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1In her most recent book, Tsultrim Allione, who has been teaching Buddhism in the United States for over thirty years, writes:


Through shifting our perspective away from attacking our enemies and defending our territory to feeding our demons, we can learn to stay in dialogue with the enemy and find peaceful solutions. In this way we begin a quiet revolution.[1]
(Allione, 2008)

3While Allione is referring to the well-known Tibetan Buddhist ritual practice of Chöd, on the metaphorical level, she is invoking our habitual reactions to the violence we encounter every day. [2] This invitation for a change in perspective relative to the surrounding environment and society is typical of modern feminist stances which denounce relations based on conflict, violence and constraint. The vital functions of nurturing, engaging with others, and relating to them, lead away from violence and allow for peace. The sharp contrast between the two terms Allione uses to qualify this change (“a quiet revolution”) points to the novelty (and possibly utopian nature) of her suggestion. In human history, revolutions have usually been brutal and devastating. Allione’s description of an alternative Buddhist method of dealing with innate sources of violence stands in sharp contrast to customary American values of self-righteousness and self-defense. As Buddhist teachings and practices are being transmitted to the United States, they offer such an alternative and are attracting people’s interest. In the specific case of women, these spiritual methods can offer them new tools for understanding themselves and the dynamics of their society, thus giving them means and empowering them to deal with or change certain conditions.

4The alteration of viewpoints is not only affecting women, but the Buddhist tradition as well. As it enters the mainstream American religious landscape, Buddhism is adapting to its new environment in many ways. One of the most significant developments in its short history in the New World has been its gradual “feminization,” as women have taken on leadership roles in many of its diverse organizations. This is not to say that women have not always been important to its functioning, even at its very inception 2,500 years ago, as was clear for example with the creation of the first nuns’ order in India around five hundred years before the Common Era, and with the support lent to the monks by female lay followers, including sometimes wealthy ones such as Visakha. The nuns’ orders have gone through various periods of evolution, and the material support of female lay members has always continued to play a role in the upkeep of the male monastic community.

Tsultrim Allione, founder of Tara Mandala, in Pagosa Springs, Colorado

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Tsultrim Allione, founder of Tara Mandala, in Pagosa Springs, Colorado

5The difference in today’s period of East-West transmission lies in the positions of responsibility and authority occupied by women in Buddhist organizations and hierarchies. The change in the gender make-up of authority in Buddhism in the United States is happening in an unobtrusive and possibly unrelenting (“quiet”) manner, and it is definitively a revolutionary change from 2,500 years of tradition. The expression “quiet revolution” in our title alludes to the potentially subversive nature of this evolution. Subversive here would refer to discretion: some women prefer discretion as an advancement strategy instead of head-on confrontation. Is this a logical outcome of the contact of a traditionally patriarchal religion with recent social evolution in the United States? Or, have women discovered a spiritual tradition which offers them scope for empowerment as teachers and leaders? The great diversity of Buddhist traditions now implanted on American soil renders the study of these questions complex. Nevertheless, the significance of this evolution may become clearer by focusing on some of the main aspects of this feminization of American Buddhism.

Buddhist America?

6Although religion traditionally represents a major theme in the field of American studies, Buddhism is still hardly mentioned in most textbooks except as a side note to Asian immigration. This world religion has not yet become mainstream in the United States, although more and more Americans are now practicing or showing an interest in Buddhism. [3] The social context of pluralism, ethnicity and globalization in which Buddhism has been developing in the United States since the last decades of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first century also allows for a significant junction with other social developments such as environmentalism and feminism. Discreet changes are currently taking place in the religious make-up of American society, and Buddhist women are playing a small role in this transformation. In other mainstream (Protestant, Catholic) or minority (Jewish, Mormon, Muslim) religious groups, women are attempting, and in some cases have succeeded, in gaining equal footing with men in positions of spiritual authority and teaching (Sharma; Sharma and Young). However, this is often done on a schismatic mode. The absence of established patriarchal patterns carried over from the past or from foreign cultures, and the experimental nature of most American Buddhist groups contributes to their flexibility in accepting women on equal terms to men.

7Up until the end of the nineteenth century, Buddhism in the United States was practiced by Chinese and Japanese immigrants, whose numbers were always greatly restricted by various immigration laws, for example the implementation of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the Gentlemen’s Agreement in 1907, and the Emergency Quota Act (1921). Through scholarly or artistic interest, a minority of American citizens became interested in Buddhism, mainly from an intellectual viewpoint, from the late nineteenth century on. It was not until the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act of 1965 that the Chinese and other groups of Asian Buddhists immigrated in significant numbers to the United States, bringing their religious tradition with them, and building or opening new temples. After World War II, beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, many Americans became interested in Zen Buddhism, and the main American Zen centers (with Asian teachers, and non-Asian members) were established. In the 1970s and 1980s, young Americans returning home from India, Burma, Sri Lanka started transmitting Theravada forms of Buddhism in Americanized versions (now often classified as Vipassana), and after the forced “liberation” of their homeland by the Chinese Communists, Tibetan teachers in exile began to teach American students. In general, other Asian Buddhist groups (Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, Thai, Sri Lankan and Burmese) remain ethnically distinct from American Buddhist groups, which can be roughly divided into Zen, Vipassana and Tibetan centers, although many other traditions are represented in smaller numbers (Seager).

8Statistics on Buddhists in the United States fluctuate widely since most temples or groups do not keep membership lists. In 2004, Robert Wuthnow and Wendy Cadge situated figures between 0.07% and 1.9% of the total American population (Wuthnow & Cadge 362). [4] The majority are represented by Buddhists belonging to Asian ethnic groups (it should be noted, however, that most Asian-Americans are not Buddhist, but Agnostic or Christian). [5] The difficulty in defining who is Buddhist is an additional impediment to drawing up a clear outline of Buddhism in the United States. Self-identification often seems to be the most relevant method of definition (Tweed 42). The majority of non-Asian American Buddhist practitioners are from mainstream white middle or upper-class backgrounds, and the male/female ratio is roughly equal in most groups (Kosmin & Lachman; Boucher). [6] Dissatisfaction or difficult situations in their lives often lead them to seek answers in meditation. They are also following the current trend of many spiritual seekers towards multiple, hybrid and eclectic identities.

9In its own right, Buddhism in the United States is a very recent field of study (Nattier 183). Much of the scholarly writing on the subject has only been published quite recently. Apart from a few history books or collections of edited scholarly articles (Fields; Prebish; Seager; Tanaka), individual accounts, and translations (especially from the Japanese and Tibetan traditions), one mainly finds popularized forms of Buddhist teachings and methods in bookstores. [7] Writings on women in Buddhism are still scarce—a first flurry of interest in the 1980s resulted in a few titles (Allione; Boucher; Friedman; Paul; Sidor), followed by some scholarly work (Dresser; Gross; Simmer-Brown; Tsomo) and a few individual accounts (Campbell; Sherrill), but little university research has been published on this specific theme to date.

Women Teaching Buddhism in the U.S.

10This study focuses mainly on non-Asian women teaching in Buddhist groups in the United States. As was mentioned, the interest of non-Asians in Buddhism dates back to the late nineteenth century, but women only started teaching in Buddhism on a wider scale in the 1970s, especially in the Zen tradition, which was one of the first to actively establish centers and groups in the first half of the twentieth century (Fields). Teachers in other schools emerged, following the successive waves of arrival of other traditions from the 1960s on (Vipassana and Tibetan). The number of women in positions of authority in Buddhist groups in the United States increased gradually and women slowly gained visibility in the Buddhist media (represented mainly by printed magazines such as Tricycle, Shambala Sun, Buddhadharma, Internet sites, discussion lists, and newsletters). Women have become teachers or founders of centers, either within their tradition or independently of it. [8] Authentic transmission is an essential component of Buddhist practice and authority. The recognition of female authority by the traditional (often still Asian and male) hierarchy is an important issue, and the American social environment has allowed traditional authority in Buddhism to become more flexible and open to experiment. In some cases, Asian teachers have even surprised their own hierarchy in Asia by recognizing their American female disciples’ authority, perhaps taking advantage of American social norms of greater acceptance of women holding positions of authority to transcend traditional culturally-enforced patriarchal patterns. These Asian teachers who confer authority to American women may themselves be considered as forerunners of evolutionary trends in Buddhism and as activists running counter to the traditional patterns they were educated in.

11In the Vipassana tradition, focus has always seemed to be less on the teacher than on the training, and gender issues do not seem to have come to the fore as much. [9] Nevertheless, in Buddhist traditions such as the one developed by Goenka, a Burmese Indian Buddhist teacher, men and women are usually separated to “avoid distraction,” and during retreats women practitioners taught by him may question the (traditionally Indian?) secondary position occupied by his wife. In American groups, such as those linked to the center of Spirit Rock (in California), the gender question has been raised in the past two decades, mainly by female practitioners, around matters of authority, separate group retreats, and ethical conduct. There, both women and men teach on an equal footing.

12In the case of Tibetan Buddhism, three non-Asian nuns in the United States are prominent in their efforts to disseminate and support Buddhism: Karma Lekshe Tsomo (university professor and founder in 1987 of Sakyadhita, an international Buddhist women’s organization), Thubten Chodron (teacher, author and abbess of Sravasti Abbey), and Pema Chödren (now located in Nova Scotia, Canada but well-known through her popular books of teachings, such as The Wisdom of No-Escape). However, as an independent teacher, Tsultrim Allione founded the Tara Mandala retreat center in Colorado. In contrast to all of these Western teachers, a single Tibetan female teacher, Jetsun Kushok (of the Sakya school and family) is also active on the West coast. She initially started teaching again (after living for decades in North America in exile from her native homeland of Tibet) at the request of male holders of her lineage who had been repeatedly questioned by American students about “authentic living women lineage holders.” Tibetan female reincarnations [10] do not usually play a prominent teaching role in Tibetan Buddhism, the one counter-example being Khandro Rinpoche, a young Tibetan reincarnation and nun, who has been teaching more and more frequently in North America and Europe, and in English—as most young Tibetan reincarnations do.

13Asian Buddhist groups in the United States are divided along a Theravada/ Mahayana line regarding the question of female teachers or leadership. [11] But there are exceptions to this model. Traditionally, Theravada schools of South-East Asian tradition are seen as patriarchal and authority resides in the monks. This has continued to be the case in most Thai, Sri Lankan, Cambodian, Laotian and Burmese groups in the United States. The Mahayana schools from China, Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam all have stronger recognized traditions of nuns, which makes it more common for them to become teachers and founders (such as in the case of the Taiwanese-based Tzu Chi, an organization which is now active in the United States). The one notable exception in the case of Mahayana Asian schools are the Japanese groups, where women do not usually seem to have access to positions of authority, although it does appear that the Buddhist Churches of America are making efforts to accept women priests (Seager 67). Shasta Abbey, founded by Jiyu-Kennett in northern California in 1970, also has female monks. In the case of most Asian Buddhist groups in the United States in which men are traditionally in charge, the main factors which might eventually lead to a change in the gender balance would be a shift in the traditional Asian societies from which they originate, due to the influence of Western norms, an increase in the women’s level of education resulting in a shift in their view of their own position and potential, and the influence of the younger generation brought up in American society.

Issues and Programs

14In Buddhist communities or groups led by women, sensitivity to women’s concerns (for example social inequalities, violence, sexual identity and role, child-bearing and child-raising) or to questions raised by globalization (environmentalism, consumerism, inter-ethnic conflicts, war) seem to have come to the fore. The first point may be expressed through the organization of all-female retreats and a focus on honoring the “feminine.” [12]

15The second is apparent in the various projects endorsed or supported by these groups. This differs from retreats led by men or held in Asia, which usually center on traditional practice or meditation. This study focuses mainly on the case of seven groups, five founded by women and two where women teach on an equal footing with men: Sukhasiddhi, Sravasti Abbey, Manzanita Village, Spirit Rock, Living Compassion, Upaya Zen Center and The Zen Center of Los Angeles. The first two are in the Tibetan tradition, the following two are independent and linked to Vipassana practice, whereas the last three follow the Zen tradition. Five of the centers are located in California and the other two in Washington and New Mexico. The West and the West Coast in particular have a long history of Asian establishment, and have also been favorable areas for the development of alternative communities and religious fluidity (Roof & Silk).

16Sensitivity to women’s concerns in the groups studied is shown by the number of retreats organized specifically for women, such as at the Upaya Zen Center, which regularly organizes retreats called “In the Shelter of Each Other: Women’s Retreat.” The teachers come from different spiritual traditions and the use of the term “shelter” is significant as it refers to creating a “safe space” or haven where women can explore different aspects of their spiritual lives in relation to their activities in society. This gives them the means to meet the difficulties facing women in American society, and allows them ultimately to change their perspective on these challenges and enact a radical change in their habitual stance. The theme of the 2008 summer retreat was power and fearlessness. A recurring theme in interviews of women in the book Buddhist Women on the Edge, by Marianne Dresser, is the level of sexual and domestic violence encountered by women in general in American society. [13]

17This may explain the need for a secure environment and for teachings relevant to this common gender experience. The necessary integration of personal history (or “herstory”) is apparent for example in a women’s retreat at the Zen Center of Los Angeles, in which the central altar was constructed with personal objects belonging to the participants.

Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of Upaya Zen Center (Santa Fe, New Mexico)

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Roshi Joan Halifax, founder of Upaya Zen Center (Santa Fe, New Mexico)

Photo courtesy of Upaya Zen Center.

Women’s retreat room at the Zen Center of Los Angeles

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Women’s retreat room at the Zen Center of Los Angeles

(photo taken by the author, July 2003).

18At Sukhasiddhi in California, the “feminine” is prominent. There is a monthly women’s group which meets on Saturday mornings. Recently, retreats on “Prajnaparamita: The Great Mother,” or “Green Tara” have focused on feminine aspects of the Buddha. Tara is presented as “embodying the complete range of female enlightenment, she is both peaceful and wrathful, beautiful and powerful, the actuality of wisdom and sensuality, compassionate and sexual, empty and yet fully manifest.” [14] The birthday gathering of the founder of Sukkhasiddhi was announced as: “A Celebration for Lama Palden Drolma and the Awakening Feminine” or as “Honoring the Feminine in Buddhism.” At the end of 2009, Lama Palden Drolma founded the “Feminine Wisdom School” program in collaboration with two other teachers active in feminine spiritual teaching, Sherry Ruth Anderson and Miranda MacPherson. Retreats entitled “Remembering the Lineage of the Sacred Feminine” and “Empowering the Awakening Feminine” (the latter open to women only) have been jointly organized at Spirit Rock. The tone is consistently one of celebrating the “feminine.” The “awakened feminine” is defined as “the dimension of human consciousness that sees the world, in all its many forms, as Sacred.” Immanence, rather than transcendence, is emphasized. In its socially and environmentally engaged forms, Buddhism is an expression of this “feminine dimension of consciousness” (Anna Douglas, Sukhasiddhi Newsletter, January 2009).

19The institutional integration of groups focusing on women’s concerns specifically points to the need to address their questions, and the desire for a space in which to hold a dialogue and to exchange knowledge and experience. The setting is not always limited to Buddhist practices or teachings and becomes an ecumenical gathering in a Buddhist setting. This can carry over into an educational setting, as in the case of the workshops entitled “Women practicing Buddhism: American Experiences” organized at Smith College in 2005 (Shambala Sun [March 2005]: 1).

Lama Palden, founder of Sukkhasiddhi Center (San Rafael, California)

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Lama Palden, founder of Sukkhasiddhi Center (San Rafael, California)

Photo courtesy of Sukkhasiddhi Center.

20Other centers run by women focus more on socially engaged projects such as Living Compassion and Manzanita Village. The first one, led by Cheri Huber, has focused much of its energy on the Africa Vulnerable Children Project, and has been helping children in Zambia. There seemed to have been doubts at the beginning about the relevance of the project in the global developmental scheme of this Buddhist group, but arguments in favor of a socially-engaged down-to-earth Buddhism have prevailed. The connection with Africa came through the encounter with a Christian priest in Assisi, where Huber established an International Peace Center. Focusing on peace projects is at the fore as shown through the name of her main center in California, Zen Monastery Peace Center, and the many other projects undertaken: Peaceful Politics retreat, Peacestorming 2008 combined with a Peace Relay Walk from Palo Alto to the Golden Gate Bridge Walk, which takes place every year. Focus on peace and direct social actions are an integral part of engaged Buddhism, a term coined by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh in the 1960s (Queen 6), and a movement or trend which has become widespread in most Buddhist groups in the United States. Buddhism has often been perceived as disengaged from worldly concerns, as practitioners’ ultimate goal is nirvana or liberation from the cycle of suffering (samsara) created by one’s desires. As it is becoming both more engaged and feminized in its American forms, one could suppose that these two aspects are closely linked to one another. It does not seem that social engagement is specific to women active in Buddhism (many male American Buddhist teachers are also socially-engaged), but it can be noted that this is a recurring feature in the programs of women-led Buddhist centers or groups.

21At Manzanita Village, seminars and retreats focus on awareness, leadership, earth-based spirituality, permaculture, on the long-term effects of our actions for future generations, as well as on “Conscious Entrepreneurship and Social Change.”15 One workshop was significantly called “Sanctuary” and participants can receive certification for their “earth activist training.” Meditation and mindfulness are integral parts of the training. References are made to teachers such as Starhawk and Joanna Macy and to writers like Susan Moon. This center, which has a dual female leadership (Michele Benzamin-Miki and Caitriona Reed), reaches out through its teleseminars, but remains physically concentrated in one location. Its social engagement is more a question of raising awareness and of the long-reaching effect our actions can have.

Michele Benzamin-Miki and Caitriona Reed, co-founders of Manzanita Village (Warner Springs, California)

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Michele Benzamin-Miki and Caitriona Reed, co-founders of Manzanita Village (Warner Springs, California)

Photo courtesy of Manzanita Village.

Social and Cultural Impact of the Feminization of Buddhism in the U.S.

22The social and political impact of the gender shift (which mainly concerns lay Buddhist women) in a minority religion in the United States is already apparent in the development of an increasing number of female monastic communities, especially in Tibetan Buddhist areas of Asia. Female-headed groups in Asia are usually limited to all-women monastic-type communities, with little interaction with the surrounding social community. They also remain subservient to male monastic authority for guidance or ethical guidelines. The support and inspiration of some Western female Buddhist teachers and practitioners, as well as that of Asian teachers who are sensitive to the change of perspective, have had positive effects on the self-image these female communities have and on their means of subsistence (since they receive financial support from American donors [16]), allowing them to start implementing their long-term goal of gaining an education and training in Buddhist practice on par with their male counterparts. One of the major issues for female practitioners interested in monastic ordination in the Tibetan and Theravada traditions is making full ordination for women possible once again. The debate has found widespread support in the West, and has also been carried back to Asia.

23Two main female Tibetan teachers active in the United States have also dedicated their energy to recreating nunneries of their lineage. In 1993, Khandro Rimpoche re-established Samten Tse nunnery near her father Mindroling Rimpoche’s monastery in Mussorie, India. In Tibet, before their destruction, the two monastic communities had been closely linked and Samten Tse is open to Western nuns as well. Jetsun Kushok of the Sakya lineage of Tibetan Buddhism is also trying to find funds for a nunnery near Dehradun in India, while developing her centers in Vancouver and San Francisco, and promoting a project for long-term retreats on an island in Washington State. Her own upbringing as a nun in Tibet no doubt inspires her vision for women who wish to do intensive practice. That she went on to marry and to have five children is also relevant to her teaching female lay practitioners, in so far as she can speak and teach directly from her personal experience.

24In the United States, the rise of female Buddhist teachers in Tibetan Buddhism has resulted in the gradual focus on the material and financial situation of monks and more particularly of nuns in the tradition. Sravasti Abbey, led by Bhiksuni Thubten Chodron, has constructed Gotami House which will accommodate its nuns and female guests. It is named after the Buddha’s aunt and foster-mother, the first woman to be ordained as a nun by him. Peace is the key-word used in the fund-raising call to support this project to “create peace in our chaotic world.”

25The problem of a gap between non-Asian American and Asian Asian-based Buddhist women can arise, especially in their reasons for practicing. On the one hand, non-Asian American women appear as more individualistic, enterprising and more educated, with sometimes more financial means or leisure to pursue their spiritual interests, regardless of whether their family or their social background approve or support their choices. On the other hand, Asian women in Asia are still evolving in traditionally patriarchal social structures from which they may seek to break free, and they are often interested in integrating an alternative and more supportive social community (Schneiderman 227). Some non-Asian American nuns chose to practice in an Asian context because opportunities for living as a nun are few in the United States, but this is not always easy for physical or cultural reasons. Some may feel they are being required to prove that they are as able as men, in bearing or accepting difficult physical or regimented living conditions (Tsomo, 1995 135). American women sometimes also “look down” on their Asian sisters due to the difference in educational levels (the reverse may be true too, especially in the case of Mahayana nuns who are used to harsher discipline). [17]

26Culture and education influence the different priorities of Buddhist female practitioners, leading some to seek freedom from marriage, others the physical security and the mutual or spiritual support of a community, and still others opportunities for basic education or more advanced spiritual development.

27The repositioning of authority and power in American Buddhism is also affecting other aspects of group dynamics and practice on a daily basis. The first obvious difference in women-led Buddhist groups is a sensitivity to and the taking into account of female concerns. Another significant change, which is noted by members, is a “softening” and a warmer atmosphere in women-led groups. This seems to have been the case at the Los Angeles Zen Center after Wendy Engyaku became its abbess in 1999, as well as at the San Francisco Zen Center where Blanche Hartman became the first abbess (from 1996 to 2000), and was followed by another woman, Linda Ruth Cutts. This has also been described as the “exclusive inner circle” giving way to a “joint management style.” Communication and consultative circles in which each member can give his/her opinion are favored over hierarchical functioning. This tends to dissipate group tensions linked to authority and lack of communication.

Venerable Thubten Chodron, founder of Sravasti Abbey (Newport, Washington)

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Venerable Thubten Chodron, founder of Sravasti Abbey (Newport, Washington)

Photo courtesy of Sravasti Abbey.

28The question has been raised by American Buddhists as to whether the first Buddhist communities followed what could be considered as democratic procedures or not two thousand five hundred years ago in India. The lack of historical information about that period and centuries of patriarchal models in cultural and religious institutions make it very difficult to answer the question (Boucher, 1993 117). The image that the Sutras convey of the historical Buddha is certainly not one of an authoritarian figure, but rather of an expert in his field of empirical knowledge, willing to share it with others. But one can surmise that he probably was the focal point of the community to whom all the other members referred in the communal decision-making process. In the cultural context of the Buddha’s time, women were certainly not prominent in the process.

29The change in the nature of authority of women-led centers is felt on different levels. This can be in the liturgy, with the incorporation of references to female lineages, and in gender-sensitive texts, which take both male and female practitioners into account in their wording. [18] American female practitioners have come up against patriarchal text wording or lineage recitation of past male teachers’ names, as well as against the fact that the majority of teachers are currently still men. This has led them to question the relevance of traditional Buddhist teachings and practices for women in their specific situations. This has also happened in Asian Buddhist history, for example with Indian or Tibetan female practitioners such as Yeshe Tsogyal, but society in eighth- or ninth-century India or Tibet was not conducive to change and a lot of hardship was involved in women rejecting the social norms they were supposed to conform to. In traditional, male-led centers or groups, there are usually few examples of changed wording in texts themselves. These changes seem to depend on the translators’ sensitivity to gender issues and on their willingness to accommodate female practitioners in their midst.

30Sometimes, elements directly inherited from the feminist experience are integrated into the wording or teaching style, as when Pat Enkyo uses the term “crone” to refer to older female teachers in a retreat. The younger generation might not even notice these feminist terms which debunk the traditional stigmatization of women (as old witches or hags for example), having integrated them as culturally acquired elements. Another important point is the reference made to one’s personal female lineage (mother, grandmother and female ancestors), which can be an important source of inspiration, as pointed out by Bonnie Myotai Treace, founder of the Zen Center of New York. Treace has also added that there are still too few women in real positions of authority in Buddhist centers or institutions (in the United States as in the rest of the world) and that mutual support among women is essential. Her commitment is apparent in her use of the book The Lenses of Gender (1993) by Sandra Lipsitz Bem, who is a Professor of women’s studies at Cornell University, with a group studying the precepts (Shambala Sun [July 2005]: 28).

31Some aspects of Buddhist practice may seem to impose limits on this gender-shift and on the empowerment of women in Buddhism. In most Mahayana schools, reference to the lineage is important and in Vajrayana Buddhism, the Guru is the central focal-point of the practice. With very few exceptions, most lineage teachers are male, thus imposing a reference to male models, which can cover from twenty to thirty generations. Without the recognition of the lineage or of the Guru, there is no blessing or empowerment. Until very recently, power or authority in Buddhist schools was transmitted from male teacher to male practitioner. Finding one’s place as a female practitioner is one thing, gaining the authority to become a female teacher oneself is another. Many other questions remain to be explored, such as some of the finer points of yogic practices in Vajrayana for highly realized tantric practitioners. Constance Jones, Professor at the California Institute of Integral Studies, raises the question of “leakages” during Tantric practice and what that might refer to for a woman. For men, leakages refer to the emission of semen which in Western terminology can be interpreted as a loss or waste of energy. Not ejaculating during tantric practice is a desirable procedure. The question is raised about the equivalence for women.

32In the 1980s, feminism was already playing a role in American Buddhism. One example is the denouncing of scandals in various Buddhist groups. Then as now, women find it difficult to accept the gap between teachings and reality. Feminism has also influenced some changes in group structure, in scriptural tradition, and in the support given to the monastic tradition for female practitioners, but its questioning of traditional forms of practice can also lead to a fear of denaturing or changing the Buddhist teachings too much. Along with authority, authenticity has thus become an important issue.

Long-Term Perspectives

33The sociological profile of many American practitioners of Buddhism may account for conditions conducive to a shift in mentalities: many are well-educated, with liberal or left-leaning tendencies, and believe in gender equality (Kosmin & Lachman 258-268). In addition, women and men practice together and share equal responsibilities, and women teachers are appreciated (Coleman 15). In the long run, this will undoubtedly contribute to “the feminization” of the male practitioners’ approach and understanding of the teachings. If the men become teachers in turn, there will no doubt also be a perceptible shift in their attitude towards female students.

34Buddhism is often perceived as being anti-materialistic since renunciation is one of its essential teachings, and because the cause of suffering is seen as linked with desire. It is not true that Asian Buddhist societies are non-materialistic—wealth, for example, can also be perceived as the result of good “karma.” But the Buddhist ideal of renunciation and the teaching that the root of suffering is desire or craving do echo a search for simplicity and a denunciation of a society based on an all-out materialism. A wish for simplicity and disinterest in material things are causes which account for American women seeking ordination for example (Tsomo, 1995 144-147). The global shift in mentalities in developed societies towards an awareness of the need for a sustainable environment also coincides with trends towards simplicity and a change in consumer habits. Respect for the environment and for the beings living in it are common to both this new awareness and basic Buddhist values. In consumer societies like the United States, women are both prime targets and choice objects for the marketing system. They have an essential role to play in the shift away from materialistic values, through their awareness and social engagement.

35American female teachers hold a specific position in Buddhist history as pioneers in the gender shift toward more equality in a traditionally patriarchal religious tradition. As Andrea McQuillin, editor of Shambala Sun, reminds us:


The participation of women in American Buddhism today departs from centuries of tradition. […] Few religions—at any time, in any place—have featured women spiritual teachers as prominently as American Buddhism does.
(Shambala Sun [July 2005]: 5, 42)

37And Sandy Boucher, who was one of the first to write on the topic asserts that “Women are coming together in groups all over the country […]. In this effort lies the possibility for the creation of a religion fully inclusive of women’s realities, in which women hold both institutional and spiritual leadership. This movement offers opportunities not found elsewhere” (Boucher 1-2). In spite of the fluctuating position feminist consciousness may seem to hold in modern society, it continues to advance in Buddhism in the United States. Quietly perhaps, but discretion may sometimes be the best guarantee of efficiency.


38For American practitioners, the Buddhist path relates to experience and individual inquiry rather than to a social group to which they automatically belong because of ancestry or ethnicity. They often appear as much more individualistic and suspicious of tradition and authority, but this feature is tempered by basic Buddhist teachings such as those on selflessness, love, and compassion. Personal experience and individual inquiry find a strong echo in feminism where taking personal histories and “herstories” into account in traditional historical narratives is an essential starting-point for a balanced view of the story of humanity. Investigating reality is also common in both Buddhist practice and feminist praxis. In addition, many basic Buddhist values are considered “feminine”—openness, receptiveness, tolerance, dialogue, experiencing, and integrating. Joanna Macy has also spoken of an intuitive sense of “interdependence,” which makes women aware of a larger global perspective in relationships and which arises in spite of the habitual isolation which women experience in patriarchal societies (Snelling 241). Buddhist teachings often remind one that “all beings have been our mother at one point,” and in one of the most famous Jakata tales, the Buddha offered his body to a famished female tiger in one of his past lives in order for her to be able to feed her cubs. This convergence of the individual with socially supportive values provides an ideal venue in a spiritual marketplace in which many religions continue to require women to play second role in a system based on male authority. The absence of a (fatherly) God-figure in Buddhism adds additional appeal (Boucher 2).

39If, in theory, there is no apparent problem of equality in American Buddhism as far as opportunity of practice is concerned, the issue arises when women start integrating or being recognized in American teaching hierarchies, especially when the main authorities of the school or lineage are still predominantly Asian, even in the United States. This may explain why many women opt out and go on to found their own centers, pursuing their path in Buddhism on their own terms. In the absence of actual authority on American soil, women are also filling in the gap where teachers are needed. In so far as the experiment works and if they are respected and successful, this pragmatism is accepted and the new models they are creating become a norm in some ways. Thus it appears that traditional Buddhist structural models are being transformed by adapting to new social norms in the American context, at the same time as women are taking advantage of the flexibility of this transitional period to take hold of what is for them a legitimate right to power and authority in the teaching hierarchy.

40The type of power acquired by American Buddhist female practitioners and teachers may at first be the means to cope with difficulties they encounter in their personal lives in American society. However, transforming their outlook on traditional patterns of suppression, oppression, disempowerment, or control, allows them to change the way they relate to these social norms, thus undercutting and subverting the strength of these forms of inequality and violence. Nonetheless, some questions remain to be addressed on a much wider scale for female practitioners of Buddhism. One issue, which is very seldom raised, is that of child-bearing (both for students and teachers) and the ensuing one of child-raising. This question is related in personal accounts (Jacqueline Mandell; Sarah Harding), but is rarely the subject of teaching, workshops, or retreats. Children’s programs are starting to become part of certain groups’ programming, especially during adult retreats, but non-Asian (and in some cases Asian) American Buddhist practice seems to remain largely an “adult” one.

41Another question pertains to the fact of “awakening.” Liberation, the ultimate goal of going beyond suffering, is a keyword both for feminism and for Buddhism. In traditional accounts of Buddhism, it is considered impossible for a being to attain enlightenment in a woman’s body. When will the first truly “awakened” Buddhist teacher (or practitioner) appear on American ground? And will it be a man or a woman? Perhaps the question will no longer hold any relevance for American Buddhist practitioners.


  • [1]
    This adaptation from Tsultrim Allione’s new book can be found online at <> (page accessed 10/24/10).
  • [2]
    “Chöd” means “to cut” in Tibetan. This practice was conceived by an eleventh-century Tibetan yogini, Machig Labdron (of whom Tsultrim Allione was recognized to be an incarnation in Tibet in 2007). While chanting and playing a big hand-drum and bell, one visualizes the cutting up of one’s body and the offering of it to different demons; a trumpet made of a human bone is used to summon the spirits and demons. This ritual, which is commonly practiced both in the East and the West today, was initially carried out mainly in cemeteries. Figuratively, the purpose is to confront one’s fears and projections, and the actual demon is one’s ego-clinging and attachment to the self.
  • [3]
    The U.S. Religious Landscape Survey on the Pew Forum website places the percentage of U.S. adults belonging to Buddhism at 0.7% ( [page accessed 24th October 2010]). See also Eck. The problem of defining who is Buddhist is discussed below.
  • [4]
    The figures quoted by the Pew Forum (0.7%) seem to represent a fair balance between these two extremes. This would place the number of American Buddhists on an equal footing with Orthodox Christians, Muslims and Jehovah’s Witnesses. US Census reports give the following numbers for the American population : 281,421,906 in 2000 and 307,006,550 in 2009 [] (page accessed on 24th October 2010).
  • [5]
    See the 2008 results of the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), conducted by researchers at Trinity College (, and of the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey, a national survey of over 35,000 respondents conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (
  • [6]
    This roughly equal gender ratio was apparent in most of the centers and temples we visited during our field work (2001, 2002, 2003).
  • [7]
    A study of the amount of material on Buddhism in the United States published on the Internet lies beyond the scope of this article.
  • [8]
    Independent teachers have studied the teachings of (a) particular school(s), may have received transmission, and have founded centers or groups on their own authority, not at the request of a lineage holder or a recognized hierarchy.
  • [9]
    In Vipassana, the main practice is meditation, first by concentrating and calming the mind and then by examination and insight.
  • [10]
    Reincarnation or rebirth is an essential notion in Buddhism. After death and an intermediate stage, beings take rebirth in various forms according to their karma (former actions and intentions). Here, in the case of Tibetan Buddhism, “a reincarnation” refers to an advanced or accomplished practitioner, or an enlightened being, who continuously takes rebirth to help other beings and to continue his/her enlightened activity.
  • [11]
    Theravada (or School of the Elders), is the Buddhist tradition practiced in most South-East Asian countries. Its main aim is individual liberation. The Mahayana (or Greater Vehicle) is the tradition practiced in most North-East Asian countries and its main aim is attaining Buddhahood. The Vajrayana (or Diamond Vehicle) refers to the esoteric and tantric extension of Mahayana practice.
  • [12]
    In the context of this article on women in Buddhism, the “feminine” is not defined by essentialist, physical or culturally-coded traits, but by qualities or attitudes, found in both men and women, such as openness, tolerance, intuitiveness, receptiveness, a willingness to interact, connect and dialogue, a propensity to support, nurture, and heal.
  • [13]
  • [14] (page accessed 24th October 2010). 15. Permaculture is a portmanteau word signifying “permanent culture” and “permanent agriculture”. It refers to sustainable and self-sufficient land use. First practiced systematically in Austria in the 1960s by Sepp Holzer, it was theorized and developed in the 1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Australia.
  • [16]
    For example, the Nangchen nuns of the Tsoknyi lineage, whose accomplishments are recognized by male practitioners in Tibet as well, receive the benefits of many of the retreats at Sukhasiddhi which are dedicated to supporting them. They, in turn, inspire many non-Asian American female Buddhists.
  • [17]
    In the case of Asian-American nuns, their capacity to adapt to strict discipline or their attitude towards Asian nuns will depend on their degree of acculturation and on their level of education.
  • [18]
    For instance, instead of the traditional passage “Son of Noble lineage […]” which is recited in many seminal Buddhist texts, one may find “Sons and Daughters of Noble lineage […].” Including both “he and she” instead of simply “he” is another instance.


The Buddhist tradition is not usually best-known for its activism or for its political and social engagement, but as it enters mainstream society in the United States, it finds itself undergoing certain changes. One of the most significant of these is its gradual feminization with the steady increase in the number of women in positions of authority. These female teachers are activists in so far as they are being invested with the authority to lead centers or monasteries, contrary to the usual patriarchal patterns observed in the still widely male and Asian-dominated traditions of Buddhism, which are being transmitted on American soil. Others are self-empowering in the absence of a significant authority, thus establishing themselves as new models of leadership in spiritual communities, which may come to serve as organizational models or references in the wider society. These female teachers are addressing problems which are specific to women, organizing all-female retreats and honoring the feminine in its many aspects. Their concern with issues of globalization shapes the dynamics of their group actions. This article presents an overview of this innovative, recent and discreet change in the dynamics of a world religion as it is establishing itself in a new territory and being appropriated by women.


  • religion
  • Buddhism
  • United States
  • feminism
  • teachers
  • empowerment
  • lineage
  • authority
  • nuns
  • children


La tradition bouddhiste n’est pas connue pour son militantisme ou son engagement social ; toutefois, alors qu’elle commence à s’intégrer au courant dominant de la société américaine, elle subit certaines transformations. Une des plus significatives est celle de sa féminisation progressive au vu du nombre croissant de femmes qui y occupent des positions d’autorité. Ces enseignantes sont des militantes dans la mesure où elles assurent la responsabilité de centres ou de monastères, contrairement aux schémas patriarcaux de la majeure partie des traditions bouddhistes qui s’établissent aujourd’hui aux États-Unis et où prédomine une hiérarchie asiatique masculine. D’autres exercent leur charge en l’absence de toute autorité substantielle, s’établissant ainsi comme de nouveaux modèles de référence dans leur société environnante. Ces enseignantes traitent de problèmes spécifiques aux femmes, organisent des retraites pour un public féminin, et rendent hommage aux divers aspects du féminin. L’attention portée aux problèmes posés par la mondialisation influence directement la dynamique de leurs actions communautaires. Cet article se propose d’étudier cette évolution récente, discrète et novatrice d’une religion mondiale alors que celle-ci s’implante sur le territoire états-unien.


  • religion
  • bouddhisme
  • États-Unis
  • féminisme
  • enseignants
  • exercice
  • du pouvoir
  • lignée
  • autorité
  • nonnes
  • enfants


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Molly Chatalic
Molly Gilbert-Chatalic is Associate Professor (maître de conférences) in the Department of Applied Foreign Languages at the University of Brest. She completed her PhD dissertation on “The establishment of Buddhism in the United States and its Americanization” at the University of Bordeaux 3 in November 2006. An abridged version was published recently under the title Le bouddhisme américain (Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux, 2011). She is a member of the EA-HCTI research group at the University of Brest, of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion and of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, and continues to do research on Buddhism in Europe and North America. Her interests also cover the literary expression of religious experience and the role of women in religions. She holds a degree in Tibetan and is currently working on the translation of a collection of poems written in English by a Tibetan poet. She has contributed to Religions et mondialisation: exils, expansions, résistances. Dir. Bernadette Rigal- Cellard. Pessac: PUB, 2009.
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