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.