2016-06-30
If the Buddha had been born a woman, would future generations have known more about his intimate feelings? The sorrow he might have felt growing up without his mother -- who died during childbirth -- or the anguish he might have felt when, as a young man, he left his family to seek enlightenment?

Like the world's great prophets, the Buddha generated a body of wisdom that has endured over the centuries, yet he left behind little trace of his emotional life.

As feminists once sought to link the personal and the political, however, a growing number of American women Buddhist teachers are connecting the personal and the spiritual. In books and workshops, they are speaking out on the way their emotional experiences of love and suffering have shaped their inner development.

In the process, they are humanizing the traditionally impersonal face of Buddhism.

In her classic book "When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times," for example, the American-born Buddhist nun Pema Chodron describes how her husband's affair and their subsequent divorce sparked her spiritual quest. "When anyone asks me how I got involved in Buddhism," she wrote, "I always say it was because I was so angry with my husband. The truth is that he 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 to seek out spiritual truths after a childhood "curled up in bed, lost in a separate shadowed existence built of sadness."

A college class on Buddhism seemed to offer Salzberg a way out of her melancholy. Reading about the Buddha's Third Noble Truth -- liberation from suffering -- she writes that she began to glimpse "the possibility of defining myself by something other than my family's painful struggles and its 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 new narrative on life. She is now the senior teacher at the Insight Meditation Society and Center for Buddhist Studies in Barre, Mass.

Yet while Buddhist practices may have played a role in transforming Salzberg's painful childhood wounds, she in turn contributed her own experience as a contemporary Western woman to certain core doctrines.

Take, for example, the Buddhist philosophy of detachment, which many equate with cutting off feelings. Salzberg's own understanding of the principle of non-attachment, however, is more nuanced.

"When we're in the grip of certain emotions like anger, fear or jealousy, our world gets very small," she said in an interview. "So the teaching is not to push them away, but to be able to feel what we're feeling and not lose perspective. Mindfulness and detachment is about being connected in a much larger way when we're lost."

At first, she thought great meditative attainment or committing the Buddha's teachings to memory would make her a great teacher. But as people turned to her for counsel on "the stresses and tragedies" in their lives, she realized that it was her own understanding of suffering that helped her respond to their needs with genuine empathy.

Tara Brach, who teaches the Vipassana tradition at the Insight Meditation 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 the Heart of a Buddha," said many traditional interpretations of Buddhism foster an "aversion towards attachment and desire" that ultimately lead to a "deep distrust of the body and emotions, or the notion that life itself is bad."

Brach said her initial encounter with Buddhist teachings put her in conflict with her feminine nature because they seemed to say that human love and 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 basic teaching was that the true source of suffering arises "when we forget the Buddha nature -- the true essence of who we really are. And Buddha nature is love and awareness," she said in an interview.

Brach and Salzberg said they have not changed the basic tradition of Buddhism. Rather, they have turned their attention to a "feminine stream" of practices contained within the framework of traditional Buddhism that has been previously overlooked.

Both, for instance, work with the practice of Metta, or lovingkindness, that has been central to all the schools of Buddhism throughout the centuries. "Today they are coming alive in the West, especially where they are being developed and applied to difficult emotions and relationships," Brach said.

One reason for the shift toward these more heart-centered Buddhist practices may be because they offer a healing solution to modern society's emphasis on outer achievement at the expense of inner well-being.

Brach, who is also a psychotherapist, bemoaned the suffering she has witnessed caused by the "trance of unworthiness" -- the shame that arises when people can't measure up to impossible standards of perfection. "The antidote to that is cultivating the quality of tenderness and receptivity to life just as it is," she said.

Salzberg had a similar exchange with the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, the Dalai Lama, when she mentioned the self-hatred so many Westerners felt towards themselves. "He said, `What's that?"' she recalled. "He was so shocked, he wondered if it was some kind of nervous disorder."

"He looked at us and said, `But you have Buddha-nature.' Because according to Buddha's teaching if you really knew who you were, you would find the capacity for love and compassion and connection and understanding and freedom. Because Buddha nature is in all of us," she said.

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