The Feminist and the Monk



Carol W. Gundersen has been a feminist since the early days of the modern women’s movement.  She was a founding member of the NOW chapter in her community in 1970, she marched for the ERA and she helped to create and maintain a program at the university to support single moms to get advanced degrees.  As a member of the School Board in 1972, she brought her Ms. Magazine to a meeting to inform the Board of the new federal Title IX provisions that would thereafter require schools to equally fund boy’s and girl’s sports.  And she always assigned her sons to help in the kitchen.  She herself has been a student of the Buddha for longer than her daughter, the monk….


Dear Mom,

Our days together at the cabin two weeks ago, despite the heat (phew!) will be remembered with such fondness for the peace there, for our times in the cooling water and around the dinner table, conversing and sweating!  I am also remembering the article you asked me to comment on, in which the author, a Buddhist, describes her analysis of Buddhism from the perspective of the feminine, as she describes her framework.  Thank you for sharing the article with me.  The article and the conversation we had about it have continued to work their way through me.

I mentioned to you that the capacity for androgyny holds a place of honor in the classic Buddhist canon.  One central iconic figure of great spiritual power within the tradition is sometimes portrayed as a man and sometimes as a woman.  Another is presented as male but with a “consort,” a female partner wrapped around him, skin to skin.  These icons and many similar others speak to the possibility of expressing and manifesting one’s greatest power and truth through the marriage of active and passive forces.  Effortless effort is one way this is described; leaving the painful limitations of the ego behind, being freed to live fully from the ongoing flow of life, neither pushing it nor holding it back.

With that aforementioned cabin in the woods now occupying a central role in a family conflict, I am being given a golden opportunity to contemplate the balance of feminine and masculine, active and passive energies as they have played out within me.  For decades I have chosen an active role in taking care of the cabin, leading the cabin owners through conflict after conflict, striving to be a good steward to our property, taking responsibility for it, for us.

But something has changed.  My monk’s training is showing me to myself, showing me that by helping the cabin group to function optimally, helping everyone to get along, helping the place survive, I have acted out of a self-centered interest to be the one in charge, the one who pulls the strings, the one who knows best and who others lean on to lead the way.   This impulse to act is a habit that has as its underlying motive to look good in the eyes of others.  To be viewed with respect and admiration.  This is true not only in the cabin group…but there it is on full display right now.  My lifelong tendencies to take the lead are inciting me to jump in to save the day.

The cabin is treasured as “ours” by those who now fight for it to remain as it has been for four generations.  I too held this view for so many years, even though it was a source of such painful difficult feelings of dislike and distrust both within me and between me and others.   The pain of it has led me to seek a wiser way.  I find myself turning toward the practice of uncovering long-buried feminine energies so that they might be a worthy consort to my over-active tendency to push, strive, lead from a masculine energy stream.

It has been both thrilling and terrifying to challenge so many of my ways of being in the world.  I do not want to give up my job title of wise…helpful…at the ready…one who can be counted on in times of trouble.  By letting go of these old ways of being, by not acting, not having answers, I open to the power of the feminine, the one who waits, who surrenders and absorbs, who allows all things to be.

The Buddha taught that whenever we employ fixed ideas and opinions to navigate the world, we are operating from a falsehood built on hatred and greed and on the delusion that we are solid, that what was true yesterday will be true today, tomorrow, always.  When we believe we are solid….and that we will last…then all we have seems worth keeping, protecting, fighting for.  But none of us is getting out alive!  All that we have, all that we are is change.  There is no “Me,” nothing we have belongs to us for very long.

Yet the idea of “Me” and “Mine” is so entrenched, so merged with our every act and thought that a student of the Buddha practices to be awake in every moment, always aware of how this selfish self is coloring the picture we have.  If we are paying attention, we see the self shaping our experience every time we want life to be different than it is, every time we believe we are entitled to anything.  All these shadings and images separate us from the ultimate truth that by letting go of the self, we can see what has been true all along: That we are absolutely safe, absolutely cared for.

I am learning the great power of NOT painting the world in the same old habits and beliefs.  This fight so close to home is showing my colors to me.  To see the truth of it takes effort and determination born of love for the possibility that when I let go of my attachments to “Me,” and “Mine,” the fear will dissolve into calm and clarity of purpose.  I am honing the skill of relinquishing my self-serving perspective on any situation, to be silent so that I do as little harm as is possible.  To stop trying so hard to help and see the deeper truth that I do not know what is best for anyone else.

As I cultivate stillness and self-reflection in the face of the unfolding cabin difficulties, I find that I am making room for the possibility of responsive, generous and truly caring interactions with ALL the world.  This is what I yearn for.  This is why I practice.  As difficult and painful as the cabin conflict has become, it is also a gift.  It has awoken me to the truth of how domination and control and their dark underbellies of shame and guilt have lived in me, thrived in me.  I am so grateful for the possibility of finding another Way.

The name given to me upon my monk’s ordination is Old Fire Skyward.  That old flame, when used correctly to burn away that which no longer serves me, creates a greater light that shines on a vast all-embracing Truth.  You showing me that article has helped me to find my way toward this new home.  It has lighted the path for me.

The fires of the cabin group’s difficult and divisive history also light the path.  It is a relief to find that I am not for or against anything that is happening or has happened or will happen as the cabin owners make their/our way through the flames.  It is all important.  The flames and the burns they leave show each of us the truth of our suffering.  All of us, whatever our varying opinions and motivations and actions are helping each other to wake up.

May all beings be free from suffering.

May all beings benefit from the merits of this practice.

With love, Andrea Old Fire.

Humming Bird

Author: Lao Yuo Shakya

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