Dogen Walked Into a Bar

There's a joke I love that makes the men around me uncomfortable. It goes, "A feminist man walked into a bar it was so low." This is because we expect so little of men, and so when one says anything approximating respecting basic human rights, we fall all over ourselves.

I am currently finishing up my master's degree in East Asian studies, and writing my thesis on women in early Sōtō Zen communities. When I started out to write this paper, I thought I would focus on Dōgen and women. Some of my research I've already posted online, like the last post about Ryōnen.

As we all know, Dōgen had several female disciples and wrote favorably about them. In particular, he praises Ryōnen in the Eihei Koroku (Extended Record). He also argued that women have equal capacity for spiritual development and awakening in the Raihaitokuzui (Bowing at the Attainment of the Marrow) chapter in the Shobogenzo, as well as in Bendōwa (Points to Watch on Practicing the Way). As I wrote about in my last post, it seems that Ryōnen was Dōgen's first disciple, and that she may have lived with him until his death.

However, how can, and should we judge someone like Dōgen from our current perspective 800 years later? Was he a pioneer of his time, a proto-feminist, or is this just idealistic projection on our part? Many (male) historians have argued that Dōgen's rhetoric was "merely theoretical equality" (see William Bodiford, Sōtō Zen in Medieval Japan. Steven Heine also argues something similar). In other words, they point out that while he paid lip service to the idea of equality, he may not have taken steps to actualize this equality (now there's a good idea for a book title-- Actualizing the Equalitykoan!).

What I am starting to realize after the last two years of researching this is that compared to later disciples, mainly Kangan Giin (1217-1300) and Keizan Zenji, Dōgen did not take major steps towards institutionalizing women's authority or creating resources to help women practice, such as establishing convents or placing women in positions of authority. He undoubtedly "respected" women, yet he did not establish a practice space for women. The historical record is silent on whether or not women were allowed to practice at Eiheiji. We can actually argue both possibilities since there is no evidence either way; on the one hand, there are no historical records indicating that women practiced alongside men at Eiheiji, and on the other hand, there is no evidence that women were barred from Eiheiji. There were several nuns with personal connections to him, and one nun took care of him when he was dying. During this time there was precedent both for segregated and single-sex practice spaces. This makes determining whether or not Eiheiji had women all the more murky. We also need to be careful about assuming that mixed-gender practice spaces were better for women than convents. For the majority of Buddhist history, women have practiced in all-women spaces (or at home) for a variety of reasons, including but not limited to freedom from sexual harassment and abuse.

What we do know conclusively is that Dōgen did not establish any convents. Kangan Giin established the first Sōtō Zen convent, called Hooji, on Kyushu around the year 1260. A 1990 archeological study has also revealed that Giin founded Hooji with another monastic named "Jodo Daishi" (成道大師) who was probably a nun disciple named Hoe. Keizan Zenji (1268-1325) also has the first recorded dharma transmission to a woman, the nun Ēkyu. He established a special practice space for women at Yokoji called Entsu-in. The nun Sōnin, a major donor of Yokoji, was the first abbess of Entsu-in. She and other female family members contributed substantial land donations to Yokoji, after which Keizan installed her as a leader of that practice space. 

It is tricky to refer to Dōgen as a "feminist" for several reasons. The first is that this is obviously anachronistic. "Feminism" refers to a particular political movement which began in the 20th century and involves individuals reacting to their position within a nation-state. The second reason is that, at least in my opinion, feminism means more than just saying you believe in equality of the sexes; it means taking actual steps towards restructuring institutional power imbalances. So while I still think Raihaitokuzui is a masterful and elegant treatise on nonduality and gender, it is perplexing to me that Dōgen did not establish practice spaces for women, and that the first documented transmission to a woman was not until Keizan. 

Additionally, we need to be careful about using the category of "women" as a monolith. Wealthy women played a substantial role in Keizan's community, but poorer women would not have had the same prestige. In fact, it is quite likely that an upper class woman during the Kamakura period would have had more in common with an upper-class man than a female servant (see Women and Class in Japanese History by Wakita Haruko). In the Ritsu convent Hokkeji, for example, women were placed in tracts that were segregated by class, with upper class women having more opportunity for upward mobility towards full bikuni status (see Lori Meeks' writing). 

Where does all of this history leave us today? It underscores two things for me. The first is the need for institutional support and structuring, rather than words, to be the measure of egalitarianism in Buddhist communities. Dōgen was not alone in believing women had equal potential for awakening; many prominent thought-leaders of the time were also rethinking the traditional views that women could not obtain enlightenment. The second is that it is crucial we have an intersectional analysis of any kind of women's history or feminist movement. It is easy to say that "Dogen respected women" and that there have been many prominent women teachers in Buddhism. But which women? Did poor women have the same access as wealthy donors? Similarly, in reacting to something like the #metoo movement today, is the accountability about sexual abuse being extended to the most vulnerable women, who are poor, trans, of color, etc.? Are we restructuring institutions in such a way that the most vulnerable are not going to be subject to abuse again? 

It is understandable that we want the founder of our religious tradition to be a supporter of women. I get it. And I think he was, in his own way. I'm reminded of my teacher, who loved to quote Raihaitokuzui and claimed to respect women. But, coincidentally enough, it was always women who were serving tea or acting as personal assistants to provide him emotional support. 

Dōgen was in many ways a genius. But I think it is expecting a little bit too much of a man to be a brilliant philosopher and writer of exigetical texts as well as a radical, pioneering feminist. It should be obvious that a 13th century celibate monk is not the best person to look for for advice about #metoo. The founder of the #metoo movement was a woman of color, not a man, for obvious reasons. 

If you are tempted to ask yourself, "What would Dōgen have said about #metoo," I would politely suggest you ask yourself instead, "What have women been saying about sexual assault, now and since the beginning of time?" History helps us contextualize Dōgen's views on women, and reminds us that the bar for feminist allyship should not be lowered just because we crave belonging and identification with our spiritual tradition.  


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