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Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens and Macho Masters


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by Grace Schireson
Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2009
298 pp including index, lineage charts, notes and bibliography creative commons gif
reviewed by Vladimir K

Go into any Western Zen center today and you’ll find that there are at least as many women as men practitioners and in some centers, more women than men actively involved in Zen practice. It is also becoming more and more common for women to take on the role of rōshi after receiving transmission from (usually) a male teacher. Today this does not raise particular comment as women are gradually becoming recognized as equal partners in the sangha. But it was not always so.

book coverGrace Schireson’s Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens and Macho Masters traces the hidden history of women, mostly nuns, in Zen Buddhism, beginning with the Buddha’s aunt (and later, step-mother) Mahapajapati, who walked barefoot one hundred and fifty miles with a group of women to plead to be allowed to join the sangha. The stories of nuns and lay women, beginning in India, and running through Zen’s history in China, Korea and Japan, are not nearly as well-known as the stories of the patriarchs of male-dominated Zen. Zen history is a history of men and women play a minor, if any, role in the Zen record. Schireson’s book is an attempt at setting the record straight and adds to the growing corpus of the history of women in Zen. Her purpose is clear: “to identify these erased women and put them back in the Zen practice.” (p xii) As a Zen teacher, professor of Religious Studies and Asian Studies at the University of Tennessee, wife and mother — in other words, a highly educated Western woman — what role models could she turn to in the Zen record to find her place in Zen practice? Western Zen is based on the male-dominated Asian monastic practice and to make Asian Zen our own modern Zen, we need to not only look beyond the existing record but to uncover that which is hidden in the record and adapt it to our own circumstances. Female Zen practitioners and teachers are a reality in Western Zen but the Asiatic model has no recognition of this. As a beginning, Schireson has tried to uncover the tattered shreds of the history of women in Zen Buddhism and this book will inspire many women to take up, or continue, the path in the knowledge that there is a history of females who have achieved remarkable things in their practice and that that history is gradually being revealed.

The real question this book raises is why has the history of women in Zen been supressed and unacknowledged for so long? It would be easy to dismiss this with the answer that it is just a historical misogyny, a prejudice against women that runs through all aspects of history in all cultures. But Zen Buddhism claims that all beings can attain enlightenment, without exception. The Buddha, after initially refusing to allow Mahapajapati and her followers to join his sangha, eventually, under prodding by Ananda, declared that women were capable of the same awakening as men. However, reflecting the socio-cultural standards of his day, he placed nuns in a lower class of practitioners and imposed eight special rules upon the nuns which made them subordinate to monks. This led to the institutional subjugation of women in Buddhism right up to the present time. Now the thorny question of how we modern Westerners who believe in the equality of men and women are to interpret the apparent misogynistic statements of the Buddha in the scriptures. Schireson offers four alternatives. To paraphrase:

  1. We cannot reproduce or correctly understand the times of the Buddha so we shouldn’t be troubled by these remarks. In essence, let’s just ignore them.

  2. A perfectly realized being such as the Buddha would never make such remarks so they must have been added to the canon later. However, we should not question the scriptures.

  3. The same as point 2 but this time we make it clear that these are not the Buddha’s words and we address the negativity directly.

  4. Although a perfectly realized being, the Buddha lived in his own time and his own karmic consequences susceptible to the belief that women’s sexual power would lead his monks astray and his tendency to objectify women needs to be considered as Buddhism moves into a modern Western practice.

Schireson prefers the last option as a way of handling what is, to modern ears, undoubtedly a sexist view of women as expressed in the scriptures. I am, however, not so sure. Although beyond the intent of this book, I think this question throws up the deeper question of what is a “perfectly realized being” and how are we to interpret the actions of people we consider “enlightened”? Given the sexual shenanigans that we find in today’s Zen centers by teachers who are, if not enlightened, at least well-versed and knowledgeable of Zen practice, a deeper understanding of Zen and Buddhism is necessary.

Schireson’s book is broken into three broad sections: Zen’s Women, which looks at women in the classical literature and women meeting monks; Women’s Zen, the longest section, which includes chapters on nuns, dharma heirs, sexuality and family practice; and Women and Zen in Western Practice, an all too short section that did not fully satisfy. I found the structure of the book a little confusing and thought a better organization of the information may have been easier to follow. Perhaps a straight-forward historical record along the lines of the lamp stories or Foster and Shoemakers’ The Roaring Stream or Andy Ferguson’s Zen’s Chinese Heritage would have made it easier to place these women in a historical perspective. However, this may not have been Shireson’s intention and possibly she was less concerned about the historical time-line and more about the placing these women in a context of practice in a patriarchal society.
There is no doubt that Zen women have had it tough throughout history. In many cases, women were not permitted by their family or husbands to study Zen and sometimes had to wait until the husband died, which left them as widows, an unenviable state in medieval Asia. As nuns, they often were given no support by the Buddhist infrastructure or hierarchy and finding resources to support themselves was a continuing challenge.

But some women overcame all obstacles and made a significant contribution to the history of Zen, a history that has been hidden for too long. For example, I had no idea that the great kōan master, Dahui Zonggao (1089-1163) (J., Daie Sōkō), made the nun Miaodao his first Dharma heir. (p 121) Nor was I aware that the first Buddhist order in Japan was created when three Japanese women took the tonsure in 584. (p 56) Buddhist temples, such as Tokeiji Convent, were set up not only so that women could practice Buddhism in a safe environment, but also as a refuge from domestic violence and widowhood.

The book is alive with these women of remarkable courage and wisdom. Schireson has scattered poetry and teachings throughout, making the book more than just a dry history. Her own depth of understanding and compassion is evident throughout this book. This is a wonderful read for anyone interested in Zen, Zen practice and Zen history. And I hope men will pick it up as readily as I’m sure women will.

Further Reading
The bibliography has an extensive list of books about women practicing Buddhism.