Why We Need Female Spiritual Leaders

I spent the last two weeks meditating for several hours a day, maintaining silence, and chanting a hell of a lot — such is the drill at my Zen temple’s annual summer retreat. It’s 24/7 spiritual development on hyperspeed, thanks to the lack of chatter, the lack of internet and smartphone use, and the endless amounts of time spent staring at a wall to center oneself in the moment. And yet, nothing provoked more thought in me during this particular year’s retreat than two of the tiniest details that have all but escaped me in the past: an occasional chant we do in which we name the female Buddhist leaders of the past (what we call the “Matriarchs’ Lineage”) and a throwaway line in one of our daily services in which the Zen student leading the chant dedicates its merits (we’re very big on dedicating merits) to “the women and men” at the nearby U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

These two little, mundane liturgical occurrences couldn’t help but make me think, this time, of Catholic priest Roy Bourgeois and the chruch’s recent threats to excommunicate him because of he’s been agitating for the ordination of women. The reason our group, the Manhattan-based Village Zendo, made these two tiny changes in our services years ago, of our own accord, was because we were founded by, and are still led by, Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara and Sensei Barbara Joshin O’Hara, both women. Of our top tier of four senior teachers, two are women. None of this is a coincidence; it’s exactly why female leadership is needed in any organization, because women see the ingrained inequalities and right them intuitively. The Matriarch’s Lineage was a Village Zendo creation, and took quite a bit of meticulous research to get correct — but our female leadership knew it was worth the effort. It’s not always men’s faults that they don’t see such slights as the fact that many chanted lineages are completely male, and that women have surely contributed to the building of many religions, whether or not their contributions were recorded as meticulously as men’s. That aside, just hearing “women” before “men” in the bit about West Point always warms my feminist heart a little — what a Zen miracle! Not only do we count, but we can come first sometimes!

Of course, having female spiritual leadership goes beyond these superficial — if welcome — liturgical niceties. Much of our retreat time includes one-on-one guidance from teachers, and this year, three of my four individual talks were with women. Debates over female ordination tempt one to mention women’s allegedly inherent nurturing qualities and the saintliness often ascribed to femininity, but I don’t believe in any of that. (Roshi, for one, is very warm and welcoming, but also quite no-nonsense and practical — qualities that attracted me to her in the first place.) For me, talking with these women who are guiding my spiritual development simply gives me a much-needed feeling that I, too, can aspire to be as enlightened as they are. Will I be? That’s a far off time. But it’s a little easier for me to imagine — and when you want to genuinely, truly practice a religion, you need to feel that some level of wisdom is attainable, is, in fact, available to you. You can’t feel like even your very own congregation, or synagogue, or temple, or mosque, or whatever your spiritual group of choice may be, doesn’t think you’re quite worthy of its wisdom (or of imparting it to others).

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