Monday, September 15, 2008

the underbelly of buddhism

after throwing off my monk's robes and fleeing the zen retreat from hell, some insights wake me this morning.

the actual practices of chanting, bowing, sitting and walking in silent meditation are tried and true gateways to a clear, calm mind, a sense of well being and ease, and the cultivation of compassion and wisdom. in many other contexts i have experienced most of these forms to be extremely powerful. ultimately, when i discovered buddhist teachings and began to practice meditation and mindfulness five or so years ago, it changed my life inside out. i have deep respect and affinity for the dharma and the practices.

however, at this particular monastery in korea, the practices i know very well and love felt oppressive. the purity and richness sucked right out. i was to bow down to a particular man, even while chanting. i've experienced chanting as a beautiful door to becoming one with sound, experiencing interconnected being. however, the purity of this practice was tainted by having to do prostrations at the feet of a man who demonstrated not a hint of humility or wisdom.

as a woman, i was to enter buildings separately from men and follow behind them in walking meditation. while sitting in meditation the head monk periodically walked behind us with a stick and if we wanted to be hit, we were to signal him with a bow and then a loud "WHACK" echoed throughout the hall. violent and startling to say the least. for the first time, i personally experienced the patriarchal, misogynistic roots of buddhism. my place as a woman within that traditional form was crystal clear. and at this particular temple, a man who held horrifyingly simplistic, sexist values was to be my master, my guide, my teacher.

it is possible that this form of buddhist thought would attribute the domination and higher privileges of men over women as karmic. those humans who are born female in this lifetime deserve all the ways they are subjected to the power of men because of some negative karmic doing in the past. those who are born male, on the other hand, must have completed magnificent karmic deeds and accumulated great merit to be granted such holy status and power in a lifetime. humans who suffer from poverty, illness, or war are in that position simply because of their negative karma. i see how this way of thinking could enable a person to say, "don't think dualistically, things are the way that they are for a reason. transcend. pray to be born a male in your next life." that is an awfully convenient logic for those who are privileged and powerful. no responsibility taken. no measure of effort given to change the conditions that cause such great suffering in the world.


greenfrog said...


From your description, it sounds pretty remarkably awful. But it also sounds fascinating. I appreciate you going through it, so you could tell us about it.

One of the things I've noticed in my own practice is underscored by your account: meditation can be deepened by going through each detail of life, but it can also be deepened by setting them aside as a bundle. The former is painstaking and can be slow, the latter is faster, but allows all kinds of delusion, attachment and aversion to be set aside, rather than dissolved, in the quest for deeper meditation.

I wonder if the 'set it aside' practice encouraged by your Zen teacher might have been exactly the sort of thing that allows misogyny and oppression to be perpetuated for centuries.

(I'm headed to Spirit Rock for a retreat in several weeks. Your account makes me a bit nervous, but I'm guessing that I'll find a rather different style there.)


Jessa said...

dear sean,

yes. i saw very clearly, for the first time, that the "setting aside," the transcending, enables massive denial and the perpetuation of misogyny and oppression. it allows the patriarchal corruption of buddhism (the historical foundation of the religion), that is still alive and kicking over here in korea, to fester and create more suffering and delusion.

my experience with buddhism has primarily been in northern california at spirit rock (which is not the zen form and the majority of retreats that i have attended have been women-only teachers and participants). i have never come into contact with anything remotely near what i experienced this weekend in korea, even with western male teachers. (so, don't worry!) the values and teachings at spirit rock are held within the progressive consciousness of the bay area! i feel extremely grateful for the western flavor of buddhism. however, i also realize that there is a romanticization in the west of asian buddhism. a naivete that doesn't include the misogynistic, oppressive crap that happens over here in the name of buddha and in the name of certain high and mighty holy men.

thank you so much for your thoughts. i always appreciate your feedback.

blessings on your retreat! the hills will be golden and the air will be sweet...


Anonymous said...

You are so brave. You went through that hell, and did what you did for the benefit of all of us. (I am saying this as a man) Thanks Jessa...


Jessa said...

thanks, robin...

hey, by the way, is this the robin i met in santorini?!!

:) jw

Lisa said...

Jessa, These last two posts are rich with insight and honesty. Thank you for sharing your experience with all of us. Good for you for knowing that leaving was the true practice you needed to experience - trusting the truth you were seeing, and acting upon that truth thoughtfully and with complete awareness. Your courage is inspiring.

I'm so glad you decided to keep writing. I like your 2008-2009 description in your profile and I think you've found the right balance of colors! :-)

I'm still without a home computer. Talk about a practice for me...

Jessa said...


thank you so much for continuously reading my stories, my ramblings, my musings! and even when your computer is on the blitz! it means the world.

yeah, the colors are getting there! sometimes i'm tempted to redo it all and change the background to black. it's what i started with in the very beginning and LOVED it, but someone mentioned that it was hard to read text against the black. so, we'll see... one late night i may just get a wild hair!
xoxo jessa

shawn hupka said...

hey jessa,

thanks for sharing. i want to be surprised and shocked, but i'm not. you probably already knew that you were on your own path; this just confirms that.

bye for now,