The Buddha’s Aunt Pajapati, who raised him after his mother’s death, traveled more than two hundred miles on foot to ask him to allow her to join the community. Many stories describe Pajapati arriving with swollen, bloodied feet, her clothes in rags, her face streaked with sweat and tears, begging her nephew to admit her into his community.
Three times she asks, and three times the Buddha says no. He tells her, “Do not set your heart on this, Pajapati.”
But her heart is set. The third time she visits, Pajapati brings a large crowd of women with her. While she goes to petition the Buddha, the crowd sits outside. The Buddha’s trusted assistant, Ananda, hears them and looks out across a ragged sea of road-weary bodies and devoted, upturned faces. He asks them, “For what reason do you stand outside, with bare, soiled feet, your bodies covered with dust, tired?
“We want to join you in homelessness and train in the path of awakening,” they reply.
– Excerpt from A Bigger Sky, Awakening a Fierce Feminine Buddhism
Author Pamela Weiss is a dharma teacher in both Zen and Theravada traditions. In addition to sitting on the Teacher Council at Spirit Rock, Pamela is the first and only layperson to receive full dharma transmission in the Suzuki Roshi Soto Zen lineage. Her new book, A Bigger Sky, Awakening a Fierce Feminine Buddhism, blends memoir and cultural commentary to explore Buddhism through a more inclusive lens. We recently met with Pamela to discuss the book and to learn more about her journey as a student and teacher. Here is our conversation, lightly edited for length and content.
Pamela, congratulations on the recent publication of your new book. Can you offer us a preview of its main theme?
The subtitle, Awakening a Fierce Feminine Buddhism, tells you a little bit about the topic. In a significant part of the book I tell my own story. But I also give voice to historical women who surrounded the Buddha. Their perspectives — and those of contemporary Bhikkhunis — have been largely left out of the narrative.
The fierce feminine is often seen in Vajrayana practice but not as commonly talked about in Theravada and Zen traditions. What motivated you to inquire about the women who shared time with the Buddha?
I wanted to include their stories because there’s very little told about them. They are largely [absent in] the Pali canon [so] I ended up telling the story of the Buddha through the eyes of the women around him—starting with his mother who died soon after his birth, his aunt, Pajapati, who raised him [and later became] the founder of the nuns’ sangha, and his wife, Yaśodharā. One of the troubling aspects of the history of the Buddha is that he abandons his wife and newborn son to go on his spiritual quest. Their perspective is never taken into account. In many cases, Yaśodharā, the Buddha’s wife, is only referred to as “the mother of Rahula,” their son.
Because there’s [so little documentation], I basically had to channel them, writing historical fiction. This was one of the most fun parts of the book for me.
I also found later stories about Yaśodharā in which she goes into her own parallel period of seclusion and awakens at the same moment he becomes the Buddha. In another version, it is said that Gautama and Yaśodharā make love the night before he leaves, that she remains pregnant for the many years of his wandering, and then gives birth at the exact moment of his awakening. Those stories may not be historically true, but they’re important, nonetheless, as a kind of mythic fleshing out of the story.
Why do you think the stories of these influential women are not as well-known as the story of the Buddha himself?
We know that the historical recollection of the life of the Buddha, and the teachings themselves, were not written for hundreds of years after they were [originally] offered. When they were finally written, the writing was done primarily by male monastics. What they recorded is rife with misogyny; it’s rife with hatred toward the body; hatred towards sense pleasure. It’s intense. So, it’s important to recognize that [these are] not necessarily the words of the Buddha. Through our own experience or through reading the history, we can begin to reimagine what it would be like if other perspectives were woven in.
Thankfully, we have the Therigatha — the poems from the [early] Buddhist women. And I always love to give a shout out to Matty [Weingast] who has written a gorgeous new translation of those poems. So, we know from the Therigatha that women participated, and were awakened, but we also know that their voices weren’t [always] heard.
In what other ways could the richness of the teachings be enhanced by connecting to additional feminine voices?
The shape, the form, the color, the tone of the teachings — that have come down to us are on tilt. It’s not that they’re wrong. It’s not that they’re not beautiful. But they are tilted in a specific way. [For example,] freedom, enlightenment, waking up, is generally described as a kind of moving up and out of the world, rather than dropping down into engagement with the world.
There [are] also obvious ways that misogyny shows up in the current history of Theravada nuns. They’re not allowed to have full ordination. Even the most senior nun is forced to walk behind the most junior monk. That’s still happening right now in communities we know about.
And there are subtler examples in which it plays out in structural ways. In the simple version, you have the dharma teacher sitting up on a stage, essentially on a pedestal. We [could] have more circular forms. We [could] have more interactive forms.
We could add white supremacy into all of that. It’s a similar dynamic. The good news is that when we see what’s happening, we can begin to dismantle it. We can stop being bound by it.
It sounds like you are suggesting an expansion of our capacity for wisdom and compassion by better understanding the culture from which early Buddhism emerged.
I think so. Very little is recorded about the cultural context of the Buddha. We know the Buddha as this great spiritual teacher but he was [also] a social revolutionary. He created a community, a sangha, that invited everyone from all classes within a very strict caste system. That is a revolutionary thing! And it doesn’t get a lot of emphasis.
Did you have a moment of new clarity or a moment of surprise at any point in your discovery process for this book?
In a way, by really immersing myself in bringing to light some of the less heard voices, it allowed me to step more fully into the teachings. There was always part of me that felt very uncomfortable as a dharma teacher wearing the mantle of misogynistic tradition. So, it has helped me feel like there’s more here to be uncovered, which removed some of the cynicism that I carried. Since writing the book, I feel more confident when I hear, “Well, that’s not in the Pali Canon.” Yes, that’s true. But not everything that is important and good and useful is in the Pali Canon. Each culture that Buddhism comes to brings its own overlay. And it’s important that more is researched, written about, talked about, and ultimately embodied and expressed.
Now that the book has been released into the world, what does the experience of writing it mean to you?
My hope is that in sharing a very personal story, it will help us recognize that all our stories are important — not in the sense of clinging to an identity, but in the sense that it’s important for a multiplicity of voices to be heard. My voice is an unusual one in a variety of ways — because I’m in two traditions, and because part of my story includes being the first lay person in the Suzuki Roshi Soto Zen lineage to receive full authorization.
For me, it was important to become a bridge for the possibility of a fully embodied lay practice; for lay practice to be equal to priest or monastic practice. The truth is, I don’t really expect to see the full impact of that in my own lifetime. But I do hope that it will become a stepping stone for other people in years to come. At this moment we can clearly see that we need to change things if there’s going to be real freedom for all beings everywhere. Which means breaking down some of the old structures, forms, and systems that aren’t serving us anymore.
There is a beautiful story in the life of the Buddha that exemplifies this. Many of us know the part of the story where [the future Buddha] engages in extreme ascetic practices just to the brink of death. As he’s sitting, on the brink of annihilation, this little voice comes up in him and says, “Might there be another way?” And in the story, he gets an answer. He remembers a time when he fell into a state of blissful absorption. And through that memory he realizes that pleasure is not the problem.
I think it’s a beautiful example because it shows how he changes direction. He stops starving himself and takes nourishment. He recognizes he is off and corrects himself.
In a cultural way, we’re at a [crossroads]. So, we too may recognize what’s not working, and then ask and listen — not [only] to our own intuition, but to other people, to different perspectives. And then, like the Buddha, we can change course.
What does it mean to receive full Dharma transmission in the Suzuki Roshi Soto Zen lineage?
In Soto Zen tradition, there is lay ordination (receiving Bodhisattva vows) which in Japan is understood as receiving the precepts and staying at home. And then there is priest ordination, which is receiving the precepts and leaving home — more of a path of renunciation.
Then there are various kinds of teacher training which are done through apprenticeship. You work with a teacher side by side guiding a period of practice, you learn to give talks, and so on. And then ultimately, often after decades of practice, there’s this mysterious thing called dharma transmission.
There are two parts of dharma transmission. [First] is authorization by a teacher who recognizes the student’s depth of understanding and says, “I’m giving you the authority to say you understand this teaching in your heart, in your bones.” So, you’re being authorized to teach. The second part of the dharma transmission gives you the authorization to pass on the lineage — to ordain other people. In this lineage I’m the first lay person authorized to lay ordain or pass on the precepts to other lay people. Until now, that function has been held only by priests.
Would you tell us a little about your history with the San Francisco Zen Center?
When I first knocked on the door of the Zen Center, I thought it was really weird — bald people in robes. That was my critical mind. But I also remember vividly thinking, “Whatever it is these people have, that’s what I want.” I was responding to a quality of presence, responsiveness, and kindness I saw and felt. I didn’t know how to language it then, but I felt it. And then I just fell in.
How did you integrate your Zen studies with your Theravada studies, if at all? And how have they complemented each other over your decades of study?
I think the benefit of being in multiple traditions is that it didn’t allow me to get rigid and overly zealous. I remember my first month-long retreat in Theravada — when I still identified as a Zen student — I remember [thinking], “Oh, I had no idea how big the cloth was.”
It also gives me a particular perspective on seeing the through-lines, the threads of truth that cut through many different flavors, styles, traditions.
How have these practices prepared you to meet the needs of the day in this time of significant unrest?
I think that the complexity and depth of the problems we’re facing — the dual problems of COVID and systemic racism — don’t lend themselves to individual expertise. What’s needed is something bigger.
For about 15 years, I’ve been part of several women’s circles looking at racism, especially Black/White racism. It was easy for me to fall in love with my circle sisters as human beings — to see their beauty, to appreciate them. But I was slow to recognize that these women I came to love live in a different world than I do. That was heartbreaking. Being part of these circles cracked me open as much as months and months of long meditation retreat.
And that’s the place that I’m sitting now; feeling the depth of the pain of systemic racism, and allowing the pain to open me fully. And I mean that in a kind of heart-break-open way. I want to let my heart break without collapsing.
Now that the book is complete, what do you hope to contribute in these months ahead? What does the next chapter look like for you?
There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about intergenerational trauma. My own history is German Jewish so I carry the knowledge of how bad things can be in my cell structure. And I’m also aware that for me in this moment, in 2020, that I’m sitting in a position of privilege. So, for me, there’s an exploration of what real allyship means.
Any parting words of advice for dharma practitioners and teachers seeking to make their way in a rapidly changing world?
Listen deeply, inside and outside. There’s a lot of potent change now — and those changes bring a lot of opportunities and doorways. I hear more teachers now who are not only quoting the Pali Canon, but are also speaking from personal experience. From their own wisdom and embodiment.
So, listen deeply. And let yourself be surprised and opened.