A New Zen for Women

A New Zen for Women

by Perle Besserman

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Perle Besserman's adventures in a Japanese Zen monastery provide the groundwork for this lively, heartwarming narrative of a woman's life in Zen. Engaging in cross-cultural dialogues with nuns and laywomen in India, China, Japan, and more, Besserman dispels the notion that women had nothing to do with the founding and sustaining of Zen. She shows how women continue

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Perle Besserman's adventures in a Japanese Zen monastery provide the groundwork for this lively, heartwarming narrative of a woman's life in Zen. Engaging in cross-cultural dialogues with nuns and laywomen in India, China, Japan, and more, Besserman dispels the notion that women had nothing to do with the founding and sustaining of Zen. She shows how women continue to transform traditional Zen in new and creative ways, integrating the practice of meditation into their lives. Both informative and entertaining, A New Zen for Women offers a new look at Western women encountering Zen.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Candid, courageous, and eloquent…Weaving together personal narrative, theory, history, and Zen practice, Besserman crafts a refreshingly new and riveting approach that is challenging, critical, and truly inspiring.” —Elizabeth A. Kelly, DePaul University
Publishers Weekly

Zen Buddhist teacher and author Besserman hangs a load of dirty laundry in this book, both a memoir of her training years and an argument for a new and improved Zen that accommodates the unique strengths of women. The memoir part is a page-turning account of the time she spent—exactly how long is unclear—in London and in a Japanese monastery with her teacher, a highly placed roshi. The latter is portrayed as an autocratic, sexist, arbitrary, perfidious and nasty creep. Besserman in turn comes across as a woman scorned by a substitute for her overcritical father. She slugs her teacher when he speaks heartlessly about a woman whom she believes he has impregnated. Buddhism has certainly had its share—maybe more than its share—of personally outrageous teachers. But Besserman selectively stacks the deck against this one in a crusade for justice for women in Buddhism. That subject is important and alive, and Besserman is admirably familiar with the growing literature of women confronting and wrestling with yet another historically patriarchal wisdom tradition. But contrary to the publisher's description, she has written not a "heartwarming narrative of a woman's life in Zen" but an unloading of old wrongs. Other books on women and Buddhism—Sallie Tisdale's, for example—offer more spacious and gracious correction. (Apr.)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Part memoir, part crusade to find women a better place in Buddhism.

—Graham Christian

Product Details

St. Martin's Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
First Edition
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.68(d)

Read an Excerpt

A New Zen for Women

By Perle Besserman

Palgrave Macmillan

Copyright © 2007 Perle Besserman
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-230-61085-9


Dragged Around by Zen


Three months after meeting Dokyu Roshi in Jerusalem and returning to New York, I received a blue airmail letter marked with a Japanese postage stamp and no return address. Even before opening it I knew who it was from.


I will be London beginning of June till end of July. (Chalk Farm ...) If you want to take sesshin (Zen meditation retreat) please come anytime. During sesshin everybody stay in zendo. Please bring your own sleeping bag or blanket....


"When you're ready, your teacher will appear." I finally understood what Jessie meant and no longer resented her elliptical reply to my plea. It didn't take me a second to decide what to do next. I bought an open-ended plane ticket to London as soon as I had finished reading the roshi's letter.

The earliest I could get out of New York was July 3, and my flight was delayed, so I didn't land at Heathrow until midnight. It was one o'clock before I arrived at the zendo, a narrow row house on a shabby cul-de-sac with a pub on the corner. The lights were out and everyone appeared to be sleeping. I gave one quick jab at the doorbell, and a slender silent figure I took to be male opened the door and led me through a narrow hallway up three flights of stairs into a spacious, tatami-floored room with only a futon and several floor cushions for furniture. Depositing my bags on the floor alongside me, my escort walked out of the dimly lit room. I wondered if I was meant to unpack and lie down on the futon. Adjusting my eyes to the gloom, I looked around. There, in front of a lamp covered with a towel, sat Dokyu Roshi! I jumped and let out a little cry. His bald pate shining in the glow cast by the lamplight behind him, the roshi had been transformed from a puckish elf into a slit-eyed samurai with a gash for a mouth and a square iron jaw.

"You sit down here," he growled, pointing at a zafu (round black meditation cushion) in front of him.

My skirt was too narrow for me to cross my legs without revealing my underpants, so I opted for sitting on my cramped knees Japanese-style, my body and mind numbed by jet lag.

"We face each other again!"

Why is he talking so loudly? Does he want to wake up the whole house?

I caught my breath. "Yes. It's been five months since we last met in Jerusalem."

"No, I do not mean Jerusalem. It took you a century to come. Finally, your karma has brought you here."

Fearing I might burst into tears, I bowed my head.

"Sesshin is very hard, very painful," the roshi continued in the same loud voice, his left hand resting on his right in his lap, palms-up, like the Buddha. "But you can do it. Forget everything except for your breathing. Counting your breaths. Breathe ... one, breathe ... two, breathe ... three ... up to ten. Then start again. Eating ... breathe one, sleeping ... breathe two, walking ... breathe three ... You become breathing until there is no Perle-san, only breathing in the whole universe. Nothing more. You sit in half lotus posture with back and neck straight. Zen is not ecstasy, not intellectual answer to problem, only counting breaths and bravery. Wake-up bell is at five, so you must go to sleep now." The roshi dismissed me with a wave of his hand.

Before leaving for my first sesshin in London I had called a longtime Zen practitioner friend for advice. He'd seemed hesitant, mentioning only that—except for offering a few brief instructions on the physical aspects of zazen (sitting meditation), the roshi probably wouldn't tell me much. When I pressed my friend for further details, he said, "Just go to sesshin. Watch what the others do; you'll pick it up on your own." Still, to have come so far and be treated so brusquely was a bit of a shock. As a yoga teacher, I'd been meditating for years. But, as I was to learn, yoga meditation was a far cry from zazen. To begin with, yoga meditation was much more active. It didn't demand that you sit perfectly still for anywhere from twenty-five to fifty minutes doing nothing but silently counting your breaths. And it was more spontaneous and devotional. You could chant out loud or visualize your favorite god or guru, if the spirit moved you; and you could get up and move around when you felt like it. So, like many beginners whose preconceptions about Zen were derived largely from books and other people's stories, it was a letdown to be thrust on my own on that first night of sesshin. Only after years of Zen practice would I come to appreciate the roshi's laconic meditation instructions as his refusal to rob me of my very own individual experience of zazen.

Swaying, my knees shot with needles, I got up from the cushion, picked up my bags, wobbled to the door, and left the room. The slender figure had reappeared on the landing and was motioning me to follow. Nodding briefly at a door marked Women, the figure, which I could now make out was in fact a man, turned away from me and tiptoed down the stairs. I opened the door and walked into the room. The street light shining into the curtain-less window illuminated an indoor clothesline strung with bras, socks, and panties. An artificial fireplace was built into the far wall. Except for the corner nearest the door where I was standing, every inch of floor space was filled with sleeping women. I put down my bags alongside the only unoccupied rush mat on the floor. Too tired to undress or unroll my sleeping bag, I dropped onto the mat and promptly fell asleep in my clothes.

Did the roshi say sesshin was hard? Cast among thirty silent strangers, eating nothing but tofu, brown rice, and a few paltry greens from tiny wooden bowls at odd hours; struggling to finish every last grain of rice with chopsticks under the ferocious gaze of the tight-lipped roshi; trying not to fidget out of excruciating lotus posture; chanting sutras in Sino-Japanese until my throat was raw, terrified that the roshi, "walking the kyosaku" (the long wooden stick used to awaken sleeping or slumping meditators), was nearing my cushion and getting ready to hit me; sleeping fitfully; jumping up with my heart tripping for fear of missing the wake-up bell; sitting in a constipated stupor on the toilet of a postage stamp sized WC with people lined up outside, grimly waiting their turn—sesshin wasn't hard, sesshin was hell!

But worst of all was the change in Dokyu Roshi. He'd turned into my father; he was equally obsessed with "Discipline!" and with being on time. No matter how early I arrived for zazen, he'd already be sitting on his black meditation cushions looking as stone-faced as the statue of the Buddha on the altar behind him, with the kyosaku ominously laid out in front of him and the timing bell alongside it. He even had the same way of shouting like my father, exhorting us to "March on bravely!" every time he walked the kyosaku. The mere whisper of his robes as he got up to patrol the room set my teeth on edge—though he usually passed me by. But even then, I was so afraid I would scream out in pain if he were to steal up behind me and whack me between the shoulders that I didn't dare move. Sweat, tears, and snot streamed down my face, but I didn't dare wipe them off. My knees were hurting so much and my body was shaking so hard that I thought the people on the cushions next to me (a skinny young man with a platinum-blond pony tail on my left and a plump, cheerful-looking grandmother on my right) could feel it. Pressing my fists into my thighs, I marched on bravely.

On the third morning, I was sitting rather well. I had just worked my way into a nice, concentrated breath-counting sequence when I was gripped by stomach pain so sharp that I involuntarily slumped forward on my cushion. Someone lightly touched my shoulder. Lifting my head and turning around, I saw the man who'd accompanied me to the roshi's room on the first night. Leaning down, he whispered into my ear, "Interview."

I looked up at him uncomprehendingly.

"Interview with the roshi," he whispered into my ear again, his breath smelling of garlic and cloves. It was the first human contact I'd had in three days.

Dokyu Roshi sat in his third-floor room, as distant as the elusive diamond mountain he'd talked about in Jerusalem.

"I'm having terrible stomach pain," I said. "I'm afraid I might scream."

"So scream," he said, laughing.

"Roshi, my guts are going to come flying out of my mouth if I have to go on sitting like that."

Without so much as blinking, the Roshi picked up the hand-bell near his cushion and rang it. "Next!" he shouted, motioning for me to leave.

Holding on to the walls of the narrow corridor, I made my way downstairs.

I'll go on just to spite you, you son of a bitch.

On the morning of the fourth day, during the eleven-thirty work period, I was dusting the altar and lining up the incense sticks for the afternoon meditation period when Dokyu Roshi himself suddenly appeared alongside me and silently motioned me upstairs. Convinced that he was going to throw me out of sesshin for moving around on my cushion and disturbing my fellow meditators, I followed him upstairs. Without changing his stony expression, he led me to a door across the hall from his room and, opening it, ushered me into a small kitchen with a low table and cushions on a tatami-covered floor. Closing the door behind him, the roshi slipped out of his robes and hung them on a wall hook. He looked so puny standing in front of me in his white cotton T-shirt and pantaloons that I had to resist the urge to reach out and pat his shiny bald head.

"Now, what is wrong with your stomach? You vegetarian?"

"Yes, except for eggs and cheese, and occasionally fish."

"Never mind that. Let me see your belly."

I stuck out my stomach.

"Too big around diaphragm, too much yoga exercise, maybe, and not enough deep belly breathing. Look at me."

I looked down at the roshi's pot belly.

"Ha! Rinzai Zen belly! First time you ever see such a strong belly. Punch!"

I resisted. Antic was one thing, but being asked to punch your teacher in the stomach?


I rained a few tentative blows on his extended belly.

"Ha! Nothing! You must eat meat. You have constipation? Or sometimes diarrhea, no? Never beautiful golden pagoda, only loose intellectual worm shit. Never make gas? Ah ... if you make gas like this"—the roshi delivered an enormous fart—"you get instantly enlightened!"

I couldn't believe what was happening. Before I could respond, he spun me around and tapped me on the spine. "Here, this is stomach point. Here ... can you feel how tight it is?" I felt a shaft of pain coursing through my stomach and pulled away from him.

"Poor Perle-san, your head is in your stomach. Ha! Ha! Ha!" He turned abruptly and went to the stove. Taking up a saucepan and a wooden spoon, he began heaping rice into a bowl. "Here, you eat Japanese white rice and chicken and you feel better. English people's macrobiotic diet very terrible food. You eat chicken and you get well. You will see. I know. I know you from before you were born."

Handing me a pair of chopsticks, the roshi fixed a smaller portion of chicken and rice for himself. Then, bringing a glass pot filled with green tea and two porcelain cups to the table, he sat down opposite me and began eating, making great noisy slurping sounds. Picking up the bowl from the table, I took a few tentative mouthfuls. I'd always been embarrassed by the way people ate in Japanese restaurants, sitting on the floor slurping their food doggy-style. But now it seemed a perfectly natural way to eat, and I was soon happily slurping and smacking my lips along with the Roshi. It was the first meat I'd eaten in ten years. And it was delicious.

Teaching From the Heart

Having just finished reading a sesshin lecture on "Pain as a Teaching," by Blanche Hartman, first woman abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, I try to imagine what it would have been like if she had introduced me to my first sesshin rather than Dokyu Roshi. As ordained Zen priests, both of them are bald and wear the same black robes. From Hartman's picture, you can't even tell that she's a woman—so, overtly, at least—she and Dokyu Roshi look interchangeably alike. Yet, no two teaching styles could be more different. I'm not making invidious comparisons here, I'm simply pointing out that there are as many ways to teach Zen as there are Zen teachers—and maybe this applies to gender and culture, too.

To begin with, Hartman does something Dokyu Roshi never did—namely, open a sesshin lecture on a very revealing personal note: "I'm having a little bit of trouble with my knee, so I think I'm going to talk about pain today." She confesses to feeling "extremely unstable and uncomfortable" sitting on the elevated cushions she'd arranged in the hope of reducing her knee pain, and mentally chides herself: "Idiot, you should have known better than that, and now you're stuck with [the uncomfortable posture] for fifty minutes." Hartman then depicts her unsuccessful attempts to shift position. You can almost hear her laughing at herself as she says: "Every time I leaned over, I felt like I was going to fall over on my head, so I put the cushion down so I could sit lower, and then I started having sciatic pain, and lots of irritation came up."

Coming from a supposedly imperturbable Zen teacher, Hartman's introductory remarks end with a stunning self-revelation:

"My mind was this big mess, and then the soup wasn't hot and the servers were slow. That was breakfast this morning for me."

Wow! A Zen teacher talking about her own pain and her own irritation and her own messy mind—and during sesshin, no less. Pretty intimate stuff; it makes you wonder how she's going to turn this into a dharma talk. Only a paragraph later, she does just that, segueing into it brilliantly, too. Having posed the problem (pain), she now provides a way of dealing with it. Radically departing from the traditional Zen script by quoting large sections from A Path with Heart by American psychologist Jack Kornfeld (a teacher of vipassana—"insight"—meditation, not Zen), Hartman invites her students to join her in meditating together on the pain she and they are experiencing at that moment. (Clearly, this Zen teacher has no qualms about using techniques from the rival Theravada Buddhist school of vipassana meditation, which I heard Dokyu Roshi contemptuously dismiss on more than one occasion. He was not alone, however; I later heard the same from more "open-minded" Western Zen teachers.)

I am struck by Hartman's use of Kornfeld's title, A Path with Heart. I wonder if she's aware that the word "heart" echoes the first part of her surname. Except for the Heart Sutra, (a magnificently condensed Mahayana Buddhist declaration of nonduality that still brings tears to my eyes whenever I chant it), there isn't much "heart talk" in Zen. There's "wisdom"—synonymous with the enlightened mind; and there's "compassion"—represented by the Bodhisattva Vow to "save the many beings," which we recite after zazen. The idea of saving the many beings can be felt very intensely while you're reciting it on your cushion in the zendo, but how you actually put compassion borne of wisdom into everyday practice is another matter. Hartman does this masterfully, continuing to share her own experience as she guides her students in exploring the body/mind nature of pain:

The first three years I was doing zazen, I didn't sit through a single period for forty minutes without changing my posture. I hated myself every time I did it because there were always macho guys sitting, guys and women, and I felt like a wimp over here that kept changing my posture until I got to the point after three years where I didn't have to change my posture ...

One attitude in particular that I was carrying when I came to Tassajara was spiritual pride. I had quit my good job and I had come down the mountains to be a monk and save the world. I thought I was doing something special. As long as I was holding the attitude that I was doing something special, I had this particular [back] pain ... I had a notion that it had to do with pride ... and then I realized that I had this spiritual pride because I thought I was doing something wonderful for the world by quitting my job and coming to the mountains and sitting zazen ... When I realized that that was the thought I was holding, this particular point of [back] pain just sort of dissolved. "I got it."

It wasn't until I started reading self-revealing sesshin talks by women teachers like Hartman that I saw the connection between "wisdom"—as empathy—and "compassion" in the "heart-to-heart" encounter between teacher and student. But only if both were equally willing to open themselves up completely. This was totally antithetical to Dokyu Roshi's formal Japanese Zen training, and my first response was to reject it as too touchy-feely. Later, when I started teaching Zen myself, I came to appreciate it better. My students at the Princeton Area Zen Group will tell you that I'm a very "open" Zen teacher, but I can't say that I've ever had the "heart" to open myself up during a sesshin talk the way Hartman does. I admire her for it, but it just isn't my style. Her remarks about those "macho guys" sitting in perfect zazen, never moving no matter how dreadful the pain, do resonate with me, however. They're powerful reminders of my own fear of being a wimp.


Excerpted from A New Zen for Women by Perle Besserman. Copyright © 2007 Perle Besserman. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Meet the Author

Perle Besserman is the author of several classics on meditation, the Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, and women and spirituality, including Grassroots Zen. She is a contributor to 13th Moon, Lilith, and East West, and is the recipient of the Theodore Hoepfner Fiction Award. She is co-leader of the Princeton Area Zen Group, and is Emerita Professor at Illinois State University.

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