Sunday, November 29, 2009

Just a (female) practitioner

It stuck in my craw, as my grandmother would have put it, something written a while back by a Zen Teacher who blogs. Distinguishing between authenticated Teachers and the rest of us, he points out that most in the buddha-blogosphere are "just practitioners" who don't make any claims to be otherwise. It is an innocent statement, a generalization based on observation, and I can't disagree with it. But my craw was taking this little modifier, "just" and it wouldn't go down, the way sometimes your throat is dry and a pill gets stuck there.

Well then, I'm a woman. Just a woman, it's been said. I know about this thing of being automatically pigeonholed. I am extraordinarily sensitive to it, as if my whole body had been sanded by sexism.

Because I was an aging woman with health issues when I came to Buddhism 12 years ago, and caregiver to a husband with health issues, and not wealthy, I've had relatively few opportunities to study with teachers. But at last I was able to form a formal relationship with one after years of attending his nearby retreats and doing koan work with him. The same year, this master's sizable international sangha split apart on his refusal to affirm a female student whom his dharma heir had affirmed, who had passed an extensive body of koan work and had originally worked with the Master. My mail told me it had been a dramatic mess.

What is enlightenment for, I wondered, if a man cannot negotiate a peaceful resolution of differences with his heir? But I didn't resign as a student over that. I resigned a year later after he sent me a mean, impatient e-mail. God, I'm too sick. I have no space for that in my life. And I wondered, what the hell is enlightenment about if our authenticated masters are not examples of compassion and harmony in their own lives?

There are relatively few female Zen Masters (the very term is an oxymoron, for "master" was originally a male noun). There is no way to ensure anything like fairness as women work with male Teachers, or female Teachers for that matter. Our sexism - all of us - is so underground it is even harder to detect in ourselves than our racism. We are aware of horrific violence done to women in other countries - most recently in Honduras - but not aware of what is one to us when we are seen as "just" women. Or worse, "just girls."

Another (male) Teacher told me it is considered a bad sign in Zen to want to be a Teacher. Really? Okay. It is something one is supposed to simply rise to, one pops up without any desire to attain. There is no entry exam, that's for sure, no way to formally undertake a known curriculum and pass through hoops and ultimately earn the designation. I do see what a slippery business that could be, I can imagine that diligent merciless people could make it to the finish line the same way they make it through PhD programs.

But the current situation is also quite slippery. It leaves all of us - but especially women - liable to the fits and prejudices of an authenticated Teacher. I have observed that very few women even see sexism when it walks all over us. It is utterly built into our culture - that's why we call it "a patriarchy," and it is built into the masculine heirarchys and traditions of Zen. And so once again, as I have year after year, I find myself reconsidering where I belong, who I can practice with.

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