Saturday, March 9, 2013

Reflections on International Women's Day (belated)

So my first reaction to "women's day" was BARF!  Just what we need, another dumb hallmark holiday to pacify an oppressed group.  But it turns out this is a little more than that, maybe a lot more.  This day was started as part of a Socialist/Communist movement and was decidedly much more political than celebratory.  For an overview, check out my friend Wikipedia.

So let me step back to yesterday, the actual "women's day" of March 8.  It was brought to my attention as we celebrated Mahapajapati Gotami or the Buddha's stepmother and the first ordained woman in Buddhism.  As Eijun Linda Cutts talked about in last night's dharma talk, this awesome event was not without struggle.  Buddha refused to ordain her!!!  Yes you heard it people, the Buddha refused to ordain a woman, refused a second time and then was prevailed upon by one of his followers to acknowledge that women are just as likely and able to attain awakening (enlightenment) as any man.  The struggle did not end there.  Sutra writers (ie. not the Buddha) at some point in time claimed that the Buddha added a few (8) extra rules for his new female disciples.  These included: ordained women, no matter how long they have been practicing must always bow down to a male priest regardless of his length of time practicing, women cannot teach men while men can teach women, and women cannot ordain priests.  Many recent scholars have decided that these rules seem to have come into existence actually 500 years later than the Buddha's time....sketchy!  Or at least goes to show that, like the Bible and other religious texts, their origins are decidedly Man made and subject to constant change depending on the times and the social context or maybe even whims.  What that says to me is that we have to dig deep.  We have to dig deep and examine what parts of tradition are important to keep and why.  Because the "Buddha" said so?  Or because it feels right deep in our hearts, hara and guts.

So when a man on another blog tells me that in his teachings, the Buddha most certainly did address my experience as a woman in the 21 century I politely (sorta) will not accept that.  Sure I can be flexible and adapt things to speak to me but I need to have that freedom without persecution of being un-Buddhist.  I need institutional support and guidance.  There is a lot of discussion in the Buddhist community here in the United States about how Zen is settling in the West.  Traditionalists feel that we cannot make adjustments to "fit" our culture because then Zen will just become some watered down self-help group.  I acknowledge the danger of that while also positing that we cannot simply accept the ancient texts as "Buddha's" words and therefore the only way.  I live in a country where women are allowed to ordain as Buddhist priests and yet I am painfully aware that this option is not available to most female Buddhists in the world.  We are pointing at the conventional truth of an inequality that persists.  Linda Cutts thankfully made the connection last night in her talk that this origin of inequality may be related to the current issues of sexual abuse and misconduct rippling through Zen communities. Even our most beloved teachers who did not engage in "misconduct" are still susceptible to weakness.  Suzuki Roshi, founder of San Francisco Zen Center, had a first wife who was brutally murdered at his family's temple back in Japan.  His mother-in-law and a few others including other women warned him of their fear of this man but he did not listen.  Why didn't he listen?  Possibly because women were not listened to.  Suzuki Roshi felt the deep regret of that choice for the rest of his life.

So on this day of celebrating Mahapajapati I turn the light inward and reflect on what I can do to be upright and not slander others nor stand helpless or silent.

P.S. Check out this great article about great Zen women featuring our own Linda Cutta and Emila Heller!  Emila's picture showed up when I was looking for a picture of Mahapajapati.

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