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Bringing It Down

The new issue of WIE is indeed an interesting issue and beautifully done. I only wish that now there could be a conversation among all the people interviewed, to see what we learned from each other.

I do have one serious objection. It appears that one of the standard questions asked in many of the interviews was about traditions that divide clearly between men's and women's roles, the examples being tantra and Orthodox Judaism—where men devote themselves to "study and prayer" while women devote themselves to "home and children." This perpetuates the stereotype that women don't study or pray, which is the opposite of what both Esther Kosofsky and I were saying ["The Back of the Synagogue Is Not the Back of the Bus"]. More correct would be to say that in traditional Judaism men are responsible for the organization of public prayer and for studying and administering the legal aspects of Torah tradition. Women certainly study and women certainly also pray.

The main thing about gender roles in Judaism is not "getting there"—to liberation—but "bringing it down"—bringing the message to other sentient beings. The liberation ultimately has to be a collective one. There have to be ways of transmitting this to the collective. So the question is: How do you create a structure that does that? If teaching people one-by-one worked, we would have had a world of liberated individuals long ago. It's not enough. So the traditional Jewish gender system is intended, I think, to help support strong family and community structures, in order to preserve and transmit the teachings to the next generation.
Tamar Frankiel
Los Angeles, California

Lipstick and Enlightenment

Thank you for the wonderful interview with Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo ["What's the Relationship between Emptiness and Beautiful Nails?"]. I was completely fascinated and inspired by her story and teaching style. I have experienced the same prejudices in regards to my appearance and gender within my own spiritual family. I was openly mocked and laughed at by my fellow students if I ever wore lipstick or high heels, as if to say that this meant that I couldn't possibly be a serious seeker. In the beginning it hurt and confused me even though I knew that my teacher took me seriously. Eventually, as my spiritual life deepened, I knew that I truly cared about growing spiritually more than about anything else. If enlightenment were as simple as throwing away my lipstick, I would have done it a long time ago.

Thank God that I am not blind enough to think that a male teacher (or student) who wears a shirt and tie and is impeccable in his grooming and appearance could not possibly be the real thing. If that were the case, I never would have allowed the teachings of my own teacher into my life. Don't let good looks and charisma fool you! Any preconceived idea of how a real teacher or a real student should look and dress is only our own limitation staring us in the face and stopping our evolution. Anyone who has found "the jewel" and is willing to share it should be treated as the gift from God that they are even if they don't wear orange robes or shave their head.
Birgit Chasin
New York, New York

Lion's Roar of Enlightenment

Thank you for your interview of Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo. Jewish-Italian-American dakini, reincarnation of the founder of the Palyul sect of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, incarnation of Lhacham Mandarawa—after reading these outrageous credentials I could hardly wait to hear about her track record in the fifteen or so years she's been teaching and what she would reveal about "the relationship between emptiness and beautiful nails." Andrew Cohen didn't hold back in the interview and Jetsunma didn't flinch. She seems to be a teacher who walks her talk. This was a revelation to me because I'd written her off as a spiritual bimbo when I first heard of her discovery years ago while a member of Trungpa Rinpoche's Vajradhatu community in Boulder, Colorado. By the end of the interview I felt a lot of respect for her dignity.

Her poem "War Cry" was a brilliant addition to the piece. Here Jetsunma unleashes the ferocity of an irate mother protecting her young as well as the nurturing quality of a mother. The language she uses in "War Cry" is that of a woman yet the aspiration to do whatever it takes to achieve victory is beyond gender. The relationship between emptiness and beautiful nails is the lion's roar of enlightenment!
Loring Palmer
Somerville, Massachusetts

Mind and Beyond Mind

Can we ever know if there actually is difference independent of and beyond thought? Perhaps differentiation is purely a function of mind, and difference the mind's creation. Do "men" and "women" exist from a perspective of no difference, beyond mind?

It seems to be a very deeply entrenched human condition to equate the representations of mind with what is totally independent of and beyond it. While it is often extremely useful, even necessary, to equate the two to live in the world, the usefulness of the equation in no way makes it true.

It is just as reasonable, possibly more so, to see mind/thought as a tool, which has evolved to be appropriate to, and useful in, the environment in which it finds itself, as to see it as a mirror image of that environment. This is saying nothing about what actually is and leaves what is wholly beyond mind, undescribed, and the mystery it surely is.

To say there actually is difference is saying exactly the opposite. So to ask what it is like to have no notions of self as a man or woman and yet still "be" a man or woman seems a little strange. How the absolute perspective of no difference and the realm of difference coincide can better be seen as the inquiry into what is the right equation of mind and beyond mind, always recognizing that equating the two is solely the movement of the former.
Andy Cushion
Sheffield, United Kingdom

The Baby with the Bath Water

Overall I am very favorably impressed with your new issue and its theme of gender and spirituality. I have read the interviews with Andrew Cohen, Sam Keen, and Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo, whom I had never heard of before but hope to hear from a lot more in the future. I get the impression that Sam Keen is someone who was wounded as a child because he did not measure up to being a "real" man and who has spent much of the remaining decades of his life "proving" that the only difference between men and women is the hardware. If I am reading his replies correctly, he is absolutely convinced that other than the hardware, 100% of what is male and female is culturally conditioned. To me this represents a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bath water.
Andrew Zahir Ruff
Palo Alto, California

In My Pagan Opinion

As aggravating as it was for me to read WIE Issue 16 on various gender liberation movements, I have to admit it stirred me up and made me think. As a long-time feminist, I was interested in the interviews with Marion Woodman ["Taming Patriarchy: The Emergence of the Black Goddess"], whose thoughts most mirror my own, and with Mary Daly ["No Man's Land"], whose out-there views are always ahead of the times and therefore stimulating.

But I was bothered by the illustrations in the Woodman article. The Black Goddess is not necessarily a goddess of African descent. It's the earth-related and lusty energy of woman that Woodman talks about, not literally of women of color. I found the photographs sensationalistic and inappropriate for what Woodman was saying. And what was that "Taming Patriarchy" title for the interview? It is time for the destructive beast, patriarchy, not to be tamed but to be euthanized.

I am really suspicious of enlightenment with transcendence as its goal. In my decidedly pagan opinion, this is the height of escapism. It's a great way to avoid taking any responsibility for the desecration of Mother Earth. Also, to ask that we deny the body's pleasures is another way of denigrating woman, who is so often equated with matter and "the flesh." We were born into these wonderful bodies. Let's enjoy them for heaven's sake! To me, true enlightenment is wholeness—the joy and delight of spirit, mind and body together, a delicious state in which we, as beings-in-balance, can still participate as spiritual warriors and political activists while living on this beautiful, but endangered, planet.
Rev. Kay Gardner
Temple of the Feminine Divine
Bangor, Maine

Just More Tribal Warfare

Underneath the useful points she raises, the essence of Mary Daly's view toward men strikes me as no different from totalitarianism. With Daly, women are, by their nature, the much superior race. Men are not merely inferior; they are the source and the embodiment of all evil in the world. (Whew!) They therefore deserve to be, if not exactly eradicated (her secret preference, one suspects), then certainly rendered powerless and out of the picture.

The logical extension of views like this, if driven by real political power, is policies and social trends that would make your average patriarchy look like a walk in the park. This is not enlightenment, spiritual connectedness, or healthy outrage over real grievances. This is a philosophy of hatred, elitism, racism and totalitarianism. And it's old hat, really. It's just more tribal warfare. Daly's views may seem like a great idea right now to some women. But at their essence they are running counter to the slow trend of history toward respect for all races and both genders. The lasting value of Daly's work, whatever it may be, will not lie in her ultimate vision of life on this planet.
Lawrence Noyes
Walnut Creek, California

Metaphysics 101

Silly, silly, silly!

Mary Daly is one angry womyn but to me, it's she who just doesn't "get it." With all due respect to the deep wisdom she has accrued from her journey through this life as a female, she is still very obviously identifying with her physical role. In truth, she would have to elevate her viewpoint outside of "time" (a mere construct of the physical world) before she could see her real nature.

The soul's real nature is androgynous, neither male nor female, and in successive lifetimes it clothes itself in gendered physicality in order to grow into love, into compassion, into wisdom. This is "Metaphysics 101." Instead of seeing the world through a lens called female (or male, for that matter), how much better to see it through the lens called tat twam asi ("I am that, too"). There's where compassion lies.
Judi Thomases
Garnerville, New York

Laughing Up His Sleeve

Having read your interview with Swami Bharati Tirtha ["No Difference!"], I consider it bizarre that your magazine would go to any hardcore keeper of a tradition, particularly one as hoary as institutionalized Vedanta, to provoke any response on gender that might be somehow relevant to the name of your magazine.

Perhaps there is a misunderstanding that the Shankaracharya of Sringeri bears no resemblance to the Pope simply because he is a Vedantic scholar. Would you have bothered asking the Pope or the Dalai Lama when a female is likely to be tapped for their jobs? Whatever else titular heads of religions are, they are not freewheelers. Bharati Tirtha is a very sharp and extremely learned individual. He obviously was laughing up his sleeve as to the cluelessness of Westerners regarding what his office, tradition and the Vedantic texts are about. Throughout the interview Tirtha seemed disinterested in the premise of the questions asked and was intentionally evasive. He is an "employee" in the service of the Brahmins—self-appointed keepers of the faith who for eons have co-opted and masculinized every variety of institutionalized Hinduism, most certainly including institutionalized Vedanta. It was the response of a corporate spokesperson for him to have said that your question—Could there ever be a female Shankaracharya?—was impossible to answer simply because it was "hypothetical." Better for him to have responded frankly: There will never be a female head of this bastion of Brahmin orthodoxy. It is not open at any level to political correctness or change, regardless of how incomprehensibly rigid that may seem to most Westerners. The female ban follows the letter and spirit of the tradition, as the Shankaracharyas must.

Regarding the texts you featured with demeaning references to women, these were not excerpted from what Christians might call scripture or "revealed Word." Several were characters speaking in stories. So why bother with them? Hindu scripture is ranked. Texts like some of the Samhitas, Devi Bhagavata and Stridharmapaddhati from which you quoted are post-Vedic augmentations, riddled with sociological agendas, many of which were aimed at solidifying control of the "twice-born" priestly caste. Though the Samhitas are part of the "revealed" (shruti) literature, the Manu Samhita that you have quoted is actually a "remembered" (smriti) text, which does not enjoy the same authority as the other Samhitas. Actually, the Manu Samhita deals particularly with the rules of conduct. This text is regarded by Brahmins as the most important in Hinduism next to the Vedic literature, an evaluation based, no doubt, on the high position assigned to Brahmins in it.

This entire article reflected a tendency in the West to try to understand all things in American terms or, failing that, to Americanize what cannot be understood. The complexity of Hindu traditions resists this cultural bulldozing and political correctness, although attempts have been made and are being made to reinterpret them. A tradition has to be accepted or rejected on the basis of its original contribution and not on the basis of whether it is adaptable to suit the obsessive, indiscriminate preoccupation with universal political correctness prevailing in the U.S. today.

All this begs the question, what has the level of your discussions of gender among traditionalists got to do with a publication with your name? To be provocative and contemporary without becoming frivolous and sensational should be easier by asking yourselves "What is wisdom?" at least as often as "What is enlightenment?"
Mohan Nair
Warner Springs, California

Into the Unknown

Congratulations on a stunning issue of WIE. I am blown away by the directions in which you have gone in this issue. A few weeks ago the three men who attend a weekly meditation group that I'm a part of read Elizabeth Debold's interview with Andrew Cohen, "Liberation without a Face." Afterwards, we had a beautiful discussion about what it means to be a man, in which we entered into the unknown together, meeting in a place where we had to admit that we don't know what being a man is. It was the deepest we have ever gone together in a discussion. Beautiful work.
Jeff Feldman
Toronto, Canada

Fluidity of Gender

I am responding to the provocative ideas (as usual) set forth in your last issue.

The outing and wider acceptance of gay sexuality is a necessary step in the development of a broader conception of our humanity. The prevalence of androgynous attire and the collapse of sexist barriers in occupations attest to a growing awareness of the restrictions of role-playing in a cultural script that presumes to define masculinity and femininity. Overidentification with gender is exemplified by the current craze for breast augmentation, though we are not so far away from an era in which women bound their breasts in another image of beauty.

The ancient Greeks seem to have recognized the fluidity of gender and sexual boundaries. It was considered manly for men to lust after boys, then become husbands of women. In Cos husbands dressed as women to bed their brides, while in Sparta brides greeted their husbands with hair trimmed like boys'. It was said that in Sparta the cleverest women loved girls. In Crete, same-sex love was encouraged to avoid overpopulation. Argos celebrated a festival where men donned women's clothes and women dressed like men.

Today, men and women who grew up feeling marginalized by the rigid role ascribed to their gender no longer need to think of themselves as other-sexed. It is ironic for women who love women, for example, to assume the appearance and manner of the male, whom she rejects. The gay male need not take on the mannerisms of a female caricature. What does it mean to feel "like a woman" or "like a man"? One can feel only like one's idea of a woman or a man, which is certain to be a stereotype.

Neither sexual preference nor gender has anything to do with the individual's spiritual nature, which transcends both and is the true giver and receiver of love.
Barbara Klowden
Los Angeles, California

As Close as My Skin

My immediate experience when first picking up the new issue of What Is Enlightenment?: "How Free Do We Really Want To Be?" was mostly one of revulsion. What is this visual attack on my senses? I asked myself, flinching from the air-blown beauties adorning the cover. What's spiritual about this?

Until reading this issue of WIE on the relationship between liberation and gender identity, the whole topic of gender identity was a total mystery to me. How can I even begin to understand what it means to be free of my identification with being a male when that is simply what I have always known myself to be? What has come clear after reading this issue is that my first response to the magazine was not a matter of aesthetics. The very question jumping off the cover was challenge enough to marshal my defenses around a dimension of my being that is as close as my skin and yet as seemingly far away and unknown as the Milky Way.

In his interview with Elizabeth Debold, Andrew Cohen remarks, "the goal of liberation without a face is a natural state or a natural condition . . . [where] we were willing to step beyond any and all notions of gender and of self altogether first, and be willing, once we did that, to actually stay there." This statement served as a compass to guide me through the unpredictable, implicating and disorienting turns that the issue took.

Mary Daly is a warrior, and something of her absolute resolution did resonate with my own yearning for an absolute reference point in life—there was even something tender and full of depth in her expression. However, since her stand excluded about 49% of humanity, it occurred to me that something must be missing in this view. I found the same unfinished picture emerging from the conversation with Sam Keen. Although he did, indeed, exhibit clarity, eloquence, and passion in relationship to the question of gender and spirituality, I was not moved by his articulation in a transformative way. It seemed to me that the very liberating potential of some of the questions being posed were lost in the force of his own conviction.

The order of the articles must have been deliberate, because I was thirsty for some dharma by the time Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo and Daniel Piatek graced the pages. Their heartfelt and simple articulation of the truth—that the human relationship to the absolute nature of who we are exists beyond relative distinctions of gender—was an oasis of relief.

The interviews with exponents of spiritual traditions that have deeply fixed roles for men and women challenged my ideas about how an absolute relationship to gender might be expressed. Surely, with such fixed roles, this could not be it! But then, undeniably, something opened up, and there was depth in the expression of these people, reflecting the possibility of realizing our absolute nature, for that place seemed to be their reference point, despite their gendered roles within their respective traditions.

Reading this issue, it occurs to me that I just can't know what it will look like to go beyond fixed ideas of gender. And that circumstances are always only relative, whereas the truth of who we are is the immediate, absolute, positive expression of a life imbued by that which is beyond time, circumstance, or gender. This is my experience of this issue of WIE—a challenge to take a headlong, abandoned plunge into the groundless free-fall of Self-discovery.
Morgan Dix
Great Barrington, Massachusetts

Open Sky of Freedom

You guys have been having a good time these past few years exploring sex, women and enlightenment and now gender. I'm sure this sells a lot of copies, but maybe a better question would be: What do people expect enlightenment to look like, and how does that expectation prevent them from finding the obvious? To get to the deep and radical change required for self-realization we must go beyond all these personal expectations. Sex has everything to do with personality. Personality has nothing to do with enlightenment. To open up from the ego we must stop taking everything so personally; stop taking our thoughts, emotions, sickness, health and even our gender so personally. We are full of ideas about gender, but ideas are not enlightenment—liberation from ideas is enlightenment. This is where the open sky of freedom is found.

Gender has nothing to do with self-realization, for it or against it. It goes the other way around; self-realization is the foundation from which we can then begin to explore all the dimensions of being human, including sex. I find that people's concepts of sex create no more or less of a barrier to their self-realization than do their concepts of anger, truth and even clothes! In the end a concept is only empty air.

Enlightenment is an easy state. It is the natural birthright of all human beings and contains within it every aspect of our experience: sex, self-esteem, pain, laughter and even confusion!
Connie Zareen Delaney
Salmon, Idaho

A Force That Rocks the Universe

Thank you for this fantastic issue of What Is Enlightenment? I've barely had a chance to dive in and already it's becoming clear that this journal is a revolutionary investigation into gender and sexual preference. I'm thrilled to have such an outrageous canvas of radically divergent views to explore and open up to. The knowledge that it is possible and very necessary to have a clean, clear and free relationship to a force that rocks the universe is a gift beyond price.
Lisa Haskins
Cambridge, Massachusetts

Tabloid Journalism

The two little blurbs on the top of Issue 16, "Could Christ Have Been a Woman?" and "What's the Relationship between Emptiness and Beautiful Nails?" are eye-catching and appeal to the popular culture, but to me are inappropriate for your magazine. They sensationalize it and detract from its high quality. Please don't cheapen WIE by adopting tabloid journalism in order to sell more copies. You have the most candid, serious, well-written magazine in the spiritual periodical business. Please maintain your professional, scholarly style!
Colette Penn
Richmond, Virginia

More Related than We Think

Your gender issue, as timely, provocative, and informing as I have come to expect all your issues to be, was foreshadowed by Rainer Maria Rilke decades ago:

"Perhaps the sexes are more related than we think, and the great renewal of the world will perhaps consist in this, that man and maid, freed of all false feelings and reluctances, will seek each other not as opposites but as brother and sister, as neighbors, and will come together as human beings, in order simply, seriously and patiently to bear in common the difficult sex that has been laid upon them."
Kerry Winter
Vancouver, Canada

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