Zen, Olympics and Invisible Women


The controversy over Bikkhuni ordination a few months ago created quite a stir in Australia, Europe, North America, Thailand and elsewhere. There have been plenty of accusations of sexism, misogyny and the like directed towards the Thai Sangha, principally from the West for their actions in response to Ajahn Brahm’s participation in that ordination event.

Some of the more vociferous comments came from the Zen community or more specifically from the non-mainstream Zen community. Brad Warner wrote the article My Home Town and Bullshit Sexism in Buddhism  and  John Pappas wrote Filthy, Filthy Buddhist Women! for example. It was also discussed in forums, emails and in conversations.

At times the discussion ramped up to include the usual story about the archaic, paternalistic approach that Asian Buddhism seems to embrace. It is true that women’s rights aren’t too high on the agenda for most Asian countries outside or inside Sangha. There have been calls for the West to distance itself from the “Asian”, non-“Progressive” social elements of Asian Buddhism in many quarters.

This is all very ironic considering the fact that sexism is alive and well in the West, including in Zen Buddhist quarters.

As a general social example in North America, in the runup to the 2010 Olympics there was a great deal of controversy about the lack of a women’s ski jumping event. Switzerland, Canada, USA, Austria, Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Slovenia and Sweden all have women’s national level ski jumping teams. The ski jump has been built so necessary infrastructure is in place in Vancouver. The organizers seemed to overlook the fact that women participate in this event at an elite athletic level. When this was brought to their attention more than 2 years before the Olympics, various excuses were made such as scheduling difficulties, accommodation difficulties etc. They just hadn’t planned on it or even considered it. The matter even went to court, by which time it was truly too late to arrange anything.

It is in the social consciousness, institutionalized to such an extent that most organizations and indeed most people don’t think too much about it.

I had a brief exchange on Twitter the other day. The other person was a male and had compared my blog to that of another woman. He said “NellaLou’s blog is like a thinking person’s” version of that other blog. It was meant to be a compliment I believe, but it brought up some interesting thoughts on my part. Some of these included:

  • The issue of comparisons and competitions.
  • Gender specific comparisons.
  • “Thinking” as a measurement that signifies something.
  • Are women’s blogs a specific category? If so how are they different than men’s blogs?
  • Are men’s blogs considered a category or are they just taken for granted as “blogs”?
  • Is it a surprise that a woman can be a “thinking person”? Clearly, by comparison the other woman indicated is not deemed to be so even though she is professionally accomplished.

This brought on further interest in checking out blogs, specifically the Zen variety. In general when I look at the blogroll here there are considerably more blogs by men than women. And of all those there are more Zen men than women although the women are certainly not absent. So I went a little further afield.

At the Zen Community aggregator blog there are 32 blogs listed. None are written by women. The only woman’s work that may appear on that site is Karen Do’on Weik who is the partner of Jay Rinsen Weik as co-creators of The Drinking Gourd Dharma Circle Blog which is affiliated with the Toledo Zen Center. There is an excellent blog written by Barry Briggs included called Zen Women, which is about the Zen Women throughout history. They are all dead. Are there no living Zen Women to include on their own in the Zen Community?

Well to answer that rhetorical question, here is a list of some Zen Women bloggers who are very much alive and kicking.

108 Zen Books by the irrepressible Genju

ZenDotStudio by a multi-talented artist

The Dalai Grandma is Jeanne Desy  of Columbus, Ohio and writes about “Zen practice shared with (mostly)a light heart”

Slipping Glimpser by Zenshin Florence Caplow is even a Zen priest

DQ’s Windmill by Donna Quesada

My Zen Experience by Myochi

The Jizo Chronicles by Maia Duerr

There are a few more Zen women bloggers such as Karen Maezen Miller, Joan Halifax, Barbara O’Brien but they blog elsewhere. So all in all it’s not like Zen women bloggers don’t exist.

So perhaps it was just an oversight. Perhaps it just didn’t cross anyone’s mind to include any women in the Zen Community.

In a more overall look at Buddhist blogs consider the OneCity blog with a ratio of 9 men/3 women or the Progressive Buddhism blog with 13 men/3 women listed as authors. In a couple of other large group blogs the ratios are as follows:

There may be numerous reasons for this invisible women mindset. Consider that on Wisdom Publications list of Authors, Editors and Translators approximately 12% of the list are women.

American Zen Teachers Association has quite a long list of practice centers and their teachers. Approximately 30 % of the teachers listed are women. This strikes me as a little better than the average inclusion rate.

It’s not like this is a new issue by any means.

Zen and the Art of Religious Prejudice is an essay that appears on the Zen Site in the Critical Zen section. The Soto Zen leadership:

…stubbornly ignored the increasingly vocal demands of wives and nuns until the shortage of male clerics during the Second World War forced them to acknowledge the importance of women in Sõtõ Zen religious life.

There are numerous historical examples of women’s “place” in Buddhism.  Many may think this era came to an end when Buddhism began to take hold among the Acquired Buddhist community in Europe and North America. Yet with the bhikkuni issue the European leaders did not support Ajahn Brahm and outside of Theravada circles comment from leaders (Ven. Brad, Rev. Danny Fisher excepted) has been almost absent.  Although as mentioned on this blog and elsewhere Ven. Tenzin Palmo Made a Statement Regarding Bhikkuni Ordination Controversy.

Could it be that the upholders of the State of Zen in America are not nearly as progressive as they would like to imagine ?


Thanks to Arun Likhati for the idea of checking ratios. His Asian Meter posts including the latest one Opportunities, Incentives and Privilege tell it like it is.

Appearing in the Review of Korean Studies Women Zen ancestors, a second take by Judy Roitman-provides an overview of women in Buddhist traditions with focus on Korea, academic study of this issue and personal reflection of the state of practice for women.

WOMEN IN AMERICAN ZEN:VARIATIONS ON ADAPTATIONS OF RELIGIOUS AUTHORITY by Susan Irion -thesis with a feminist critique of Zen practice


28 comments on “Zen, Olympics and Invisible Women

  1. How many blogs out there by women of color?

    Looking at the diverse history and interests of women in the US I’d be curious to see how this breaks down further…

    As an Asian American male I definitely don’t feel men’s blogs are a singular category simply because the assumption would be that white men’s voices represent us all…

    This is not directed at you but I am tired of not being heard and then asked why I don’t speak up…

    Also much of the criticism of patriarchy in Asian Buddhism may have merit but as you point out is a bit of the pot calling the kettle black…


  2. I’ve said to everyone who will listen, not that many as it happens, that the sad thing about the bhikkhuni ordination fiasco is that in the rush to take positions and dissect the politics of the situation something has been lost: four people have dedicated their lives to the Dhamma, and undertaken one of the most difficult disciplines available to them. It’s almost as if no one cares that this wonderful thing has happened, that being ordained is so ordinary and mundane that we can just gloss over it. I think the bhikkhu Sangha (Brahm included) have shot themselves in the foot by making this about Sangha Politics. I am still puzzled why any woman would want to join them.

    I recall with some delight hearing Professor Richard Gombrich (I hope he forgives me if I misquote him) saying, something like, that the reasons for the imposition of the extra rules on bhikkhunis, and the stories surrounding the episodes, especially the Buddha’s reluctance to ordain women, were just lies invented by the bhikkhus to make it harder for women to get ordained. He used the example of Bhadda to illustrate the Buddha’s attitude to women.

    On the scholarship side the field is also dominated by men, but there are two women writers who have been very important in shaping my understanding of the Dharma: Sue Hamilton (author of Early Buddhism: A New Approach), and Jan Nattier (author of many publications, most recently A Few Good Men). Beyond the basic grounding I got in Buddhism from Sangharakshita I think Sue Hamilton has been the most important influence on my thinking – it was her writing that made it come alive for me, allowed me to internalise the Dharma and make it my own, to see how theory and practice inform each other without resorting to mysticism. Jan Nattier is an amazing polyglot who does dazzling scholarship and writes scintillatingly about it. Neither of them blog, and neither write popular books on Buddhism, but both are deep and wonderful and it’s worth hunting out what they have written.

    This blog is fast becoming a favourite – the issues you are writing about are topical and interesting, and your take on them is illuminating.

  3. Spend much time in any zendos or other Dharma centers? I’d say that the ratios of male/female Buddhist bloggers are pretty representative of what you find, with a few exceptions, on the ground in Buddhist communities. Is it sexism, or just that Buddhism tends to interest men more than women (at least in western convert communities)?


    • We clearly occupy very different poles of the Buddhist community—every “on the ground” community I have been involved in has been overwhelmingly dominated by women.

      • Small sanghas that I have had experience with have been largely even, male/female. But an interesting comparison is with Yoga bloggers. Mostly they are women with few men bloggers.

        Is it sexism or does Yoga attract more women then men?

        It does seem that the buddhobloggosphere is largely male-centric. But there are several good and rolling female buddhobloggers out there.



  4. On Zen women of color, Zen priest Angel Kyodo Williams, who wrote the book Being Black, blogs here: http://angelkyodo.wordpress.com

    There is also Zen Under the Skin, a blog by a “African American. Single mom. Zen Buddhist. Yoga Student. Part-time Poet. Music Lover. Avid Reader. Recovering Hungry Ghost.” But she appears not to have updated her blog in quite some time. ome interesting archives, though.

  5. Also, anyone can write a blog; it’s not like people are appointed to do so by some authority…

  6. Don’t use Progressive Buddhsim as your example of sexism. Justin lets just about anyone that wants to post there do so and he hasn’t turned anyone down. If fact I remember when Brooke used Progressive to taut her website to get it some readers, then she became a ghost and hasn’t posted since. Are you saying Justin needs to go out and recruit women for his group blog, or just drop more men? He asked the public, I don’t know, a half a dozen times for writers, and even the ones that come aborad don’t post. Its’s pretty much a dead blog and your argument is a non sequitor.

  7. First, I have to agree with Kyle about Prog Buddhism, and I wonder how many of the other group blogs used the same approach?

    Recently I’ve been asked to be part of a blog project involving 2 other male bloggers. It has nothing to do with being men, and everything to do with our perspective, and the similar views we share on a few topics. I won’t deny that being male has shaped my style, feelings, or views. But for this group project, it’s all about how well we fit with each other. If there was a female that would have worked better, I guarantee they would have been asked before I was.

    So with that, I wonder how many of these group blogs were formed with those thoughts in mind? Are they just the collaborative work of people of like mind? Because if so, then it seems more likely that you would find gender/race patterns there.

    I find it quite gross (can’t think of a better word) when people go out of their way to find token minorities to fill up their “diversity quotas”. I used to manage a Starbucks in downtown Seattle. When I hired, I went out of my way to find people of varied backgrounds and experience (retail, farming, philanthropy, military) because I knew that a team that was diverse in experience and IDEAS had the best opportunity to succeed. This was regardless of gender/age/race, though we were BY FAR the most diverse group out of the 30 or so stores in the downtown corrodor (employees are overwhelmingly young, white or asian and female, even in management it was 90 percent female).

    Maybe this is why the Buddhist group blogs and magazines have gotten so much shit lately? Maybe it’s because it’s the same recycled material presented by a very homogenized group. And I don’t think it’s the group specifically that sucks, but just the monotony of it. I think it might be the same if it were all women or men or Asians or whatever group you can think of.

    I have a fair amount of female bloggers on my list, though I wish I had more people that were 2nd or 3rd gen Buddhist, or came from a more varied background. But the ones on my roll are the ones I read, and I only read blogs that I like. I’m such a dharma noob that I don’t have time to decide between race/gender/age, I instead go where I can find the dharma and experiences that speak to me.

  8. Recently, I’ve been exploring the organization Soka Gakkai, a group that many people have very distinct opinions about. It has even been labeled a cult. Nonetheless, this group actively promotes women in leadership and actively promotes women in all aspects of activity conducted by SGI. The proof is self-evident; it’s in the numbers.

    Saying you’re not sexist is rather meaningless if the numbers don’t support this. To say that the invitation to women to participate is there, but none have replied, ought to be a call to action and not viewed as, “I’ve done all I could.”

    I’m not endorsing SGI, as there remain several issues about the organization that need further exploration; but I cannot deny what I see. I see people of all races and ethnicity not just as members, but in positions of leadership; I see women in leadership; I see highly developed programs aimed at youth; and I see an organization that actively seeks variety in its leadership – it walks the talk.

    Just saying you’re not sexist doesn’t prove anything. Only the numbers prove things; only data reveals the truth.

  9. “Thinking” as a measurement that signifies something.

    I’d have to confess there are times when thinking is very useful, and I frankly see a lot more of the lack of it in men’s blogs, which, I also confess, I tend to visit more than womens’ blogs perhaps out of conditioning, perhaps out of affiliation of interest, perhaps of some odd brain-wiring gifted to us by ancestors.

    Are women’s blogs a specific category? If so how are they different than men’s blogs?

    Women’s blogs, I’d assume from the context are written by women, and men’s blogs are written by men. Other than that, and whatever may go with conditioning, experience, and genetics, I don’t think there’s anything else specific to each of those 2 subsets.

    Are men’s blogs considered a category or are they just taken for granted as “blogs”?

    I’d say men’s blogs are considered a category only insofar as you make the distinction of partitioning the set of blogs based on the authors’ sexes, and vice versa for women’s blogs.

    Is it a surprise that a woman can be a “thinking person”?

    Not to me. The closest thing that gives way to “surprise” in me along these lines is not that a women can be a thinking person, but that the state of Alabama authorized coinage of a quarter with Wobbly Helen Keller on it.

    Doesn’t surprise me that Helen Keller was a thinking person and a leftist; clearly she had a concept of compassion. What surprises me is that Alabama either ignored this, whitewashed this, didn’t think people would know or didn’t care.

  10. I’m really glad you blogged about this! Thank you also for posting these numbers. I only looked into gender ratios once. It goes without saying that male privilege is the most egregious form of privilege in our society. In Western nations where more women graduate from college than men, they still are still outnumbered and earn less in professional careers. On my part, the very fact that I overlooked categorizing authors by gender, speaks to my own engrained sense of male privilege. It’s the privilege of being able to think of my own group as “default” and being able to ignore the different issues women face. I’m going to go back through the database and add another column to look at gender. Just for curiosity’s sake. At the rate my blogging is going, it may take a while yet! But the real difference will be in how we’re able to promote women’s voices more broadly. Even on Dharma Folk, men overwhelmingly outnumber women. It’s not because we haven’t tried to achieve gender parity—we simply haven’t tried hard enough.

  11. This is an important issue that needs to be addressed much more consistently and thoroughly. I agree with Richard and Arun’s comments, both of which point to how easy it is for us men to ignore the gender divide, and assume that it’s enough to speak out as “progressive” or as a “feminist.” The bhikkhuni ordination issue is one that I have wanted to write about, but still don’t feel educated enough to say anything more than I support ordination of women and elevation of women into leadership positions. I’m much more about to speak about issues I’ve seen or read about in Zen communities, and have done a bit of that on my blog. In working on my article for Tricycle about online Buddhism and blogging, I did my best to reach out to a broad group of bloggers. It probably still leans too heavily male and white male at that, but the effort was made.

    As for who comes to dharma centers in North America, I think you’ll notice a shift in gender numbers when women are part of the leadership. My own center used to be led by a very charismatic male teacher, and although women were fairly high in numbers, there were more men overall. Now, with the leadership being all female, there are more women than men in the sangha overall.

  12. Thank you for this post! I, too, have a Shout-Out section on my blogroll for women Buddhist bloggers. I appreciate how you have articulated the ease with which we can point to sexism elsewhere, yet find it much more difficult to turn our attention inward to see this and other issues of privilege.

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  14. LOL! I just noticed that you mentioned my tweet! Well, I do think that women bring a different POV and voice then men. As do bloggers from different racial or socio-economic backgrounds.

    The Male Zen-centric nature of the blogs (my own blog included) is a feature of the buddhobloggosphere and I don’t know what to say except I can only blog what I know. I have been opening up my blog to guest posts though from different religions/non-religions, ages, genders and ethnicities. Its been slow but I like to varying opinions.

    Pretty much if someone emails me and says they would like to guest post, I let them (within reason, I have turned down some …um…inflammatory posts).

    So, I don’t really know what to say. I’ve sent out calls for people to recommend blogs that are outside the zen men Buddho-Sphere and have found some great ones that way.

    Cheers Dharma Sister!


  15. Hi NellaLou

    I own the Progressive Buddhism group blog.

    “So perhaps it was just an oversight. Perhaps it just didn’t cross anyone’s mind to include any women in the Zen Community.

    In a more overall look at Buddhist blogs consider…. the Progressive Buddhism blog with 13 men/3 women listed as authors.”

    Progressive Buddhism is open for anyone to become a contributor (very lightly screened for relevance and writing ability). New contributors of whatever gender are always very welcome. It is not ‘by invitation only’ and there has never been any discrimination about gender. To be honest I hadn’t given it a thought until now. If there are more men than women this is due to self-selection. On this blog at least, it’s not that ‘it didn’t cross anyone’s mind to include any women’, it’s that it didn’t cross as many women’s minds to include themselves.

    Kind regards
    Shonin, ‘owner’ Progressive Buddhism blog

  16. The community of Zen centers in various cities seems to be actually tilted towards more women. I would alos point out that you missed Karen Maezen Miller’s two different blogs Cheerio Road and the one on Shambala Sunspace. avidly follow her blogs as she has great practice advice for the real world. The Houston Zen Center’s Resident priest is also female. The HZC sangha also seems to be 50/50 if not 50/60 in favor of women. My own Mahayana group is more women than men. In general, throughout every religion in the world mostof the leaders are male but most of those filling temples, mosques, synagogues, and churches are women. Just take a look areound the local Hindu temples where you live. I think you will see what I mean.

  17. I was kind of surprised to come here after a mention of this posting (for a different reason) on Scott’s blog to see the Zen Community called out and criticized. I run the Zen Community aggregator and it is kind of weird to see criticism here with no attempt by you to, for example, contact me and ask me about how blogs wound up on the aggregator or if there was a reason for any patterns that you see. The lack of such contact naturally makes me question intent or what your desired outcome is.

    In any case, the Zen Community gets its blogs in two ways, for the record. The first way is that I selected a dozen or so initial blogs from the Zen focused blogs that had reliable posting track records and seemed to have fairly good writing. I contacted the authors and asked if I could include them in the Zen Community aggregator. I don’t add anyone without their permission with the exception of Brad Warner, who didn’t respond to my attempts but whom I figured just wouldn’t care. I posted about the aggregator on the Zen Forum International when I created it and solicited people to contact me if they wanted to be added (and the information is also on the “about” page for the site if you read it).

    Since the initial group, ALL additions to the community have come from people contacting me to have their blog added. As long as it is a Zen focused blog or has a Zen-focused category feed (so if the blog as a whole, such as my own, isn’t Zen focused, I can get the Buddhist content for the aggregator), I add the blog. I haven’t turned anyone down that I recall. None of the blog authors you mention have ever contacted me though I tend to add a blog or two every month through the authors reaching out to me.

    When time and headspace permits, I do plan to track down more blogs to add but it hasn’t been a priority since people have clearly, from my own point of view, been contacting me to be added when interested.

    So, there is no nefarious plot to deny the voice of female Zen Buddhists. I simply added a few blogs I knew, with permission, and have let the rest come in the “Field of Dreams” manner of build it, and they will come.

    I would have told you all of this if you had contacted me before writing negatively about the site. As I said, I find it irksome that you didn’t bother but that’s life and I’ll go back to my vacation with my spouse now.

  18. And, actually, The Dalai Grandma is a member site on the aggregator but she contacted me during the last two weeks and I hadn’t added the blog yet when you looked.

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  20. Hi NellaLou,

    Thanks for the mention of Zen Women. It made me realize that the site’s name can mislead some readers – which is certainly not my intent!

    I created Zen Women as a container for every known story about female Zen practitioners in T’ang Dynasty China. I put these parameters on the collection to illuminate the formative period of the Zen tradition – a period in which women have been virtually invisible.

    There are many good documents about female Zen students during the Sung Dynasty in China, and in corresponding periods in Korea and Japan – and quite a few resources make these stories available.

    But, sadly, this has not been the case for the T’ang. Hence, Zen Women.

    Thank you for your dedication to this and related topics!


  21. “The irrepressible Genju” – well, I’m touched! :-)

    I’m coming in really late on this one, Nella Lou, but I’m really glad I read your post. Ideally I would think we would all be jewels reflecting the blogrolls of each other’s blogrolls. But it doesn’t seem to be the case. To be fair to Zen Community, when I first found it, I did understand that I could ask to be listed but didn’t because I misunderstood what I had to do vis a vis submitting posts. And being new at all this (only 4 1/2 months old!) I wanted to focus on quality of my writing rather than getting it out there.

    When Marguerite of Mind Deep sent out the 15 Women Bloggers post, I felt really torn about segregating the growing list of women’s blogs on the blogroll. I’ve always felt that kind of categorization creates division rather than inclusivity. Yet I really valued your setup which allowed me to connect with those of a “different voice.” The rationalization that supported my categorical listing was that perhaps independent of what I believe maybe other women would appreciate the convenience of having women’s blogs quickly accessible. An additional factor is that it provides encouragement for women who may believe there is a lack of supportive community where their voice can be practiced.

    I do experience the male and female voices differently on the blogs. Like a choir, each has its tone and timbre. Some I can harmonize with, others I respectfully hold close my silence because it would just be discordant. And, I don’t take it as a rebuff if I’m not listed on either gender’s blogs. In fact, I enjoy the surprise to discover 108zb on a blogroll.

    End of rambling.

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