Sangha Reflections: On Mother of All Buddhas

· Reflections · ,

The changes in the liturgy—reciting the names of realized women and the switching of the word “patriarchs” to “ancestors”—have been gentle and welcome reminders to me of the role of women in the preservation of the Buddha Way and of the debt we owe to them. But what has affected me most profoundly has been attending the sesshins for women. I have always been aware that Zen had something of a macho male flavor. This was very much in evidence at the first Zen center where I practiced. Coming to the Monastery for the first time, I was surprised to see that element very much played down. But I had no idea how different a thoroughly feminine approach to practice would look and feel until I attended a Wild Grasses sesshin. It presented possibilities I never would have imagined and illuminated boundaries I did not know existed. In particular, it allowed for what could be called a release or an indulgence of emotions that I was accustomed to restraining, or did not even know were there. These emotions are not self-reinforcing, but more in the way of letting go, a melting away of boundaries—not of restraint, but of resistance. Such emotions are not particular to women, but they may be more tolerated in women and are therefore associated with feminine feeling. I think the women’s sesshin expanded the horizon of practice in a way that would be beneficial for men as well as women.

—Lyn Mattoon


Coming out of the Zen closet is a bit of a stretch and even a bit of a surprise for me. When I look back over my encounter with Zen, the maleness did not even register on my awareness, or my lack thereof. I was attracted to the non-theistic, no frills, and ‘no religious stuff’ that I found offensive.

I have been surprised at what a transformation has occurred for me personally. I don’t understand it and I am deeply grateful for what has unfolded. I find the women’s liturgy rich and inspiring in a way I never would have imagined. It feels more personal, possible. I wonder about their stories and who they were—were there children, families, relationships that they had to struggle with in their taking up the dharma? Who were they? Their texture, their hearts, hopes, struggles and wishes? Who showed up to help them figure it all out and find their way?

Then there is the piece of this unfolding that is simultaneously occurring—the religious piece that feels so deep and important. Turning to the deities, whomever, whatever. Feeling reverence, not alone, reaching out for help. Knowing in my heart/mind, there is nothing but mind. However, these presences connect me/us with parts of myself/ourselves that are otherwise unavailable for the moment, helping me feel connected and finding my way. Other than our ground of being, all sensation is conditional. So for me, to gain access to other conditional states when there is darkness, anxiety, fear, gratitude, and love, is exceedingly nourishing and helpful.

—Susan Seien Wilder


The first time I actually found myself completely belonging in the Zen tradition was during the first Wild Grasses women’s sesshin. In that all-woman environment, these ancient forms felt totally natural. They fit perfectly. My breath felt different in my body—expansive, relaxed, safe. It was so unexpected and such a relief. This makes me wonder about those who may still feel left out, or uncomfortable, or unsafe or unseen within our sangha. Or those who can’t even walk in the door because they don’t see people who look like them.

Can we as a sangha continue to discern Zen training—the profound and liberative upaya of an ancient wisdom tradition—as different from “the way we do things,” so that the freedom and relief I’ve experienced can be a reality for all who feel drawn to Zen?

—Ikusei Settimi


Women’s suffering has always been, in a certain way, a part of me. It hurts to really think about how so many women throughout history and even today live truly miserable lives just due to being born female. It also hurts to think that anyone could feel they’ve finally found the one place—”religion/spirituality”—where we wouldn’t expect to see this problem, but there it is. For example, the belief that women can’t be enlightened, they have to wait to be born male (that male ego!). It would be nice not to have to show special treatment to any specific group, but it doesn’t seem like we’re there yet in history, so I think it is significant that we dedicate a special place and time to acknowledge our female ancestors.

—Wendy Terumi Richardson


Until recently, I have mostly felt remote from—if not uncaring of—women’s discrimination and issues of identity. My parents separated when I was eight and I lived under the supervision of a succession of nannies until the age of 11, with a pretty much absentee mother and without much of my father. My recollection of my mother is as a somewhat glamorous and eccentric presence, a source of logistical and financial support, more than a nurturing parent or female role model. As a child and young adolescent my friends were mostly male and I grew up as one of the guys.

It took my mother’s recent illness and death to open the door to inquiring into my own femaleness. Encouraged by my husband and sangha angels, I signed up for the Wild Grasses sesshin last year. Until then, I had not contemplated the possibility that anything particular could arise from a gathering of women. I had not acknowledged a long-term sense of unease with femaleness nor had I contemplated the possibility that freedom could be found specifically in the company of women.

The most profound and lasting memory I experienced at that sesshin was an overwhelming feeling of being safe. I remember sitting in the ‘oval’ during oryoki close to the incense bowl, surrounded on each side by my sisters and being permeated by a sense of inclusion and peace. The usual tension and hustle and bustle seemed absent and what remained was a warm, simple and convivial gathering for a meal.

As I reflect on the past year and evoke my sangha, I acknowledge with immense gratitude and respect the strong and wise women who are my sisters in the Dharma.

—Caroline Kamei McCarthy


During the second Wild Grasses sesshin at the Monastery when I was in residence, a fellow male resident and I needed to stop in the main building to get something for our work duties. We were asked to limit our entry time so we wouldn’t interfere with the women-only space. As we walked through the dining hall, both of us stopped in our tracks. We heard a mysterious chanting coming from the zendo: all female voices, full of melody, different pitches, accompanied by a droning instrument—quite a contrast to the usual monotone chanting of our Zen liturgy. I glanced over at my friend and saw that he had his hands on his head in disbelief. We both stood there speechless, pierced by the unexpected sound and the beauty of what we were hearing.

The impact of the all-women chanting helped me to recognize that I sincerely want women to be free to express themselves as authentically as possible. I don’t believe that I’ve been aware of the degree of suffering that so many women experience because of gender inequality. I want to understand this better. And I want to do what I can so that women can assume their rightful place in our sangha and our world.

—James Busan Manion


Liturgy, harmony and sangha go together. Early on this teaching was evident, as I was drinking the sound in deeply, inspired to hear all my loving sangha friends join together in voicing the dharma.

I see now that I simply chose to disregard what chanting male names in a lineage meant to me. Looking back, I closed this door because the door seemed closed to me. First, the karma seemed exclusive. Second, no matter how they got there, it was list of realized beings, so that surely counted me out!

Now we are in a different era, one bringing forth awareness about equality as best we can. We take turns in the liturgy discriminating whether it is a “she” or a “he” that is a signi- fier. Reluctantly though, I now have to think of what gender I am in listening to liturgy. I’m part of the group that is identified as forgotten or left unsung. Stings!! I was trying to feel included! I do wonder, why separate but “equal”? Put us all together! One long mixed up list of names on the lineage.

If we truly want to look at our inherited liturgy, can we investigate what was given to us by Daido Roshi via Maezumi? What was chosen and what was left out? Should we consider singing the sutras as the Nisodo nuns do? We could use the higher noted sweet bells the nuns use to accompany their extraordinary sound. Perhaps we could include more celebrations on different Sundays, expand our offerings to include celebrations of the Bodhisattvas: Kshtigarbha, Manjusri, or Samantabhadra.

We could lift our lowered eyes and see each other across the zendo, sharing in each others completeness and difference as we chant on a Sunday morning.

—Michelle Seigei Spark


A bronze statue of Kannon bodhisattva presides over my home altar. Her peaceful, regal form, cradling a bottle of tears is a constant reminder for me to realize this compassionate being as myself each day. One of the most significant changes in the liturgy for me was changing the dedication after the Emmei Jukku Kannon Gyo that we chant for Kannon. With the old dedication, my mind always snagged on the words, caught in confusion and simultaneous translation. The old dedication read: “The Buddha turns the dharma wheel and so reality is shown in all its many forms. He liberates all suffering sentient beings, and brings them to great joy.” “He?” I would think, and my small body would be back, shifting in the pew, working to superimpose a meaningful definition of God over “he,” the man with the white beard up in the sky we were introduced to at such a tender age. Our dedication not only gendered the Buddha but in so doing per- sonified him, causing me to wonder, “Who is turning the dharma wheel? Who is liberating sentient beings?” For me the words conjured a pretty specific vision of a guy with a topknot doing stuff.

It did not occur to me that it would be possible to change the liturgy so I never mentioned my mental gymnastics around the dedication to anyone. As women we are used to making these little translations without questioning. The liturgy was changed for the better from my perspective, although the process of the change was not transparent to the sangha. Clearly compassion is in no way restricted to the female form, just as liberation is not male, yet I feel a visceral connection with Kannon as a worldly being when we personify “her.” I can therefore appreciate that the new dedication may weaken the connection for our male sangha members and hope we will explore our relationships to liturgy and the ancestors in an ongoing, inclusive conversation.

—Katie Yosha Scott-Childress


I feel joy that we can now offer our gratitude to the realized women teachers previously forgotten, as well as the those whose names we may never know—information buried simply by cultural bias. They maintained and transmitted the dharma to a suffering world and dedicated their lives to generous service; I am happy that we have included them in our liturgy.

Now that we are uncovering the names of the many women who maintained the Buddha’s teaching, I am also glad that we have replaced “patriarchs” with “ancestors” in the “Identity of Relative and Absolute.” I believe that the change provides a shift which allows me to consider a more expansive reality of our heritage and practice.

—Joe Kenshu Mieloch


The sweetness of the incense from the morning’s sit was lingering in the air. I was taking a walk around the building before sesshin began, when I happened to glance at the sitting board outside the zendo. There it was. So simple in its presentation yet so emblematic in its significance. Hojin Osho was seated in the teacher’s position on the north side. The fact didn’t completely settle in my head until Friday evening’s sit, when her diminutive but powerful female form was sitting in front of the altar.

In a world where many of our experiences are primarily dictated by masculinity, it is a welcome comfort to see the changes coming to fruition in our religious practice. Because my cultural narrative was dictated by a culture where women were seen and treated as mute submissives, I accepted patriarchy as an immutable force. I saw signs of this all shifting in our Order during a Spring Ango retreat many years back, when Shoan pressed our teachers with questions regarding our exploration of female ancestors. My uncomfortableness at that moment’s silence morphed into respect for one woman’s voice that would not be silenced. How brazen, how strong, how courageous!

Five years later, we are bridging the gap by, among other things, reciting the names of realized women teachers and holding women’s retreats. Have we gone beyond this, to giving all voices, not just the female ones, an equitable say? No, but every time I hear the names of our female ancestors recited, I am confident that the voices of our ancient sisters will not disappear from the annals of history.

—Anna Myojo Shifton


I’m gladdened to hear of the most recent improvements to the liturgy. It was largely sexism that brought me to practice, and almost two years ago, after practicing in the order for over fourteen years, it was largely sexism that necessitated that I step away from the MRO. As a child I had been sexually abused. That experience was simultaneously obliterating and a commonplace expression of the misogyny rampant in our society. As I grew I had no language for the trauma that divided me from myself. Teenaged girls living in absentia are very, very ordinary. To survive I sought to understand systems of oppression and the communal resilience that can untangle these destructive forces. This process of inquiring into suffering very naturally led me to Buddhism.

When I first encountered practice everything in me said yes. It was such a profound relief to be met by the teachings. I wasn’t naive about the presence of sexism in our sangha. I expected it because I expect, and want, all of humanity, including every part of myself, to show up here. When it came to the sexism I encountered in the container itself—in the systems and structures of the order—I mostly downplayed and rationalized its effects, thinking that because I could name it I wasn’t subject to it. Here I was naive: believing that within the context of a wholehearted practice it would work to splinter myself.

As my practice grew stronger, the tension of seeking to realize myself within a container that I felt didn’t fully see me became less tenable. Nearly every time I brought a concern about sexism in the workings of the Order to someone in a position of power I was directed to address it as a personal struggle. It was difficult to see how destructive this guidance was, especially since it was most often accompanied by truly compassionate concern. Being instructed to take up sexism like it is my personal problem, like it is primarily an inter/intrapersonal poison, not only protects the systems upholding sexism, but also completely echoes my earlier traumatic experiences of being silenced about my abuse.

I refuse to compartmentalize myself in order to wake up. I want the container of practice to welcome all of me. I want to walk into the zendo and find that Mahapajapati is no longer sidelined, but has instead claimed her birthright on the seat of awakening on the main altar.

—Meghan Chishin Casey


Tibetan Buddhists often speak about com- passion from the lens of motherhood. It is said that not a single being has not once been your very own mother. Samsara then, is a case of daughters forgetting their mothers and moth- ers forgetting their daughters.

I remember years ago entering a Tibetan Buddhist store on Astor Place in Manhattan with my mother. An older, jolly Tibetan man welcomed us into an enclave of Buddhist art—statues, incense, robes, scarves, and other trinkets—allowing us to look around as long as we wished. I wanted to make a shrine, and so I asked for the traditional brass water bowl offerings, some incense, and a thangka of Shakyamuni Buddha. As I was 15, I had no money and so my mother paid for the supplies, yet the Tibetan man wasn’t ready for us to leave. He looked at me directly and said, “A mother’s compassion is beyond comprehen- sion. You’re very lucky.” Of course, at the time I didn’t understand where he was coming from. The encounter was so direct—not unlike face-to-face teaching in Zen. He seemed to know where I was and what I needed to hear, without even knowing a single thing about me.

When we invoke the names of the female ancestors in our new liturgy, we ask the question, “Who are my mothers? Who throughout my life has given me unconditional love and compassion?” In a way we have all been mothers to each other. The help we receive and the happiness we share with others is all one motherly love. When one connects to “motherly mind,” mothers disappear, and male and female can be seen as one. Simply see all beings as your mothers. How could you cause a single dispute? Impossible.

—Rami Eskelin


I came to the Wild Grasses sesshin with some skepticism, not sure of the importance or need for a women’s sesshin. However, when entering into the zendo on Friday morning, I had a felt sensation of the yoni energy that was transforminging the space. It was like the zendo was resonating at a different pitch, one that touched me in a deep and surprising way. At that moment, I understood why I was there. Now when chanting the names of the women ancestors, I feel the beauty, strength and energy of the women in our sangha who have been speaking up and questioning the status quo. I know that the women’s names we chant came from a similar conviction and depth of practice and I am honored to honor them. I had a deep and transformative expe- rience of being a part of the Circles on the Water retreat with 13 dharma sisters. Most meaningful for me was feeling safe enough to touch and express parts of myself that I don’t usually feel safe enough to express. I continue to turn toward these places and feel their nurturing presence with gratitude.

—Roni Nyuko Schnadow

NextBrief Biographies of Women Zen Ancestors