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  • Buddhist Women and Interfaith Work in the United States
  • Kate Dugan

Women from a wide array of backgrounds and interest areas continue to shape the face of Buddhism in the United States—from women who encountered Buddhism during the women's movement in the 1960s to ordained women founding temples for large immigrant populations; from women carving out a space for Buddhism in colleges and universities to Buddhist women engaged in interfaith dialogue and working in interreligious settings. As Buddhist scholar Rita Gross notes, the experiences of women in Buddhism in the United States are wide and varied.1

Increasingly, whether they are ordained Buddhist nuns or are Buddhist activists, women in the United States are engaging with questions of interfaith conversations within this multireligious nation. Around the country, Buddhist nuns dialogue with their Catholic counterparts. In local communities, Buddhist women assume leadership roles in interfaith groups. Behind prison walls, women offer Buddhist meditation instruction. Some women introduce tenets of Buddhism to their communities, while others promote justice with people from various faith traditions. On college campuses, Buddhist women work as chaplains and women Buddhologists integrate Buddhism and interfaith dialogue into their academic interests. This article aims to explore several snapshots of Buddhist women engaged in interfaith dialogue and working as Buddhists in interreligious settings; it is not intended to provide all-inclusive coverage of the many and diverse women in Buddhism in the United States engaged with an increasingly religiously diverse country.2

Historical Glance: Buddhist Women and Interfaith Dialogue in the United States

Rita Gross suggests that women in the United States began practicing Buddhism in the 1960s and 1970s because "the basic teachings [of Buddhism] were gender-free and gender-neutral, and many found the practice of meditation . . . intensely liberating."3 Yet, the history of Buddhism is dominated by patriarchal structures and male-centered liturgical and ordination practices. As Buddhism [End Page 31] grew American roots, women found that "deeper explorations into the traditional texts revealed misogynistic passages as well as a strong overall tendency to favor men over women in matters of study and practice."4 No longer certain that Buddhism was any less fettered by patriarchy than other traditions, uneasiness bubbled within the experiences of Buddhist women.

In the early 1980s, Cambridge Buddhist Association member Suzie Bowman noted the similarities among women's experiences of American Buddhism—including struggles of motherhood in a tradition that emphasizes the quiet of meditation halls and an alarming number of stories about abusive male teachers. In 1983, Bowman and the Providence Zen Center hosted a conference called "The Feminine in Buddhism"; seventy women attended. A two-day conference, with 120 participants, followed in 1984. In 1985, they hosted a three-day gathering.5

These inspired budding Buddhist Sandy Boucher to take to the road to understand Buddhism in women's lives. She interviewed more than one hundred Buddhist women in their homes, workplaces, sangha. In Turning the Wheel: American Women Creating the New Buddhism, Boucher paints portraits of women in Buddhism in the United States in the mid 1980s—immigrant women from Asia who transplanted their Buddhism, white women who discovered Buddhism in tandem with feminism, women of color who encountered a white-dominated Buddhism. In these women's experiences, she suggests, is American Buddhism with "the possibility for the creation of a religion fully inclusive of women's realities."6

Against this background, Rita Gross was blazing a trail for Buddhist women in interfaith dialogue. In 1980, an eager Gross attended the first International Buddhist-Christian Dialogue conference. She presented ideas that, twenty years later she says, encompassed "everything to which I have devoted my scholarly attention: . . . feminism, non-Christian religions, accurate information about world religions, Buddhism, Buddhism and feminism, interreligious interchange, even theology of religion."7 After this first splash, Rita Gross attended the 1984 International Buddhist-Christian Theological Encounter—the only woman in attendance.8 The organizers were eager to have more women participate; so was Gross. After that conference, she made her further involvement contingent upon more women's involvement. Because of this insistence, members did, and continue to, work toward equal gender representation.9 In 1992, Gross explained, from a personal perspective, the potential...


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