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Rebecca Ryan explores the roles of women in the world of Zen – May 2020

“Where are the women in Zen?” she asked at the end of our weekend retreat.

She and I – and about a dozen others, all women, except two men – one the landowner who invited us to use his land to train and the other, the man who’d been co-facilitating the weekend – had been training intensively in Zen and somatics for four days. 

Where were the women? We were on our cushions. Two of us were in the kitchen, preparing all the meals. But her question was sincere. I think she meant, “Is there a place for me in this training, beyond a support role?”

Her question burned in me; if I could not answer this for her, it might deter other strong women who are also looking for reflections of themselves in this training. 

I began to look more deeply into my own dojo. Until then, I had never seen a female Roshi (Zen master) deliver teisho (a teaching/talk during sesshin). Teishos often revolved around stories of our male forebears. The calligraphy we practiced was from Tesshu, a man. I had mostly seen male jikis (the person who starts and ends zazen.) During okyo, we chant the Teidai Dempo, the lineage of all the ancestors who came before us. It’s four pages long and includes 90 names – all men.

Where are the women in Zen?

In the preface to her book Zen Women, Grace Schireson shares an anecdote about a male teacher returning from a North American conference of Zen teachers. A female student asked him, “How many women teachers were included in this conference?” The male teacher answered, “We were all women.” 

His response may have been a reminder that in Zen, “male” and “female” are simply labels and our job is to transcend them. Or maybe he was trying to wiggle out of the possibility that within Zen, there is gender discrimination. Schireson writes, “Today, I would cut through that confusion by asking him politely, ‘How many of you women teachers used the ladies’ room at this Zen conference?’”

Zen Men

With my logical mind, I know that the reason we read about male Zen masters is because most Roshis and Zen teachings passed teacher-to-students through Zen monasteries. And within monasteries, residents were men. Zen men are everywhere.

There were several notable nunneries, but they were far fewer and had different rules that made them secondary to monasteries. Women were given limited access to ordination and second-class status. To find women in Zen, you have to hunt. 

But just because there were far fewer nunneries and nuns were treated with less honor than monks doesn’t mean that The Way burned less brightly for women. Rather, most women who studied Zen had to do it from home, as laypeople.

Zen at Home

This place, home, is where I realized We are all Zen Women. Because right now, male and female, we are all practicing at home.

In April 2020, COVID prevented our dojo from gathering in-person for Spring sesshin. Instead, we gathered and trained online. Like Zen women of thousands of years ago, we sat zazen after waking up in our own beds, before and after making our families’ meals and attending to our children and pets. We sat and trained after our families were fast asleep. Our training became our daily life and our daily life became a way of practice. 

It was a powerful lesson: training is not something we do occasionally when we are on retreat at a formal dojo. For our Zen grandmothers and great grandmothers, training was not something that they waited to do inside a nunnery. For them, for us, practice is every day in every routine household chore. The dojo is not a place you go to train. The dojo is this moment, whatever you’re doing.


If you would like to join a discussion about women and Zen please email Rebecca Ryan, ryanrebecca@me.com and start your hunt with Zen Women and The Hidden Lamp.

Ginny Whitelaw headshot

Speaking of Women in Zen, our own Ginny Whitelaw Roshi was interviewed by Marysia Czarski of Entrepreneur’s Velocity about her Way from administrator at NASA to developing the innovative leadership programs we know in IZL today. Can hara breathing make you a more effective entrepreneur, a healthier, more resonant individual? Listen and find out!

7-7-7 “Social distancing” is good medical advice, but “social unifying” is good for the whole of you. Join our dojo and IZL Community for online meditation (and some “tea time”), 7 days a week at 7 am and 7 pm (U.S. Central Time Zone).

virtual zazen 7am & 7pm U.S. Central time

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