The Importance of Women Religious and Spiritual Leaders
A friend who knows me well was surprised (when she finally got around to reading my blog) that I am focusing a lot on women’s spirituality. That’s because in the classes that I teach I often warn people about the various subcultures present in spirituality, all of which, to my Buddhist-trained mind, just seek to reinforce a limited personal identity, rather than helping us break free of it.
Here in Los Angeles, I meet so many people that define themselves by their membership in a particular meditation group, or wellness program, or yoga style, etc. While I don’t doubt that they are benefiting from what they learn, I am often uncomfortable with the level of certitude, and even self-righteousness, that often accompanies it. This self-righteousness is no different in my mind than the self-righteousness of the religious right, which many of these same people regularly bash and denounce as ‘arrogant’.
The human ego thrives on a sense of tribe, and on categorizing everyone outside that tribe as ignorant, wrong, or even downright evil. So I am suspicious of tribes, and of my own tribal instincts. So much so that I don’t even consider myself a member of any one religion or spiritual tradition, despite the fact that my spirituality is the foundation for my life. Of course we all have to have opinions, but defining ourselves according to them only binds us more to delusion – it doesn’t liberate us, which is what I view the purpose of spirituality to be.
So, getting back to women’s spirituality, I am often uncomfortable with the tribal feeling of many books and sites labeled as such. Too often they seem to be a backlash against the patriarchal history of the world’s religions, and in my view they ‘throw out the baby with the bathwater’, by rejecting everything those traditions have to teach us because of past discrimination. To me that is a grave mistake, because the true teachings of Buddha, and Jesus, and yogic masters such as Ramakrishna and Ramana Maharshi, and of hundreds of other mystics within all of the world’s religious traditions, can lead us to spiritual liberation. They have nothing to do with gender (or any other level of identification, for that matter.)
However, one of the biggest problems historically, and one of the biggest crimes against women, in my view, is the restrictions placed on their access to teachings and official roles. Many religions restrict women’s rights or abilities to read certain scriptures, or to teach or preach. Since scriptures are often considered the word of God, or a conduit to enlightenment (in the East), this sends the message that women are ‘further’ from God or enlightenment, and that they don’t have the right to communicate directly, or to learn, teach, or preach on their own. They have to get everything secondhand.
I recently read an interesting book that highlights this issue called Taking Back God: American Women Rising Up for Religious Equality. I posted a formal review on Amazon, so won’t do that here, but basically this book focuses on the role of women within the three ‘religions of the book’ – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The author interweaves religious history with interviews of contemporary women who care deeply about their religions, and derive great knowledge and sustenance from them, but are unhappy with the restricted roles of women within them. Many of these interviews are very touching, much more so than I was expecting, because these women have really struggled with this issue.
I wonder how many more women have just given up, denouncing all spirituality or religion? Or accepted their second-rate status, internalizing the idea that ‘men are closer to God’ (or enlightenment, or liberation, or whatever?) Or settled (in my view) into a backlash tradition, focused solely on goddess worship or other staples of women’s spirituality, giving up altogether on the idea of enlightenment or union with God or nirvana, or whatever you choose to call it?
While Taking Back God focuses on the official role of women in organized religion, things aren’t altogether different in the New Age community, or in many Buddhist or Yoga centers. Although there are more women spiritual teachers, authors, and religious leaders in America than elsewhere in the world, they are still vastly outnumbered by men (just check out the Amazon bestsellers list). This despite the fact that according to book marketing surveys, women outnumber men as the purchasers of spiritual and religious books by as much as 4 to 1. In other words, women would appear to be more interested in spirituality in general, but the majority of books, teachers, organizations and resources out there are male-dominated.What is the message sent by this?
I have seen a bit of this myself, even in my small role as a meditation teacher. I don’t fit the ‘mold’ people are expecting, and can sometimes see the surprise on their face when they enter the room for their first class. Part of that is also cultural, as they are often expecting someone Indian or Tibetan. While most of these people would say when asked that of course spiritual truth or knowledge is not tied to a particular culture or gender, there are subconscious biases that creep in. Initially, they’d feel more comfortable with a Tibetan monk than me, no matter how long I have been doing this.
So, my answer to my friend, the reason I do focus on women’s spirituality so much, even though I am wary of over-identifying with gender issues, is that I think it really matters how many women religious leaders and spiritual teachers there are out there. And I think full access to scriptures, and leadership roles, and teaching positions – within every tradition – is imperative. Women’s access to enlightenment, their relationship with God/Tao/Nirvana/Brahma etc., can’t be secondhand. In a way, changing this is the most essential form of change that can occur, because our spiritual and religious beliefs define our organizational view of the world. If we see women as ‘lower down’ the totem pole, even subconsciously, we are denying ourselves our full power.