Buddhism Through American Women's Eyes

The following article is from the Summer, 1995 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter and is for historical reference only. You can see this in context of the original newsletter here.


Edited, by

Karma Lekshe Tsomo

180 pp. #BUAMWO $12.95

Available now.

The Buddha's path to human transformation declares women and men equally capable of spiritual realization, yet throughout history most exemplars of this tradition have been men. Now, as Buddhism is transmitted to North America, women are playing a major role in its adaptation and development.

The discussion presented in Buddhism through American Women's Eyes takes place among women from the Theravada, Japanese Zen, Shingon, Chinese Pure Land, and various Tibetan traditions. These experienced practitioners share their understanding of Buddhist philosophy, its practical application in everyday life, and the challenges of practicing Buddhism in the Western world.

Thirteen women contributed a wealth of thought-provoking material on topics such as: Bringing Dharma into Rela tionships, Dealing with Stress, Abortion, Buddhism and the Twelve Steps, Bodhisattva Peace Training, The Monastic Experience, and Forging a Kind Heart in an Age of Alienation. Among the voices are: Karuna Dharma, Ayya Khema, Michelle Levey, Yvonne Rand, Tsering Everpst, and Eko Susan Noble.

Bravo! This book is so engaging, so readable, and so genuinely helpful I read it in one sitting. These are wonderful voices, brimming with life-experience and practical on-the-ground advice. These teachers, these women, speak to each other and to us directly with the wisdom and compassion of the Buddhas. Heartfelt thanks to all of them, and to Karma Lekshe Tsomo for bringing them together in this treasure trove of advice for all practitioners.Janice Willis, Wesleyan University

While the real Dharmawisdom and compassionis formless, Buddhism as a method of practice takes on the form of the cultures it meets. This book is a refreshing, experientially based and enriching contribution of American women to Buddhism in the West.Thubten Chodron, author

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 3.

Reflections on Impermanence: Buddhist Practice in the Emergency Room

by Margaret Coberly

. . . One experience I had in the trauma room gave me a sudden and vivid insight into the bigger picturean expanded recognition which went beyond conventional thought and reflected the transient nature of all things. Surgeons worked on a multiple trauma victim trying to suture an oozing hole in the patient's aorta, while I performed open cardiac massage. I held the heart in the palm of one hand, pressing and releasing the ventricles with the other, simulating the intermittent contractions necessary to circulate the blood through the organism. Everything became one to me in that momentlife, death, and the heartbeat that separated the two, which I literally held between my hands. I realized with great intensity that people, preoccupied with the way they believe things are or should be, often overlook what is actually happening in the present moment. In the absence of preconceived ideas or expectations, every moment carries with it the potential for a fresh and new experience of the eternally changing kaleidescope of existence.

All who suffer serious injury, illness, loss, or the threat of death are jolted into a situation that suddenly is very tenuous. Longevity can no longer be taken for granted. This recognition shocks the habitual patterns of thought an individual has developed to characterize reality. Having one's fixed, structured conceptualizations and expectations suddenly threatened by death, however, can lead to deep insights into the impermanent nature of all phenomena. Often this insight leads to a healthy sense of freedom from the overwhelming fear usually accompanying death. To be with a dying person is to recognize that separation is inevitable. Separation can occur at any time and this recognition continually challenges one's sense of permanence. Being compassionate and empathetic with a dying person can promote an intensely moving and profound interaction: the underlying awareness that each day could be the last is a powerful antidote to superficial chatter and pretentious interactions. Reality becomes what is happening right nowin the present one moment that might be the last. What has gone before no longer exists; what is to come is only fantasy. In the face of preconceived ideas involvement in the dying process can transform one's habitual, mundane pattern of existence to a life infused with the sacredness of all existence.

The greater visibility of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, since his exile from Tibet in 1959 and his recent award of the Nobel Peace Prize, along with an increasing number of publications by Tibetan teachers and scholars has contributed to the increasing public awareness of Tibet and its richly detailed psychological teachings. I found in these teachings an abundant source of information regarding death, dying and impermanence.

The Tibetan Buddhist view of death is remarkable in many ways, especially in that it maintains that an innate wakefulness or awareness of our true inner naturethe light withinis potentially present in all of us. The now famous Evans-Wentz translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead contains the message that a person, dead or alive, has a choice in any given moment to transform his or her perceptions of reality from externalized to internalized sources. Tibetan Buddhist doctrine maintains that this transformation can occur by recognizing the transitory nature of the universeimpermanence. Recognizing the impermanent nature of the universe enables a person to see through habitual patterns of thinking to the importance of the present moment. In one sense, this realization that the present moment is the only reality that truly exists involves letting go of the past as well as of preconceptions about the future.

I had been confronted by death almost every day as a nurse in an innercity emergency room in Los Angeles. Many of us there cried at times; but we did not talk about death. Life seemed impermanent around death, uncertain and insecure, especially when a child diedbut there was never time for discussion, and we knew well how to work in that emergency room as though death were quite distant from us all. Thus, I was not prepared for experiencing a personal death in my own family.

Waiting in the thoracic surgeon's office for my brother Wheeler's diagnosis, I felt emotionally paralyzed. The room vibrated with tension and fear and I could almost feel the second hand dragging itself across the face of my watch, stalking the moments, as we waited for the news. Wheeler was scared, and so was I. It was difficult for me to look at him. Rather than face him, and confront questions about his possible death, I concentrated on three rows of dusty, antique chemistry bottles in a cabinet behind the surgeon's desk. Examining those old bottles I tried to subdue the terror and panic rising inside me. The physician came in briskly, slid the x-rays onto the view boxes, and flipped the lights on behind each one. Pointing to a large, irregular form in the thoracic cavity depicted on the film, he summarizeddistantly and technicallya few possible causes for the large and ominous shadow. He ended his constrained explanation by declaring: It has to be considered malignant until proven otherwise. A seeming eternity of screamingly silent moments passed as we stared at the M.D. in stunned disbelief. Then we stalled asking questions rapidly, searching for some small thread of error in the situation. After all, how could someone so youthful, successful, intelligent, handsome and well-loved as Wheeler have a terminal illness? It just could not be true. Denial was the only coping mechanism we had available for this unanticipated and unwelcome turn of events.

The terminal diagnosis is a major turning point in the life of a patient and his or her significant others. Routine ways of thinking and living are suddenly and violently interrupted. But certainty is nowhere to be found, and denial is often the first response to this sudden and alarming exposure to impermanence.

The Tibetan Buddhist approach is to cultivate mindfulness of death every day of life for the primary purpose of gaining insight into the impermanent nature of the universe. Tibetan Buddhism asserts that an awareness of the transient quality of life expands one's mental outlook by enhancing concern for the welfare of others, deepening an appreciation for the present moment, and greatly reducing the fear of death. One important Tibetan Buddhist method suggested for cultivating an awareness of death involves meditating daily on the following three ideas:

(1) Death is definite: death has come to everyone in the past; there is no way to halt the passing of our time; and, everything is subject to change and therefore impermanent.

(2) The time of death is indefinite: human life has no definite life span; the chances for death are great; and the human body is frail.

(3) At the time of death nothing else matters except one's mental state: friends and relatives are of no help; wealth or power cannot help; and the body cannot help.

I took care of Wheeler for three months while he was dying of Cancer in his home. Although we had always been extremely close, we became intractably bonded during the process of his dying. We worked very hard together to try to maintain a level of objective understanding about death so that Wheeler could experience the radiance of an individual who has found peace within himself. Whether a patient, a loved one, or a caregiver, any person who is at ease around terminal illness and death can give immeasurable comfort to family and friends who are frightened and confused about the imminence of death. There is no way to eradicate the grief and sadness that accompany death; stripped of fear, however, death can be a moment of intense unity between all those present. The last few breaths my brother took were moments suspended in time. Whispering reassuringly to him, and holding his head on my arm, I struggled with having to let go of him as he passed out of his ravaged body forever. The finality of death is dazzling in its clarity. The sense of loss I felt was excruciatingly painful and yet looking at Wheeler's corpse, I realized that the part of me observing death was precisely the same thing that had just departed from his body . . . .

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