The Zen Women Ancestors Document
A quiet movement to reshape our understanding of Zen lineage and history is bringing attention to the forgotten names and voices of women in the tradition. Grace Schireson explains how the Women Ancestors Document came into being and what it means for us.
In October of 2010 the Soto Zen Buddhist Association (SZBA), a national teachers’ group, approved a document honoring women ancestors in the Zen tradition. It was an historic turning point. After years of discussion and scholarly research, female ancestors dating back 2,500 years from India, China, and Japan could now be included in the curriculum, ritual, and training offered to Western Zen students.
For centuries, the practice of chanting and studying male ancestors has been an important aspect of Zen. Western Zen students followed suit, chanting the names of historical male ancestors in many ceremonies, ranging from morning service to lay and priest ordination, and most notably the ceremonies of dharma transmission, when a teacher passes on his or her recognition and empowerments to a disciple. By acknowledging and connecting with our historical Zen ancestors, we celebrate the intimacy, continuity, and authenticity of practice. This lineage, or family tree, helps connect Zen practitioners personally to essential teachings through knowing the actual names and stories of inspiring teachers. On a more profound level, we allow their teachings to influence our daily lives. And on the most profound level, we experience the love and energy of the ancestors supporting us as we practice.
Identifying women ancestors is new to Zen and, I believe, essential to the full unfolding of Western Zen Buddhism. Women now make up about half of all teachers in Western Buddhism, and the recognition of women ancestors is a solid step toward bringing Buddhism more fully into the reality of Western life.
Excerpted from the Spring 2014 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.