By Dana Gornall
“I can bring home the bacon, fry it up in a pan. And never let you forget you’re a man because I’m a wooommman, Enjoli.”
These were the lyrics played on a popular early 80s commercial I heard over and over while I was growing up. The woman in the commercial was beautiful, business-like, apparently could cook a mighty fine ass meal and insinuated she was a tiger in the bedroom. This was what we were supposed to be—what we are supposed to be as women. We can keep the house neat, cook healthy, delicious meals, be great moms, be super involved like on the PTO committee, and rock a knock-your-socks-off blow job on top of all of it (did I just type that?).
This was the ideal woman, or at least what was portrayed as the ideal woman. Okay, the commercial is a bit much and today it is quite laughable, but come on, aren’t we still supposed to live up to that image in some way, shape or form?
This thought struck me recently after a conversation I had with a woman studying to be a Buddhist priest. I had been looking for a mentor recently, someone to give me a little spiritual guidance, since while books and podcasts are awesome resources, sometimes you need to talk with someone who actually walks the path. In our conversation she mentioned her study to become a priest and we discussed the possibility of whether or not that was a path I was seeking. My first response shot across the internet cosmos so fast I couldn’t even see the trail of light it left behind: no way. It wasn’t that I had any qualms about me being a Buddhist priest or whether I thought that could ever be a path for me, but rather the idea of trying to fit any other thing into my day was enough to provoke a resounding, NO. My plate is already overflowing and I simply do not have any more time in the day as a working single mother already up to her ears in responsibility.
My mentor understood, and said she kind of figured that was where I stood and I could almost see her on the opposite end of her phone or screen nodding and smiling, with a knowing, motherly look as she realized I am not up for that challenge. This immediately brought out my inner over achiever—this stubborn little girl that likes to pop up in times of overwhelm; she gets upset when she thinks she might be being underestimated in any way, and so now she stood up with fists balled at her sides. How dare anyone think I can’t handle something, she muttered in a whiny, teenage-y, bratty, voice. I can do it.
But the mama in me knew I couldn’t.
The woman who sees herself collapse night after night into an instant stupor the moment her body hits the bed knew, and so she shut that inner teenage overachiever right down, balled fists and all. Too much on my plate, like so many other people—especially women/mothers.
I began to wonder how many women were represented in Buddhist clergy or even mentors, realizing how few female Buddhists I actually encounter on the internet (I say on the internet because I am somewhat of a social hermit and do not venture much into the real world outside of work and expected activities). It seems that most of the Buddhists I talk to are men, and the ones that are women usually do not hold leadership roles. While I am sure they are out there, they appear outnumbered.
Which brings me to the idea of feminism.
What is it about the word feminism that provokes so much emotion and reactivity? It’s like another F word. One person feels offended and angry when the word comes up, as images of Dorothy Pitman-Hughes and Gloria Steinem with their fists in the air, angry with the imbalance of gender equality over the salaries and jobs and statuses, while others see this as an empowering step in the natural direction of society. It seems in 2018 those days of fighting for equal foothold should be left far behind us but here we are, still many times fighting for the ability to simply work or even exist without being sexually harassed, as we can see from the recent uprising of the #metoo movement.
Yet I know for myself, I can be reluctant to use the F word (feminist) for fear that I will be labeled as a “femi-nazi” or a “snowflake”—the recent derogatory term for being a white liberal these days. Being a feminist seems to carry a lot of meaning and labels, and I am reluctant to be labeled. I want to be taken seriously, given a fair shot at anything I attempt to do, given a fair salary and not be boxed in to any specific role. And while I am flattered to be flirted with, I do not appreciate “mansplaining,” unsolicited come-ons and/or dick pics.
But I think we often try so hard to be something perceived as the perfect ideal for fear any flaw or misstep will be taken as not being able to live up to the standard, that we end up taking on way too much, burning the candle not only at both ends but in between as well. Perhaps we want to be like that woman in the perfume commercial—able to take on the world and represent femininity with pride. We don’t want to be seen as ever being unable to handle anything that comes our way, lest be considered weak.
So back to the question of women—specifically mothers—in Buddhism, why does there seem to be so few? I’m sure they are there and maybe we are all too busy bringing home the bacon and frying it up in a pan to be more vocal, but there seems to be a bit of a hole in the dharma community.
Where are these women? Do they exist? Are they more enlightened than me? (most likely) How do these women survive out there in the Buddhist community as lay practitioners, priests, and gurus? How do they apply the Eightfold Path to their teenagers when they stay out after curfew, or get caught smoking a joint in the bathroom? How do they apply the concept of no-self in their selfies or on their online dating profiles?
How do they manage their careers, study the Dharma, keep up with household chores and not flip out when their teenage sons hit the trash can while backing out?
My inner overachiever wants to rectify this. She wants to start a movement, or band together. She wants to stand up with her fist raised in the air like Gloria Steinem and question the assumptions that abound in the Buddhist community. She wants to see more of the overwhelmed single mamas out there, because truly we are a whole different breed. We are a representation of living Dharma and we have a lot to say about it. We are the ones that hold all of the pieces together, despite collapsing into our beds at the end of every day, and we still get up to face the next day ready to take on everything that gets thrown at us.
If the Buddha encouraged a “middle way” on the path, a mindset of not following one extreme or the other, shouldn’t there be a path that is less stringent?
Have people taken the concepts and ideas of the Buddha and created their own versions of what should be done—a list that needs to be checked off, books to be read and a set of retreats that need attending? Is it possible that there can be a separate way, a middle way, that reaches somewhere in between a balls to the wall approach and and a simple householder?
Is there a halfway point between bringing home the tofu bacon and teaching meditation while still being a mother to teenagers or toddlers without losing our shit in the process? I think there should be.
I’m sure there are purists out there that will read these words and scoff. They will argue that there are rules put in place for a reason, there are rungs on a ladder that need to be climbed and it is these rungs that bring us to the point of being able to guide and teach. However, I am challenging those that think that to think outside the box just a little. Is it possible that my rungs that I climb also hold value? Is it possible that the path I walk may be nontraditional, yet a life experience that one who is dedicated only to study and contemplation does not have, and possibly something worth exploring?
Is it possible that there is a place for the Buddhist woman and mother, outside of the parameters of traditional clergy training? I say anything is possible, perhaps, with the right motivation, the right mindset, and a little bit of tofu bacon.
“There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth; not going all the way, and not starting.” ~ The Buddha
Editing Consultants: Alicia Wozniak and John Pendall