In today’s talk, Catherine Pawasarat Sensei explores the topic of Women in Buddhism. She talks about her early years as a feminist, becoming an attendant for her male teacher, shifting views in the buddhist world around female rebirth & elevating female tantric deities, among other subjects.
Wisdom Publications has just published an interview with Catherine Sensei and Qapel on their Wisdom Podcast. It’s a wide-ranging interview, the first half of which lays out a detailed account of the life of Namgyal Rinpoche. It’s a great synopsis of the legacy that this generation of the lineage is currently carrying forward. The second half of the interview explores the ways that Qapel and Sensei are honoring the Namgyal tradition of bringing the teachings to new frontiers. You can find the interview – Episode #128 of The Wisdom Podcast – on your favourite podcast app and at wisdomexperience.org/wisdom-podcast/128-duncan-pawasarat.
Welcome to Dharma if you Dare. I’m Christopher Lawley, Planet Dharma team member and producer of the podcast. In today’s talk, Catherine Pawasarat Sensei explores the topic of women in Buddhism. She talks about her early years as a feminist, becoming an attendant for her male teacher, shifting views in the Buddhist world around female rebirth, and elevating female tantric deities, among other subjects. I’m sure I’m not alone when I say I look forward to hearing more on this topic going forward. And for today, this talk is a great starting point for the conversation. Before we get to the recording, I wanted to let you know that Wisdom Publications has just published an interview with Catherine Sensei and Qapel on their wisdom podcast. It’s a wide-ranging interview, the first half of which lays out a detailed account of the life of Namgyal Rinpoche. It’s a great synopsis of the legacy that this generation of the lineage is currently carrying forward.
The second half of the interview explores the ways that Qapel and Sensei are honoring the Namgyal tradition of bringing the teachings to new frontiers. You can find a link to the episode in today’s show notes or look for episode number 128 of the wisdom podcast on your favorite podcast app. Being interviewed in the same year as teachers like the Dalai Lama and Robert Thurman is a real honor and I know Sensei and Qapel thoroughly enjoyed their conversation with Daniel Akin. And now here’s the recording.
I’d like to talk to you today about women and Buddhism. A lot of this is really related to my personal journey. This is a young field still and so in that sense, it’s an exciting time because this field is really being shaped as we speak and there is a lot of room for exploration and discovery in this field.
I’d like to share with you a little bit about my journey and what I’ve found being a female practitioner in Buddhism. My perspective has been really heavily influenced. It’s essential to me that I lived in Japan for 20 years and part of that time I was really trying to go total immersion for part of that time, not all of it. I had mostly Japanese friends and I spoke Japanese all the time and there was a period of time where I dreamt in Japanese. I do speak and read Japanese and so I have a good sense of at least an Asian perspective and to me, that’s really important when we talk about Buddhism.
But let’s back up a little bit. So I grew up in the United States, I grew up in Kansas City. It’s kind of a wild cowboy town. Still I think people shoot from the hip as they say, still from that part of the country. And then I moved to New York City where I went to university at Columbia. I spent a lot of my young life identifying as a feminist. And my earliest feminist memories were singing, “I am woman, hear me roar” on the piano when I was about 10, I think, kind of singing at the top of my lungs and accusing my parents of being sexist because my sister and I, our chores was to set the table and do the dishes and my brother’s chores were to take out the garbage and I thought they were having a sexist division of labor in our chores.
My parents said well that’s fine, you can take out the garbage too, we’re not Texas. So I had double duty, maybe my first lesson in learning to choose how I presented my arguments. I had a lot of male friends as a young woman in the States and I felt like that was an important part of who I was and in college, I felt like I spent a lot of my time educating my male friends – I’m not sure that’s the right word– but trying to share a female perspective with them.
The Male and Female Gender Spheres in Japan
Very shortly after I graduated I moved to Kyoto, Japan and spent more or less the next 20 years there. Well, it’s a completely different culture. It’s about the opposite of the US culture in lots of ways, in that they have very different gender roles, and one of the things that I learned about in Japan but I had not really been exposed to, and I think is important in this conversation about Buddhism, is that they had what they called different gender spheres. So they had the male gender sphere. This was sort of the world that men operated in, lived, and operated in, and they had the female gender sphere. And then if a man and a woman were a couple, then their spheres would sometimes overlap. But they were still pretty separate and they were supposed to be separate. And it was fine to a lot of people a lot of the time that they were separate, like that was natural. That was a really foreign concept to me. And I really didn’t get it. And I found myself in the male sphere a lot of the time.
The word in Japanese for wife is oksan, which means in the back. And so the whole idea where this came from was that the woman was, the houses were deep and the woman was in the back and the man was in the front and the man was kind of in the front interfacing with the world, doing business and the woman was in the back, usually the kitchen was in the back too.
When I first went to Japan, I was like, well that sucks. I don’t want to be in the back and I don’t want to be stuck in the kitchen! This was a big theme of mine as a young American woman. And it took me about 25 years to appreciate that, in a sense, men are running things from the front, interfacing with the world and women are really orchestrating things from inside. So it’s like coming from a place of depth. I’ve met some couples who the gender spheres work really beautifully with and in a way that I admire and respect and I could never do myself, but I have been really impressed with, wow, this really works. Of course the world is changing all the time and it doesn’t work for everybody anymore and things are changing and so we’re adapting.
A Word on Gender in Brazil
I also lived in Brazil for just under a year in the Amazon and again was exposed to a really different kind of gender relations sort of thing. And that was a mixed, well they were both mixed experiences. Some things were really shocking and offensive both in Japan and in Brazil and in the U. S. and anywhere. And some things were really amazing, like wow, you know, I wish we had this in North America and we don’t and maybe can’t. So in Brazil, people would say things like, you know, you let a woman speak to you that way? You know, a man could say that in public, which I found really shocking. Matriarchs there were incredibly powerful women who were really well loved and well respected by the entire community which is something that I haven’t seen that much, myself in North America.
The matriarchs had a really powerful position. So I just wanted to share that with you as a bit of context that that’s what has informed a lot of who I am and how I see things and my practice. It really has helped me let go of loosen my views around gender and roles and what is discrimination and what’s appropriate and so on it and just really see how it’s in flux. It’s contextual. There’s no right answer. We’re all figuring this out and that’s an ongoing process. So I came back from Brazil, I’ve been in Japan maybe eight years, I was gonna leave.
Becoming a female attendant
I met Doug Sensei and was just deeply impressed by his teachings and I just loved his teachings. I was a freelancer so I could determine my own schedule and I just ended up spending a lot of time with Doug Sensei to get as many teachings as I could. I knew that I needed those teachings. It was like the sort of water to a person in the desert kind of thing.
Paul Jaffe, a sanga brother, and John Monroe, another younger brother, they invited Doug Sensei over to Japan and did us all a tremendous service. Clear Sky really came out of that sanga and that community and that invitation to Doug Sensei and how great that just after a bubble era in Japan, they had the resources to do that. They could invite him over. They could support him and share the teachings with whoever wanted them. That was really a tremendous act of generosity on their part. Paul started out as Doug Sensei’s attendant and then Paul had a sabbatical year and wanted to travel with Namgyal Rinpoche. And so Doug Sensei said to me because most people have jobs, I was around probably the most and it worked well because I spoke Japanese and I could show Doug Sensei around Kyoto and interpret for him and so on. So Doug sensei said to me one day, he says, well Paul’s leaving, I’m looking for an attendant.
And I said, well, I’d like to do it. And I was like, problem solved. You don’t need to look anymore. And he kind of paused and he said, well, traditionally women are not attendants to men. And I said, well, why not? And he said, well it seems like they’re female conditioning is such that they’re always serving people, they’re always looking after people, they’re kind of subservient. The conditioning is a kind of subservient. They need to break through that in order to unfold. And so we don’t want to put them in a role where they’re subservient because that just enforces that conditioning. And somehow I conveyed to him, no, no, no, you’ve got it all wrong. I’ve been taking out the garbage since I was a little kid. I’ve been training, you know? I’m not subservient and, you know, indeed I had spent all my life as a young woman, you know, already breaking through that conditioning. That much was true. And he said, well let’s think about it and, and we’ll see.
And just by chance that night we were meeting the sanga, about a dozen people, you know, maybe eight guys possibly. We were going to go look at the Sakura blossoms at a famous temple. I just spent the next hour or two that we were together in a state of stress because I was just convinced that some guy was going to get the job of being Doug Sensei’s attendant in this kind of, you know, sexist tragedy. You know, a guy would get the job instead of me. And so every time I saw Sensei talking to a man, I’d be kind of hovering in the background, sort of stalking them, trying to ruin their plans or something. I’m being humorous, but it wasn’t an issue. I was the only applicant for the job amazingly, and I became Doug Sensei’s attendant, and it has been a great experience. I did that for 10 or 15 years or so and it was just such a fantastic opportunity to spend so much time with an awakened being and learn from that and listen and watch and observe and receive teachings and so much in situ, so much as situations arose. As I mentioned, Paul and John invited Doug sensei to Japan in the beginning. So it was kind of Paul and John and I were around. Paul and I were around a lot, John was around a fair bit and Greg Molkentin who some of you know, was also around quite a bit and so there we are again, gets me and four guys and Paul and John were older than I was and they had a lot more resources than I did.
They invited Sensei over. I was very grateful. So I remember one time we were all at our temple, Umedono and it was part of my role to make tea. I’d make tea for Sensei and I’d make tea for students when they came over to have an interview with Sensei and so on. And so I was making tea for Sensei and I thought I’d make tea for Paul and John and Greg there too, so I guess I’m not going to not make tea for Greg. And all of a sudden I was like, wait a minute like here I am in a country, Japan, that sort of officially believes that being female is officially an inferior birth and I’m making tea for four guys. How did we get here? It was an interesting moment and when I say the female birth is considered inferior, that’s a kind of official line in Mahayana Buddhism.
The ignorance of Women in Buddhism
They do say that in the text that the female birth is inferior and that female practices a lot, a lot, a lot, maybe she’ll have the good karma to be reborn as a male, in which case she may be able to awaken. You can’t even imagine how much suffering that line of teaching has caused women over, let’s say the last 1000 years or more. And I say, this is where it gets interesting because we have to really distinguish between the scholastic study of Buddhism, which is very important. Most of course Buddhist texts are in other languages and they need to be translated, and they need to be studied and there are lots of texts that haven’t been translated yet. Whether it’s, you know, Sanskrit or Pali or Tibetan or Japanese or Chinese and there’s all these different languages, different versions of the teachings in different languages. Then there’s the practice of Buddhism, and those are really different things. A person can be an outstanding scholar and not practice at all, or a person can practice and not really study. It’s really important that they inform one another and it’s really important that we know which one we’re doing and not confuse them.
I am not a scholar and I can’t really tell you a lot of details about which teachings say for example that being born female is an inferior birth. I have read that the Buddha had never taught that. Not being a scholar, I don’t know whether that’s true, but I’ve read someone else who has said that, that that was a later interpretation only by some people in some countries at some times. But certainly that influenced Japanese Buddhism very deeply. For an excellent work on that subject There’s a book called Engendering Faith by Japanese studies in Columbia University. In The Lotus Sutra, the dragon king’s daughter gets awakened. I don’t know what that means, the dragon king. But his daughter gets awakened and the lotus sutra became very important to female practitioners because it was the only sutra, in Japan, it is the only sutra that they could refer to that had a female awakening.
However, we do know that there were many awakened females. Yeshe Tsogyal, for example, studied with Padma Sambhava (Guru Rinpoche) and became a fully enlightened being and a teacher in her own right. She was Tibetan, well maybe before Tibet existed as a country, but she was from the Himalayas there. And we know that there were others. Mahakasyapa was maybe one of the main students of Shakyamuni Buddha. he was one of the 16 arhats and I only just learned a couple of months ago that his wife was fully awakened. And so I was like, wait a minute. So there were 17 arhats, or at least 17 arhats. And why did they only count them as 16 if there was a 17th, who was female, and how many other female arhats were there? So this is what I mean about, this is the early days, still, that we’re uncovering this information and that we have the wherewithal to piece it together and to share it.
Ironically I started teaching. I was quite happy as Doug Sensei’s attendant in many ways, and I started teaching because, well we started teaching together, because some students started telling us that they thought that I didn’t have any realization because I wasn’t teaching. I was always with Doug Sensei and he was always teaching and I was always kind of handling those teachings. I did a lot of serving Doug Sensei and I was doing a lot of the organization for his teachings and travels and so on. And a number of people told us, well if she had the realization, she’d be teaching. Both Doug Sensei and I were kind of astonished that that was the view. And so we kind of figured I guess I’d better start teaching to help change that view. And so that’s really an example of: Realization doesn’t have anything to do with rolls or robes. Someone said I didn’t wear robes enough, or something like that. So it’s really, really important that we don’t get duped by the forms or by the titles.
Who is a realized being?
It was in Naropa, I think that got sort of busted in this realization by, I think a cleaning lady. He was the head of Nalanda University, which was the greatest Buddhist university at the time and therefore one of the greatest universities, and this kind of bigger woman poor bent over, not a very attractive looking woman just came out to him and says, do you know the meaning of what you’re saying or do you just know the words? He said, well I know the words and she smiled really big and he was like look at her smiling and he’s like and I know the meaning to you know, was into having a Mudita moment and then she started crying and he said, why are you crying? And she says because you don’t know you’re lying. To Naropa’s great credit, he went and studied with Talopa because he knew she was right. This is just an example that realized beings don’t always look like realized beings.
It’s really up to us to pay attention and ask questions and you know, hone the swords of our own understanding so that we can sharpen our own perception, sharpen our own awareness, increase the capacity of our own understanding and also be able to discern a good teacher from, say, a famous person who’s a good speaker. Because there are both and there’s the entire range in between. And so it’s very important that students are active in this. You know, we don’t just sit passively and listen, we go for understanding in a very active way and we need to do that so that we push our own understanding, we push our teacher’s understanding, we push our sangha’s understanding and we can find the greatest realization and hopefully study with those people with the greatest realization.
Resources and Gender in Buddhism
Our lineage has traveled a lot. That’s a really strong importance of our teaching. We were in Ladakh, Ladakh is sometimes called little Tibet. It’s in northern India adjacent to Tibet. We were there for about a month. That was a really wonderful trip. We went to all these monasteries, they were amazing. We had a great time. We learned so much and at some point, I realized we were going to lots of monasteries. I asked our tour guide who was a very sincere Buddhist practitioner, and I said can we go to a convent? And he was like, oh sure. So he organized something. These monasteries were simple. They were living not exactly marginally, but not with the comforts that we take for granted. And we went to this convent and oh gosh! The women were in the most amazing states. They were really shiny and radiant and smiley and their convent was a construction site.
It was like half rubble. I was really shocked. I was not really sure how they were living there because it looked a little bit dangerous. It looked like maybe something had fallen, like a roof had fallen in or something. I inquired and they were like, oh, it’s under construction. But it was not actively under construction. And that was maybe my, my first, first-hand exposure to, I think, monasteries can struggle to be solvent, to support all of their monks. And it was very clear that the nuns struggled more. And so this has been a long theme, not exclusive to Buddhism by any means, but there’s this ongoing theme of access to resources that affects female practitioners in a big way. I don’t think that’s necessarily discrimination. I think that just goes way back into human history where men had greater access to resources because they were physically stronger and that was, remembered they’re kind of at the front of the house.
You know, they’re out to sort of whatever mining or getting timber or something because they’re stronger and that’s what they can do, And, and then if women have some kind of connection with those men then they have more access to resources and so then that can work really well. Nuns probably don’t have that much connection with that many men. So there go the resources. The reason that’s important in Buddhism is that that has just kind of spread out like a huge fan or tsunami or something where we know that there were more awakened women than we know about. They just didn’t get written about that much. They didn’t get, you know maybe their teachings didn’t get preserved. Maybe they didn’t get resources. So their teachings weren’t preserved at all. Maybe their teachings exist but haven’t been translated for example.
So as we can see just in our lives, our own lives today, you know, resources is a really big issue and so we just wanna think about or reflect on how that influences practitioners and then how that influences our views, how that influences our ability to practice. When I talk about our ability to practice, I really wanted a woman teacher when I was a young woman before I had a teacher. And I spent several years looking for a female teacher. Two things happened: one, I didn’t find a female teacher, there were not that many of us, and then there were fewer back then. And two, I realized that if I was looking so hard for a female teacher, I probably needed a male teacher. I figured I probably had some work to do, which I think was true. We’re in a really important time in human history where women do have access to resources. We can, in a sense, kind of generate our own resources. This is very, very new in human history.
Women, BIPOC, and other cultures in Buddhism
I just encourage everyone to work with this phenomenon very consciously in how you show up as a practitioner. I think that we can extrapolate this. If we talk about the relationship between male and female practitioners then one thing that’s of great interest to me is: Buddhism in North America is so white, and Buddhism has been in North America for quite some time, mostly in Asian communities, primarily in Asian immigrant communities which we don’t hear about very often. So when you talk about Buddhism in America, I think it’s not unusual to think about the well-known white teachers, probably disproportionately male, not 50-50, anyway. And then that goes down the line to: What about practitioners and teachers of color? What about practitioners and teachers who are not in the binary gender spectrum? So I think this question of women in Buddhism can be really important moving forward because what I’m really excited about is Global Buddhism. You know, what Buddhism looks like in Latin America?
What is Buddhism look like in Africa? it’s gonna look different and as our consciousness increases about living on one planet, this comes to be really important. I don’t think it’s a good idea for global Buddhism to be dominated by White American Buddhism. And that’s possible because America kind of dominates the global media. So I think we wanna use women and gender in Buddhism as a kind of template for all these other dynamics that are increasingly important now.
So I have a confession to make. I was doing a practice with Guhyasamaja, who some of you may know, and that’s a tantric practice. It’s a Yab/Yam male deity with a female consort. (There are at least 100 and eight deities.) I have done more mantras in that because they sometimes have multiple mantras and it can be intimidating, daunting task to do, 100,000 of all those mantras. But I realized with some grief that when I did a tantric deity, I generally only did the male practice side of the practice and if I did the female it was like a really small, you know, maybe at best 75/25, probably less than that, maybe 90/10 or something. On a more hopeful note, I’ve been asking Doug Sensei permission to add to the sadhanas, the tantric sadhanas to make sure that the name of the female consort is there and that her mantra is there. And sometimes we find some other really amazing information and I get Sensei’s permission to add that in. And so well I’m kind of sorry, I’m kind of not, that I just doubled everybody’s number of mantras that we’re gonna do, but that means double the realization. Right, Right? But you know, it’s moments like that that I realized like, wow, I’ve been a feminist since I was 10 or whatever you wanna call it, you know, working for gender equality my whole life, and I’m not saying the female mantra. It really makes me realize how deep this is for all of us and how awesome it is that we have the power to change it.
We hope you enjoyed this episode. Please rate and review Dharma if You Dare on your favorite podcast app to help more people find and benefit from these teachings. And don’t forget to subscribe to get episodes and bonus content sent directly to your device. As I mentioned in the introduction, Sensei and Qapel really enjoyed being able to connect with Daniel and the wisdom podcast. Planet Dharma is, as the name suggests, committed to forwarding the vision of a truly planetary manifestation of 21st-century teachings of awakening. If you have a publication or a podcast that is interested in adding the voices of Qapel and Sensei to your conversation, you can reach out to me at [email protected], and I’d be happy to put you in touch with our administrative team to explore what that could look like. See you next time, and may all our efforts benefit all beings.