was filtered through hundreds of years of society before any of it was written down. So it’s difficult even to determine what could be attributed to the historical figure known as the Buddha and what was added by subsequent interpreters. For instance, the Vinaya, the rules that govern the conduct of monks and nuns, has 227 rules for monks and 311 for nuns in the Theravadan tradition – did the Buddha come up with all of those?

Rita M. Gross, a Buddhist teacher and professor at the University of Wisconsin, says that “Buddhism is feminism” because both ask us to look closely at what we take for granted and determine whether it is valid. Buddhism offers innumerable (although someone probably has made a numbered list) ways to deconstruct thoughts about the self, about relationships, about the environment, about thoughts themselves, with the aim of realizing their fluidity. If we do so, it’s taught, we’ll realize the truths of emptiness, impermanence, and non-self.

Likewise, feminism asks us to look at the ways that our ideas about gender limit us and the ways we see ourselves and our roles in the world. Does this job have to be done by a woman? Does this writing presume that male = normal?

Using either form of analysis, I believe, we’ll arrive at a place where we are innately limitless and free. Our nature — buddha or human — is luminous and full of possibilities. Our concepts and society’s norms are what hold us back.

Unfortunately, for 2,500 years, that has included sangha, the community of Buddhist practitioners, and the various institutions that kept Buddhism alive. Under the Eight Special Rules set down when the Buddha agreed to ordain women as nuns, the most senior nun ranks below the least-senior monk. Halifax has said that the lineage in which she teaches stretches back through 82 lineage holders — and she is the first woman since Prajnaparamita, the female wisdom deity at the top.

Halifax, Gross, Lama Tsultrim Allione, and others have written about the difficulties they’ve encountered in practicing as women. When she realized — at a time that she needed to hear about examples of women practitioners — that there was a dearth of stories, Allione went to Tibet to track them down and wrote a book, “Women of Wisdom.” Allione, an emanation of Machig Labdron, teaches Labdron’s chod practice and is creating a female lineage with practices she’d received from women or developed herself.

Stories are important because of what they communicate. When men are writing the stories and they write only the stories of men from a male-normative point of view (that assumes women’s stories are included in those with male characters and pronouns), women become invisible. And when women are not seen or heard in a tradition that values lineage and history, women have to fight to be seen and heard in their own time. That’s made more difficult in traditions where teachers are revered and what might be seen as inappropriate is transmuted to “teaching” or “crazy wisdom.”

The large amount of discussion, both within communities and in the larger world, about sex scandals in which male teachers had widely acknowledged, decades-long histories of poor behavior (much of which qualifies as criminal) with female students has brought needed attention to the issue of gender in Buddhism. Or it can do that, if we look not just at the actor and the acted-upon but at the environment in which the actions took place and the complicity of others in ignoring what they saw or dismissing women’s complaints.

Rev. Danny Fisher writes on Patheos: “Every time one of these scandals breaks, we talk about the power differential, appropriate relationships between teachers and students, and everything else but misogyny. We don’t want to believe that it has crept into Buddhism and our individual communities, I think. We want to believe we’re better than that.”

And we are.

But we are part of a tradition that has built a patriarchy on the fields of Alaya, the fundamental openness and pure awareness that is our natural state. We’re also part of a tradition that recognizes emptiness and impermanence, that was intended to be fluid and adaptive. Halifax notes that more women are being given transmission and empowered (by male teachers) to teach. The situation is changing.

Although it has not been typical for women to have positions of authority within traditional Buddhism, in our time, we are seeing a dramatic and positive change for women in all Buddhist orders. In the United States, more and more women find themselves at the head of monasteries and Buddhist institutions. And women are setting policies in place that guarantee practitioners ethical treatment, honor families, insure democratic processes in their organizations, and are dedicated to environmental justice and social engagement.

The change may come even in one traditional lineage headed by a tulku, or reincarnated teacher. The Shambhala lineage, founded by Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche to bring Buddhism to the West, is now headed by his son, Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche. The Sakyong has two children, both girls.

Gross notes that it’s rare for women to be recognized as reincarnated beings. In traditional Tibetan Buddhism, when a teacher dies, certain signs are said to emerge, and those who are looking for his rebirth will check all of the male children who meet the criteria. No one asks to see the girl children.

Shambhala has many important female teachers now, including Pema Chodron, one of the best known and loved Buddhist authors in the West. But all of the women are the subjects of the Sakyong, who is referred to as a king. While the Sakyong has advisers, he ultimately shapes the lineage. If it were to pass to one of his daughters, that would be a major change in the status of women.

That women are receiving transmission in our era is an extraordinary shift away from a patriarchal religion toward a religion that honors gender parity, and practices what it preaches about inclusivity. This bodes well for Buddhism and all religions, as women have much to contribute to the psycho-social body of religion, as well as the philosophy, ethics, and practices that ground religious institutions.

While we celebrate those advancements, it would be wrong to take them as a sign that all is well and we can go from here. We need to look at ourselves and our organizations, with clarity and compassion, and examine what constructs or thoughts we may hold that place limits based on gender. And work to liberate them so that we may free others.

Buddhist psychologist Dr. Jeffrey Rubin says that in order to transcend confusion we have to operate on two levels: “We have to not just think on an individual level, but we can’t just bypass the individual level, where it lives in our hearts.”

This is not an extraordinary effort to make; this is what Buddhism asks us to see – the relative and the absolute. It’s simply a matter of extending our focus and our practice to include gender. When we question the role of ego in a given situation, let’s include gender as an aspect of ego.

Nancy Thompson is an editor at a regional daily newspaper and has studied and practiced Buddhism since 2006. A 2011 graduate of the Interdependence Project’s teacher training-immersion program, Nancy leads a weekly meditation group at Samadhi Yoga Studio in Manchester, Connecticut. She is a student of Lama Tsultrim Allione and has studied in the Shambhala, Zen, and Theravadan traditions. She led a meditation workshop at the Lewis & Clark College Gender Studies Symposium in March, “Divining Meaning: Meditations on Gender and Religion.” A regular blogger for IDP, Nancy’s writing also has appeared in Tricycle magazine and Mindful Money online magazine. She blogs at

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