10 Questions with Grace Schireson

1. I won’t start by asking, “What is Zen?” I’ve been lead to believe that by asking, Zen will already be lost. So instead, could you explain to my readers the difference between Zen and other branches of Buddhism?

What isn’t Zen? It is the branch of Buddhism that emerged after Buddhism wed Taoism in China. It is said that Zen is not dependent on words or scriptures (as many other Buddhist practices are),and that it is a direct pointing to Buddha as one’s own life. The word Zen actually means meditation. The basis of all Zen practices is meditation rather than studying Buddhist scripture or belief in a system. In Zen you are expected to meditate and just get it with little explanation of what the “it” is.

2. Until seeing your book on the shelf in a bookstore I hadn’t realized that you really don’t hear that much about women in Buddhism, and even less when discussing Zen. How is it that women show up so infrequently in Buddhist texts?

Buddhism emerged from Hinduism. Hindus believe(d) that to be born a woman was a punishment for poor behavior in a previous lifetime. Since you have been doomed to the lower rungs of humanity as a woman, it is hard to understand why/how you might have anything to say. While the Buddha and his emerging religion tried to establish themselves as less superstitious and more egalitarian, considering women as chattel was part of the surrounding culture in India. In China, there were different beliefs about women, but they boiled down to the same treatment—women belonged to their fathers first, their husband’s second, and their son’s third. If they missed having sons, they belonged to their brothers. Because women were historically seen as lesser beings across Asia (and pretty much all over the world), much of this treatment crept into the Buddhist religion. It was difficult for women to get an education, to travel or to be respected as the leader of a community. Buddhist women who did manage to enter training and succeed in teaching a community were later erased by misogynistic monks establishing an all male lineage. In Zen “lineage” became the measure of authenticity. All Zen teachers claimed to trace their teacher’s credentials back to his teacher’s credentials and so on back to the Buddha. This “lineage” myth erased the contributions of women, and coincidentally, established beyond a doubt that men could fully reproduce or single handedly father men, eliminating a need for women at all.

3. What provoked your interest in seeking out the stories of the women who practiced Zen?

When I became ordained by my male teacher I realized I had no idea how to embody the job of Zen priest. There were a few Western teachers for me to emulate, but unlike the rich literature describing the Zen patriarchs, there was almost nothing suggesting the archetype of the female Zen master. Note that the word “master” itself is a gendered word. There is no equivalent engendered female term for female “master” or “mastery.”

4. What can modern Zen practitioners learn from Zen’s female ancestors?

What we call Zen in the West is entirely based on the teachings developed by Asian male monastics. It is as if we were to base the science of developing team spirit entirely on the techniques of Army boot camp. Army boot camp is just one way of training young men, it does not represent a thorough or complete synthesis of motivational training. Currently, the way Zen is taught is from the perspective of male monastic training. It does not include training from married teachers about integrating spiritual training and family life. It does not include training on how to make use of spiritual development in the world of work outside the monastery gates. Currently in the West, more than 50% of Buddhist practitioners are women, and more than 50% of Buddhists adults are married. Wouldn’t it be wise to find relevant training experience? Many female Zen ancestors had been married prior to entering training, many of them practiced within a family setting, and often the female Zen masters needed to support themselves financially through work in the community. This makes the training and teaching of female Zen masters applicable to the style of Buddhism that is evolving in the West with many Zen Buddhist teachers married and working in the world and Zen students and practitioners doing the same.

5. Is there anything that women in particular, Zen practitioners or not, can learn from these women?

The most important learning is the Nike slogan: “Just do it.” How do we tap into our own wisdom and power and not be submerged by only serving as the caregivers or beauty queens we are often programmed to become? We also cannot get lost in anger or woundedness about the fact that women are not given full opportunity. We need to note that this unfairness towards women is still sometimes true, get our shit together and accomplish what it is that matters to us. Throughout history women have used ingenuity and endurance to accomplish amazing things, this should be no less true for those of us today who have both legal and economic power that were unavailable just 100 years ago.

6. Your book, “Zen Women”, is filled with all sorts of fantastic stories about early female Zen practitioners. Do you have a personal favorite?

I love Otagaki Rengetsu who lost husbands, children, family and her home by the time she was 30 years old. After all those losses, she maintained her spiritual practice as her basis, and she transformed her losses into beautiful art. She did not repress her pain, or use positive thoughts to banish it; instead she contained her suffering within the compassionate, concentrated and flexible mind that she generated with her Buddhist meditative practice. This Buddha mind absorbed and transformed her pain suffering from which she produce beautiful poetry that expressed her losses in the most subtle tones. By not fully articulating or describing her own personal story, she invites us to join her where we accept and allow ourselves to be touched and understood. For example in a poem to her children who had died so young she wrote the following poem:

To My Beloved Children

My final message:
Flowers blooming
With all their heart
In lovely Sakurai village.

In this poem she names an historical site, Sakurai village, where a samurai lord said good-bye to his samurai son as they went off to die in battle. And yet, now the place is made lovely by each person—whether infant or samurai—blooming completely as him/herself within the web of human love and loss. All we can do is be completely ourselves, and add our presence, our brief flowering scent to the village which becomes beautified by our being.

7. Since women have sometimes had an awkward history within Buddhism, I’m curious if you’ve seen any criticism of your focus on Zen women?

Yes, there has been criticism, but not from the direction of trying to redeem Buddhism’s past mistakes. I have seen two critical reviews by readers, who both said they had not read the whole book; both criticized the view as “not Zen enough.” Interesting criticism from a layman to a Zen Abbess (me). One critique from a woman, suggested that I had not sufficiently honored the traditional heroic Zen women. Obviously, she did not read the book. I did not spend 10 years of my life studying and writing about these women because I wanted to devalue their contribution.

8. In “Zen Women” you discuss “The Appearance of the Zen Zombie” which discusses what I think may be a common belief about how Zen practitioners, male or female, behave. Can you explain what a “Zen Zombie” is for my readers?

The Zen Zombie is a Zen student or a Zen teacher or practice leader who has decided to eliminate or repress feelings in the interest of trying to be like a Zen person. They walk around in Zen robes, at Zen centers, trying to look beyond feelings and holier-than-thou. Obviously, this is an occupational hazard for all religions. If you want to know what the opposite iteration of Zen practice is, refer back to question 6 and reread how Rengetsu integrated—rather than repressed—painful feelings.

9. Last question, many of my readers spend time pondering how to survive the inevitable zombie apocalypse, but I don’t think any of them have considered a possible Zen Zombie uprising. Any survival tips?

I believe the Zombies have reached their peak strength and are on the decline. But just in case, if you meet any Buddhists who say that feelings don’t matter, and there is NO self, women should run immediately to their nearest chocolate shop or head for your favorite clothing shop for a quick dose of self affirmation. Men may instead select from the following options: sports, watches or cars.

10. Parting shot! Ask us here at The Magical Buffet any one question!

How do you balance the buffet—inclusion of many spiritual options– with encouraging selection of one practice so that spiritual seekers may develop depth and commitment?

Honestly, I don’t. That said, I don’t do anything to hinder or dissuade any of my readers from choosing one practice to explore in depth. I’m fairly certain that many of my readers already have committed to a singular practice, and really only read The Magical Buffet for the rum jokes.

About Grace Schireson:
Abbess Myoan Grace Schireson is the founder and head teacher of the Empty Nest Zen Group, Modesto Valley Heartland Zen Group, and the Fresno River Zen Group. Grace is a Dharma heir in the lineage of the great Shunryu Suzuki-roshi—founder of the San Francisco Zen Center. Grace has practiced Zen meditation for more than 35 years and is author of the book “Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens and Macho Masters”. In the United States she has undergone her Soto Zen training with Sojun Mel Weitsman-roshi of Berkeley Zen Center—from who she received Dharma transmission from in 2005. Grace also has trained in Rinzai Zen in Japan under Keido Fukushima-roshi, retired abbot of Tofuku-ji Monastery located in Kyoto. She has taught classes on Zen throughout the United States and has also been trained as a clinical psychologist—teaching Asian methods of quieting the mind using techniques suitable for Westerners.

To learn more about Abbess Schireson and Empty Nest Zen, visit their website.