As I sit down to write a response to this question, I hear Arya Tara gently whispering that in reality there are no men and no women. Yet my women friends often ask why there aren’t more women dharma teachers. (Curiously, I don’t recall ever hearing a man ask this question.) While my gender-fluid and gender non-conforming friends raise questions beyond the gender binary, I hope that they too will enjoy my musings on this question.

In my years as a Buddhist Studies student, I heard a variety of historical reasons to explain the fact that dharma teachers are usually men, the most often cited being social pressures in India during the establishment of Buddhism, women’s child bearing and child-rearing responsibilities, illiteracy, and misogynistic editors who expunged women from early Buddhist texts. Tibet’s history of monasticism is frequently cited to explain the rarity of Tibetan Buddhist women teachers. Buddha himself is said to have been reluctant to admit women into the sangha, perhaps because of the difficulties of the lifestyle, or the view that the women’s presence would be a distraction for male monks, making it necessary to add more rules for nuns than for monks.  The Buddha himself is also said to have predicted that the life of the dharma would be shortened because of the presence of women. In her book Buddhism After Patriarchy, the late Buddhist feminist scholar Rita Gross suggests that in the early years of Buddhism in India, both nuns and lay women played significant roles. However, the words of Buddhist women have rarely been preserved. Why should we expect men raised from boyhood in exclusively male institutions to have preserved the contributions of women, paving the way, centuries later, for Western women to become Buddhist teachers? 

But despite these historical and contemporary challenges, women have had a vital role in planting dharma in the West. 

Chögyam Trungpa, my first Buddhist teacher, offers profound teachings on the “feminine principle” in his book Glimpses of Space. Trungpa taught that “wisdom” is the feminine, and “compassion” the masculine principle; they are prajna and upaya, emptiness and skillful methods, which are forever paired as the nature or essence of things.

Our human condition is none other than a dance of these masculine and feminine energies. Prajna, a Sanskrit word, means this wisdom of emptiness, or “transcendental knowledge.”  Prajnaparamita is known as “mother of all the buddhas.” In Trungpa’s words this is unconditional space, “the sense of accommodation and the potentiality of giving birth.” (p.3)  The essence of the feminine principle is, “ . . . that real world that you cannot grasp” (p.12), or, “basic accommodation without trying.”(p.27)  It is no wonder that in our materialistic society, the intangible or subterranean quality of feminine wisdom goes unnoticed and is considered unimpressive, if it is recognized at all. This lack of awareness creates suffering, hurting persons of all gender identities and the Earth herself. 

We must claim the power we have either doubted or surrendered. Yet how, when our profound gifts lie in the invisible, the in-between, the inconceivable, the wisdom space? 

As a “recognized” female dharma teacher I experience many complexities. Some are my own ingrained patterns, and some mirror those of my dharma sisters who ask, “Why aren’t there more women Buddhist teachers?” I often experience a deep fear that in truth I know nothing and have nothing to teach. I have discovered that when I think of a dharma teacher, I envision someone (always male,) sitting in formal attire on a stage, discoursing articulately with in-depth knowledge and authority on dharma topics or precious texts. I cannot do that. Like others, I’m stuck in thinking that credible dharma teaching has a single manifestation. 

There are other ways to teach, other ways people learn things. My mother (teaching what she called “Field Biology” since Ecology wasn’t in existence at that time) used to take her Brooklyn College classes on field trips to the New Jersey Pine Barrens where she would instruct her students to, “sit down, shut up, and listen.” My daughter created her job at WE Communications, (“one of the largest communications and integrated marketing agencies in the world,” according to their website) where she coaches new employees that they have value and something to contribute. I create communal situations where people open to space, relax their hearts and minds, and experience a common humanity and shared responsibility. By expanding our view of teaching beyond a single manifestation, we learn to recognize and value ourselves and a diversity of others in astonishing new ways. 

Long ago, an entourage of Tibetan teachers visited Boulder, and among them was a beautiful woman who was said to be a very high teacher. I watched her closely, trying to understand why she was called a great teacher. We were told that she never spoke. Caught as I was in the view that the lecture was the model of great teaching, I didn’t understand why she was called “great.” I couldn’t even see her as a teacher. I still vividly remember looking at her and, while writing this, suddenly I felt from her a deep, utter serenity. Amazing to only now receive her teaching.

Having a title with “status” can be a challenge for anyone but for women teachers this challenge is amplified. The visibility a title gives can be more of a hindrance than a support because students may pay respect to the title but not receive what one is trying to communicate. Labels can get between the message and its reception. While some students will have a negative reaction to anyone in a position of authority, in societies with deep and long histories of misogyny and sexism, the reactions can be stronger and more aggressive.

On another level, the female voice is so habitually unheard or disregarded that a title may make no difference. Have you (I’m asking the women) ever said something in a discussion that went completely ignored, only to have a man reiterate what you just said and receive applause for his insight? Or perhaps you have watched yourself defer to a man’s opinions rather than sticking up for your own ideas? Have you ever been complimented by a guy for an original strategy, but later on discovered that he had used it as his own creation? Or all of the above. We’re used to this, but maybe we feel that our Buddhist path should be different.

Many Buddhist women are teaching in all sorts of valuable ways all around the sangha. We couldn’t function without their generosity, exertion, patience, skills and wisdom, but they may not be seen or identified as teachers. One might even think, “It’s always up to the women to do the dirty work.” I trust that our gurus recognize this prajna, and that these women are seen and appreciated even if they haven’t been given a special label. We are fortunate to have teachers who see beyond our male, female, and gender non-binary neuroses to our wisdom and clarity and who provide us with many outstanding opportunities to develop our practices. Padmasambhava, Guru Rinpoche, said to his foremost student, the Lady Yeshe Tsogyal, “The basis for realizing Enlightenment is a human body. Male or female, there is no great difference. But if she develops the mind bent on Enlightenment, the woman’s body is better.”

Inspired by Arya Tara’s aspiration and vow to help beings, I am committed to raising my own awareness. Do I subtly dismiss my teaching presence in our mandala when I’m not the one sitting in front giving the talk? Do I dismiss my sister Buddhists when they are not up there either? Perhaps I and we need to study feminine principle more. When we all become more femininely confident, perhaps we can arouse and strengthen more compassion (the masculine principle) in ourselves and others, inviting and allowing both wisdom and compassion to shine forth brilliantly.

In my training as an actress, we worked with the slogan, “If you want to make a King, bow to him.” This is another way of saying that teaching depends not only on the knowledge or wisdom of the teacher, but on the willingness of students to receive what is being taught. By recognizing multifaceted styles and manifestations of teachers and teachings, we become more finely tuned to the subtle teachings arising from many different directions all the time. 

If there aren’t enough women teachers in the dharma, perhaps we should open up, attend more closely not just to women but to the feminine principle, to the Mother of all the Buddhas who is constantly giving birth all around us. Bow to those offering wisdom teachings. As women, let’s lead the way by recognizing and honoring the feminine ways of teaching, especially when it comes through those without “credentials.” We can illuminate our sisters’ wisdom by joining in with it, dancing with it, giving voice to it, and empowering it.

 If you want to make a woman dharma teacher, bow to Prajnaparamita.

Mitra Lee Worley
Mitra Lee Worley

Mitra Lee Worley was a founding member of Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater where she worked as an actress, director and teacher before leaving NYC for northern New Mexico in the early 1970’s. In 1976, Buddhist meditation master Chogyam Trungpa invited her to create a Theater Studies department at the Naropa Institute where she taught acting and contemplative education for 44 years. Now a Naropa University Professor Emerita, Lee leads meditation retreats and Space Awareness workshops internationally and teaches for Nalandabodhi from her home in Boulder, Colorado. Mitra Lee’s two books, Coming From Nothing: The Sacred Art of Acting and Teaching Presence: Field Notes for Players, are available for purchase (click this bio to contact her).

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