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Does Buddhism Need Men?

As a practitioner of Buddhism, I don’t think about myself in terms of gender. I try to cut through such concepts and rest in the true condition of unborn and unceasing luminous emptiness, the ground of being. -- Lama Tsultrim Allione


I went to a retreat on the sacred feminine in Buddhism last weekend, led by Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo. Predictably, it was practically all women. The few men there were congratulated for their bravery and openness in attending. This feels creepy to me, like when I took women's studies classes in college and the professor would make a point of calling on the men so we could hear their comments. Isn't it ironic. Male perspective is the ocean we swim in, and even when we put women first we still put men more first.


That weekend we learned a Green Tara practice. Lama Tsultrim calls Tara "the first feminist" in Buddhism. Tara was an Indian princess and highly accomplished practitioner who was told that it was a shame she was a woman; she'd have to come back as a man to get enlightened.

The princess answered back brilliantly, demonstrating her understanding of emptiness and absolute truth, saying: “Here there is no man; there is no woman, no self, no person, and no consciousness. Labeling ‘male’ or ‘female’ is hollow. Oh, how worldly fools delude themselves.” (Taranatha, Origin of the Tara Tantra).

And yet gender, while ultimately an illusion, on the relative level often is a veil as effective as a blackout curtain.

Western sanghas are predominantly female. Is that a problem? Do we need men? (Not according to a 109-year-old Scottish woman who says the secret to a long life is avoiding men.) I went to an all-girl high school, and part of what that meant was that there were no boys to be class president, to be star athletes, to talk over or interrupt (traditional male speech patterns). Girls just did it all. 

I'm not arguing that men --  or anyone -- should be excluded. Do they need to be courted? Does Buddhism, which hasn't cared about bringing women into its folds since it was founded, need to change to bring men in? Does it lose legitimacy if the sangha is predominantly female, if the ratio of male-to-female teachers reflects that? (For now, men predominate.)

Kozo Hattori, writing on the blog of The Greater Good Science Center, a project of the University of California at Berkeley, back-handedly explains why men need Buddhism in "Five Ways to Make Mindfulness More Manly." Men have embraced mindfulness meditation -- it's used by the military,

by tech companies, and sports teams -- but they stop at being mindful of what's happening with them. In Buddhism, it's taught that mindfulness leads to compassion -- as we become aware of our experience, we also become aware that others share the same experiences and emotions, and that touches our hearts, opening them. Not so with the modern mindfulness movement, Hattori says.

“Men tell you what is on their minds, but not what is in their heart,” says Elad Levinson, who has 40 years of psychotherapy and 20 years of leading men’s groups under his belt. Perhaps not coincidentally, boys and men commit the vast majority of violent acts, from domestic violence to murder. Many struggle with expressing empathy and compassion.

Would the world be better off if men were more compassionate? Absolutely, since men run the world. Therefore, it's the bodhisattva's work to bring men to Buddhism for the benefit of all beings, I suppose. Particularly into programs that focus on development of compassion, like Green Tara practice. 

In one version of Tara's story, it's said that she came to life from the tears of Chenrezig, aka Avalokiteshvara, the buddha of compassion. He was crying because he realized the difficulty of saving all sentient beings from samsara; she sprang up to help him. If it happens, he'll probably get all the credit.

"The absolute truth of the emptiness of gender and the relative truth of a real historical misogynist attitude in Buddhism lay side by side in Tara’s story," Lama Tsultrim writes. The absolute doesn't trump the relative; both exist simultaneously. We can't live from our buddhanature without first peeling away the sexism that hides it.

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