New horizons for emerging sanghas: community groups and lay women dharma teachers

December 11, 2019

The article that follows is a paper that was given by Anna Markey to the June 2019 Sakyadita Australia conference in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney, which had as its theme ‘New horizons in Buddhism: women rising to the challenges’. The paper came out of a conversation between Anna Markey and Suzanne Franzway in Adelaide, South Australia, in February 2019. ‘It went down really well,’ said Anna, ‘and many people came up and said they could relate to the issues that I touched on’.

Anna recognises the dharma

I usually say that I recognised the dharma as opposed to taking it up. As a teenager, I was hospitalised over two years with an apparently terminal illness and many surgeries. There were a whole variety of techniques I used to get through the difficult times. One was realising the power of staying in the present moment, being mindful and staying calm. Another was the importance of kindness for myself and for others.

Being a child I could easily bring curiosity to various mind states and to emotions like fear or grief and to the effect of drugs and anaesthetics. So when I went to India and I heard about the dharma, I recognised it. I thought to myself ‘I know this. This is what I learnt in hospital. How to do life!’

In India, I ended up Dharamsala, where many Tibetans and HH Dalai Lama lived in exile. I spent 2½ years working as a volunteer teacher and health worker in a small Tibetan settlement in the Himalayas. So I came into contact with Tibetan Buddhism and I took teachings from a variety of Tibetan teachers and lamas. Then I attended a retreat in Bodhgaya that involved the western insight tradition and the dharma really clicked. I guess the cultural overlay was now gone.

My insight meditation teacher, Christopher Titmuss, shared a form of dharma that really resonated with me. The Buddha’s teachings seemed clear, practical and deeply effective. I thought, ‘Yes I know this, this is what I have to do’. I committed. When I came back to Australia, there was no Insight tradition group in my town so I spent quite a few years in the Zen tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. I also spent some time learning the dharma in the Mahasi approach with Patrick Kearney. I am indebted to all of these approaches for giving me a taste of the Buddha Dharma through different doors, through different traditions.

These days I’m very influenced by teachers like Jason Siff and Stephen Batchelor, and by the work done on the suttas by Richard Gombrich and Susan Hamilton and so forth, people who are looking at the Pali canon prior to commentaries. This has given me more of a sense of the power of the teachings of conditionality, emptiness and the middle way. I am now leaning more towards the way of a secular dharma.

Perspectives on women in Buddhism in Australia

We are all affected by historical and cultural overlays. We come up against many prejudices around gender, race and class etc. But to me this enterprise of the dharma is an incredibly deep and profound way of approaching life. So given what we understand around dependent arising, emptiness and middle way, how could anyone be excluded? To really understand the dharma would imply that these teachings … these combinations of ethics, wisdom and clarity of mind are available to all and passed on by all.

Giving women equal place in the dharma is a really important way to honour its depth. I have found that women bring qualities such as kindness and flexibility, connection and practicality. Women can bring qualities to the dharma that are being excluded in communities that overemphasise the masculine.

I remember my teacher at one of my first retreats said that in his opinion ‘being born a woman was a higher reincarnation’. Everyone laughed but he said ‘No I mean it.’ He said, ‘It’s women who really take up the dharma and support others; it’s women who go out and apply the teachings to life. They’re less often sidetracked by competition and power etc.’

I also want to say that even though all of my formal teachers have been men, there’s a lot of women who have had a huge influence on me, supported me and been great role models. My closest group of peer teachers now – with whom I learn, study and share – are women. So I guess I’ve been lucky with the opportunities I’ve had.

As far as I know, Australia may be unique in that the initial introduction to the dharma here, involved a lot of women. There were men involved too of course, but it just seems like a lot of the practicalities involved women. I’m thinking of Marie Byles, Sister Dharmadina and Ayya Khema who came in with Phra Khantipalo to run Wat Buddha Dhamma. There’s much I don’t know but it’s unusual compared to other countries. So I want to acknowledge those women. Not just women in the dharma but in teaching positions in dharma, in positions of authority.

These days there are people like Subhana Barzaghi, Robina Courtin, Susan Murphy and Chi Kwang. There are also many lay women like Carol Perry, Ellen Davison, Bobbi Allan … and that’s just in my tradition. These women are very articulate, experienced and talented teachers of the dharma. There are many others in other traditions like Sister Nirodha, Yeshe Khadro, Ajahn Vayama.

And I don’t want to ignore the men who have been supporting this too, like Ajahn Brahm and Bhante Sujato. Of course the Bodhinyana monastery in WA was the first place where women were ordained in the Theravada tradition. I’m proud of Australia as being on the frontline in that area.

Regarding the criticism of the ordination... in the big picture I can’t see how ordaining women would contravene an idea of a continuous lineage from the Buddha. The world needs dharma more than ever and the teachings are now passed on in a multitude of ways.

As Nagarjuna said ‘When the Buddhas have gone and the lineages and followers have gone, the wisdom of awakening bursts forth by itself.’ That’s a powerful idea. Looking through our lens of dependent arising there’s no such thing as purity of lineage, or purity of anything for that matter.

The dharma needs women.

Buddhism and indigenous Australians

I think this question, on the place of indigenous people, is very complex, and it depends on your perspective when looking at solutions. Everyone is affected when you’re living in a country where the original inhabitants have been treated so badly. We can’t ignore it. How can we integrate these dilemmas that we inherit, into our practice? How can we address the inequalities that indigenous people face? How can we understand them more or learn from them?

Quite a few teachers in Australia have both worked with aboriginal people and have learnt a lot from them. John Allan on the east coast and Jenny Taylor from Alice Springs come to mind. I personally spent four years on aboriginal communities. Jenny Taylor’s practise and teachings are very informed by her experience with aboriginal people. Themes such as our relationship to place and response to kinship, connection and responsibility are what Jenny brings to her teachings from aboriginal wisdom.

A lay Buddhist teacher in Australia

In the late ’90s I asked my teacher: ‘What shall I do? Adelaide just doesn’t have the right group to support my practice?’ He said, ‘Either move across to the east coast or set up your own dharma group.’ So I set up my own dharma group. I had a lot of support from the Insight Teachers Circle of Australia. We met once or twice a year and individual teachers were generous with sharing their wisdom. I could always get in touch with my own teachers as well.

I teach two or three retreats a year and we sponsor teachers to come from interstate or other countries. I nurture my practice, I study the dharma and of course the internet now makes it really easy to attend or hold online groups. In the Adelaide area we now have two main dharma groups that I teach and four smaller peer groups which I set up and support. I facilitate those groups and a study group as well as running retreats.

In the past, I have wondered ‘Shall I become a nun?’ I thought about that seriously and weighed up the pros and cons. I realise that as a nun you have a community, a sense of support, continuity and the vows and robes help to keep you within a life of dedication and commitment. But I thought, ‘There are real disadvantages in being a monastic today and they seem to be increasing.’ The main one for me involves deference. I don’t want robes or vows to be the reason why people respect me. I would rather their respect came from the fact that they’ve listened to me talk about the dharma and that it’s been useful.

I live in the world just like others. I’m an ordinary person and teach ordinary person dharma straight from my experience. This world is fertile ground enough from which to experience dukkha, to see the causes and conditions arise and fall and to actually live the path. I often in my mind, see the image of the Buddha touching the earth. I have the earth and my world as my witness and support.

Sticky issues

Over the last few years Buddhist communities have been deeply affected by accusations of sexual abuse, manipulation and misuse of power and authority. It is now coming to light how many people have been hurt. Many teachers and communities have been complicit in this abuse, sexual or otherwise.

This needs to be a part of our practice … looking into how we give power or take power from others. No matter how friendly and approachable I am, as a teacher I have authority and I must constantly be mindful of the effect of this. Even small dharma communities need to have grievance procedures, agreements and teacher ethics statements. My community is refining ours now.

Traditions and organisations often choose the survival of the institution over the wellbeing of an individual. Hierarchies have a politics and dynamics that have little to do with dharma. I understand the reasons for that. But this leads to many individuals being hurt and some very damaging ethics.

Perhaps a new era is dawning where large organisations and charismatic leaders are less needed for individuals to learn the dharma and maintain their practise. The Buddha said that spiritual friendship is the entire practice. In small community based lay groups such as ours it is easier to maintain your boundaries, challenge a group norm or bring a teacher to task. We have quite a few refugees from abuse in our community and those who want no guru or hierarchical restraints. I know of quite a few groups, worldwide that have chosen to be teacherless too. The dharma can flourish easily in such circumstances.

Women in leadership

It is interesting that there are always more women than men on our retreats, and in our dharma groups. I’m not sure if this is the same in other groups or countries. So that’s a good place to start ... to ask why this is so. Perhaps women feel more comfortable than men, in a group or retreat situation. I don’t know.

There are now more female teachers too. I know that women who have been mistreated or even ignored by male teachers feel safer with this. Some prefer less hierarchy, dogma and blatant power dynamics. Some like a gentler tone. We need to ask more questions about this.

The difficulties and responsibilities in women’s lives are also their incentive. Women come to the dharma saying, ‘Parenting, caring for parents, relationships, running a house, working in an organization, etc. is so difficult, and I make mistakes. The dharma is useful in helping me to work out ways, not just to find a quiet space amidst the turmoil but to big picture this, the difficulties we have in life, and to see there is a way out.’

This is grist for the mill. This is what we’re working with, this is not something to be gotten rid of, this is the dharma.

An Australian difference

At first, Australia was very dependent on international teachers, but they mainly only travelled to the east coast. So the rest of the country had to pay for costly travel to hear them. I was lucky I had a sponsor, a woman who was willing to pay my air tickets because I was a single parent. And more than once the international teachers would encourage us to support Australian teachers.

There’s been a big shift now in developing our own communities, or sanghas. We can’t operate the way they do in the States or Europe for example. We have these vast and relatively uninhabited distances between Adelaide, Perth, Alice Springs, Darwin and the east coast and they operate as islands. We have many isolated communities too. Even with Zoom groups and available technology when it gets down to it, many prefer person to person contact for inspiration and support.

So what I think is emerging in Australia is a fabric of many small community-based clusters of intimate dharma groups, either leaderless or led by lay teachers. And many of these teachers are women.



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