Jody Hojin Kimmel, Sensei and Vanessa Zuisei Goddard, Sensei, in conversation with Danica Shoan Ankele.
Originally published in Mountain Record journal: “Mother of All Buddhas” (2016)
Shoan: I wanted to speak to you as women teachers within what has historically been a very patriarchal tradition. As you know, some spiritual paths speak about spiritual development in terms of balancing “the masculine” and “the feminine” within us. I’d like to begin with a question I heard recently that has been nagging at me: “Where is the feminine in Zen?”
Hojin Sensei: I think it would be helpful to begin by looking at the language you’re using. So often when we hear the words “feminine” and “masculine,” we go right to gender, right to men and women. But the feminine, in the sense you are using it, is not referring to gender. These words are describing qualities or primal energies in all of us. They are describing something that is not based on embodied form. It’s just that all of us have been indoctrinated to favor the masculine over the feminine for the past few thousand years, and as a result we’re not so familiar with her ways.
Zuisei Sensei: Personally, I don’t think of Zen practice as masculine or feminine. To me these terms seem polarizing and limited because what we’re really talking about is our development as a whole person. When I am very disciplined or pointed in my zazen, I don’t think, “This is my masculine side.” And when I’m working on developing my mind’s capacity to open and relax, I don’t think of that as developing my feminine side—although I see how one could make that distinction. It’s just that I don’t find it so helpful to think about it in that way.
Hojin: There’s a language at the heart of this, and the terms “feminine” and “masculine” may not work for everyone. They can confuse the issue. One might prefer the words yin and yang, or the transcendent and the earthly, or thinking and feeling, or mind and body. These are all getting at basically the same thing. As Zuisei said, spiritual maturation is about becoming a whole person, a person who can balance the opposites. We’re trying to integrate inside ourselves, to have a sacred marriage of dualities within our very being, and to see that one side always contains the other. The whole thing is already present. So our spiritual development means developing those aspects of ourselves that are both masculine and feminine, regardless of the kind of body we are born into. A healthy and whole person is going to need to develop both these aspects within themselves.
Shoan: How would you describe the qualities that feminine and masculine refer to?
Hojin: As I understand it, the masculine is aligned with order, rationality, discipline and logic, while the feminine refers to receptivity, the all-embracing, the feeling part of us, our deepest intuition, community, sustainability. However, in healthy masculine states there is an appreciation for the relaxed disorder of the natural world. And likewise, the healthy feminine includes recognition of the importance of production, discipline. For example, when I am just in pure feeling, I need to find my discipline within that, otherwise my emotions can swallow me, oppress me, and even oppress others. So we’re really talking about a relation of holding opposites. We can also appreciate that the feminine loves tradition.
Shoan: Do you think Zen has a balance of masculine and feminine energy?
Hojin: Zen is a way of living in harmony, so maybe we should look at how it is practiced by people. Since I live here at the Monastery, I can say we are more consciously looking and working at how we train and create harmony. I appreciate being able to bring what I notice to Shugen Roshi, and being able to talk and reflect together. We have made some changes—some that people notice, like letting go of zendo seating according to hierarchy, adding the long list of women ancestors in our Sunday liturgy, and changing words like ‘patriarch’ to ‘ancestor’ in some places. Some changes aren’t so visible, like conversations we’ve had about the role of the zendo attendants, or the way we’re encouraged to share our feelings and intuitions with each other during monastic meetings. While these shifts may seem small, they have power.
Shoan: What about the discipline of Zen?
Hojin: It’s a question of how we understand discipline. Discipline is critical to spiritual training, but aggression and a militant attitude are not helpful at all. If we recognize that Zen was shaped by centuries of Japanese monastic training, where hundreds of young men had to live together in close quarters, we can appreciate where this comes from. But that kind of aggression is not inherent to what we’re practicing, and in a different context, it can be limiting. When I think of bringing more of the feminine into training, I think in terms of trying to make more space, bringing in a more all-embracing feeling.
Zuisei: I agree with what Hojin is saying about making space. I think the question “Where is the feminine in Zen?” arises because some of us—women especially, but some men, too—may feel there isn’t much room to explore what it is to be “me” in a tradition that is very linear and hierarchical. We may feel that there are aspects of our being that are left out. In Zen there is a way to hold your hands, a way to walk, a way to wear your robe. This can be appealing to those of us drawn to order, but it can also feel confining, even suffocating, to those who are not so linear, or perhaps more emotionally oriented. If we feel like we don’t resonate with the forms, then we may wonder whether we fit in within this particular context—whether this practice is for us.
The point of practice is not to restrict us. It’s the opposite. In my mind, a fully enlightened being is one who can respond to what is needed. This means to be firm and direct when that will help, and to be soft or disappear when that is needed. The “true person,” to use a Zen phrase, has access to their intellect and their linear mind, as well as to the full spectrum of their emotions. They are able to skillfully work with their feelings. In my experience, practice and training help us to have more ease within ourselves, to be free within our linear mind and our emotional mind, and to respond accordingly.
Shoan: What is the role of form and discipline in zazen?
Zuisei: We have to learn to let go and focus, but I think zazen can support us in learning how to love this body and this mind the way that it is. Zazen has given me this space to be deeply, deeply curious and interested about my feelings in a way that I wasn’t before. It creates a very safe container for me.
Hojin: Where do we get the notion that zazen is all discipline? The form is there so we can enter into it fully, contact stillness, touch the spaciousness, surrender, and learn the acceptance of what is already here.
Zuisei: Many of us come into practice with the idea of gaining something, of getting somewhere. In one sense, we could say this is a more masculine approach. But actually, wisdom is not dependent upon achievement. One of the reasons prajna is so powerful is that it can’t be held; it can’t be measured; it can’t be put in a box. No matter how much we try, we can’t control it or force it into existence. It is very much, as Hojin keeps pointing out, a process of opening and unfolding, a process of making space for what is already there to become fully manifested—and this has nothing to do with feminine or masculine. Or rather, it includes both. It doesn’t leave anything out.
Hojin: Our training is filled with forms. And on the one hand these forms can provide us with freedom, but on the other hand, when something is always done “like that,” we can perceive it as having no other sides. We can get stuck there. Breaking out of “like that” is something I’ve been experimenting with in the women’s retreats. We’ve tried sitting with the zendo arranged in more of a circle, which is not “like that.” The Buddha taught that meditation could be done walking, standing, seated, or lying down, and so during the last period of the women’s sesshin at the Temple, I invited women to take this up. They could sit in whatever way they felt they needed, just keeping the mind focused and staying present. And it was amazing to feel what happened. Those who stood up, stood up inside themselves. They knew what they needed. Some sat with their hands on their knees. One woman sat holding her heart. And they were upright! There was nothing slack there. There was no problem. I’m not suggesting this is how we should do it all the time, but I do think that something happens when we take the opportunity to look at things fresh and, if needed, shift the rule. I see Shugen Sensei doing this in subtle ways, too. Like how we’re using the kyosaku (or “awakening stick”) less frequently—that has shifted the feeling-tone of the zendo, and I’ve heard from several people who feel very relieved by it.
Zuisei: I think the reason that we don’t do this kind of thing more often is really out of fear, fear that if we loosen things up, the whole thing is just going to fall apart. And I appreciate that fear. In my own life, discipline has served me well. But I recognize that the dark side of this is the fear that if I let up, things will just collapse.
Shoan: I feel both of those things. I love Zen training and practice and appreciate how we do things here and I don’t want to lose the rigor and the spirit. But I also see places where I wonder, is this helpful? When I look at out at the zendo during sesshin and see that there are almost twice as many men as women, and very few people of color, I wonder if it’s something about how we train. How do we both honor the incredible power of our tradition and also make sure it’s responding to people in the present?
Hojin: First comes an awareness—we have to want to care about this. It’s the kind of caring that is mentioned in one of the dedications in our liturgy, where “nothing (and no one) is forsaken”. A process arises. We engage it when we speak our truth to authority, when we stand up inside ourselves. We do it when we offer our gratitude and appreciate that we couldn’t be here without all that came before, when we recognize that we truly need each other. There are no easy answers, and while it’s good to experiment sometimes, the tradition that gets handed across generations is so important to honor and protect. It is not about a democracy where everyone goes, “I want this, I want that, so let’s change it.” Making a change may be a process that needs to be done very slowly, consciously and carefully, being open to not-knowing and allowing enough space for things to get a little messy until something comes through. We, as leaders, need to first understand our intentions and clearly see our fears. This is the ground from which a trustworthy change arises. Then we need to study and observe to see what happens. Is the change of greater benefit? We need to have our own curiosity and wonder to explore. The person who is initiating any kind of shift or experiment must know what the initiation is about; they also have to have enough trust to let go and let things happen.
As I mentioned, the unsavory legacy of patriarchy in our world runs deep. We are still within our ignorance. And if we look at the vastness of patriarchy’s influence, it reaches beyond our ordinary sense of time. How many kalpas do we have to go back to find the time before patriarchy? We haven’t cracked through this aspect of our human inheritance, but I think more and more people are waking up! How do we do this? I think we have to employ our ancestors. We have to give them a job, bring them back and learn from their mistakes.
Shoan: What do you mean?
Hojin: Many of our ancestors were ignorant, and I’m speaking here of both our direct genetic lineage and our broader human family. Their wisdom eye was not open, great harm was created, and so their karma is still waiting. We are the inheritors of their actions, and we can stop their destructive karma—it’s our karma to work with now. But we need their help. We need to let them teach us about what they did wrong. To change the karma, we have to learn from their mistakes. We have to try to see into their minds of the past looking into our own now. What were their actions based on? What were they doing that we don’t want to repeat? Can we see what we are already repeating? That’s what I mean by employing our ancestors. They’re not finished with their work because their consciousness is still in us. I think of the Gatha of Atonement:
All evil karma ever committed by me, since of old
On account of my beginningless greed, anger, and ignorance
Born of my body, mouth and thought
Now I atone for it all.
I hear this as a teaching to draw upon what’s happened in the past, to acknowledge it and take responsibility for it in the present moment, and to address this unfinished work in order to change the course of the actions that follow. This can happen on an individual level, working with the karma of our parents or grandparents, for example, but there is also a collective aspect to this work. In a way, it’s about how we deal with becoming conscious and what we propagate individually and in community—in our families, at work, in our relationships of all kinds. Are we living in the truth, with kindness and love as our guides? Or, do we continue in darkness and diversion? It’s about being willing to grow, mature, and work with, not against, others. It’s about whether you and I are ruled by fear or freedom. It’s about growing up. It’s about what we teach our children.
Zuisei: Right. The only way to know if a path is true is to explore it from the inside. We have to live it. And each of us needs to remember that this path is about waking up. It’s about true freedom, and anything that is contrary to that is contrary to the teaching. I think it is the responsibility of each of us to look very deeply at what works and what doesn’t work, to be grateful for all that we’ve inherited and to speak up about what we see. We need to appreciate that the way we train may be shutting some people out, and so as we move forward, we should consider what we want to create. I want anyone who comes to the monastery or the temple to feel welcome. I want them to feel that they belong—male or female, black or white, gay or straight, rich or poor. How you look or what kind of body you were born into shouldn’t be barriers. You, as a human being, are honored and invited to practice here. So we might ask ourselves, is this a practice space that feels safe and welcoming to everyone? If the answer is “no,” then it’s up to us to examine that and reflect on what might need to shift, and to do this in a way that doesn’t dilute the dharma. People come here to train for a reason. They want to wake up. So that has to guide us all along.
Shoan: How do you see this unfolding over time?
Hojin: The dharma is disseminated in very simple, ordinary ways. At the recent senior’s meeting, Shugen Roshi spoke about bringing compassion alive in the zendo. When the zendo attendant says, “Be still!” or “Don’t move!” for many this can feel threatening, and no one does well in fear. So, how can we offer the same
guidance with loving-kindness? Perhaps, “You can be still because your body already knows stillness.” This can be just as effective. Of course, different things work for different people, but I think that part of the Zen mystique has been to keep everyone a little bit fearful. Our culture is already steeped in fear; why add more? And although there may have been a time when that was skillful, I think we are ready to go beyond that. This is what we’re working on, and will always be working on, in a sense. That’s what it means to offer training—that we’re connecting to what people need in this time and place of dharma practice.
For so many years now, an unhealthy ‘masculine’ has dominated our societies, and look at where we are: Mother Earth is in great trouble. What does this mean for us at the monastery? We have to be awake. As we find our way in our tradition, we need to be sensitive to protecting what is good and nourishing, and to listening for where things may need to shift.
I feel a beautiful receptivity developing here at the Monastery and the Temple right now. We have the Sangha Treasure meetings, which are about offering people an open space to share their experience of practice and training without any agenda. We have an abbot who is deeply committed to addressing bias and oppression. We have a sangha that is slowly growing more diverse, and more and more valuing that diversity. We have opportunities for women to practice and train together just as women, and for men to recognize why this matters and to offer their support. The masculine and the feminine are just different facets of reality. We’re learning how to illuminate all the facets of the jewel, and to see that all of this is intimately woven together in a very large tapestry. To hold the tension is a very alive place!
Jody Hojin Kimmel Sensei is a dharma teacher and serves as the training coordinator at the Monastery and co-director of ZCNYC. Vanessa Zuisei Goddard Sensei is a lay teacher in the MRO and lived in residential training at the Monastery for over twenty years. Danica Shoan Ankele is a senior monastic and serves as the assistant training coordinator at the Monastery.