UU Sangha

Vol: IV Number: 1
Journal of the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Fellowship
Fall 1999


by Sandy Boucher
(Adapted from a lecture given at the
UUA General Assembly 1999, Salt Lake City, Utah)

Buddhism in the United States is on its way to becoming American Buddhism. It is wonderfully exciting to be present at the inception of a religion’s entering a culture, and to participate in the inevitable transformations that result. And part of that evolution is the meeting of feminism with Buddhism, which has led to a particularly fruitful conjunction.

For twenty years I have been doing a type of Buddhist meditation called Vipassana (as practiced in Theravada Buddhism), have studied in a Tibetan Buddhist Institute, and have “sat” in Zen centers. I came to Buddhism in about 1980 after a decade of intense activism in the women’s liberation movement and the antinuclear movement, and found no contradiction between Buddhist practice and political activism. The two seemed to form a circle, carrying me out into the world to effect change, then bringing me back inside to connect deeply with myself in meditation and study, the two movements strengthening and sustaining one another. I also was able to travel in Southeast Asia and to see Buddhism as it is practiced in primarily Buddhist cultures, and to live briefly as a Theravada Buddhist nun in Sri Lanka. Here at home, I have helped organize several national Women and Buddhism conferences, and have written several books on the subject. Turning the Wheel: American Women Creating the New Buddhism presents an overview of the whole phenomenon of American women’s participation in Buddhist practice, including eighty interviews and photographs. Opening the Lotus is a primer on the basic Buddhist concepts, with some discussion of the kinds of questions asked by women, and some directions for beginning practices. So that has been my personal trajectory in this great process of Buddhism’s entering our culture.

How Buddhism Came to the West

In the sixties and seventies Buddhist practices and perspectives were brought here by Japanese Zen monks, Tibetan lamas, Korean Zen monks, Vietnamese monks, Chinese Pure Land practitioners and other Asian teachers (as well as some westerners in the Theravada tradition who had studied in Asia). Asian teachers met up with two dimensions of experience that Buddhism had never encountered before: psychology, and feminism. Because of these conjunctions, Buddhism in the United States has particular characteristics and qualities that you do not find in Asian countries.

The Psychological Perspective

An image I like is given by the western woman teacher, Tsultrim Allione, who says that we wear a shield over our hearts, and we hang our Buddhist practice like a medal on that shield. Psychotherapy, she avers, can be a way to melt the shield so that the Buddhist practices can penetrate our hearts. Western teachers encourage their students to engage in psychotherapy when they need it, along with their Buddhist practice; the two inquiries can be seen as complementary. We do not necessarily subscribe to the idea that Buddhist practice alone can lead to liberation and wholeness. A number of well-known Buddhist teachers earn their living as psychotherapists, notably Jack Kornfield and Sylvia Boorstein of the Spirit Rock Meditation Center, and psychological training is considered an asset in a teacher.

Buddhism Meets Feminism

The meeting of Buddhism with feminism has been called “auspicious” by the Buddhist scholar Rita Gross. That is, life-enhancing, attended by favorable circumstances, leading to good things. And indeed it has been. I think of it like a marriage: the two get together, there are misunderstandings and conflicts, some serious crises even, but they stay together and over time they grow in mutually beneficial ways. This is true of Buddhism and feminism: in their commingling both endeavors have been informed and deepened. But I want to address, here, the effect of feminism on Buddhism.

First, western women have had to grapple with hierarchy and have addressed it in several dimensions.

Monasticism Versus Lay Practice

The centrality of women and feminists in Buddhist centers, as well as concerns for family and community, have tilted American centers in the direction of lay practice. Buddhism in Asia is largely a monastic religion, with much involvement by laypeople, but the ideal being a monastic lifestyle. In the early days of Buddhism in this country, young Americans became monks or priests, wearing the robes, undergoing arduous training, living lives of renunciation. But in the coed Zen centers, they fell in love, married and had children, and were confronted with a difficult path: how do you live a monastic life while working for a living, maintaining a relationship and fulfilling your family responsibilities? This dilemma has resulted in the restructuring of most Buddhist centers to adapt the requirements of meditation and other practice to a householder’s life. Family retreats are offered at many centers, and children are welcome
(Note: In all my remarks, I do not presume to speak about the Asian immigrant Buddhist groups, which have their own challenges on American soil.)

In general, in American Buddhism, the preference is for lay practice, and the emphasis is on Buddhism in daily life: how to act compassionately and responsibly in your relationships, how to live your Buddhist principles in the workplace, how to practice while caring for children, etc.

It's said that it takes 300 years for Buddhism to enter a culture and take on its distinctive form there. In the United States, we are in the process of creating a kind of Buddhism never seen in the world before, which incorporates democratic values, psychological and feminist insights, into the centuries’ old practices taught by the Buddha.

Meeting the Goddess, Kwan Yin

This is the context in which I have come to my present strong focus, which is, surprisingly for me, a Buddhist goddess, Kwan Yin, the Celestial Bodhisattva of Compassion. It's surprising because my journey to this place began with the deepest skepticism. Back in 1980, one of my initial attractions to Buddhist practice was that there was no god in Buddhism, no overweening divine presence that one was supposed to venerate and obey. Vipassana or Theravada Buddhism, the kind I chose to practice, is very spare, a striving to achieve “bare attention.” Certainly there are no divine beings involved.

In Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism there are various divine emanations, but when I attended a Tibetan Buddhist Institute, I studied the abhidharma, the so-called higher teachings, which are the codified teachings taken from the discourses of the Buddha. Nothing devotional there!

Then in 1982 I had my first encounter with Kwan Yin. I was passing through Kansas City, and a friend said to me, “I want to take you downtown, there's someone I want you to meet.” We went to the Nelson Atkins Museum, and into a room that held a single stunning statue. She was life-size, carved from wood in 12th or 13th century China. A beautiful, richly dressed woman seated with one leg propped up, in a strong, commanding posture. In her presence I experienced a powerful range of emotions, from grief to delight and everything in-between, as if she allowed me to experience the fullness of what it is to be human. And in her form I sensed a deep serenity. I bought a postcard of this image of Kwan Yin and put it on the car seat next to me as I drove east from Kansas City. Kwan Yin was now part of my life.

So who is Kwan Yin? She is, first of all, the preeminent goddess in all of Asia. You find her in China, Korea, Japan, Vietnam, Burma, Thailand and other countries. Then, in the Buddhist tradition, she is the Celestial Bodhisattva of Compassion. What is a bodhisattva? That is someone who does spiritual practice with the goal of achieving full enlightenment, but just before she arrives at that point, she turns back into the world and says, “No, I will not achieve liberation until all beings have been liberated.” Then she steps into the world and works to alleviate suffering and to awaken beings to their true nature.

Kwan Yin appeared again and again in my life in the following years. I made some efforts to learn about her, discovering that she is called “She Who Hears the Cries of the World,” and that her image can be easily consonant with social action. In 1983, as my affinity group prepared to go out to the Lawrence-Livermore Laboratories to protest the designing of nuclear weapons that goes on there, we met to do a “Metta” or lovingkindness meditation. Very much in the spirit of Kwan Yin, we called up in ourselves kind and compassionate feelings for all beings, including the University of California policemen who would arrest us and the employees of the laboratory whose livelihoods depended on the production of nuclear weapons. We relied upon the meditation to help us maintain a nonviolent demeanor in the midst of the very chaotic and sometimes violent situation of a demonstration that involved many hundreds of people.

In other ways Kwan Yin entered my life. I read John Blofeld’s Bodhisattva of Compassion about her. With a friend I designed greeting cards bearing Kwan Yin’s image.

Then in 1995, on my way to China to attend the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women, I set out to find Kwan Yin in her birthplace. I discovered an island off Shanghai in the South China Sea called Putuo Shan, where it is said Kwan Yin resides, and where pilgrims have come for hundreds of years to commune with her. With a Chinese-American friend I spent six days on Putuo Shan. There I experienced how strongly Kwan Yin is expressed in nature, in the sound of the waves on the beach, in the sea wind, the heat of the sun, the buzzing of cicadas in the trees. My friend and I both had powerful experiences of connection with the compassionate energy of Kwan Yin.

A month after returning from China, I was diagnosed with cancer and told I must have major surgery in a week and would probably have to undergo chemotherapy treatments for months afterwards. In my shock and dismay, I found myself talking to Kwan Yin. I walked in the graveyard near my house and called upon her, saying, “Help me.” Of course I hoped she would appear, hovering in the branches of one of the beautiful old trees, looking tenderly down at me. That did not happen. But there was an answer to my plea. The answer came deeply from myself, and it sustained me in the trial that followed. I had begun to understand that Kwan Yin is not a way to focus outward but her image, wholeheartedly addressed, gives us a way to go deeply into ourselves.

When I recovered, I studied Kwan Yin in earnest, reading the few books on her — the Blofeld book and Kwan Yin: Myths and Prophecies of the Chinese Goddess of Compassion by Martin Palmer and Jay Ramsay, with Man Ho Kwok, as well as numerous scholarly articles, most notably by Chun Fang Yu. Then a few years ago, in a class I teach called Writing Your Spiritual Journey, a student asked me, “Why is there no book on Kwan Yin written by a woman?” Intriguing question. I knew then that such a book needed to be written, and I did not yet know that I would write it.
The quality of compassion is highly stressed in Buddhism. Kwan Yin in embodying it brings to the fore something very much needed in contemporary life. She expresses qualities that can soften and strengthen us, reminding us that compassion can be both tender and fierce.

To research the book, Discovering Kwan Yin, I investigated the presence and influence of Kwan Yin in the lives of North American women, both Asian-American and other women. One of the most interesting elements of Kwan Yin’s story is how she transformed from a male figure into a female one. She was brought to China in the fifth century as the male bodhisattva Avalokitesvara; in the next three hundred years she became the female Guan Shih Yin or Kwan Yin. How did that happen! Well, she came into the world embodied in actual flesh-and-blood women. There would be a child who was particularly kind and sweetly accepting, she would grow into a compassionate woman who did many good deeds; sometimes she would even sacrifice her life to save others. Then, after her death, through various magical signs, it would be understood that this had not been an ordinary woman but a sacred being, the goddess Kwan Yin. Many stories in China relate this history, and that is why there are so many different forms of the Chinese Kwan Yin or Guan Shih Yin.
Kwan Yin is very actively involved in people's lives. She arrives to save people from disaster, she grants their wishes, she watches over them. She is not a remote divinity but a familiar spirit, moving among us, teaching us compassion. Because Kwan Yin has that propensity to be present in daily life, I wanted to explore her presence in the lives of actual contemporary women, and also to give people some practices with which to contact her and keep her present in their lives. All that became the text of Discovering Kwan Yin, Buddhist Goddess of Compassion which was published by Beacon Press in April of this year.

Kwan Yin Retreats

Since the appearance of that book I have been asked to lead retreats based upon the Kwan Yin material. In the last several months I have led one-day retreats in Sacramento, Tucson, Berkeley, and Fort Bragg. I've also led a three-day retreat at Cloud Mountain Retreat Center in Washington state. In each of these venues the retreat was very well received and well attended. Through my experience teaching these retreats I have come to understand how much people need nurturing. Many of the participants have been caregivers — therapists, ministers, social workers, mothers, teachers in the schools, nurses; they are rarely in a situation in which their needs are met, their emotions honored, their deeper thoughts elicited. These women and men apparently benefited strongly from the one day or three days they spent with me, a time of compassionate self-nurturing through the energy of the bodhisattva Kwan Yin.

The day is grounded in meditation, both sitting and walking, which I instruct. Newcomers particularly like the walking meditation, which allows them to concentrate more strongly. Then we do practices to evoke a compassionate state of mind, each participant being encouraged to bring her own experience into the group. People are asked to bring something to put on the altar (cherished object, picture of a loved one in trouble, image of Kwan Yin, flower or other reminder of nature), and we talk about the significance of these objects. This is often quite profound, with sharing of intimate feelings, worries, and hopes.

As the day progresses, I share my own history with Kwan Yin and lead a guided meditation invoking her. In the meditation I play a tape of “She Carries Me,” the chant by singer/songwriter Jennifer Berezan which evokes Kwan Yin’s energy as well as the spirit of the Great Goddess and the Virgin Mary. Later in the day after another sitting and walking sequence, I define and discuss the concept of empowered or fierce compassion (in distinction to the programmed self-sacrifice that is expected of women) and I offer examples of giving this and of receiving it. Then we do some writing, describing situations in our own life in which we were able to act with strong compassion, or to receive it. And then we share these experiences in small groups. I tell about my sojourn on Putuo Shan island, and we do a meditation in nature.

The day ends with our learning of the traditional chant to Kwan Yin as sung in China — “Namo Guan-shih-yin Pusa”— with the appropriate melody, and we chant this. Finally there is a circle in which the participants are given the opportunity to express one aspect of their experience that day, and we end.

(The three-day retreat contains more elements, but is done in the same spirit. This longer session allows people to go much more deeply into their experience. One model is Friday evening through Sunday noon, in a residential setting.)

While it has been overwhelmingly women who are drawn to this, the men who have participated have benefited greatly. I would imagine that Unitarian Universalist men might be more open to the Kwan Yin’s compassionate spirit than others. The retreats have included people who were new to Buddhist meditation — Christians, a Sufi woman, people from the Siddha Yoga tradition, college students who were studying women and religion, etc. — as well as some seasoned Buddhist meditators. (The retreat has been given in a city Zen center, the banquet room of a restaurant, a country retreat center, and a Masonic hall.) I make sure that no one is left behind, that no prior knowledge of meditation is needed, and that everyone can feel comfortable and included.

At the General Assembly, over smoothies in a hotel dining room, I was describing this retreat to a minister friend, who told me how very much ministers need nurturing, need replenishment and self-care, in their busy lives of giving to others. People in a congregation as well might find relaxation and deepening in a day with Kwan Yin. For me the experience always yields insights and a softening and opening of my perspective. Each time I lead this retreat, I feel a profound appreciation for the spirit of compassion expressed in this beautiful Asian goddess image.

(Anyone interested in exploring the possibility of organizing a retreat in your area, please contact Sandy Boucher at 3912 Forest Hill Ave., Oakland, Ca.94602-2416. Tel: (510)530-0812. e-mail: Sandbou@aol.com)

Unitarian Universalist
Buddhist Fellowship

Editorial Insights

Feminism, Buddhism & UUism

Our presenter at General Assembly is Sandy Boucher and she was kind enough to send an edited copy of her remarks which became the theme for this issue. Rita Gross, another well known Feminist Buddhist Scholar also gave permission to reprint one of her articles. Anna Belle Leiserson and Catherine Holmes Clark, both UU’s fill out our issue. This issue takes a beginning look at feminist issues in Buddhism. Please send more articles for a follow up issue in the future.

News from General Assembly

The Board met in June after the lecture and shuffled around the responsibilities, as you will see on the masthead. Dorrie Senghas is now president and Joel Baehr, secretary. Program for next year's General Assembly in Nashville was discussed as well as the year after. We are thinking of offering meditation space and/or classes.

We'd like to have a display/information table next year. Toward that end we need help from anyone who'd like to either design and/or make a banner for us.

The Board is interested in moving forward on Affiliate status with the UUA which means coming up with some bylaws and maybe working toward 501(c)3 status. Bob Senghas will take on this work.

What Happened To My Summer Issue?

Your tireless and dedicated editor couldn't get all his materials together before the middle of September and fall came before he was ready to go to press. So instead of trying to pretend the October issue was the summer issue, he decided to face his failure and just go ahead and call it the fall issue. If it helps, think of it as the Summer/Fall issue!


Right this very moment, look at the mailing label on the back of this issue at your mailing label. There, at the top of the label, is a time stamp. The first number is the year and the second number is the month. If today is more recent than that date, you need to renew your subscription.
Hope everyone enjoys this issue!

Faithfully yours, Sam


by Rita Gross

I want to begin by telling a story of an event that took place a year and-a-half ago with one of my teachers, Khandro Rinpoche. She is one of the few women rinpoches in the world of Tibetan Buddhism, and I have been very much magnetized by her presence and her teachings. She was giving a set of teachings, and a woman asked her: “What should we do with anger? How should we deal with anger?” And her reply was very sharp and very cutting: “Anger is always a waste of time.” And the woman was sitting not too far from me. I could feel her energy, her kind of frustration and puzzlement and disappointment at that answer. She said, “But” — you know there’s always a “but” with anger — "what about things that are wrong? What about things that deserve anger?” And Khandro Rinpoche replied, again very sharply, “I didn't tell you to lose your critical intelligence.” And that's the frame in which I want to discuss anger, because that actually has been my experience through practice with anger. “It's always a waste of time. I didn't tell you to lose your critical intelligence, to get rid of your critical intelligence.”

As many of you know, I've done a lot of work, a lot of contemplation, about women and the dharma. I was a feminist before I became involved in practice. I was pretty angry when I began to sit. And I did not begin to sit because I wanted to find a way to work with my anger. In fact, I think if someone had told me that it might not be so easy to keep my head of steam going I might not have been quite so interested in sitting. I had a really good head of steam going, and I felt quite okay about it. I think that's often the case with people who are involved in some justice issue. We feel that anger is a motivator to keep us going. If we didn't have anger to keep ourselves involved in a particular issue, what would we have? What would keep us going? A lot of us, in the early ‘70s, felt that anger was a much better alternative than what we had lived with before. I still agree with that. As someone who was socialized in the ‘50s, I actually went through a long period of self-hatred before I came to anger and anger is probably better than self-hatred. The kinds of things I wanted to do with my life didn't fit into the female gender role. My first solution to this problem was just to turn it in on myself. And I spent years basically cursing the fact that I had been born female. One day, I had an insight that it really wasn't me that was the problem, it was the system I was living in. That was a tremendous relief to feel that: “It's not me, there's nothing wrong with being female.” But that didn't solve the anger problem. It turned outward. So I became very good at cutting rhetoric and white-hot outbursts of rhetorical fury. Of course I was always trying to control that too, because it's not politic and it's not polite.

Needless to say, I wasn't doing too well even though I felt pretty okay with being angry and felt it was quite justifiable under the circumstances. I think that's probably about the position of the woman who said, “But, what about things that we should be angry about?” With that kind of head of steam I somehow became involved in sitting practice. That's pretty unusual for academics to do, especially academics who are in the study of religion and the study of Buddhism, but it happened. I found myself, for quite a while, in a kind of wasteland, a kind of no-man's-land situation. When I first got involved with Buddhism, I already had a pretty good reputation as a feminist theologian or a feminist scholar of religion. And all of my friends in academia, especially my feminist friends, thought I had lost my mind. It was like, “What has happened to Rita? Rita's sold out.” It was understandable to them that you could inherit a male-dominated religion and try to work with it. Some of them were making that choice, but that you would convert to a male-dominated religion? I had to be out of my mind, according to them. I think you're aware that Buddhism still looks pretty male-dominated to much of the outside world, and I don't think that reputation is totally undeserved.

My Buddhist friends, meanwhile, were saying to me, “Oh Rita, that's okay. When you grow up, when you get to be a real Buddhist, then you won’t care about this feminism shtick anymore. You won’t have any attachments.” They said that when I got to be a real Buddhist I would be detached and not care about justice issues.

I think that for some reason feminism among justice issues gets trivialized and becomes the object of hostility a lot more easily than many other justice issues. And I don't want to try to explore that tonight, but I think that's the case. So they had a particularly live one on their hands — a Buddhist feminist, an oxymoron.

I was pretty much alone. I live in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, which is not exactly a hotbed of Buddhism. I have very strong ties with Vajradhatu, and I do a lot of programs in Boulder, Colorado, and in other places, but that still means that day by day my practice is by myself. And in some ways I'm very glad for that because I haven't had too many people always trying to yank me and jerk me; you know, do this and do that, develop this way. So in some ways it was good.

What happened to me was actually very scary. After a while of practicing really intently, I realized that I just couldn't work up that head of steam. It just wasn't there. It wasn't very satisfying. I started to get really scared: “What's happening to me? Maybe my Buddhist friends were right. Maybe I'm not going to have this thing in my life anymore.”

Clearly what was happening was that I had made a pretty good ego out of anger. As that started to dissolve, I got scared.

Simultaneously, I noticed that people were listening to me better. When I talked to people, instead of putting up a wall and going the other way, people were listening to me. And that's where it's at — that as the emotionalism, as the cloudy murky rage starts to subside, the intelligence can come through, and people can actually hear what we're saying. That's what Khandro Rinpoche was talking about when she said, “Anger is a waste of time. Don't lose your critical intelligence.” Very powerful, very provocative.

As I was experiencing that, I was starting to be able to distinguish between pain, which is the pain of the human existence, which isn't anyone's fault, and the kinds of things that we do to each other through passion, hatred, and delusion. I was starting to see something that I think is really important for those of us who are trying to do our bodhisattva work in an engaged way in social justice issues: that there's always going to be basic human suffering. That's not the fault of any particular thing wrong with the way the world is put together, period. I think it's very helpful to know that and to be able to find one's way into accommodating the basic pain and having some distinction between basic pain and the things that are the result of passion, aggression, and ignorance.

So what was happening with practice-and I didn't realize this until much later-was like a test tube that has a number of ingredients in it and it's all shook up. You shake the tube, and nothing is clear, nothing is settled. And then with practice, that situation settles and stills, and the emotionalism subsides, and it leaves some intelligence, some clarity. In the Tibetan Vajrayana tradition, anger is connected with the Vajra family. The Vajra family is in the eastern gate of the mandala and is connected with the element water. This is very telling because water, when it is turbulent, is murky, and you can't see anything. But when water settles, it becomes an absolutely clear, perfectly reflecting mirror surface. When anger transmutes, it transmutes into clarity. The energy of anger becomes mirror-like wisdom. Same energy, different application. So this means, among many other things, that it's not so much that we need to throw away our anger as that we need to distill it: to settle the emotionalism, that cloudy, heavy, painful feeling. You feel this energy in your body that hurts, and you know you can't say anything sensible while you feel that way. And yet, that's when people really are tempted to sound off. To go back to Khandro Rinpoche's statement, she said, “Anger is always a waste of time.” And that's absolutely true in my experience. I think what began to happen to me, when I could no longer get up a head of steam, was that I was beginning to see: “Who is this helping?” Who it was helping was me, myself, and I. The pain was so great, an outburst of anger would give momentary relief. But it didn't do anything. It did not pacify the situation. It did not make people more understanding of the predicament I felt. It did not make people more willing to take a feminist critique of society or Buddhism or whatever very seriously. It's hard to take angry people seriously, partly because of what they bring up in us, partly because of the defensiveness we feel when somebody is lashing out. So I think that's very important: to somehow begin to see the absolute total counter-productivity of these tumultuous klesha-driven outbursts of anger-that they're not helping anything. They're not good skillful means. Is there an alternative?

I think one of the problems we face in our culture is that everything is always couched in either/or terms-either we stand up for ourselves or we're going to get rolled over. Certainly I think that's the logic that fuels a lot of our reactions. I certainly felt that way: that if I didn't put up this good front, I was just going to be pushed aside. But I think that there is a middle path between acting out aggressively and caving in. One holds one's ground gently and non-aggressively, in body, speech, and mind; one doesn't go away; one doesn't stop talking unless that would be the most skillful thing to do at that moment. I think that to reach that place between acting out aggressively and just caving in, we need to develop a kind of self-confidence without arrogance, to develop maitri, more self-acceptance, more ability to be with who we are. There's a phrase in Shambhala, the Sacred Path of the Warrior that I really like, which describes this situation as “victory over warfare.” That's a wonderful phrase, victory over warfare. I think that's what it's about; that we have unconditional self-confidence so that we can stand our ground without being defensive, which is of course not always so easy to do. What I now do is try very hard to refrain from speech until I feel that I've reached that point. If something really riles me up and I'm tempted to flash off a letter or a speech, I check my body energy and often decide I'd better wait awhile.

So, I think that's some background to khandro Rinpoche's statement: “Anger is always a waste of time.” I think we have to unpack the word “anger” It's not so much avoiding feelings of irritation and frustration — it's acting out on them. Maybe we should use the word “aggression.” But then, you know, then there's the “but.” That's what this woman had in mind when she said, “But what about things that are really terrible?”— like battery, or murder, or all kinds of very aggressive things that are done to people that we need to take issue with. And that's when Khandro Rinpoche said, “I didn't tell you to leave behind your critical intelligence.”

In this particular perspective on anger, as one of the five basic energies of the five Buddha families, as I've already said, anger masks or veils clarity. The clarity is there, but as long as we're totally caught up in that body energy I talked about, it's very hard to get to the intelligence. That's why it's so important to let the anger settle. But anger or aggression, in this particular set of teachings, always contains some kind of intelligence. There's something going on that is worth paying attention to. The problem is we can't pay attention to it until we let the aggression settle. If we start investigating this a little bit, what we usually find is that very close to the surface of anger is pain. Very, very close. If we look at ourselves, in some ways it seems like pain is even a bigger problem to deal with, to admit, than anger. I think it's very helpful, when we're dealing with people who are angry with us, to stop, and instead of getting defensive and starting to give it back, try to see where and what the pain is. What is really behind this?

When I was an ideological angry feminist, it wasn't that there wasn't anything worth attending to in what I was saying. There was a tremendous amount of insight in my critique. It was just not being expressed very well. So finding a way to get down to the genuine insights and letting them out — that's a very important part of dealing with anger. It's not so much that we need to get rid of our anger as that we need to distill it: to boil out the stuff that isn't so productive and get down to the stuff that has some intelligence in it, and begin to develop skillful means for working with that situation.

One of the most important things to distill out for me has been ideology or fixed mind-cherished beliefs and opinions. If you think about it, heavy opinions are pretty much the opposite of the mirror-like wisdom that reflects everything absolutely without distortion. Opinionatedness is actually very aggressive, if you think about it. If you ask a teacher, “What do you most want your students to give up?” often the answer is fixed opinions and beliefs.

Well, you know, this is going to bring up another one of those “buts,” but if we're going to be concerned about the world, about justice issues, about poverty, sexism, homelessness, racism, homophobia — if we're going to be concerned about those things, don't we need strong convictions to be socially engaged? And I would say, no, what we really need is flexible wisdom, a kind of very flexible mind, not a know-it-all opinionatedness, because that's just going to turn people off. I think this is the middle path. People often think that if we don't have strong opinions about something, then we don't give a damn, right? No, there's a middle path between cherishing opinions and just not caring, period. We need to find that flexible mind, that curious, open, very malleable, very workable mind that is a mind of bodhicitta, is a mind of caring, but caring in a very open and flexible way.

So what is it about practice that allows this to develop — what is it? In this particular context, I want to bring in a couple of slogans that get used with meditation practice a lot in my tradition. One of them is touch and go: that when we practice, we don't censor or judge the thoughts that come through, which is one of the great reliefs of practice. It’s not about censoring, it’s not about judging all the stuff that comes up. But it’s also about: don’t lead, don’t follow. In other words, the thoughts come but they also go. We don’t entertain them. We don’t dwell on them. And my favorite statement for that is that we don’t believe in our thoughts, which to me is a tremendous relief-that I don’t have to believe in all my crazy thoughts. Now, there is usually a lot more space around the thought. And I can recognize, “I don’t have to believe in this thought.”

I want to conclude by suggesting that for engaged Buddhists, for people who have something that really is of concern, some real care about the world and things that are going on in the world, finding this kind of practice and this kind of way of working with anger is absolutely essential for staying the course. You know, the story of a lot of people who are very involved in social issues is that they have a lot of fire fueling their social concern, they’re very zealous, and then they burn out. It gets to be too much. I think the missing ingredient there is practice, where we can learn to touch and go with our thoughts, not leading, not following them, developing a mind in which we don’t have to believe in our thoughts, so that we have the energy to actually work with the situation intelligently and in a caring fashion.

Reprinted with permission from Wind Bell, Journal of the San Francisco Zen Center 300 Page Street, San Francisco CA 94102. Rita Gross was Zen Center scholar in residence for the summer of 1998. She is author of Buddhism After Patriarchy.


by Anna Belle Leiserson

Breaking the silence of clergy (including Buddhist teacher) sexual abuse is an experience I would never wish on anyone. Yet for those who choose this dangerous path or are inadvertently pulled into its vortex, in time they will almost certainly gain a deeper understanding of faith and feminism, and probably a clearer sense of self and happiness. It is transformation through understanding of suffering -- following the footsteps of the Buddha. A similar progression is possible at an institutional as well as personal level -- changing Buddhism and UUism through feminist energy to faiths more able to affirm the Buddha-nature, worth and dignity of all.

Of course before this can happen, there are several other stages which take a number of years. First comes a pervasive and deadening silence. Typically this is followed externally by waves of hatred, anger, ostracism, character assassination and sometimes even persecution. Internally the victim can and usually does suffer from crippling self-doubt and self-hatred, manifesting as deteriorating mental and physical health. In my experience, at this stage Buddhist practice is of limited help, particularly when it is offset by very real questions about the nature of evil, the validity of clergy, teachers, church or sangha leadership and, most insidious of all, one’s own ability to make the right choice or see the way.

What was helpful for me was listening to the experts in the field, such as Judith Lewis Herman and Marie Fortune. These women offer the first seeds of transformation. Dr. Herman is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard and the author of Trauma and Recovery, a book carefully delineating the social context of psychological trauma. On an academic level, her research demonstrates how the feminist movement laid the foundation for naming sexual abuse. On a personal level, her eloquence helps countless victims understand and articulate their experience. Here are two examples of her powerful insights:

“To study psychological trauma means bearing witness to horrible events. When the events are natural disasters or ‘acts of God,’ those who bear witness sympathize readily with the victim. But when the traumatic events are of human design, those who bear witness are caught in the conflict between victim and perpetrator. It is morally impossible to remain neutral in this conflict.”

“When the victim is already devalued (a woman, a child), she may find that the most traumatic events in her life take place outside the realm of socially validated reality. Her experience becomes unspeakable.”

Rev. Fortune is the primary expert and resource on sexual abuse in religious communities. Not only is she author of the groundbreaking Is Nothing Sacred, but she continues to work directly with victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse, running retreats in particular. In the wake of a very nasty series of incidents in my church, I had wanted to participate in one her retreats for a number of years. However, trying to translate Christian concepts and terms into the Buddhist ones I understood was more than I could cope with at the time. Then one day my husband saw a small notice in Turning Wheel about a retreat for survivors of Buddhist clergy misconduct, to be run by Rev. Fortune and two women Zen teachers. I am actually a Buddhist survivor of UU clergy misconduct, but fortunately they let me attend.

It was a pivotal experience -- crystallizing my growing understanding and giving me a framework for the future. In the remainder of this article I will try to share a few of the things I have learned that might be of help to survivors, feminists, leaders and others concerned with these issues.

For those concerned with the bigger picture, it is fundamental to grasp that sexual abuse is a feminist issue. Consequently, the response to any given instance of clergy sexual abuse is an excellent tool for gauging the degree of feminism in an affected congregation, sangha, or denomination. Of course there are other factors, such as hiring policies, which complicate the picture. So, for example, in UUism, which prides itself on its strong feminist ethic and has a high percentage of women leaders, the inability to respond effectively to clergy sexual abuse indicates some significant flaws.(See Note 1.) Since sexual abuse is primarily an issue of power, my current hypothesis is that UU feminism is still based more on the “blade” of the dominator model of power than the “chalice” of the partnership power model.(see Note 2)

When faced with conflict stemming from clergy sexual abuse, the key to healing for everyone, even the perpetrator, seems to be correcting the power imbalance by focusing compassion on the victims (both primary and secondary). This is an area where UU Buddhists have the potential to take a significant leadership role, since compassion is so vital to Buddhism. After a year of intense conflict (“Level 5” according to our District Executive -- “Level 6” being war), our afflicted church turned a corner with what we termed “The Listening Process.” Does this not sound Buddhist? I never fail to think of Kannon when remembering it. Three grief counselors listened to members and friends of the congregation who wished to speak with them. In the end, 132 people participated, and the written report concluded there were “clear indicators of forward movement, of healing and a renewed sense of vitality.”

Institutionalizing such compassionate healing with appropriate policies and procedures is the next step. Several denominations have made significant progress in this area, in particular the Mennonites and the Lutherans, and we can follow their lead. I am particularly interested in exploring “restorative” as opposed to “retributive” justice. While retributive justice focuses on such things as blame, guilt and the past, restorative justice focuses on problem-solving, liabilities, obligations and the future. However, retribution is the model used currently in the courts, making it the framework we tend to default to. Thus the UUA’s procedures center on defellowshipping and censure. It’s very difficult to change these deeply ingrained patterns, but I have hope that in time our focus will change.

To be clear, I am not advocating changing the court system. Rather I am suggesting that churches, sanghas and denominations explore this alternate paradigm. In fact, victims can always use the court system, and have with some “success” in recent years. However, from listening to some of them, I gather that many would not have gone this route if their faith communities could have responded in a restorative fashion.

Finally, I would like to share a few thoughts about the primary victims and survivors of clergy sexual abuse who speak up -- be they UU, Buddhist, Catholic, Zoroastrian, etc. I have heard Christians call our experience “severing the cord to God.” Perhaps the Buddhist equivalent is “breaking the circle of the Dharma”? Certainly something shatters. Many, perhaps most, of us leave our faith -- and with good cause. Until faith communities learn how to respond, that will continue to be the case.

Meanwhile, learning to believe in ourselves is critical, though very difficult. The key is not clinging to or justifying past beliefs, but sifting through the rubble to build something new -- going into the fire with hands outstretched. In the past Zen showed me innate inner strength, courage and connectedness. Now I gravitate to the vast kindness of metta practices. I often wonder if metta has a special potential for survivors of sexual abuse. The love it teaches seems antidotal to the corrupted “love” of abuse. In fact, its very first phrase speaks straight to the heart of the matter: “May I be free from danger.”

In the end, may we all be free from danger. It’s an ideal shared by Buddhists, UU’s and feminists, and I hope some of these thoughts will help move us along this path.

Anna Belle Leiserson is a Buddhist and a Unitarian Universalist. She can be reached via email at this address: ABLeisersn@aol.com

Note 1: As is explained below, to be effective, the response must have many elements besides a process for taking away a minister's credentials. It should be noted the UUA may be on the verge of redressing the current imbalances in their procedures. Recently they appointed a panel to respond to the primary victims of clergy sexual abuse. (Back to body)

Note 2: For those who might not be familiar with the chalice and blade quotes, this refers to yet another groundbreaking book — The Chalice and the Blade by Riane Eisler. (Back to body)


Buddhism has been crucial to me as a feminist. Consciousness raising and therapy made me realize I needed centering, but it was only mindfulness that taught it to me. To share this with others, I started a website, SkyDancer.

Then I started an email list of women who responded to me about a feminist approach to Buddhism. The vision of this group is that it is a combination of a sangha and a support group. Here's a description.

The E-sangha has been in existence since March 98. We are now 17. At the beginning I had to go looking for enough people to get a conversation going; now we are a comfortable size, and I’d like to keep it about here to promote intimacy. However, I’m now getting email from an average of one new prospective member a week. This has been increasing, and it seems entirely likely, given the growth of the Web, that it will keep increasing.

I don’t want to just say “Sorry, we’re full. Want to be on a waiting list?” I want to be able to offer these women support in finding what Buddhism gave me, support in practicing it. I’d love to see a movement of Feminist Buddhist E-mail Support Groups, like the movement of Consciousness-Raising Groups that spread through the world in the seventies.

That requires contact people to start new groups. So I am asking the members of our group whether anyone is interested in starting a new one. (One is enough for me, thanks!) And I am also asking the readers of The UU Sangha, whether you are interested in starting one. I will be happy to share with you what I have learned about how to do it. Contact me by email.

Due to handicaps, I am unable to respond to postal mail, or meet with groups in person. If you want to start a face-to-face group, that would be great too, and I’ll be happy to correspond with you via email about it. I think groups which include men would be useful for our practice, too, though they would have to deal carefully with safety issues.

I don’t think this is just a dream of mine. The Web is making it happen. Who wants to help?

May all of us realize the unlimited nature of our true being.

In gassho, Catherine Holmes Clark

(A Buddhist and a UU, Catherine Holmes Clark is handicapped by Environmental Illness and rarely leaves home. Her homepage tells more about her.)


To be listed, a group must have both a Buddhist and a UU connection. If you’d like to have yours included here please contact the editor, Sam Trumbore (see page 2 for email and postal address). Due to limitations on space, I can only list the group’s name, address, time you meet and a contact person.

Martha's Vineyard Vipassana Meditation
Unitarian-Universalist Church (1/2 block beyond Library)
238 Main Street Vineyard Haven, MA 02568
Meets Tuesdays, 10:15-11:45 am
Contact: Jo Rice
Phone: 508-693-2827
e-mail: jscotrice@capecod.net
Black River Sangha
Unitarian-Universalist Meetinghouse
21 Fairground Road, Springfield, VT 05156
Meets Thursdays, 7 pm
Contact: Richard Ryoha Dunworth M.R.O.
Phone: 802-228-2476
Natural Buddha Sangha (Dzogchen)
Meets Fridays, 7-8pm
at 2001 West Main Street, Stamford, CT 06902
Contact: Rev. Joel Baehr, convener
Phone: 203-356-9762
Buddhist Explorers Group
The Community Church of NY
40 East 35 St. NY NY 10016
Meets 1st Sundays, 12:45 pm
and 1st and 3rd Tuesdays 6:45 pm
Contact Gary Jacinto
Phone: 212-267-2694
Central Pennsylvania Buddhist Fellowship
Nonsectarian; meets Mondays, 7pm
in East College 206 or 405 at Dickinson College.
Contact: Dan Cozort
Dept. of Religion, Dickinson College
PO Box 1773, Carlisle, PA 17013
Phone: 717-245-1385
Zazen & a Mindful Meal
UU Church of Lancaster
538 W. Chestnut Street Lancaster, PA 17603
Meets 4th Fridays @ 6:30pm
Contact Phil & Paula
Phone: 717-295-3041
e-mail: pgable@redrose.net
Unitarian Universalist Church in Reston
1625 Wiehle Avenue
Reston, VA 20190
Church tel: 703 -742-7992
Meditation/discussion Mondays, 7:30-9 pm
Contact: Mel Harkrader-Pine
Phone: 703-707-9332 (h)
e-mail: melhpine@aol.com
The Mindfulness Practice Center
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax
2709 Hunter Mill Road, Oakton, Virginia, 22124
Church tel: 703-281-4230;
Contact: Anh-Huong or Thu Nguyen
Phone: 703-938-9606
e-mail: chantri@langmai.org
The Buddhist Fellowship
Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, Virginia
4444 Arlington Boulevard, Arlington, VA 22204
Meditation Mondays, 7:30-9:00 pm
Dharma Discussion 1st & 3rd Sundays, 12:45-2:00 pm
Contact: Michael I. Roehm, Coordinator:
Phone: 202-332-7236
e-mail: mroehm@earthlink.net
Meditation Group (Vipassana)
Mt. Vernon Unitarian Church
1909 Windmill Lane Alexandria, VA 22307
Meets Sundays, 7 pm
Teachers: Forrest Tobey & Lynnell Lewis
Phone: 703-765-5950
e-mail: mvuchill@juno.com
Eno River Buddhist Community
Eno River Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
4907 Garrett Road Durham, NC 27707
Contact: Kim Warren
Phone: 919/220-0321
e-mail: warre016@mc.duke.edu
Buddhist Unitarian Universalist
First Unitarian Church
1342 N. Aster St., Milwaukee WI 53202
Meets 3rd Wednesdays, 7:00 pm
Contact: Andy Agacki
Phone: 414-771-2490
e-mail: agacki@execpc.com
Meditation Group
POBox 1791
2600 E. Phillip Ln Appleton, WI 54913
Meets 1st & 3rd Sundays 7-9pm 2 sittings+ reading/disc.
Contact: Jane Keggi
Phone: 920-734-5123
Northwoods Sangha
At Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church
1370 North Millbend Drive
The Woodlands, Texas 77380
Meets Sundays, 6:00-800 pm
Contact: Dwight Hatfield
Phone: 281-298-8419
Zen Meditation Group
Foothills Unitarian Church
1815 Yorktown Avenue Fort Collins, CO 80526
Meets Fridays, 6:15 pm
Contact: Chris Kurth, Facilitator
Phone: 970-493-5906
Unitarian Universalist Church of Pueblo
110 Calla Ave.Pueblo, CO 81005
Church tel: 719-561-0880
Soto Zen Meditation Sundays, 7:00 pm
Contact: David Cockrell
Phone: 719-546-3409
e-mail: cockrell@ria.net
Desert Lotus Zen Group
Valley Unitarian Universalist Church
1700 W. Warner Rd Chandler, Arizona 85224
Meets Mondays, 7:15pm
Teacher: James Ishmael Ford
Phone: 602-899-4249
First Unitarian Church of San Jose
Sanctuary 160 North Third Street
San Jose, CA 95112
Phone: 408-292-3858
Contact: Jerry Cluney
e-mail: cluney@blueneptune.com
Monterey Peninsula Mindfulness Practice Group
(based on the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh)
Unitarian Universalist Church of the Monterey Peninsula
490 Aguajito Road Carmel, CA 93923
Meets Wednesdays, 10:00-11:00 am
Contact: Nancy Melton
Phone: 831-647-9155
e-mail: nancy@mindspring.com
Michael Servetus Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
4505 E 18th Street, Vancouver, WA 98661
Meerts 1st & 3rd Mondays, 7 pm
Contact 1: Cassandra Sagan Bell
Phone: 360-750-0031
Contact 2: Chris Faatz
Phone: 360-696-3085
e-mail: cfaatz@teleport.com
Davis UU Buddhist Meditation & Study Group
Unitarian Church of Davis,
Patwin Road, Davis CA 95616
Church Phone: 530-753-2581
Meets Thursdays, 7:30-9:00 pm
Contact: Dick Warg, 530-662-1669

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