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Women of Zen

On Salt Spring Island, efforts to recognize Buddhism's female ancestors has had a remarkable ripple effect.

Mary Fowles 3 Aug

Mary Fowles is a Vancouver-based journalist with over 10 years of experience in print media and documentary filmmaking.

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Women have always struggled for inclusion in this ancient religion. Photo by Klemen Misic via

Rowan Percy carefully unfolds a sheet of crisp, white rice paper and spreads it out onto the carpeted floor of her Salt Spring Island home.

"This is a women's lineage paper," she says. Rowan keeps hers on the altar where she meditates, wrapped in a scarf her mother used to wear.

The unfolded paper reveals the names of about 80 of Zen's most important female ancestors, beginning with the mythical Prajnaparamita, regarded as the mother of all Buddhas.

A thick brush stroke in red ink sweeps across the top of the page and encircles the names that jet out from the centre like sunrays. Percy's dharma name, Kokushin Kugen, given to her by her teacher, is carefully handwritten in a space at the bottom, closing the circle.

This paper obviously holds special meaning for Percy, who received it when she was ordained as a Zen Buddhist practitioner five years ago, but it holds great significance for Zen practice in the West as well.

For the first time in history, Zen's female ancestors and what they brought to Buddhism's long and varied trajectory are being acknowledged and honoured at ceremonies in the West with this official document. Percy, and her small grassroots Zen community on Salt Spring Island were instrumental in spurring it into existence.

The ancestral papers

When Percy began practicing at The Salt Spring Zen Circle in 2002 there was no such thing as a women's ancestor document -- though the traditional male lineage papers had been in use in Zen since its beginning.

Broadly speaking, lineage papers show the unbroken link between the head teachers of each lineage of Zen, akin to how a family name is passed from grandfather to father to son.

Called a "blood line" in Japanese, they are thought to have emerged from the Confucian tradition of ancestor veneration and show the continuous transfer of spiritual teachings -- known as dharma transmission -- from a teacher to his disciple, or dharma heir, over the centuries.

Traditionally, it includes names that stretch back to the Buddha himself; "the awakened one" who founded Buddhism upon his enlightenment in India approximately 2600 years ago.

Historically, these names have always been men's.

Until the 20th century, Zen had been defined as primarily a male monastic tradition. Its scriptures, literature, poetry and art for the most part exalt exclusively male stories. Few female names emerged in its far and wide transmission through the countries where it took root (notably China, Japan, Korea and areas of South East Asia) and the many cultures and eras in which it thrived.

Yet women were always practicing alongside men, albeit often in fewer numbers. They mostly practiced in women-led communities, and had not only been nuns but also founders of temples, heads of large monasteries, abbots and even dharma heirs, receiving authorization to teach directly from their male teachers. Some even risked their lives and livelihoods in order to practice.

"But these women always struggled for survival," says Zen priest and author Grace Schireson "while the monasteries for men received the official support of the kings and emperors."

"There were women in Japan and China," Percy explains, "who were raised in a patriarchal society who had the courage to leave the palace or leave their merchant family or their poverty stricken hovel where they lived, and go wandering through the country, looking for teachers to study with."

Progress, and tradition

Zen practice in the West isn't even 100 years old but its arrival here has marked the first time in history that men and women have practiced side by side in the same monasteries. In Japan, even today, the genders are often strictly segregated.

It's also the first time in history that women have been heads of monasteries where women and men practice together, and share an equal status in every domain. And it is here in the West that practitioners are wrestling with the often oppositional forces of progress and tradition; that is, with what we leave behind and what we take with us when we adapt spiritual traditions that are multiple centuries old to new cultural values.

The women’s lineage papers have occurred with this upwelling of interest in Buddhist women’s presence in its history across the western world. Their creation ultimately relied on years of research and scholarship that has taken place in the West.

"Buddhism is like water," says Schireson. "It pours into a culture and gradually, after about 500 years, it becomes acculturated." She notes that it adopted elements of Confucianism and Taoism in China, then picked up the Samurai tradition and Shinto's love of nature in Japan.

"Now that it's come to America, psychology and feminism are forces that are strongly influencing it."

In 2007, after about five years of practice, Percy's teacher Peter Levitt invited her to receive Jukai, the ceremony through which students become ordained Buddhist monks, nuns or lay practitioners. It involves 18 months of preparation before students take on the foundational vows and precepts of Zen Buddhism, among them the Bodhisattva vow to live a wholesome life on behalf of all beings.

Percy said yes; she was ready to be ordained, to take "a vow that already lived inside me and had all my life."

"This is where the lineage issue started for me," she says. "I didn't want to enter into something that continued that tradition of setting aside, putting out of sight, and making invisible what women have brought to life and spirituality for millennia.

"I thought, I can either be silent, or I can speak."

A call to action

"She kind of woke me up out of a dream," says Levitt, describing the day Percy met with him to discuss the issue in a teacher-student spiritual conference leading up to Jukai. Levitt is a teacher, poet, and translator. Originally from the Bronx, he formed the Salt Spring Zen Circle in October 2001 as a response to 9-11.

"She said: 'There are no women here! And I said, you're right, I never thought about it.'

"Whenever I was reading stories in Zen literature, all that mattered to me was the dharma [teaching]. I don't know if that's a sort of beneficial egalitarianism or the fact that I'm male, but it never mattered to me if the story was about a man, woman, tree or a raindrop.

"At first I didn't really get it. So I said, 'let me just stop a minute and try to contact what you're saying.'

"I had to leave all my privilege as a male practitioner and try to imagine a world in which there was no sign that I existed, and that it was a world I really cared about. It's not even that I was erased, I wasn't even marked down to be erased in the first place. I had to imagine a world where no one thought of my existence at all.

"It didn't take me long," says Levitt, "it took about two seconds.

"I relied on my experience as a Jewish boy surrounded by non-Jews and I let myself feel the isolation I had felt at various times in my life. And then I looked at Rowan and said, 'I get it.'

"I knew what she was saying was right. We had to make a women's lineage paper.

"Now all I wondered was how on earth are we going to do this?"

After gaining the full support of Norman Fischer, senior priest, founder and spiritual director of Every Day Zen, with which the Salt Spring Zen Circle is affiliated, Levitt set to work.

Over a period of many months, hunkered down at home on Salt Spring Island, he compiled lists of all the names of Zen women he could find.

"I wrote to all the women Zen teachers I knew and asked them to send me all the names of female ancestors," he says.

"Women's names were being chanted in many Western communities already, as part of the sea change that was already happening.

Also drawing on Sallie Tisdale's book Women of the Way, Levitt discovered for the first time the names and stories of women who had practiced in India, China and Japan. What we know of them at all today is due to "years of research, performed mostly by women scholars in the academic world," he emphasized.

Women struggled with inclusion

Buddhism is one of the most difficult faith traditions in which to have a discussion of gender at all. Its essential teachings are often seen as more philosophical than doctrinal and focus on the absolute oneness of all things. For example, the Prajna Paramita Sutra chanted several times a day in Zen communities reminds students: "form is emptiness, emptiness is form."

"When you sit down and practice zazen [meditation] you move beyond all dualistic distinctions created by the mind," Levitt explains. "You go to that place beyond gender. The practice is neither male nor female. And yet real, embodied men and women practice it. While keeping an awareness of oneness, we also strive to live ethically within the boundaries of ordinary life."

These central tenets are what originally attracted people like Percy and Levitt to Buddhism.

And yet, when it has come to women's practice, scholars and practitioners have noted that the restrictions based on gender have been around since the beginning.

Early Buddhist literature tells stories in which women struggled to be included.

The Buddha's step-mother and aunt, a woman named Mahapajapati, is credited with ensuring women's right to practice at all, a request which was at first refused by the Buddha himself. Through much persuasion, and due to the insistence of the Buddha's closest disciple Ananda, he eventually said women could leave their homes to study, and become ordained disciples.

Eihei Dogen, who founded the Soto school of Zen in Japan, referred to the Buddha's 138th vow which reads: "...may women who want to leave the household in my dharma, study the way, and receive the great precepts accomplish their wishes. Until this is achieved I will not be fully awakened."

Keeping Zen relevant

That Jukai, in September 2007 on Salt Spring Island, the female lineage papers were given to Levitt's students, presided over by priest Norman Fischer.

"I folded them in exactly the same way and size as the male lineage papers, and bundled them together," says Levitt. "Both the men and women who received it were crying. A lot of them felt like without even knowing it, a part of themselves had been returned.

"Norman [Fischer] said that at the ceremony: This is not just a Jukai, we're redressing an historical wrong with this document at this time in this place on Salt Spring."

Following that first ceremony, Levitt's list of names was taken to the Soto Zen Buddhists Association in the US, and a committee of Zen priests from across North America was formed, some had already been at work on the creation of their own women's lineage documents.

Two years later, an official women's ancestor document for use in western Zen ceremonies and initiation rites as well as curriculum and training was unanimously approved. Although the women's lineage doesn't show a continuous transmission of teachings from teacher to student in the way that the men's lineage does, it is a chronological and geographic record of some of the remarkable women that existed in Zen's history, stretching all the way back to the first woman to be ordained by the Buddha.

"Part of why Zen and Buddhism have survived is because people made it relevant to the cultures to which it came," says Levitt. "We know that when people said, 'No. This is how it's always been,' something disappears."

'We're all here now'

In the quiet stillness of Percy's rural home, she points out names of ancestors that stretch all the way through Buddhism's 2600-year history. The ancient manuscripts, scriptures and books of poetry where these women's names were unearthed tell tales of erudition, wisdom, leadership and supernatural powers. But the name at the top of the circle in the 12 o'clock position simply reads: "unknown women," drawing a link between the newly ordained and all those women who because of history and circumstance will never be known.

"When I saw my dharma brothers and sisters receive not one but two sets of lineage papers, I thought, we're all here now, no one is missing," says Percy. "This is how the world goes forward, with no one left out."  [Tyee]

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