About 15 years ago, when I was abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, a woman came into my formal interview room early in the morning, sat down and burst into tears. This was surprising, considering she was a pretty rough looking woman, with lots of leather, piercings and tattoos. I asked her why she was crying and she said, "Today in service, like every day, we chanted the Zen lineage and it was all men! I feel such pain for all the women left out over the generations."
For me this was as big an enlightenment experience as I ever had. It changed me immediately and completely. Of course, I had been well aware that the lineage we chanted every day was entirely male. And I realized that this was not right. After all, throughout my Zen practice in America I had always practiced side by side and on equal terms with women. But never before had it occurred to me that the chanting of this all-male lineage could cause someone actual pain. Seeing this young woman in tears before me, I felt the suffering of generations of exclusion and injustice and it agitated me.
The next day I began a process in the Zen Center (which is the oldest and largest Zen practice center in the West) to chant the names of a lineage of women. It took a lot of persuasion and many meetings, but within a few months the San Francisco Zen Center was doing this in our services at all three of our temples. From there the practice spread to other Western Soto Zen places and now most chant a women's lineage.
In Soto Zen we have many solemn rituals, among them initiation ceremonies for lay and priest disciples. In all such ceremonies we give what we call lineage documents to mark the students "change of lineage" as he or she officially enters the sangha (the Buddhist community). We inherited these documents from Japan and have kept them with reverence.
In Japan, of course, monks and nuns do not practice together and male monastics are, to this day, the ones who really count. So of course the official Japanese lineage is entirely male. Though we had changed the chanting, changing the documents seemed much more daunting, so we never took this up.
But a few years ago, at the Zen community of poet and lay Zen teacher Peter Leavitt on Salt Spring island in Canada, I performed what might have been the first Soto Zen Initiation ritual which included a women's lineage document. I did this at the request of Peter and his community, and with the design and research help of Zen teacher-scholar Grace Schireson, who is an expert on women in Zen and has written a book about this (Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens and Macho Masters, Wisdom Press, 2010).
Zen teachers can operate fairly independently but I don't think this is such a good idea. Like all religions and social movements, Zen benefits when leaders come together for mutual influence and support. In the late 1980s, some American Zen teachers began talking to our Japanese colleagues about the possibility of our joining the Japanese Soto Zen organization and becoming, for the first time and after several decades of Zen practice in America, officially affiliated. This was a frustrating conversation. The sense of what Zen is and how it is practiced in the West is so different from the way it's held in Japan, where tradition and ancestry is central, that we couldn't get anywhere.
So about seven or eight years ago we began our own Soto Zen Organization, the Soto Zen Buddhist Association of America. (Unlike other Buddhisms that come from various Asians countries, American Soto Zen has received official religious -- though not organizational -- sanction so it need no longer depend on Japan ecclesiastical support for its authority).
After the Salt Spring ceremony, Grace and I decided to bring the issue of women's lineage to the Association for national approval. This October the organization, after two years of consideration, approved in principle the giving of women's lineage documents in all Soto Zen initiation rites, the first time in Zen history that this has been done.
There is no doubt in my mind that ancient religious traditions, despite all their baggage and painful histories, are still very valuable -- the moreso in this present scientific materialistic age when human confusion and the search for sustainable meaning are as drastic as ever. There is simply no way to match the amount of experimentation, discussion, literature, history, tradition, doctrine and know-how that is embedded in these age-old discourses and institutions. Starting all over with new practices, theories and doctrines, or mixing and matching what we can find from various religions as it suits us is OK. But is simply not as good, not as deep and not as thorough.
Yet we can't ignore that all the great religious traditions (Buddhism included) were created in feudalistic contexts, in which women were oppressed, gays and lesbians vilified and injustice of all sorts supported. These things have to be changed. Religion has to be updated drastically in order to be preserved, and it seems to me that the issue of full inclusion of women is pivotal in this process.
In American Soto Zen (but certainly not in Japanese Soto) we have maybe for the first time in any continuous ancient religious tradition full inclusion for women. In American Soto, women can be fully ordained priests, abbots and Zen masters and can take their places side by side with men, sharing status and leadership equally. And now, finally, women's names are not only chanted in services but handed out on official lineage documents to all ordained Zen Buddhists -- men as well as women.
By the way, that tattooed and pierced young woman is long gone from the Zen Center. She was around only for a brief time, I suppose for the purpose of enlightening the abbot. These days I wonder whether I dreamed her up, or whether maybe she was a goddess of some sort.