What have I learned from four female zen masters? Part 3

Some of the things I’m very interested in are our efforts as a collective and as individuals to balance the masculine and the feminine power in our world and in us. This made me think recently about how fortunate I was to have had the opportunity to meet and work together with four female zen masters: Małgosia Braunek (Poland), Barbara Wegmüller (Switzerland), Catherine Pagès (France) and Eve Marko (U.S.).

In this post and the next three ones I’m going to share what I’ve learned from these four extraordinary women. Actually, I’m still trying to embrace these lessons and adapt them to my own life. I intend to share my very personal reflections and memories about these four modern, spiritual women.

 

Photo made by © Studio Schrever

 

The very first thing that comes to my mind about Catherine Roshi (roshi means old master and is a title for a Zen teacher) is her total dedication and gigantic work that she has done in over thirty years of her teaching. She was one of the first female masters of zen in the Western world, which actually means in the world. She has „raised” a few generations of zen practitioners, and she is a teacher of teachers. More specifically it means tremendous work and an uncountable amount of time spent on: organizing and leading sesshins (a zen term meaning a period of intensive meditation practice) all over Europe (at that time a sesshin could take even a month, often taking place in primitive conditions), individual talks with people, public talks, leading study groups, running a zen centre, training other teachers and lots of traveling. It also means being able to take a huge responsibility. Dealing with prejudices and judgements about being a woman in a teacher position. Not really having female examples in this role she had to create her own standards. Which she did for herself and other women. I imagine that it also means feeling lonely and under huge pressure.

I wasn’t there, but Andrzej Krajewski, also a zen master, who participated in her sesshins in these early years, described it this way: „I was surprise how different her teaching was: softer, more compassionate, more human. And nobody shouted at you!” 🙂 It always moves me and fills with great gratitude – how much she’s taken on her shoulders. And she has done it in style.

 

Photo made by © Studio Schrever

 

I had the opportunity to meet Genno (her Buddhist name) Roshi when she accepted me to live in her zen centre in Montreuil, near Paris. Living in this same house allowed me to see how disciplined the life is she leads. Both as a teacher and the head of an organization and as a private person. For such a chaotic person as I am that was a very important lesson. It took me quite some time to understand that: the way you organize your time and space, your diet, the care you give to your body, following your interests, taking time for holidays, connecting with your friends – all of that IS a spiritual practice. Or can be, if you can see it this way. Taking care of your own life and yourself is a great spiritual practice. And what I also like a lot about her is that she always looks chic and trendy in her life and in the zendo.

 

Photo made by © Studio Schrever

 

I’ve lived in her centre for nine months. That was a profound but also a difficult time for me due to my mourning process after the death of my zen teacher (and her best friend) and all that I had left behind in Poland. During many individual talks (dokusans) that I’ve had at that time with Genno Roshi she offered her time and created a space for me to open myself and express my difficulties as never before.

There were always people coming to her with some requests, invitations, expectations and needs. And very different requests, sometimes even surprising. Once I asked her if I could have my own dog in the centre… 🙂 Very often there were some people visiting or staying in the house. To study with her more intensely, to visit her, to rest, to recover or being in a crisis. Or she would travel abroad to accompany one of her students. Or she would be called in the middle of the night to the hospital to one of her students who had had an accident. She was often invited to lead various zen ceremonies or to support some other teachers. Apart from that she was usually available in her zendo and in private interviews six times a week. From my perspective, taking care of people, constantly and in a very individual way, is the core of her life. Yes, she gets tired. Yes, she sets boundaries. But to my sense her attitude is more about allowing, accepting, staying open, following and receiving what comes. And then transform it. How vast space she needs to hold in herself to be able to embrace all of that? To me that’s her deepest teaching.

Personally, I liked the most moments of her spontaneous laughter and her sparkling, playful energy. It melted my own heaviness.

www.dana-sangha.org

Photo 1 made by © Peter Canningham.