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The Challenge of Emptiness

Vimala Thakar on the Spiritual Emancipation of Women
by Shanti Adams


"Ananda, if women had not obtained the Going Forth from the house life into homelessness in the Law and Discipline declared by the Perfect One, the Holy Life would have lasted Long, the Holy Life would have lasted a thousand years. But now, since women have obtained it, the Holy Life will last only five hundred years.
Just as when the blight called gray mildew falls on a field of ripening rice, that field of ripening rice does not last long — so too in the Law and Discipline in which women obtain the Going Forth, the Holy Life does not last long.
—Pali Canon, Vinaya, ii. x.

When I first read these words, attributed to none other than the Buddha himself, I remember my blood momentarily freezing as a ripple of fear went through me. It was as if I had uncovered some ancient curse. However, my mind quickly came to the rescue with a volley of rationalizations, rescuing me from that moment of acute existential insecurity. "It must have been the time, ancient India, a cultural prejudice. Perhaps women then, as now in India, were regarded as inferior, unfit for any role other than wife and mother," I thought. "Or maybe the Buddha felt that the introduction of women into the sangha, the spiritual community, would create the temptation to indulge in sexuality, which could distract, even destroy, the monks' single-pointed commitment to Liberation." These and similar thoughts fairly successfully assuaged my panic. However, because the Buddha ranked in my mind as one of those rarest of rare human beings, an individual of unparalleled wisdom and purity whose enlightenment was doubtless, I could never quite shake off a subtle uneasiness about the whole matter.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, this experience was my first introduction to the question of women's conditioning. Does it exist as separate or different from that of men? And is it by its very nature more inherently antithetical to the principle of nonduality, and therefore more difficult to transcend, than other forms of conditioning common to humanity? For the last twenty years, in fact up until fairly recently, my own response to these questions was definitely, "No. Liberation is not a matter of gender." Of this I was sure. However, having spent the last ten years of my life living in a mixed community, or sangha, of people who have dedicated their lives to the realization and manifestation of the truth—a spiritual community where the depth and strength of one's realization is ultimately revealed by one's actions alone—I have been forced to seriously question my assumptions and to look more deeply. As a result of this, what has actually emerged over the years is a number of very distinct differences, at the most fundamental level, between male and female conditioning.

At first, women proved themselves again and again to be more generous, selfless and giving in practical matters. In contrast, the men generally seemed to be more selfish in this arena. But over time we discovered that men, although often tending to be overly intellectual and out of touch with their feelings, seemed to have an easier time facing themselves, even their more serious faults, with dispassion and objectivity. Indeed, to our surprise we found that women, when faced with their shortcomings, found it extremely difficult to renounce emotionalism and self-justification; they seemed to have greater difficulty looking starkly at things. Men, while initially having to wrestle with their deeply ingrained competitiveness, were able, once they broke through this obstacle, to come together in profound love and trust. Women, although conventionally considered to be more oriented towards loving relationships than men, on a deeper level, we discovered, found it much harder to trust in a way that would allow true love and communion beyond the personal to occur. Over time, the men seemed more easily able to put personal concerns aside and, together, soar into a thrilling investigation and exploration of the unknown. Women, on the other hand, often found themselves stubbornly anchored to the personal, unable and unwilling to let go in such a way that would allow them to fly beyond the familiar into uncharted realms where identification with the personal had to be left behind.

As these discoveries of the differences between male and female conditioning appeared over and over again, I began to have the eerie feeling that perhaps the Buddha's prophecy about the effect of women on the dharma, the teaching, might be true. Why is it that women, who seem to have an innate ability to more easily express and give love, appear to have greater difficulty than men facing into the impersonal and absolute nature of reality, into emptiness? Why is it that men, who seem to be more self-centered and fearful of emotional vulnerability, appear to be able, given the right conditions, to transcend the personal in a way that makes possible a profound coming together in emptiness?

When the opportunity arose to speak to Vimala Thakar, an enlightened woman renowned for her wisdom, strength and independence, I knew that I had to ask her if she had ever encountered in herself or in her students any of the deeply rooted aspects of women's conditioning that my sisters and I were struggling with. To my surprise, in our far-reaching conversation, Vimala Thakar confirmed almost every one of our disturbing discoveries; yet, by the power of her extraordinary example, she demonstrated that it was possible, beyond any doubt, to utterly transcend and go beyond them.


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