Book Review: In Search of Buddha’s Daughters by Christine Toomey

“The difference between a path and a road is not only the obvious one. A path is little more than a habit that comes with knowledge of a place. It is a sort of ritual of familiarity. As a form, it is a form of contact with a known landscape. It is not destructive. It is the perfect adaptation, through experience and familiarity, of movement to place; it obeys the natural contours; such obstacles as it meets it goes around.”
― Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays

Buddhism’s mainstay is a constant repetitive invitation to step onto the path, enter the practice by cultivating the skills of the Eightfold Path. It’s a familiar image and anyone having embarked on such a path would easily say it’s not a straight road from here to wherever. In her book In Search of Buddha’s Daughters*, Christine Toomey’s intimate portraits of the nuns in various traditions in Buddhism offer clear evidence that the path is neither simple nor easy, not only in their individuals paths that brought them to ordination but also in the over-arching path of the legitimacy of ordination for women. Toomey crafts a biography of each nun she meets with a balanced touch of both intimate details and their place in challenging the larger religious obstacles of ordination for women.

Christine Toomey comes to this topic with impressive credentials. A polyglot and twenty-year veteran covering foreign affairs for The Sunday Times Magazine, she has been shortlisted for a number of articles and won the Amnesty International Awards for two hard-hitting articles on the murder of young girls in Guatemala and a “school of assassins” in the US. (Toomey’s articles are available on her website here.) Her approach to these topics and writing style are uncompromising, making her softly even-handed approach in Buddha’s Daughters an interesting read.

As with most seekers who write of seeking, Toomey’s journey began with a growing awareness of her own suffering, both in her personal life and as a result of her exposure to world scale tragedies.

Buddhas-Daughters“After so much time spent shedding light on some of the darkest corners of humanity, the consequences of such tragedies have become frighteningly familiar….

…In the months before I embarked on this journey both of my parents died…. There had been painful losses before this, but the shock of losing both my parents so suddenly and within just a few months of each other brought my life to a standstill. I felt at a crossroads. After so much time spent bearing witness to the suffering of others, I realized I barely knew how to handle my own.”

– Christine Toomey, Preface, In Search of Buddha’s Daughters, pp. 9-11

Perhaps it is this rawness and deep sensitivity that make Buddha’s Daughters a process book rather than one that offers facts and details about the characters within. The authenticity of this book is not only that Toomey writes about the topic and people but that she actively takes part in their lives, brief though it may be. Certainly Toomey also doesn’t shrink from the facts of the unfairness and even misogyny of complete ordination that is withheld from women in some Buddhist traditions.

Toomey’s journey begins in Nepal with the nuns trained in kung fu at the Druk Gawa Khilwa nunnery near Kathmandu. I feel for her struggle with the 4AM wake-up call and the challenges of following an intense schedule. However, it gives a sense of an embodied approach to her perspective – part biographer, part historian, part social commentary. From Nepal (with a side trip to Lumbini), she proceeds to India and Dharamshala where she explores the deep suffering of Tibetan refugees, especially the nuns who have survived torture in Chinese prisons. I’m deeply affected by one interview with the nun, Dhamchoe who had been imprisoned in Drapchi jail, the largest prison in Tibet. The nun, no longer wearing her robes and working in a cafe in Dharamshala, speaks of her commitment to hold onto her life as a nun despite no longer having the outer form of robes and community. When asked if she wouldn’t prefer to live in sangha, Dhamchoe speaks of her feelings of impurity because she cannot say she holds “no hatred towards (her captors).” This stands in such stark contrast to the anecdote about the Dalai Lama’s astonishment that people would feel self-loathing (see here).

Toomey then goes to Burma, interviewing nuns in the Theravada tradition – in which resides the strongest resistance to full ordination of women. She weaves a solid history of the growth of Buddhism in Burma (with a description of Bagan that makes me want to avoid it were I to return). Interestingly, Toomey skims over the British occupation that galvanized Ledi Sayadaw’s laicization of Buddhist meditation in an effort to protect Buddhism against colonialism (see here) thereby missing out the source of the momentum of Buddhist practice that eventually gave rise to the mindfulness juggernaut (which she visits by coming home to Oxford and the Oxford Mindfulness Center at the end of the book).

It is here in the chapters about the nuns in Burma that the topic of ordination for women reaches it’s stride. The controversy of the nun Saccavadi and the ensuing political battles between monks and monasteries which saw Ajahn Brahm banned from speaking on the topic at the UN Vesak Day in Vietnam in 2009 and Bhikkhu Analayo writing an articulate argument on the legal status of ordination. At the micro level, it becomes clear from Toomey’s interviews that there is a grassroots movement alive that is supporting the education and support of women who wish their commitment to the Dharma is valued as more than housekeepers for monasteries. Toomey also makes an insightful comment that many male supporters of women being ordained have been affected by a personal history of an absence of significant women in their lives (loss of connection with mothers, sisters, etc.); this gives them an appreciation of the power of the feminine as part of healthy growth.

Toomey travels then to Japan (interestingly Korea with its long history of ordained women is not on the itinerary), winds back through North America, and then home to the UK & France. Perhaps the Western stories are impacted by a different cultural perspective but I had trouble feeling the same tension and dynamic between the characters and the storyline. Perhaps it is that these women are not as embedded in cultures that find it unimaginable to value women beyond the utilitarian. I don’t suggest that Western nuns have not had their own deeply wounding struggles with systemic bias and rejection; there is ample evidence of sexual and psychological abuse at the hands of teachers. Something has shifted in the tone of the book and I’m very willing to think that it may be more my own resistance to something in these women’s stories.

Chapter 19, however, is poignant. There is a palpable feeling of coming home in Toomey’s words. While I’m an “early-adopter” of MBCT (at least that’s what publishers keep telling me when they send me MBCT books to review), I did find the foray into Oxford’s MBCT center a bit off-center, having nothing to do with Buddha nor his “daughters”. Still, I’ll grant Toomey that detour simply for being one of the few journalists who actually took part in an 8-week program and completing it before she wrote about it.

All in all a powerful testament to the female spirit and the necessity for the feminine in Buddhism.


*Published in the UK as The Saffron Road: A journey with Buddha’s Daughters.

lotus petals & the four noble truths of intergenerational relationships

sundail

It was close. The various plans for holiday celebrations had been set for some time after that psychological window of a snowy Christmas. Still, it was a relief to have a dusting over the landscape followed by a 20-cm literal windfall a few days later. This space between the Christmas and New Year festivities can be trying as much as it can be contemplative. Or maybe there isn’t a difference as I often find the most trying times call for a deepest of contemplations. Of course, deep thoughts in this holiday period tend to have a preamble of frantic decisions over what to serve for breakfasts, lunches, and dinners. How many cookies? What kind? And who-thought-this-would-work types of “discussions”.

Totoro-cookie-cutterThis season, being the 3rd Great Feast of the Grandest Baby, I pulled out the stops on aiming for maximum robai-shin points. (Being only 3 weeks old on the First Great Feast, I figure her consciousness was primed for impression at this one.) Capitalizing on her favourite character, Totoro¹, I scoured the internet (and hundreds of ‘how to ice cookies’ videos) for that perfect Totoro cookie recipe only to end up – happily – making my own cookie cutter out of a donut cutter and using this cookie recipe.

The results were excellent – if one discounts the two attempts to make grey dough that ended up producing 56 cookies, half looking sickly green and the other half mahogany red. Icing is easier to tinge.

Totoro-cooies

 

This grandmother gig is becoming an interesting thing. Yes, it’s about creating that space for fun stuff and I’ll tell you now there’s nothing like hearing that gasp of awe when the Littlest One recognizes one’s attempts and squeals, “Tot’ro!” And the proof of the cookie being in the eating, it was heartening to see she actually liked the cookie too!

This, however, is also a reminder that the state of robai-shin² can’t settle for the glitter gel or sugar icing coating mis-coloured baked goods. The First Noble Truth of Inter-generational Relationships is that they don’t survive the sugar rush unless there is something of substance in them. The Second Noble Truth of Inter-generational Relationships is that although sugary distractions can bridge gaps, it quickly becomes the addiction we all indulge in: settling for the quick-fix, easy stuff that keeps us seeing only half the life we have.

lpitsWith the publication of my essay in Lotus Petals in the Snow: Voices of Canadian Buddhist Women³ about my mother’s dementia and dying, I’ve felt drawn into considering this pattern of inter-generational love. My own grandmothers were powerful women: One a devout Catholic who cooked for the parish priest and the other a devout Buddhist who supported the local monastics. The former was a fierce hotel owner who could bargain down any deal to her favour, sometimes to the degradation of poverty-stricken nomadic sellers; the latter a cheroot-smoking dame who had a deadly aim with a wooden clog when disrespected. I can’t see them baking Totoro cookies but my life has been shaped irrevocably by their fierce determination to carve their own way in a time when women were regarded as not much more than the cattle wandering the fields.

My mother was not that different though her relationship with self, others, and the world was a triptych of personalities laid out in highly edited scripts, more nuanced and cunningly aware of the societal demands she fell prey to. She didn’t bake cookies either. But under the rage and disappointments she felt so keenly there was a profound love which sadly could only emerge through the paths she had created by walking out her life. And this is the Third Noble Truth of Inter-generational Relationships: We walk out the paths of our life with those in that life. We are shaped by each others’ experience and carry those formations forward.

When we see that our path which we claim as some individualistic attainment is really inter-meshed with all those before and those to come that Fourth Noble Truth of Intergenerational Relationships has to be a powerful yet simple recipe whose eating will offer proof of the pudding’s or cookie’s ability to nourish.

How can we understand this crimson thread, this bloodline of truth and its avoidance?
How can we create our path with an intention set on cultivating enduring relationships?

How can we action this wisdom through our choices of behaviours, speech, and livelihood?

How can we titrate effort so as not to become depleted or manipulative?
How can we hold in gentle awareness all that has gone before without being weighed down by pathological regret and guilt, yet learning from the paths we walked accompanied by our parents and generations beyond them?
How can we stay committed to our path: focused without obsession or over-control, distilling the essence without becoming rigid or unyielding?

Happy Baking!
_______________________

¹ Totoro is a character from the animation My Neighbor Totoro“, a “1988 Japanese animated fantasy film written and directed by Hayao Miyazaki and produced by Studio Ghibli“.

² I wrote earlier about “robai-shin” here, interestingly about recipes there too.

³ To encourage purchase of the book, Lotus Petals, whose entire price is donated to charity, I’ve taken down the original blog post on 108 Zen Books. Please purchase the book here (Canada) & here (US and other countries).

redrawing the sky – book review of The Hidden Lamp

The Hidden Lamp: Stories from twenty-five centuries of awakened women by Zenshin Florence Caplow & Reigetsu Susan Moon (compilers & editors) is a book you approach with Post-It notes, a spiral notebook, sharpened pencils, and a willingness to have your practice turned right-side up. One cannot be in the Zen circles, squares, or rectangles for long these days before the issue of the silenced voices of enlightened women teachers will present itself. If not in your own practice, then certainly in any ritual where there is a calling forth of ancestors. The women are there, just not always visible or summoned in chants for as long as the male ancestors have been. In fact, my first encounter with the matriarchal lineage was in the preparation of the blood line for jukai. We painstakingly wrote out the winding blood lineage from Shakyamuni to our root teacher and also created a lineage of our female ancestors starting with Mahapajapati (“Keep your heart set on this.”) to the honoured nuns, closing with a collecting net, “And all the Women Honoured Ones whose names have been forgotten and left unsaid.”

Forgotten and left unsaid. This is, of course, the over-arching storyline of women since beginningless time. The silencing of our voices, the blanket thrown over our intellect, the disregard of our offerings. Finding our voice, taking out the lamp from under the bushel, shining in our accomplishments and realizations has required a long steady trudge through social conditioning and sometimes physical and emotional threat. As one of the first women in a University Chemistry department, it was not uncommon to be told to wash the glassware of my male colleagues or be ignored in seminars. When we finally formed a group of like-minded peers, we called it Women in Science and Engineering – W.I.S.E. A reminder of who we were and what we had to offer, WISE stood as a counterpoint to the constant surges of disapproval, baiting, and sexual innuendo. The absence of acknowledged Awakened Women in Buddhism is simply a part of this over-arching theme.

Caplow & Moon do well in making it right in this book of koans, teaching stories, and spiritual journeys of Women Honoured Ones. It’s a rich, full, and textured collection of Ancestral Awakened Women with commentaries by Contemporary Awakened Women. And, weighted as it is with the lightness of their being truly human, it is a book which can leave you chuckling, laughing, crying, and getting whacked with insight and revelation. Sometimes all at the same time.  The stories and koans are drawn from many sources and not just Zen sources. They open each chapter like a bell sounding to awaken the reader. The commentaries are by women teachers from far-flung corners of Buddhist approaches to the dharma. In both spirit and content, the book is inclusive. Leaving nothing out, it needs to add nothing.

I particularly liked the opening chapter on koans, their history, and how to work with them. It was a delight to read the counterpoint between Rinzai and Soto and I treasured Daido Loori’s words of the process as “one’s own intimate and direct experience of the universe and its infinite facts.” Then, of course, there was Dogen’s approach which is a more “scenic, or panoramic route” (quoting Steve Heine). Caplow & Moon point out that koans and stories about and by our women ancestors differ in important ways from those we find in the traditional (dominantly male) koans. These stories have street cred, the women live and live out their dreams, desires, and sexuality in the Everyday. They are not reified, sanctified, or sanitized versions of you and me; they are profoundly intimate and complete.

Themes of the koans are intricately woven: intimacy, relational, rebellious, with a Wow factor that tips the water bucket over and scatters the moon. The stories are to be savoured, to be inserted into our life as an enlightenment ear worm, intended to “nourish the spiritual embryo.” The commentators offer insights and perspectives that also right the practice. I enjoyed reading Sunya Kjolhede’s reflection of working with Mu as a practice of “surrendering to and merging with a lover!”   Her realization that our response to our life koan is indeed “so plain,” so “obvious,” resonated deeply with me, remembering a similar moment in the middle of a particularly intense sesshin. Other stories struck me forcibly too: Chen’s insight to a world of “knife and axe” with people blinded to the vision of the mountain flowers, Punnika’s response to the Brahmin caught in karma as ritual and his realization of karma as intention, Zenkei Blanche Hartman’s brilliant commentary on precepts and our fragile humanity, the nameless nun asking Zhaozhou of the “deeply secret mind” and Ikushin Dana Velden showing us how we find it the mystery of just who we are. Other stories and commentaries speak to our purpose, our bodies, our hearts, and our indefatigable spirits. I particularly like the inclusion of stories about couples (Bhadda Kapilini and Mahakassapa), families (Mushim Patricia Ikeda’s commentary about her son; Senjo and her soul), and children (Kisagotami’s Mustard Seed).

The Hidden Lamp is a book for all times and a full practice. It is good medicine, as Ursula Jarand reflects on Miaozong’s Disappointment.