Articles January 1, 2009

Interview: Reflecting on the Sacred Feminine

Anna Douglas

As part of our 25th year retrospective, we've been reviewing our many years of teachings and wisdom from interviews and reflecting on their significance today. The following interview was conducted in 2009 on the subject of the Sacred Feminine, its cultivation and influence at Spirit Rock, and the challenges we continue to face as a culture in recognizing how to honor the beauty and power of the Feminine.

Anne Cushman (Yoga Instructor and Author of Enlightenment for Idiots):

The Sacred Feminine is a phrase that is often used to reflect on an archetype or energy that expresses itself through the natural world as well as through both men and women. I think it’s important to emphasize that we’re not talking exclusively about women here—we’re talking about an archetype that both men and women can tap into. It’s an archetype that values embodiment over transcendence, process over product, intuitive knowing over intellectual understanding. It values the nonlinear and the unspoken, and the relational. So retreats that are designed to honor the Sacred Feminine explicitly honor all of these qualities.

Again, it’s not an issue of men versus women because I’ve experienced many male teachers who also emphasize these dimensions of practice. But when I’m sitting or teaching yoga on a retreat that’s oriented towards the Sacred Feminine, I’m aware of an explicit intention to value the interpersonal aspect of practice, the intimate aspect of practice, the qualities of unwinding and opening rather than dominating and controlling. It’s an approach that emphasizes allowing and being rather than doing and becoming.

On some women’s retreats, we all sit in concentric circles with the teachers as part of the circle, seated on the same level. This creates a different energetic resonance in the meditation hall, a different feeling in the body and mind—very different from sitting in rows looking up at a teacher on a podium at the front of the room. And in addition to the female teachers, much of the imagery in the hall is female, which activates something very deep and unconscious in the psyche. A different set of archetypes and associations is evoked.

Another dimension of the Sacred Feminine is that it values and embraces the emotional body. Emotions are not viewed as something to get rid of but as something to embrace, something to work with as a natural and useful phenomenon. There’s a sense of emotions as energy that can be worked with and transformed rather than as problems that need to be transcended or avoided.

And at Spirit Rock, that’s how the emotions are consistently worked with (on all retreats). The teachers here emphasize that emotions are to be opened to rather than seen as enemies. Emotions are to be felt—not clung to, gripped by, or dominated by—but felt, just as tastes are to be tasted. And they’re a natural part of our experience. It’s like trying to get rid of the wind, to try and get rid of your emotions. As if to say, “We’re only going to have calm days from now on.”

Julie Wester (Senior Spirit Rock Teacher):

For those who have come to Spirit Rock during the past 20 years, there may not seem to be any absence of the Sacred Feminine. From the beginning, we have had both male and female images in our meditation halls and there are women teaching in almost every retreat. Our way of teaching at Spirit Rock also tends to have many qualities which are often associated with the feminine: retreats are slow, spacious, and quiet, and teachings tend to be offered in a spirit that is warm and inclusive.

However, when I first began my meditation practice in the early 1970s, there were no images of the awakened feminine in any of the meditation halls in our tradition. What is even more interesting is that I did not notice this absence at the time. The absence of the Sacred Feminine has been internalized and forgotten in our world by women as well as by men.

In our Gratitude Hut at Spirit Rock, there is a very inspiring collection of photographs of our Asian teachers. You could go for years without noticing that among the many photographs of Asian teachers, there was only one woman included—the beloved Indian teacher Dipa Ma. It has taken us a long time as women to begin to name the impact of the absence of female lineage. And images—or their absence—can help us begin to see and remember what has been lost. [Editorial note: Since 2009, additional female teachers have been acknowledged with photos in the Gratitude Hut, including Ruth Denison, Joanna Macy, Sharon Salzberg, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Aung San Suu Kyi, Ayya Khema, Dr. Marlene Jones, Lama Tsultrim Allione, the women of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council, and other contemporary women teachers.]

Anna Douglas (Senior Spirit Rock Teacher):

There was no Sacred Feminine in Buddhism until the Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, around 500 years after the Buddha.

This occurred with the appearance in India of the Prajna Paramita Sutra, from which the Heart Sutra evolved. It is a systematic exploration of Emptiness—the kind of analysis Nagarjuna put forth, but the language is filled with poetic devotion and heartful fervor in describing the goddess Prajna Paramita as the embodiment of Wisdom.

No scholars have been able to account for the “eruption into Buddhism” of the Great Mother as the embodiment of Emptiness. Scholar Miranda Shaw states, “The goddess, like the philosophy with which she is associated, appears to represent a revolutionary shift in Buddhist consciousness.” And it was indeed! Prajna Paramita is described variously as the Mother of all the Buddhas, genetrix of the awakened state, heart essence of the Three Jewels, ground of being, womb of totality, pregnant with all phenomena, and Great Mother Dharmakaya. This is really different language than what you find in the Pali texts.

This kind of language and imagery has a powerful effect on the field of consciousness, evoking a quality of deep intimacy. Zen Master Dogen once described a practitioner’s enlightenment as: “Suddenly, she was intimate.” This is the feminine dimension of consciousness which knows intuitively, non-conceptually, and intimately the nature of reality. Such language and imagery communicate that feminine experience is valued in a tradition that has often devalued women’s ways of knowing. This helps women to relax and recognize their belonging and worthiness in what has been, until recently, a predominantly male monastic lineage.

Debra Chamberlin-Taylor (Senior Spirit Rock Teacher):

I don’t know if there is any other Buddhist center that has a statue of Prajna Paramita sitting as an equal beside the Buddha on their main altar. The image of the “Mother of all Buddhas” clearly communicates Spirit Rock’s intention to honor the feminine. Some people might ask, “What’s the point? It doesn’t matter because enlightenment has no gender.” This is true, but for many people, especially women, seeing the image is significant, both consciously and unconsciously. It’s a reminder that females, as well as males, can fully awaken.

There’s a wonderful story from one of Ajahn Sumedho’s visits here. Ajahn Sumedho is the senior western monk in the Ajahn Chah lineage. We’ve been very fortunate to have him visit Spirit Rock regularly every few years. When he’s been here, he has generously offered a few days of teaching for our Teachers Council. Whenever we have these small retreats, we’ve found him to be amazingly open and supportive when we tell him of the ways we’re working together to bring the essence of the traditional teachings to western students.

Out of respect for his monastic tradition, the staff would always take down the Prajna Paramita statue, which usually sits on the main altar in the retreat hall (alongside the Buddha statue), and move the Buddha to the center of the altar. In one of our small group meetings with Ajahn Sumedho, Julie Wester said to him, “I want to tell you how important it is for me as a woman, and for the women we teach, to have an image of the awakened feminine sitting on our altar along with the traditional Buddha image.”

Ajahn Sumedho said that he was not aware that it was our tradition at Spirit Rock to have the two images or that our altar had been changed for his retreat. He seemed open and listened attentively as we spoke of our experience as women.

Julie finally said to him, “We realize that there’s a long monastic tradition of having a single Buddha image on the altar and that this is a big change. I’m wondering how it would be for you if the next time you come to Spirit Rock, we left the image of the awakened feminine on the altar?” With a gesture of openness, Ajahn Sumedho said, “It doesn’t matter to me.”

Here was a Theravada elder saying this was not a problem. Then Julie asked, “How about this afternoon?” And we all laughed. During the lunch break that day, some of the women went into the hall and put Prajna Paramita back on the altar next to the Buddha, where she stayed for the rest of our retreat.

In some way, that felt like another “Turning of the Wheel”—having that gesture of openness from the western elder of our tradition. He is awake enough that he was able to be open to what is appropriate now and in this place. It was a beautiful symbolic event in which the Sacred Feminine arrived a little more completely at Spirit Rock.

Julie Wester:

When the retreat center was built at Spirit Rock, it took us a long time to find the right female image for the new upper Retreat Hall. Finally, Jack Kornfield, who from the beginning has been a very articulate supporter of women and the feminine, asked a master carver he knew in Bali to carve one of the traditional images of Prajna Paramita, which now sits on the altar beside the image of the Buddha.

It is significant that this particular image was chosen for our hall. Historically, the Prajna Paramita teachings came in as a wake-up call, as a reminder that we are not to be attached to anything, even to the teachings and practices themselves. Eventually, the Prajna Paramita teachings, which from the beginning were expressed in feminine language, also began to be embodied in female images. On the image on the altar, as well as on the other traditional Prajna Paramita image, which sits in the woods behind the meditation hall, we can see that the gesture of her hands in the teaching mudra points to the union of relative and ultimate reality. Balanced on a lotus beside her is a representation of the Prajna Paramita (“Perfection of Wisdom”) Sutra.

So Prajna Paramita represents the nondual wisdom that is spacious enough to hold the pairs of opposites, the apparent duality of the world. This is the wisdom that sees that there is male and female, and also no male and no female. She is that inclusive wisdom that knows that there is personal and universal, self and no self, that both are true and neither is true in the ways that we have imagined.

Prajna Paramita is called the “Mother of All Buddhas” because she represents the wisdom that the Buddha—and each one of us—must recognize in order to awaken in order to be free. The image of the Buddha represents the one who is awake. Prajna Paramita represents the liberating awareness of wisdom which is the door to awakening.

Anna Douglas:

Many of the women teachers at Spirit Rock have felt empowered to teach the Dharma, and that has been all to the good, but for some of us, there is still the longing for a way of practicing and teaching that connects us more directly to the Sacred Feminine. It is a deepening of our empowerment as women. It is not political as feminism was, but a deepening of our spiritual presence as a force for change on the planet. It is a way of saying “no” to the loss of connection to the natural world and to aggression and violence as a way of solving problems. It is a commitment to the relational life of the planet and to expressing the deepest dharma insights in feminine language and imagery. It is the deep recognition that men, as well as women, would benefit from valuing the feminine as equal to the masculine.

Janice Gates (Yoga Teacher, Author of Yogini: The Power of Women in Yoga):

What is needed now? What is appropriate for our time, our culture, and our lives today? I think the re-emergence of the Sacred Feminine is a reflection of what is needed now. The teachings of both yoga and Buddhism arose out of a culture and time very different from our own, one in which power and knowledge were held primarily by men, and the teachings were written and translated through a very specific lens. The Sacred Feminine went underground for a long period of time. Many, many more women are coming to practice now, and the teachings are inevitably going to be influenced by this. Spirit Rock has done pioneering work to bring the Dharma to a diverse population. Yet I think there is still a tendency to default to our deeper conditioning, to defer our inner knowing to an outer authority; to feel that we need to climb many secret stairways to get to the top of the ivory tower—as though freedom is just beyond our reach.

As the Sacred Feminine is re-integrated into these traditions, there is an honoring of a more receptive, intuitive way of understanding our experience. For many of us, this may not have been (satisfactorily) validated or valued by our teachers or through the texts we read, so we kept looking somewhere else when the truth was actually right here all along. I’ll never forget the first women’s retreat I sat at Spirit Rock—there was a sense of inclusiveness and a language that was familiar to me. It was like coming home.

Debra Chamberlin-Taylor:

It’s crucial for all life that the feminine and masculine principles be honored equally. My interest in teaching about the Sacred Feminine at Spirit Rock is to help bring this balance into our community and into our expression of dharma. When we gather as women in concentric circles at Sacred Feminine retreats, there is an exquisite presence in the meditation hall. It’s a deep, gentle beauty that helps women feel held and safe enough to open. By the end of the week, the room is filled with radiance and embodied aliveness. Many women report experiencing, “The way I am as a woman is beautiful, powerful, and inherently valuable.”

We want men and women to understand what the feminine and masculine principles are and to see where balance is needed. We particularly want to help women reconnect with the fact that their life is sacred.

Anne Cushman:

To use the analogy of yoga poses or a yoga practice: it’s not that you only want your yoga postures and practice to reflect receptivity and fluidity and the other qualities archetypically represented by the Sacred Feminine. You also want structure, discipline, will, and intention—the qualities that are archetypically represented by the Sacred Masculine. Again, this doesn’t mean male versus female—there are certainly many female yoga teachers and women in general who are very focused, structured, and disciplined. What we’re talking about is integrating and balancing these energetic qualities in both men and women.

If your practice is entirely fluid, surrendered, and non-structured, you’re going to be missing that crucial dimension of structure and focus. But the way that yoga is taught in this country, there has often been a huge emphasis on the structure, the achievement, the form, and the external appearance. And so, to balance that out, you need to bring in an emphasis on surrender; on opening; on feeling rather than form; on sensing from the inside rather than imposing a vision from the outside. That’s the kind of balance that can bring harmony and health.

So it’s really about looking at any given situation and seeing, “What are the elements that need to be brought in to achieve more balance?”

Janice Gates:

When I wrote a book about women and yoga (Yogini: The Power of Women in Yoga), it was interesting to observe people’s responses. I think from the feminist revolution, there’s still this archetype in some people’s minds of the bra burning, raging feminist—this very intense reaction to “the feminine.” I still notice a lot of tiptoeing around this issue in some spiritual circles, a reflection of just how deeply rooted our conditioning is.

So, how do we reconnect with the Sacred Feminine in a way that brings balance without polarization? I would say, “through the body.” Focusing on the body invites a whole different quality of energy for men and women, one that is very much connected to the earth, to the feminine. What better connection to the earth than through your own body, with your feet on the earth? It’s so clear and powerful to feel that. We can read all the books and hear all the teachings, but awakening is not a concept, it’s an experience, and it happens in and through the body. Almost every retreat at Spirit Rock now includes some form of embodied practice.

Debra Chamberlin-Taylor:

Here in America, and especially at Spirit Rock, Buddhism is again reshaping and adapting to become appropriate to this time and place. There is an openness at Spirit Rock that allows the Dharma to be expressed in new ways. We offer retreats on creativity, the body, social action, and relationship. We have retreats for people of color, LGBTQIA, young adults, families, and women. All of this is part of including and honoring all of life, which is a function of the feminine principle. I am honored to be part of this important rebalancing in which the great wisdom and compassion of Buddhism is being discovered through new gateways.

It’s also important to say that in the current Spirit Rock/IMS Teacher Training group, we actually have more women than men for the first time.

Also, our efforts to develop diversity at Spirit Rock are noble. Although it is a slow process, we have the intention to include more of the human family. We attempt to offer different environments and styles of retreats that are relevant to different groups. These are examples of the receptivity of the feminine blooming at Spirit Rock. This creativity and versatility are a breath of fresh air for Buddhism.

Just as our country is in a time of much-needed change, here at Spirit Rock, as we attempt to honor both masculine and feminine principles, we’re living inside of history being made.