Like the world's great prophets, the Buddha generated a body of wisdomthat has endured over the centuries, yet he left behind little trace of hisemotional life.
As feminists once sought to link the personal and the political,however, a growing number of American women Buddhist teachers are connectingthe personal and the spiritual. In books and workshops, they are speakingout on the way their emotional experiences of love and suffering have shapedtheir inner development.
In the process, they are humanizing the traditionally impersonal face ofBuddhism.
In her classic book "When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for DifficultTimes," for example, the American-born Buddhist nun Pema Chodron describeshow her husband's affair and their subsequent divorce sparked her spiritualquest. "When anyone asks me how I got involved in Buddhism," she wrote, "Ialways say it was because I was so angry with my husband. The truth is thathe saved my life."
Likewise, Vipassana lay teacher Sharon Salzberg wrote in "Faith:Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience" how a childhood riven by despair --abandoned by her father at age 4 and an orphan by age 9 -- compelled her toseek out spiritual truths after a childhood "curled up in bed, lost in aseparate shadowed existence built of sadness."
A college class on Buddhism seemed to offer Salzberg a way out of hermelancholy. Reading about the Buddha's Third Noble Truth -- liberation fromsuffering -- she writes that she began to glimpse "the possibility ofdefining myself by something other than my family's painful struggles andits hardened tone of defeat."
She took up the study of Buddhism in earnest on a trip to India,adopting the Buddha's story about freedom from suffering as her own newnarrative on life. She is now the senior teacher at the Insight MeditationSociety and Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, Mass.
Yet while Buddhist practices may have played a role in transformingSalzberg's painful childhood wounds, she in turn contributed her ownexperience as a contemporary Western woman to certain core doctrines.
Take, for example, the Buddhist philosophy of detachment, which manyequate with cutting off feelings. Salzberg's own understanding of theprinciple of non-attachment, however, is more nuanced.
"When we're in the grip of certain emotions like anger, fear orjealousy, our world gets very small," she said in an interview. "So theteaching is not to push them away, but to be able to feel what we're feelingand not lose perspective. Mindfulness and detachment is about beingconnected in a much larger way when we're lost."
Tara Brach, who teaches the Vipassana tradition at the InsightMeditation Community of Washington, D.C., said she deliberately avoids"detachment" in her writing and teaching.
Brach, the author of "Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With theHeart of a Buddha," said many traditional interpretations of Buddhism fosteran "aversion towards attachment and desire" that ultimately lead to a "deepdistrust of the body and emotions, or the notion that life itself is bad."
Brach said her initial encounter with Buddhist teachings put her inconflict with her feminine nature because they seemed to say that human loveand strong caring for another were obstacles that would make her "less free"and that she was supposed to "get rid of my wants and needs."
Yet over the years, Brach came to understand that the Buddha's basicteaching was that the true source of suffering arises "when we forget theBuddha nature -- the true essence of who we really are. And Buddha nature islove and awareness," she said in an interview.
Brach and Salzberg said they have not changed the basic tradition ofBuddhism. Rather, they have turned their attention to a "feminine stream" ofpractices contained within the framework of traditional Buddhism that hasbeen previously overlooked.
Both, for instance, work with the practice of Metta, or lovingkindness,that has been central to all the schools of Buddhism throughout thecenturies. "Today they are coming alive in the West, especially where theyare being developed and applied to difficult emotions and relationships,"Brach said.
One reason for the shift toward these more heart-centered Buddhistpractices may be because they offer a healing solution to modern society'semphasis on outer achievement at the expense of inner well-being.