Being the Only Woman in the Room

My teacher proudly says to anyone who will listen that I don't want to practice at his monastery anymore because I don't like the "smell of men." That's definitely not true, and I definitely never said that! I can prove I never said that, because the phrase he uses in Japanese to say "smells like men" (男臭い otoko kusai) is idiomatic and not something I could have come up with on my own. Besides, I quite like men. Now that I'm out of the woman's monastery, I seem to be seeking out men's company more and more.

I can talk to most men about things that most women are not interested in talking about.

I like that men are usually taller than me.

And I actually do like how men smell, which is often like some kind of men's deodorant, which is probably designed to make women think it smells good.

So while I don't dislike the "stench of men," my teacher does kind of have a point. I really really hate being the only woman in a room full of men, especially when all of those men are Japanese. The monastery where I ordained is mostly men. There are a few women, but it's overwhelmingly a male, Japanese environment.


If you are a Buddhist nun in Japan, this kind of situation is bound to happen, because statistically there a lot fewer nuns than monks. This is why practicing in a woman's monastery was so important to me, and so meaningful. According to the Soto School website, 99% of ordained clergy are "monks," although I've also heard the statistic that 97% are monks and 3% are nuns. It's impossible to know exactly because the school doesn't keep records of sex/gender. But whether Soto Zen Buddhism in Japan is comprised of 99% or 97% men, what that means either way is THERE AREN'T A LOT OF WOMEN HERE, and it's inevitable that I end up in situations where I am the only women.

Being the only woman in the room is not fun. It might sound fun-- because feminism! And men and women are equal! And... yeah!-- but it's not. Just trust me.

Being the only Western woman in a room of Japanese men is not fun because, in my experience, men tend to treat me in one of the following ways. They either a) completely ignore me b) flirt with me or c) put me on a ridiculous pedestal, gawking at my ability to use chopsticks correctly. I don't like any of those interactions. Never once has a Japanese man looked at me and asked me my thoughts about the developments of Buddhism in America, for example, or how I think Japanese culture supports monasticism, or what I think the role of the precepts are, or what I think about the Shobogenzo, or what I think about anything.

This last weekend I went to a temple across Japan to accept a scholarship award I received. The scholarship was for the international study of Buddhism, and the event included a particular kind of ceremony to honor the founders of the temple in addition to me receiving the actual award. I knew that I would be the only woman there, and that the people conducting the ceremony would all be Japanese men.

I whined to my teacher beforehand. "I really don't want to go to this," I said. "I'll be the only woman there. It's just going to be Japanese men."

"Stand up straight," he told me.

That's pretty good advice for being a woman in a room full of men, I guess.

These kinds of ceremonies follow a set pattern that I know all too well by now. You arrive at the front door and take off your shoes. Somebody leads you to the appropriate waiting room, because which room you wait in is determined by your status. There's always one or two private rooms for the important people, and a big common room with bowls of snacks for the less important people. In both rooms, there are women serving tea. You drink your tea and talk to the people around you (or not), and then eventually it's time to change clothes for the ceremony so you have to try not to feel embarrassed about stripping down to your kimono (in a room full of men) and putting on your koromo and okesa. Then you go do the ceremony. When the ceremony is done, you come back to the waiting room and change really REALLY fast into a slightly different outfit. And then everyone eats a bento dinner together. No matter where you go in Japan, it's always the same bento, served with beer and green tea. There's always some beautiful young woman in kimono smiling and serving drinks.

Because I was the one receiving the award, I was in the "important person" room. I noticed the hosts were thoughtful enough to place the recipients of an international scholarship in the room in the temple with chairs. Chairs! Incredible. When I entered the room, I was also overjoyed to discover that the other recipient of the award was a Bhutanese monk. Apparently there has been an influx of Japanese pilgrims to Japan lately, so this monk had been sent to Japan to study Japanese. We hit it off great. I've always been interested in that style of Buddhism, and I traveled to Bhutan four years ago. I also took refuge with a Tibetan Rinpoche in college.

I told him how difficult it is to live in a college dormitory and keep on being a good nun. I sheepishly admitted that I don't always wear the clothes.

He'd been a monk for more than twenty years, since he was sixteen, and was wonderfully laid back and happy. "Our hearts will always change," he said, making the motion of something rising and falling, like a wave, "Sometimes we will have lots of faith and sometimes we won't. So the most important thing in Buddhism is just to continue."

I stood next to the Bhutanese monk during the ceremony, and at the time when everyone had to bow three times before the altar, he prostrated the Bhutanese way, putting his hands to his head, mouth, and heart to symbolize purifying body, speech and mind. I liked bowing next to him-- an American nun and a Bhutanese monk bowing in front of a Japanese altar.

After the ceremony, there was indeed a big bento dinner. I was seated next to my new Bhutanese monk friend, which was great because, as expected, no one else wanted to talk to me except for the one drunk monk my age who came up and tried talking to me about how his teacher had married an American woman. Eventually I figured out that the two old monks across the table were the ones who had made the decision to select me for the scholarship. I'd somehow managed to pass the whole afternoon not talking to them or saying thank you.

It's easy to become cynical in this kind of environment. When most of your interactions with men in a professional setting are them asking you if you're married, or "How do you say 'I love you' in English?"; when the only other women in the room are serving tea and sake, it's easy to become hopeless about the state of gender relations and the possibility of women ever being treated equally. But I knew that they had given me scholarship money, and I was grateful. So I got up my courage, made eye contact with old monk across the table, and bowed.

"Thank you very much for the opportunity," I said in Japanese. "Studying kanji is very difficult, but I'll do my best."

Then the old monk did something I wasn't expecting. He smiled very brightly, and looked me straight in the eye. Then he said to me in perfect English, "I am expecting your translation of the Shobogenzo."

I laughed nervously. On my application for the scholarship I had said I was interested in studying Japanese to do translation work on things like the Shobogenzo, but telling someone you expect their translation of the Shobogenzo is like saying "I expect you to go to the moon." Reading the Shobogenzo is near impossible, even for Japanese people. The Shobogenzo is translated in groups, by bilingual experts who have been studying for decades.

"Please wait a little," I said, trying to shake off his compliment. The monk stopped smiling.

"I'm quite serious," he said. "We are all expecting your translation. We could only chose two people for this scholarship." Then he smiled again. "Do your best! I am waiting for you!"

I was very touched by what this old monk said. Sometimes I don't know why I'm here, or why I'm doing what I'm doing. I have to spend a lot of time with people who don't look like me, who don't understand me, who don't speak my language. Sometimes I have to be in rooms filled with much older men who are confused and slightly pissed off by the presence of a young, foreign (pretty?) nun in their midst. But every so often, one of those men will actually see me for who I am, and will tell me he expects me to go to the moon.


Comments

  1. You can start with the title and a fat dictionary. You don't have to dive right into Uji! Maybe correct use of a shit-stick?

    After that the secret is "don't stop" :)

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  2. Just had to let you know I loved this! I am not a nun but I love your writing. And the "... just continue" quote is amazing! Can't wait to read more.

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    1. Yes! It struck me that something I associate so much with Zen (practice/enlightenment, just continuing) would show up in the practice of a Bhutanese monk. But it makes sense... same dharma.

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  3. What wonderful opportunities you've been given - and permission to do it your way.

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    1. Thanks Jeanne!
      I don't know that I really do it "my way." I usually try to do it the traditional Japanese way, or at least some kind of generally ethical Buddhist way, and then I fail at both and write a blog post about it.

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  4. Thank you so much, Gesshin! Just what I needed to read this morning for inspiration. This evening I'm on my way to our first book club meeting this year (Boundless Way Temple, Worcester, MA) where we will be spending four meetings reading The Hidden Lamp (Florence Caplow & Susan Moon). I expect you've heard of it. The men will be in the minority for this one, the convener and myself. ---- Tokudo

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  5. I also look forward to your translation of the Shobogenzo. You are a very skilled writer and you have quite a voice.

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  6. Thank you for your writing, & (please -- palms together) keep on keeping on...

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  7. Thank you for this post. For some reason, through it all, your writings make it sound as if, for now, your are exactly where you are meant to be. (Japan) Do you have a previous post where you share how and why you first decided to study in Japan? I find this whole topic of men and women in Buddhism and Zen in particular fascinating. At the Zen center I attend, Roshi Joan is pretty infamous for her continued push for "gender parity".

    You-all the way over there in Japan...such a completely different culture and yet, I think your ending statement could have been said about an experience over here in the US. ..."But every so often, one of those men will actually see me for who I am, and will tell me he expects me to go to the moon." I think I've wanted this all my life.

    And, I do think it's important that we "stand up straight."

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