Conversations on the Convergence of Buddhism, Technology, and Global Culture

BG 153: Feminine Zen


Episode Description:

Grace Schireson is a Zen master in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi and is the abbess of the Empty Nest Zendo in northern California. She joins us today to explore some of the main themes in her recently released book, Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens, and Macho Masters.

Among the topics we discuss are what the traditional stereotypes of females in Zen have been, and the recently discovered literature on women in Zen who did not fit these stereotypes. We then look at the unique way these women practiced Zen and how what they learned can be applicable to us today. We finish the discussion by speaking about feminine spirituality in general, and the prevalence of the “great mother” in all of the world’s wisdom traditions.

Episode Links:


Vince: Hello Buddhist geeks. This is Vince Horn. And I’m here today with Grace Schireson. Grace, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today.

Grace: Thank you. Thank you for having me on.

Vince: Yeah, my pleasure. And just a little bit of background. You are the Abbess of the Empty Nest Zendo. And you have kind of a dual lineage. You’re both a student in the lineage of Shunryu Suzuki Roshi, which…

Grace: That’s my transmission lineage.

Vince: …Yeah, that’s your transmission lineage. And you’ve just recently received some sort of new transmission, right? Is that correct?

Grace: Yes, I did. I received the fifth empowerment in my lineage, had a mountain seed ceremony, where I stepped up to become Abbess of my temple.

Vince: Wow, cool. That’s great. And then you also teach koans. You have a teacher in Japan who authorized you to teach koans. So you have kind of a dual practice lineage, which is pretty cool.

Grace: Yes, I do. I think that originally, Zen was not limited to either Shikantaza and illumination, or koans. Originally it included both, and it’s nice to put them back together for the sake of our practice.

Vince: And you also had professional training as a clinical psychologist at the PhD level. So you’re bringing all of these things to bear. And your most recent project that you’ve been working on, or that just was released into the world as a book that we wanted to talk to you about, called Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens, and Macho Masters.

So that’s the topic we wanted to explore with you today. And I thought maybe to start with it’d be good to ask what was your reasons for writing this book? What were your inspirations? Why is it that you ended up putting so much time into this project?

Grace: Yes I did. I put 10 years into this project. And I started it shortly after I was ordained as a priest. And then I realized aver the dust settled, or the light settled on the transaction of ordination. After all that calmed down, that I really didn’t know what I was as a priest in the world. As a mother. And now I’m a grandmother. And as a wife. I had no background in what it meant to practice as a woman with a family.

All of the literature in the Zen tradition is about monastic men. It’s almost all of it. And so I was very curious about it. And because I was practicing Zen in Japan with my teacher Keido Fukushima Roshi in Kyoto, I had the opportunity and the privilege to visit women’s temples in Japan and see how that felt. From that exposure, I became curious. And I found out that I wasn’t the only one who was longing for some grounded feminine in Zen practice. And when I found that out, I decided to do more research for the purpose of putting it together. So women could get a feeling of what, including the famine, in Zen might mean. There are many, many small snippets of description of women in Zen practice. But putting them all together has a different feeling to it. And that’s what I wanted to do.

Vince: Nice, kind of in the subtitle, “Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens, and Macho Masters,” that gives you a sense of the kind of categories, if you will. Of the type of practitioners you’d see in Zen. Could you say, what are tea ladies, iron maidens, and obviously macho masters probably refers to the men! [Laughs]

Grace: [Laughs] Well, those are the stereotypes that are encountered in the classic Zen literature. We see stories of monks meeting tea ladies who whip the pants off of them in dharma combat. But the women are virtually never recognized by name. Nor do we learn anything about their coming to Zen, their practice, what their roots were in the practice. Not even their names most of the time. So, these stories of the tea ladies serve to show women as the objects of a monk’s humiliation. And it’s particularly humiliating because it’s a woman who’s showing the monk that he has a lot more practice ahead of him, and in front of him. Rather than being the subjects of the Zen stories, they’re objects. So that was one category as I started to reread and discover more about what had been already in place for women in english, that we could actually read. Because I don’t read any Asian languages.

So, one of the categories was these tea ladies. Another category was these women who had been transformed into the image of a male master. They were as tough, and strong, and as laconic as the male, macho figures. And there’s an image for that in our traditions in that Rosabeth Kanters wrote a book about women in corporate settings and how they’re perceived, so that’s where the term “iron maiden” came in. She uses that term to describe women who don’t show any familial or familiar relationship. In other words, they don’t play the role of sister, they don’t play the role of mother, they don’t play the role of lover, in a corporate setting, and they’re perceived as being too tough and without feeling and she used the term “iron maiden” to describe them, and I found that same stereotype in the Zen literature so this is kind of a sacrifice of women’s identity or femininity that they have to remake themselves as male masters and they were perceived as being this iron maiden, in fact we even find one with the name “Iron-Grinder Lou” who was so tough that whatever she encounters she grinds up.

Vince: Also, in your research you found examples of women practicing Zen that were outside of these stereotypes, and I think that maybe is the most interesting question, is what did women Zen look like that wasn’t these tea ladies, who were humiliating the male monks, or the iron maidens who were crushing everything in front of them. What did it look like in the other cases that you found?

Grace: Well first of all, the important question to me was, what is it about our practice that did not accept the feminine? How did that happen? That’s why it’s so interesting that these are the only images available to us from the classical Zen perspective. In fact, I went to a research conference in Korea and one of the women researchers got up and spoke about love in the name of King Idiap who wrote poems and was a Buddhist nun, a Korean Buddhist nun, and she wrote poems about love, and one of the male scholars criticized her presentation by saying, “There’s no such thing as love in Zen. How can you be talking about love?” And my correction is, there’s not much talk about or there’s no talk about love in male Zen. So, that’s a very interesting point and it’s been culturally determined.

But more recently, the work that I focused on, was the work of female scholars translating some lesser-known Zen teachers, from the Korean tradition and the Japanese and Chinese tradition, that these were woman scholars translating the work of lesser-known women. From there, I found stories of women history, how they emerged within their family structure, their life, and began to practice with a teacher. So there were more details and texture to these women as people, and also from stories from their students about how these women were as people. From there, I was able to, and this was the toughest part about writing this book actually, was to find a way to organize the material, because in the male Zen lineage, we go by teacher to student. There’s always a so-called historical… and it follows through time that a male teacher transmits to another male teacher and we follow the tradition that way. But, there is no such lineage in the female tradition cause the woman’s lineage often didn’t survive. So, the most difficult part of this work for me was finding a way to organize the material and when I read the stories of the newly translated female teachers, Zen female teachers, I saw that they had common experiences, throughout Asia because of the common cultural background, and they also showed a certain kind of leadership, which was, they were very good at founding and managing temples, they were very good at adapting the practice to teach women who didn’t know how to read so they could make changes in the way women practice to bring them in.

They were also very strong on relating to their communities and offering social services. So, besides the life stories of these women, and how they came to practice just in the same way that men did, in that they had some inspiration or longing. To realize themselves spiritually. Besides that, they also had various obstacles to overcome. Which is a most historical, Zen world, women had no legal rights. So, they had to answer first to their father, then to their husbands, and then to their sons. So they had to legal rights, for example, to make the choice to become a Zen nun. Or they had no rights, to leave the family and become ordained because the family wanted them to continue the family lineage and have children. So, many of them had these obstacles in common. And I found that the stories of how they struggled with these difficulties in their family and in their lives were very similar to what we need to face in the West today because we’re, most of us practicing in the midst of family and family obligations. And most of us are also practicing in a way where we’re not supported financially. So the stories of these women’s lives and how they found their way through practice while embedded in family relationships as well as without financial support, they had to find ways to finance themselves. I think is very applicable to the development of Western Zen practice.

Vince: Yeah, that’s a great point. And how do you specifically see the lessons that are kind of, Zen women forbearers are brought to their particular issues, how do you see the lessons they learned being specifically applicable?

Grace: What I think we need to do is put more emphasis on adapting the practice. There are many of us who have absorbed the formal training practices from our Asian ancestors. In that, we know how to wear the robes more or less, we’ll never look like we can like the Japanese in their robes, but because we… it’s just foreign to us. But many of us have learned to do those things and to do the rituals as they’re taught in, for example, I’ve been taught in Japan. But that’s not quite enough to carry over the practice and make it alive in our everyday life. And also, I don’t think it’s that attractive to many of the young students who are beginning to practice Buddhism.

Vince: Right

Grace: They’re not that interested in some of these formal practices. They want to know how Zen Buddhism can help them in their lives, with their work, and their personal relationships. What these women did was find ways to adapt the practice even while they lived at home to use everything in their family life or in their work life as part o their offering of practice. So they were able to bring mindfulness and presence to the situation they were in. They also adapted the training to include connecting with the community, doing devotional practices like sewing, flower arranging, and so on. So that they could transmit the presence and mindfulness and apply it to everyday activities and everyday relationships.

Vince: Nice. And we had talked just a little bit earlier, before this interview, and you’d mentioned another interesting point, which is that most of these women were also really heavily involved in running families and organizations, and they had a lot of acumen when it came to that, and that was something we could also learn from them. I was wondering if you could say a little bit about that topic.

Grace: Well one of the interesting things about practice, is that if we look at the way it came to us in the West. The Asian teachers who came over had all practiced as young men, I’m talking about Maezumi Roshi, Suzuki Roshi, Katagiri Roshi, and so on. These teachers and some of the Korean teachers. These teachers had all practiced as young men in monasteries, and that is the practice that they brought to us. And we were delighted of course to have it. And we have transformed it and liberate it. But to take it to the next level, we need to know how to practice in our lives in the world. So women who come to practice, often who have come as young women, have not yet had a family or had children, and so they tend to drop out when that’s going on and then maybe re-enter the practice when they’re older and maybe not feel as connected, because the practice is aimed at the activity of young men or young people who can sort of divorce themselves, or at least the formal practice, from their everyday life and focus their life on this formal and monastic training which is very valuable but not all there is. So I think that the skew that women learns in balancing relationships within the family and managing their households are very important skills that help women and provide the leadership that they have from these experiences in developing intimate relationships and good practice environment for people in temples. So having spent time in a family context, and I saw this historically, that women who spent time in family contexts when they did develop a temple, they were able to bring those skills and their warmth and connectedness into their temple life and into training other women.

Vince: Nice. That’s a really interesting point and it’s just interesting that because there’s not much written record of women’s Zen until recently that that connection would be made, really.

Grace: No. And what is sad today, and I’ve heard that, its that its very interesting to notice that in the West women more than men, in a certain way, are forming their own temples, that they seem to have an easier time starting a temple. And I think it’s probably true in my lineage that there are more women who have sort of left the large training institutions; for example San Francisco Zen Center amidst [Stanley], or Berkley Zen Center amidst it’s location, have left that setting to create their own temple than there are men. And the reason, I believe, is because women do have this inherent or expected, where ever it came from, cultural or biological ability, to run a household. They are expected to and they know how to, so that’s one reason why we go out and create temples. There is another reason why, which is, we do not expect to inherit a temple from our male teacher. So this sort of first generation of Western teachers, there has yet to be a successful transmission where a temple has been passed from a male founder to a female disciple by the founder himself. Yes of course the San Francisco Zen Center there have been female abbesses, but they were elected by committees. It wasn’t a transmission from one teacher, for example Shunryu Suzuki passed his temple to Richard Baker and so on and Maezumi did to a male, and yes women were later brought in when there were difficulties. But somehow it’s harder to cross that gender gap for the male teacher to pass their temple on to a female disciple, perhaps because there’s not quite an identification, you know across the gender that I can really see this is the best representation of my dharma in female form from a man, and or, as happened with Kapleau Roshi, when he passed his temple on to Toni Packer, it wasn’t so acceptable particularly I’ve heard the young male of the temple, and it was not a good match for them practice-wise, so she had to go out and create her own center.

Vince: One thing I found interesting is that the way you close the book, is by talking about female spirituality and in particular you mention Prajnaparamita. I thought it was interesting because often where I meditate with my wife, Spirit Rock Meditation Center, there’s in the main hall on the alter there is a statue of the Buddha, and then right next to the Buddha a statue of Prajnaparamita. And I just found it interesting that you explored the importance of Prajnaparamita, and I was wondering if you could say a little something about her and her role as a Buddhist figure?

Grace: Well you know what was interesting to me as I was researching this, well there were a couple of interesting things actually, one is that the original Prajnaparamita sutra is called “The Great Mother,” so that the feminine side of Buddhism is indebted and yet not revealed in what’s been passed on to us. We don’t, when we chant Heart Sutra, say “The Great Mother Heart Sutra”, we say “The Heart Sutra. So I think that’s an important point and it is that coming forth from emptiness, everything is formed out of emptiness, and you hear about it in other traditions too, the Great Mother image.

In the beginning there was Isis: Oldest of the Old, She was the Goddess from whom all Becoming Arose. She was the Great Lady, Mistress of the two Lands of Egypt, Mistress of Shelter, Mistress of Heaven, Mistress of the House of Life, and Mistress of the word of God.

And you also see it in the Tao: “The Tao is called the Great Mother, empty and inexhaustible.” So there is a feminine foundation to our practice. And yet as our practice has traveled to various cultures it doesn’t come out. The other thing is the bodhisattva will always maintain a motherly mind, we hear it referred to. And yet it’s not manifest as it could be in our practice. And also in Suzuki Roshi. This was the other interesting part of this. That he refers to emptiness as a mother. He says, “Because we have lost our mother’s bosom, we do not feel like her child anymore. Yet fading away into emptiness can feel like being in our mother’s bosom.”

So there’s something about letting go into the unformed, into the non-differentiated consciousness or awareness that is about returning to the feminine. So I think bringing these elements that are actually in our practice, rather than trying to force some new image on our practice, it’s a very important way we make our practice more whole. And remove some of the stereotypical inhibitions that have been created through patriarchal cultures that Buddhism has traveled through.

And one of the things that I think is very important, and which I wanted to bring out in my book, is how relating to the female ancestors helps us in our ability to transform Zen into something that penetrates our lives more deeply. One of the questions that people have most often in the formal Zen practice place is, “I know what to do when I’m in the Zendo. But I don’t know what to do when I walk out onto the street and back into my life.” And because we’re imitating or reenacting rituals that were developed within an Asian context and Asian culture, we need to find ways to explore rituals that mean something in our own culture. And adapt the practice in ways so that people who are living in lay-life have as deep an experience as people who are practicing in a monastic setting.

And I believe that studying the female ancestors authenticates the notion that lay-life and the community of family life can yield as great an awakening as practicing in the monastery. That doesn’t mean that we can throw out monastic practice entirely. But most of us in the west are not going to live our lives in monasteries. And when I went and studied in Japan I realized not only were the people who were studying Zen very young and male [Laughs], but also they only did it for a few years. They didn’t live in the temple for their whole life. So they came out, and they found how their practice would hold up in the stewing pot of being with family, being with friends, and being at work. And I think that studying the female ancestors helps us to think about how we can adapt the practice that we’ve been doing. Because they did a lot of adaptation with the practice to make it fit their actual lives. And I know that it’s very important.

And it’s always said, “You can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” regarding the formal practices that were brought over. The rituals that were brought over that were part of our training. But we need to adapt. And the Buddha said this too: “Wherever my practice goes, it should be taught in the language and the customs of the country that it’s in.” So there needs to be some work done to cross the divide between what happens in formal practice and what happens in our actual lives. And the female ancestors help provide some context for that.


Grace Schireson