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Meetings with Remarkable Women: Buddhist Teachers in America Paperback – August 15, 2000
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"The teachers'own words and paraphrased thoughts are skillfully woven into Friedman's lucid prose. The result is a collection of portraits that show how anyone can devote her/himself wholeheartedly to a spiritual path." San Francisco Chronicle
About the Author
Lenore Friedman is a psychotherapist in private practice in Berkeley, California. She has been interested in Buddhism since the late 1950s and has practiced Buddhist meditation since the late 1960s.
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Her main thesis is ADAPTATION: p. 24: "As Buddhism moved from country to country, its methods & character changed considerably...the most skillful views in one culture are not necessarily the most skillful means in another. As time went on, each country developed a distinctive form of Buddhism with its own flavor & particularities." Her Introduction seems feminist, but p. 26: "Most of the women teachers described in this book do not technically consider themselves feminists," pp. 89-90: Maurine Stuart says "One of the frightening things I see sometimes is that people are destroying differences. What a pity. To reduce everything to a sameness in the cause of equality is foolish. Exploring our diversity, our differences together, we go beyond our differences & come to understand & show concern for one another. We go beyond our differences to our deepest level of communication, which is not merely communication, but communion," (but also p. 91: Maurine Stuart-"Those texts which say it's so difficult for a woman to become enlightened, well that was some man who wrote that!") & p. 303: "She [Jacqueline Mandell] made it clear that she didn't believe men repress women or that a system represses anyone. `Everyone is doing it together,' she said. And all aspects of conditioning have to be looked at."
The interviews well support her sub-thesis that American Women Buddhist teachers are active in ADAPTING BUDDHISM TO THE WEST: pp. 97-8: "Maurine's particular genius seems to lie in creating a setting, a medium in which practice flourishes, hearts open, & differences among people become spices, not thorns. It is safe to be whatever one is-crazy, strong, critical, confused. There is room for everything." Ruth Denison:--"When there is strong awareness, one can be creative. A new approach is no problem." p. 280-2: To make the Dharma accessible to more people, Gesshin Prabhasa Dharma introduced family retreats, variable intensities of practice, "bicycle sesshin," etc. Gesshin also introduced these students to "laughing Zen."
More specifically, she addresses THE ROLE OF PSYCHOLOGY for Western Buddhists:
p. 146: Elizabeth Hamilton-"In all the approximately 1,700 traditional koans, there are almost none dealing with emotions or self-centered & inaccurate thinking-the things that are running the lives of most of us (including some so-called advanced Zen practitioners, myself included)." p. 154: "Sitting in the traditional way is not enough for dealing with neuroses, trips & daydreams, she [Ruth Denison] believes." p. 294: "Yvonne [Rand] wants to know `How do those of us in teaching positions get others to shed light on our shadow side so that we ourselves can see it?' She's been encouraging students to do this recently, but that's not enough, she feels. It needs to be done with peers as well." p. 349: "Lama Palden is also a trained psychotherapist & believes strongly that for spiritual practice to thrive, psychological issues often need addressing. Instead of `just striving' against all odds toward an elusive goal (so common in other spiritual settings), she encourages students to work with themselves on all levels: spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, & physically." But, pp. 318-9: quoting Leigh Brasington, "She [Ayya Khema] wasn't the least bit interested in our psychological processes...She was tired of our [U.S.] preoccupation with our own psychological processes." See books by Jeffrey Rubin, John Suler, etc.
SOCIAL CONTEXTS/ACTIVISM & CULTURAL DIFFERENCES esp. for Western Buddhist teachers: p. 127: Charlotte Joko Beck-"People like to project their power onto someone else...bowing down to another human being as though he or she were vastly superior is bad for people. I'm trying to take the teacher out of the superman role. The teacher is a guide not some magical or heroic figure." p. 342: "Her [Maylie Scott] profound integration of spiritual practice & social change work has been an inspiration to many...she's taught meditation...in jails & prisons...& plans to do post-release work." p. 352: "Maylie Scott told me that `social engagement is now usually regarded as an aspect of practice. Some of us feel it is the most important practice edge: how do you express what you have learned on the cushion? There is internal practice & external practice. The Dalai Lama said you need both."
And there are quite a few beautiful, enlightening, inspiring, PROFOUND MESSAGES, such as:
p. 97: Maurine Stuart-"Summer has come & the birds sing all by themselves." p. 186: Jiyu Kennett Roshi-"Everyone possesses Buddha nature (or, as the Christians call it, the soul). It is only hidden from our view because of our opinions of ourselves." p. 315: Ayya Khema-"The holy life cannot work without joy. It's as if it were the yeast in bread. Without joy the holy life cannot rise to its full height."
There do seem to be a few FLIES IN THE OINTMENT, however. The author seems well versed in Zen & reasonably in Theravada (which she refers to as vipassana), but not with Vajrayana (stating regret on not including more Vajrayana teachers). Vipassana could be construed as Southern Buddhism since it's in Pali, but its Sanskrit equivalent, Vipashyana, is also part of Tibetan Buddhism (Vajrayana also includes Japanese Shingon). She seems to equate vipassana with mindfulness meditation which differs from Tibetan practice/terminology. Most authors use "Theravada" to signify the Buddhism of Burma/Myanmar, Thailand, Sri Lanka, etc. though Theravada is only one school of several in the Pali tradition. I'd prefer Southern Buddhism or, perhaps, Pali Buddhism-since Mahayana & Vajrayana Buddhists usually use Sanskrit terms. More importantly (regarding her theses), adaptation requires informed judgment of what is to be kept, deleted, or changed. An extreme approach such as pp. 353-4: Wendy Egyoku Nakao, abbot at the Zen Center of L. A.-"People say, `Don't throw the baby out with the bath water.' And I say, `What's the baby? What's the bath water?' Throw it all out & let's see what arises from the vast unknowing'" would probably not be accepted by most of the interviewees. In the spirit of Western freedom & the free market, teachers individually determine what to teach & how & practitioners vote with their feet-which itself is a major factor in the adaptation of Buddhism to the West. It is regrettable that some of the finest teachers in this book are now deceased.
Women given a chapter each, or combined with other teachers, in this book are:
Pema Chodron (Tibetan)
Sharon Salzberg (Theravada-Vipassana)
Toni Packer (Zen lineage)
Joanna Macy with Tsering Everest
Charlotte Joko Beck
Ayya Khema with Jacqueline Mandell and Colleen Schmitz
Gesshin Prabhasa Dharma
Sonja Margulies with Yvonne Rand
And, of course the title is a play on Gurdjieff's "Meetings with Remarkable Men," published in 1963 (and these men weren't remarkable except to Gurdjieff himself).
Written 25 years ago, it feels more like from the 70's. Does show me how very fortunate we are to be living in a time when we have soooo many wonderful female Buddhist teachers in the west! However, since we do, sometimes the tone feels almost ancient and issues feel irrelevant. It makes me grateful that these and other women have stepped forward so boldly so that we can learn, from women, in our own language.
Another reason this book isn't really for me right now (i'm sure it'll be the perfect read one day!) is because I'm not feeling a connection with the women chosen, yet, either:
The first two bios (and i suspect the majority of the book) are about Zen teachers, which i have never understood or been drawn to. I probably should have skipped ahead to Pema Chodron, the most interesting of the list to me.
Then, the first one interviewed seemed to have stopped teaching and/or stopped being Buddhist? whereas Venerable Thubten Chodron, who was fully ordained 10 years before this book's publishing and who has since founded Sravasti Abbey in Washington, was not included.
None of these things make it a bad book, just not what i was looking for right now.