iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Rev. Zesho Susan O'Connell

GET UPDATES FROM Rev. Zesho Susan O'Connell

10 Buddhist Women Every Person Should Know

Posted: 03/30/2012 6:54 am

In 1996 during Fall Practice Period at Tassajara Zen Mountain Monastery, I participated in the first chanting of the names of Buddhist women ancestors. San Francisco Zen Center's Abbess at that time, Eijun Linda Ruth Cutts, led the effort and did the difficult research necessary to create this list, which began with Buddha's stepmother and ended in Japan. Tears filled my eyes when everyone, men and woman together, wholeheartedly recited these names. I had no idea until that moment how much I had missed this connection. The Buddhism we practice in the West came to us primarily through talented, kind, wonderful male teachers. The female teachers who have always been part of the history of transmission of the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha have seldom been recognized, or included, in written history. There are many reasons for this, most of which are cultural. Even today, the women Buddhist teachers in Asia are often less valued, less respected and certainly receive less financial support than male teachers.

It is my belief that one of the most important changes that have come about in the practice of many (but not all) forms of Buddhism in the West is the equal treatment of men and women. Even in Buddhist lineages that have been slower to recognize this equality, women teachers are arising anyway. In my temple men and women are taught together, live together and are ordained together.

Because of the importance of supporting this understanding and communicating this value of equality (which began when the Buddha initiated his stepmother into his sangha), many contemporary scholars have continued to research and acknowledge the names of these women. Because of the work of people like Rev. Grace Shearson I am now more familiar with the women of the past and present. And because today's teachers are no longer in the background, I have had the opportunity of meeting them and receiving their teachings. So, when asked to describe Buddhist women who have "added to the depth and beauty of the faith," a virtual parade of amazing teachers marched through my mind. Starting with Buddha's stepmother Mahapajapati, then Zenkei Blanche Hartman, the San Francisco Zen Center's first Abbess, followed by Pema Chodron, an extraordinary teacher and best selling author.

But then it became clear to me that there is a "teacher in hiding" that should also be recognized -- Emila Heller, a dear friend who has participated in residential Zen practice for 37 years, and who is very reticent to hold herself up as a Buddhist Teacher. Emila's presence in the community is in sharp contrast to the norm. The majority of the residents, men and woman alike, have ordained as "priests" and are on a clear track to be trained to offer themselves as teachers and holders of ceremonial tradition. Emila has turned down opportunities to ordain, and has held firm to her position as a "lay" person, simply applying her practice presence and kindness to every moment. While many of us at San Francisco Zen Center study how Zen practice is "nothing special," Emila's stance shines a light on the times when we fall away from this understanding. In the '90s she was the manager of our organic farm. When it came time for someone new to take over that position, she became an important support person, but demurred when anyone referred to her as a Teacher.

Now, at the age of 70, when she could "retire" from our work-practice activities, she insists on going out to the fields and cropping lettuce alongside the young farm apprentices. Her deep commitment to the land, and to the new generation of caretakers of the land, informs her every move. No one can crop lettuce faster, or more lovingly, than Emila.

It is not easy in our community to buck a trend. Some have seen Emila as a contrarian. I have known her as someone who is deeply respectful of the choice to train as a priest. In fact, I have often joked that if you really want to know how well you are following the forms of Zen, just ask Emila. She is watching.

Emila Heller deeply committed lay Zen practitioner, teacher to me, teacher to those who honor the land. By refusing to call herself a teacher she reminds us all to drop our ideas of what a teacher really is.

Loading Slideshow...
  • Mahapajapati

    Buddha's step-mother, whose repeated request to ordain as one of his followers resulted in the Buddha going against the cultural norms of his time and opening his teachings to women. (Photo courtesy of the <a href="" target="_hplink">Druk Gawa Khilwa Abbey</a>.)

  • Nancy Wilson Ross

    Ms. Ross was a writer whose last three books introduced Buddhism to Western readers: "The World of Zen: An East-West Anthology" (1960), "Three Ways of Asian Wisdom" (1966) and "Buddhism, a Way of Life and Thought" (1980). (Photo courtesy of <a href="" target="_hplink"></a>)

  • Elsie Mitchell

    Elsie was one of the quiet pioneers of American Buddhism. She established the Cambridge Buddhist Association and wrote a book called "Sun Buddhas, Moon Buddhas." She was an important patron of Buddhism in the west. (Photo from <a href=" Project/other/Elsie/em.html" target="_hplink"></a>)

  • Maurine Stuart

    She was one of the first female Zen masters to teach in the <a href="" title="United States" target="_blank" >United States</a>, and in 1979 became president and spiritual director of the <a href="" title="Cambridge Buddhist Association" target="_blank" >Cambridge Buddhist Association</a>. Soen Nakagawa, her teacher, who had given <a href="" title="Dharma transmission" target="_blank" >Dharma transmission</a> previously to five individuals (all male), granted Stuart the title in defiance of convention. She was a masterful pianist who sometimes played her music at the end of meditation retreats, and was not at all hesitant to include mascera and lipstick as part of Zen Master way. (Photo courtesy of <a href="" target="_hplink"></a>)

  • Zenkei Blanche Hartman

    San Francisco Zen Center's first Abbess. Blanche's participation as the first female spiritual leader of the Sangha was a living example of equality in the Suzuki Roshi lineage, and represented a sea change for Western Buddhism.

  • Eijun Linda Ruth Cutts

    <a href="" target="_hplink">San Francisco Zen Center</a>'s second Abbess co-led the Sangha with Blanche Hartman for several years in the '90s. Linda's practice of compassion and devotion to Kwan Yin, the avatar of compassion, was evident when she led a group of 32 women on a tour of Kwan Yin temples in China. She is writing a book about this life changing journey.

  • Pema Chodron

    Pema is one of the most loved Buddhist teachers alive today. Her books, like "Start Where you Are" and "When Things Fall Apart," are written in such an accessible language. Before starting her life as a Buddhist Teacher, she lived a typical life as a wife and mother. This experience has colored her teachings in so many ways. I recommend her books to anyone interested in learning how to live a full and happy life.

  • Sharon Salzberg

    Sharon began teaching Vipassana meditation in 1974, after having studied in Asia. She established, together with Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfield, the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts. She is a teacher and an author, and her understanding and expression of the importance of compassion is a vital offering to our world.

  • Karma Lekshe Tsomo

    Karma Lekshe Tsomo is both an ordained Teacher and a scholar, whose primary academic interests include women in Buddhism, and bioethics. She is actively involved in interfaith dialogue and in grassroots initiatives for the empowerment of women. She is president of <a href="" target="_hplink">Sakyadhita: International Association of Buddhist Women</a> and director of <a href="" target="_hplink">Jamyang Foundation</a>, an initiative to provide educational opportunities for women in the Indian Himalayas and Bangladesh.

  • Emila Heller

    Emila Heller is a wonderful example of a long-time Buddhist lay practitioner whose life is her teaching.


Follow Rev. Zesho Susan O'Connell on Twitter: