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Patriarchy Denial

I began work on this blog when I saw a flurry of White Plum emails about lineage charts. But even without too much attention, I could hear the chatter about the women ancestors. I love my women ancestors. Roshi Jishu Holmes was my heart teacher. I cried more with Jishu than I had ever cried. I cried more in dokusan with Jishu than I had in analysis with Erika. Erika Mohr though was a major teacher in my life as well, perhaps the teacher who did more than any other to lay the groundwork for my Zen practice.

And of course, there was my mother. Mom was the first person to teach me about teaching. For Mom, teaching was always about the students and not the content.

And then along came Dee. It was Dee who pushed me around the corner onto a spiritual path. Dee is the one, these days, who yanks my rug when it needs yanking, now particularly since Bernie is gone. And now too, of course, there is Morrigan. Dee and Morrigan are the teachers who I am studying with every day.

The chatter brought back other memories. Our lineage upsets a lot of people, perhaps not surprisingly mostly women. Our Zen lineage, and not just ours, is a long line of men. The first time I heard this stir we were doing the precept study with Jishu, preparing for Tokudo. Preparation included  bowing practice, a full prostration for each person in the lineage, 81 full bows, twice a month for a year. When we were not far into the year, a woman in the group quit suddenly. The way I remember it now, exaggerated over the years of telling and retelling the story, she ran from the room screaming, “I can’t stand bowing to all these men.”

I kept on bowing with Jishu.

This was the mid-90’s. I had already lived through the turmoil of the Women’s Movement’s beginnings. Consciousness-raising was the way to study the Self long before I heard of Dogen. In the early 70’s, consciousness-raising was part of every new left political meeting. I was spending an evening or two a week in the consciousness raising practice which concluded every meeting, was often the larger part of the evening, once the “business” was concluded. There was a lot of pain and many storms. Dealing with our patriarchal heritage, my patriarchal heritage, was then, still is, an unending process. Patriarchy is part of what Bernie would refer to as our conditioning. He taught me to enjoy, to appreciate, the endless practice of noticing my conditioning, of sitting with it, of letting it go, of noticing its resurgence, in the same form or in a new form, the wonder of endless practice. When I learned that we were no longer going to refer to the “patriarchs” in our Zen liturgy, that they were now “ancestors”, that was fine. Zen, rather belatedly, was discovering women’s lib. It was a healthy change, I thought. But of course, changing the word in the liturgy wasn’t going to rid us of the patriarchy in Zen. It was deep in our conditioning, even perhaps embedded in our Zen DNA.

I wasn’t paying that much attention but what I heard in the Plum chatter was the possibility of reinventing our lineage, getting some women into the mix. There was resonance there for me. Jishu died suddenly in the middle of my Shuso period. Bernie had been my teacher before Jishu and would again be my teacher after her passing. I met with him the morning after Jishu’s funeral. When, if the time came for me to receive transmission, would he give me transmission from Jishu? I wanted to make sure that her lineage continued. When Bernie agreed, I was delighted. He actually signed my Denkai documents, “BernieJishu.”

By the time I received transmission, however, Bernie had had a change of heart. Jishu does not appear in my lineage. At the end of the generations, the Dharma passes through Maezumi to Bernie to me. Bernie did allow us to create a way to recognize other teachers from outside the lineage. To me, the chart looked like a multi-petaled flower, -- I had written the name of each ancestor on successive petals; Bernie filled in his name and mine, -- so I added a stem and three leaves, one for each my teachers outside my line of succession, Roshi Jishu, Roshi Bob Kennedy, Kyudo Nakagawa Roshi. It never occurred to me to add leaves for my non-Zen teachers. There have been so many of them.

I am a storyteller. I love stories. I love my stories about my teachers and what I learned from them. I retell these stories often, about teachers in the lineage and those outside it. Storytelling is an important part of my teaching. But the lineage story is a special story. For me, the lineage story is my way of answering one of my most fundamental questions. “What makes you a teacher?”

For me, it’s a koan, akin to the emperor’s question to Bodhidharma, “Who are you?”

“What makes you a teacher?”

Bernie said I was a teacher. That’s my whole answer. It’s not the number of hours I’ve meditated or the number or depth of my Aha’s.

And it’s not just Bernie. The fact that Bernie said it matters means something because Zen is transmitted face-to-face in an unbroken line going back to our original teacher, Shakyamuni Buddha. That’s my story.

When a few years ago I first came across the historical debunking of the lineage, I was fascinated. The historians had such an interesting tale about the Chinese invention of lineage and how it grew organically out of the Chinese culture and the great importance of ancestors in China. But I had a problem. There was power for me in the lineage. It answered one of my fundamental questions. How was I to deal with the historians’ debunking?

Ludwig Wittgenstein, my favorite philosopher during those early women’s movement years when I was writing my doctoral dissertation, showed me a way. It’s all a story, according to Wittgenstein. I don’t think he ever called them ‘stories.’ He called them ‘games’, language games. It’s all a story. It’s all a game. The Zen masters have their game. The historians have theirs. If you play by the historians’ rules, the Zen story is a bad fabrication. But you don’t have to play the history game. You don’t have to adopt the historian’s rules of evidence. Your choice. I chose to play the Zen game by the Zen rules I had learned because I love the story of the face-to-face transmission which guarantees the authenticity of our teaching, because that’s important to me. Call it faith. It’s just my game.

I keep quoting Bernie. “It’s just my opinion, Man.”

We’re all free to choose the game we want to play. If you want an argument, you can probably find someone at your corner bar who will get into it with you about whether football or baseball is a better game. I think you just have to choose. Or not.

But your choices do have consequences. The French Existentialist philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, said that we could all choose our lives. I don’t think he used the word ‘stories’ either. He meant this absolutely. When he was challenged, he said, yes, you can even choose your parents. But then he added, changing your parents is not easy. When you change your parents, everything changes. Everything. You have to be prepared for the tumult.


Sartre was talking to us. Parents. Ancestors. You can choose your parents. You can choose your ancestors. But don’t forget, when you choose new parents, everything changes. When you choose your ancestors, everything changes.

All this got me thinking about what I want to call, “Patriarchy Denial”. It connects me back to the work I have been doing over the years with Jagged Karma. This work began when Jishu asked me to deal with Bernie’s jagged karma. The old-time ZCNY students, the people who had put their sweat equity into the Greyston Bakery start-up and who felt betrayed when the bakery morphed from a livelihood for Zen students into an employment program for the formerly homeless, felt betrayed by Bernie. As the Zen Community moved to sell the bakery to The Greyston Foundation, my assignment — as I understood Jishu — was to find a way to make things right with the unhappy and disgruntled Zen students, all those who felt betrayed by Bernie.


It took me a while to learn that I couldn’t make things right. Bernie had created some jagged karma. Bernie had learned to live with that. I had to learn to live with that. All of us, if we are to fully appreciate the gifts that he shared with us, have to learn to live with Bernie’s imperfections. As Jishu said, “There is no perfect teacher outside.” Bernie was not a perfect teacher, but he was my teacher, warts and all.


Individually and collectively, we live with our jagged karma, what we have created ourselves and what we have inherited from our parents and teachers, from our ancestors. We can own it, or we can deny it, disavow it.

We all have to deal with our own shit. Patriarchy hits Zen in a very personal way. We can choose to invent a new history in which men and women have always been equal. Or we can really sit with what probably feels shameful now, that women were discriminated against in Zen institutions and deprived of opportunities. How is it possible that some wonderful things could possibly emerge from such beginnings?


That’s my koan. It’s the story that I choose to live with. It means, too, that our heritage is not just a story about the past. We are continuing to live with and practice with what is wonderful and with what is sorrowful and painful and which continues, likely will continue, to intrude.

Things have changed now. New chapters are being added to the story. There are so many wonderful women teachers. This it seems to me is something that has arisen through Zen’s confrontation with the West.

Women were among Maezumi Roshi’s first successors, but this was not a practice which he brought with him from Japan. What a break with the tradition in which he grew up, in which he trained. Can we appreciate this gift to all of us if we don’t fully appreciate how far he had to come to do it? Can we be shocked if we discover that in his practice, traces of his conditioning in a patriarchal culture persisted?

Roshi Bernie wasn’t a perfect teacher. That was my hardest-to-pass koan. Maybe none of them were.

For me the challenge of bearing witness is to live with Zen, with our sexist history, with our roots in patriarchy. It’s in our Zen genes whether we like it or not. That’s my story, the story which has been handed down for hundreds and hundreds of years, that the teachings which we value were preserved and transmitted, shamefully we might say, from one man to another.

Maybe we can create a happier story if we toss this history. Everyone is free to create their own lineage. But as Sartre warned, when we choose to invent new parents, everything changes. If we make up our own lineage, are we still transmitting the teaching of the Buddha. How do we know? If I have invented my lineage, does it still guarantee authenticity?

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to obliterate patriarchy and sexism and racism and antisemitism. I think Sartre is warning us that at the end of this obliteration, we may have no history at all.

We all get to choose the game we want to play. At least, that’s my story.

And of course, no one has to play the Buddha game.



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