Friday, October 22, 2010

The Way of the Feminine

Tale of a Woman on the Buddha's Path.

I am still processing dream from two nights ago, where I was in South East Asia, playing Cinderella . . . 
On my hand and knees, I am collecting with a small brush the human hair that has collected in a dirty red carpet leading to a business office. The job is tedious and unpleasant, and the brush ridiculously small compared to the amount of work to be done. I don't even have gloves, and have to pull all the hair out of the brush with my bare hands, into a bucket. A man with glasses comes out of the office and warns me that another bigger job awaits the next day, at another location by a large river. 
Being a woman on the Buddha's path is an interesting journey, one of increasing awareness, where the world is viewed under the double lens of the feminine and the Dharma.

It makes one more and more discerning of the wrongful ideas, conventions, and constructs that permeate our patriarchal world. The patriarchy is everywhere, including in Buddhist circles. When I told one of my teachers that I was going away on a retreat with famed rebel, elder, and teacher  Ruth Denison, his answer was, "You are!!! You know she talks all the time . . . " I wondered why so much contempt? Another teacher, a woman and a student of the first teacher, gave me a similar response, almost verbatim. The patriarchy feels threatened by strong women. 

The patriarchy also operates within lay institutions. One such example is in traditional mental healthcare, where the person is viewed as a patient to be fixed, with medications* preferably. The inequality in the doctor-patient relationship is flagrant and keeps striking me during my work as a psychotherapist, where I am often called to work in partnership with psychiatrists who are part of the medical establishment. There is hope however, including from men with a developed sense of the feminine. John Kabat-Zinn, Saki Santorelli in their work with Mindfulness-Based Stress ReductionDr. Allen Power as an advocate for humane dementia care, are example of such men leading the way and  transforming healthcare from the inside out.

Defying my teacher's contempt, I am leaving today for two-week retreat with Ruth Denison in her monastery, in the California desert. With the persons I am privileged to serve in psychotherapy, I continue to be their fierce advocate. I am also eagerly looking forward to bringing our Joy of Caring Mindfulness-Based Dementia Care approach into the mainstream of dementia care training for family and professional care partners. At Zen Hospice, I delight in serving the dying in a way that's in accord with their very needs, not those of a system that would like to deny the reality of death. And in this blog, and at the Huffington Post, I work relentlessly at highlighting some of the insidious thoughts that permeate the patriarchal way of thinking, and introducing a different way of meeting various situations, that is based on authenticity, and human connectedness. 

How do you fit within the patriarchy?

*Not that I am opposed to medications, for there are instances when medications can definitely help!


  1. Very interesting Marguerite. When I go to the Shambhala Center, there are usually more women than men...and even on the teacher side it's equally split. I just finished up a class last night that was split b/w two teachers - one male and one female. Both were absolutely wonderful teachers who I equally respected. Hopefully I'm not overly naive here, but I don't look at gender when I look at these people...I just look at them at human beings. So, it's sad and a bit disconcerting that you are encountering this bias. Having said that, I would absolutely agree that in most religious circles there is definitely a patriarchal way of thinking (I grew up as a Catholic...need I say more :)?

    It's wonderful that you're bringing awareness to this and sharing your views. I for one love reading what you have to write and always look forward to visiting your site. Have an amazing time on your retreat! And hey, I don't think there's anything wrong with talking :)

  2. Thank-you for your fiercely caring post! I often resonate the best with women teachers. Someone even pointed out to me that my Buddha paintings look very feminine! I agreed but hadn't noticed that.

    I tend to draw away from more aggressive energy which can be present in women as well as men. Not only do I draw away from patriarchal environments but from hierarchal ones as well, not places where I want to spend a lot of time. Both are something that don't sit well and perhaps it is my koan.

    I will admit these things make me uncomfortable and at the best of times I can notice them and opt out without regret and sometimes they ruffle my feathers and I have a little rant to myself

  3. Your words resonate much with me, Marguerite.

    Regarding your dream, recently Marshall B. Rosenberg´s non-violent communication-steps have helped me to understand a dream. The steps are: 1 observation, 2 feeling (connected with the observation), 3 need(s) ( hidden behind the feeling), 4 how i request (what i need)

    Then I am reminded of a quote:
    "Mankind had to horribly mutilate itself to create its identical, functional, male self, and some of it has to be redone in everybody's childhood." Max Horkheimer/Theodor W. Adorno
    It points to patriarchy as something negative, horrible... in my opinion it has to do with the entire history of capitalism... I find some truth in it. But I don´t think it is so because of specific - male - attributes. No, I think it is because of - what in buddhism is called the poisons: greed, hate and ignorance...these negative forces and all that they include...we cannot judge as male. They concern us all.

    I am not sure if it is helpful at all to distinguish nowadays between male and feminine qualities. When we all shall have the same chances, then everyone shall be free to develop the qualities he or she likes without being labeled as male or feminine.

    I am able to get my way and say No decidedly. Is this something male? Many women I know say that they have problems with that. As i practiced meditation and since a few years MBSR and try to learn non-violent, attentive communication - i think and feel myself becoming a better person, more the way I want to be. Several years ago I gave up what is called a career, in an intellectual business. Intellectual controversy I found was-is not enough and helping hands are more needed... I am very glad I can do now something concrete as good as I am able to. This path also allows me to find enough time daily to do my personal inner work - formal practices like yoga, sitting and walking mediations. Change yourself, if you want to change the world, I find, this is so very true.

    Much Love

  4. i'm grateful to have stumbled across this blog this evening: while from an ultimate perspective there is no difference between masculine & feminine, we may aspire to dance the paradox of relative and absolute. and it is critical not to mix them up, to cultivate the ability to hold both. too much of the absolute and i lose compassion, too much of the relative and i become a small minded person. i treasure your term *fierce advocate*. there are those of us called to show up in the world in firey, direct ways, tempering our swords with the heat of compassion. this is the challenge i work w. each day: to not lose my edge b/c it makes someone else uncomfortable. it is a challenge to remain both true to oneself, cultivate skillful means, and remain connected to others. (a note to the one who visited the shambhala center: it is one of the *most* hierarchal organizations on the dharma block. i've spent 22 years in the community and am going through a serious re-evaluation to my relationship to this group.)

  5. Thank you for visiting dechen pema! Love your fine dance back and forth between absolute and relative worlds. May you be well, and may you find your way in or out of your Buddhist community. I know you will :)

  6. Well, the problem with American men is not that they have yet to discover their feminine side. The reality is that your average white American male is overwhelmed with the feminine, and has very little sense about what it means to be a man. A man who can respect both men and women but is not in the least ashamed about the fact that he is a man. A man who can understand and appreciate the goodness and particular strength in masculinity. His problem is decidedly NOT that he has yet to discover his feminine side. Not in this society.