Renowned female Buddhist spiritual leaders
The rise of Buddhism in the world has provided women with a chance to take on new roles in the Buddhist tradition.
Women have become more involved in movements to restore the ordination lineages for nuns in the Theravada and Vajrayana traditions.
This has been a major part of the transformation of Buddhism globally, as women are now seen more often as practitioners and teachers.
While Asian Buddhist women have already made their mark in Buddhist history, they still lack the same access to ritual practices, learning of the dharma, and leadership positions in the community that men do.
Table of Contents
- 1 - Female Buddhist In America
- 2 - The ordination of women into monastic orders
- 3 - List of Buddhist spiritual teachers
- 3.1 - Machig Labdrön
- 3.2 - Vidyamala Burch
- 3.3 - Maylie Scott
- 3.4 - Tare Lhamo
- 3.5 - Tara Brach
- 3.6 - Soenghyang
- 3.7 - Sharon Salzberg
- 3.8 - Kyoki Roberts
- 3.9 - Ayu Khandro
- 3.10 - Ruth Fuller Sasaki
- 3.11 - Ruth Denison
- 3.12 - Anne Hopkins Aitken
- 3.13 - Małgorzata Braunek
- 3.14 - Gerta Ital
- 3.15 - Geri Larkin
- 3.16 - Cheri Huber
- 3.17 - Caitriona Reed
- 3.18 - Brigitte D’Ortschy
- 3.19 - Mary Farkas
- 3.20 - Maurine Stuart
- 3.21 - Lu Sheng-yen
- 3.22 - Rita Gross
- 3.23 - Kunzang Dekyong Wangmo
- 3.24 - Vicki Mackenzie
Female Buddhist In America
By the 1970s, many American women had become students of Asian Buddhist teachers, both in Asia and in the US.
These women received dharma transmission, becoming the first female members of teaching lineages that had been exclusively male for centuries.
This has led to the emergence of influential female teachers in the various streams of the Buddhist tradition in the US, who have created new forms of Buddhist institutions such as retreats specifically for women, nationwide conferences, and journals. The language of Buddhist teaching and practice has been given a freshness and immediacy thanks to their style.
Books like Pema Chödrön’s The Wisdom of No Escape, Joko Beck’s Everyday Zen, and Sharon Salzberg’s Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness offer hands-on, accessible Buddhist teachings rooted in everyday life.
The “feminization” of Buddhism is likely to be one of the defining features of the new form of the Buddhist tradition taking shape in America.
The ordination of women into monastic orders
Over the past 25 years, Buddhist women from Asia, North America, and Europe have connected with one another to discuss the ordination of women into full monastic orders.
Although the Buddha admitted women to the early sangha, the order of Buddhist nuns died out in the Theravada and Tibetan traditions.
Nevertheless, monastic lineages for women still exist in most Mahayana traditions, primarily in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan.
The International Association of Buddhist Women was created in the 1980s to bring together Buddhist women from East and West.
Additionally, Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, a professor of religion and philosophy at Thammasat University in Bangkok, publishes the Newsletter on International Buddhist Women’s Activity (NIBWA) to keep the Buddhist women of America connected with those around the world. In 2003, Kabilsingh was ordained as Bhikkhuni Dhammananda at a Theravada ceremony in Sri Lanka and is now Abbess of a monastery in Thailand.
The First International Congress on Buddhist Women’s Role in the Sangha was held in Hamburg in 2007 with the aim of reinstating the ordination of nuns in Buddhist traditions that had lost them.
However, the ordination of these nuns is still viewed as controversial and is not accepted by everyone in the global Buddhist community.
List of Buddhist spiritual teachers
This is a compilation of renowned female Buddhist spiritual leaders from various parts of the globe:
Machig Labdrön, or Singular Mother Torch from Lab”, 1055-1149) was a renowned 11th-century Tibetan tantric Buddhist practitioner, teacher and yogini who originated several Tibetan lineages of the Vajrayana practice of Chöd.
Vidyamala Burch is a mindfulness teacher, writer, and co-founder of Breathworks, an international mindfulness organization known particularly for developing mindfulness-based pain management (MBPM). The British Pain Society has recognized her “outstanding contribution to the alleviation of pain”, and in 2019 she was named on the Shaw Trust Power 100 list of the most influential disabled people in the UK. Burch’s book Mindfulness for Health won the British Medical Association’s 2014 Medical Books Award in the Popular Medicine category.
Maylie Scott, Buddhist name Kushin Seisho, was a Sōtō roshi who received Dharma transmission from Sojun Mel Weitsman in 1998 at Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. She graduated from Harvard University in 1956 and obtained a master’s degree in social work from the University of California, Berkeley. According to the book The Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America, “Maylie Scott described her primary teaching objective as empowering the sangha by making sure she is the facilitator, not the ‘star.'” In addition to her occupation as a social worker, she was also on the Board of Directors for the Buddhist Peace Fellowship (BPF). In addition to serving for the BPF, Scott was also involved with the Buddhist Alliance for Social Engagement and frequently protested the import of weapons at the Concord Naval Weapons Station. A socially engaged Buddhist and teacher at the Berkeley Zen Center, Scott was known for her work in prisons and homeless shelters. Also, during the 1980s she studied under Maurine Stuart and, in April 2000, she founded Rin Shin-ji in Arcata, California. Professor Lloyd Fulton, of Humboldt State University, had once said of Scott that she is, “a strong-willed and organized woman.”
Tāre Lhamo, a.k.a. Tāre Dechen Gyalmo, was a Tibetan Buddhist master, visionary, and treasure revealer who gained renown in eastern Tibet. She was especially praised for her life-saving miracles during the hardships of the Cultural Revolution and for extending the life-span of many masters. It was said that her activities to benefit others swelled like a lake in spring.
Tara Brach is an American psychologist, author, and proponent of Buddhist meditation. She is a guiding teacher and founder of the Insight Meditation Community of Washington, D.C. (IMCW). Her colleagues in the Vipassanā, or insight meditation tradition, include Jack Kornfield, Sharon Salzberg, and Joseph Goldstein. Brach also teaches about Buddhist meditation at centers for meditation and yoga in the United States and Europe, including Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California; the Kripalu Center; and the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies.
Soeng Hyang Soen Sa Nim is a Zen Master and the Guiding Teacher of the international Kwan Um School of Zen, and successor to the late Seung Sahn Soen Sa Nim.
Sharon Salzberg is a New York Times bestselling author and teacher of Buddhist meditation practices in the West. In 1974, she co-founded the Insight Meditation Society at Barre, Massachusetts, with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein. Her emphasis is on vipassanā (insight) and mettā (loving-kindness) methods, and has been leading meditation retreats around the world for over three decades. All of these methods have their origins in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. Her books include Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness (1995), A Heart as Wide as the World (1999), Real Happiness – The Power of Meditation: A 28-Day Program (2010), which was on The New York Times Best Seller list in 2011, and the follow-up Real Happiness at Work (2013). She runs a Metta Hour podcast, and contributes monthly to a column On Being.
Rev. Kyōki Roberts (OPW) is a retired American Sōtō Zen priest. The single Dharma heir of Nonin Chowaney-roshi, Roberts received Dharma transmission in June 2001 and was a founding member of an organization of Sōtō priests known as the Order of the Prairie Wind (OPW), which is now defunct. Having studied Zen in Japan at the Zuiō-ji (瑞応寺) and Shōgo-ji (聖護寺) monasteries and in the United States at Minnesota Zen Center, San Francisco Zen Center, and Green Gulch Farm, Roberts was certified by the Sōtō School of Japan.
Ayu Khandro, also known as Dorje Paldrön, lived from 1839 to 1953. She was a practitioner, yogini, and terton of Tibetan Buddhism in Eastern Tibet. An accomplished Dzogchen meditator, she is renowned for her extensive pilgrimages throughout Tibet, long periods of dark retreat practice, the gongter of the practice of the yidam Senge Dongma, various forms of Chöd, and her lifelong dedication to spiritual practice.
Ruth Fuller Sasaki
Ruth Fuller Sasaki, born Ruth Fuller, was an American writer and Buddhist teacher. She was important figure in the development of Buddhism in the United States. As Ruth Fuller Everett, she met and studied with Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki in Japan in 1930. In 1938, she became a principal supporter of the Buddhist Society of America, in New York. She married Sokei-an, the Zen priest in residence there, in 1944, but he died within a year. In 1949, she went to Kyoto to find another roshi to live and teach in New York, to complete translations of key Zen texts, and to pursue her own Zen training, receiving sanzen from Gotō Zuigan.
Ruth Denison was the first Buddhist teacher in the United States to lead an all-women’s retreat for Buddhist meditation and instruction. Her center, Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Center is located in the Mojave Desert, in Joshua Tree, California. She was also a teacher at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She sometimes taught at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in Woodacre, California.
Anne Hopkins Aitken
Anne Arundel Hopkins Aitken was an American Zen Buddhist, in the Harada-Yasutani lineage. She co-founded the Honolulu Diamond Sangha in 1959 together with her husband, Robert Baker Aitken. She purchased both of its properties: the Koko An Zendo and Maui Zendo. Honolulu Diamond Sangha has been considered “one of several pivotal Buddhist organizations critical to the development of Zen” in western countries. Anne Aitken was also one of the original founders of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.
Małgorzata Braunek was a Polish film and stage actress.
She was also a long-time practitioner and teacher of Zen Buddhism receiving Dharma transmission from Dennis Merzel at Kanzeon Sangha (Warsaw) in 2003.
Gerta Maria Luise Karoline Ital was a German-born actress who entered a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery late in life. She was born in Hanover. She was the first western woman allowed to stay in a zen monastery. She studied with Eugen Herrigel from 1953 to 1955. She was also in contact with Hugo Enomiya-Lassalle. Her master in Japan was Mumon Yamada.
P’arang Geri Larkin, born Geraldine Kapp Willis, is founder and former head teacher of Still Point Zen Buddhist Temple, a Korean Chogye center in Detroit, Michigan. The name Geri Larkin is a pen name. She graduated from Barnard College in 1973. Larkin, daughter of a wealthy IBM executive, left her successful business life as a management consultant to enter a Buddhist seminary for three years, where she was ordained. When she left she sold her material possessions and bought a brick duplex in downtown Detroit which, with the help of local residents she cleaned up and turned into Still Point. Larkin’s articulation of the concept of “right livelihood” was highly influential on Ann Perrault and Jackie Victor, two of her students who founded Avalon International Breads in Detroit in 1997. She has been a longtime columnist for Spirituality & Health magazine.
Cheri Huber is an American meditation teacher in the Sōtō School of Zen Buddhism tradition.
Caitriona Reed is a trans woman sensei of Thiền Zen Buddhism who also has a background in Vipassanā meditation. She co-founded Ordinary Dharma in Los Angeles, California; the rural Manzanita Village Retreat Center, located in San Diego County; and Five Changes, to mentor aspiring leaders, cultural creatives, and spiritual visionaries. Reed, a member of the American Zen Teachers Association, led retreats and workshops in Vipassana, Deep Ecology, and Buddhism 1981–2008. She received authority to teach Zen from Thich Nhat Hanh in 1992.
Brigitte D’Ortschy, or Koun-An Doru Chiko, was an architect, journalist, translator, author, and the first Zen master from Germany in the Sanbo Kyodan school of Japan.
Mary Farkas was the director of the First Zen Institute of America (FZIA), running the center’s administrative functions for many years following the death of her teacher (Sokei-an) in 1945. Though she was not a teacher of Zen Buddhism in any traditional sense of the word, she did help to carry on the lineage of Sokei-an and also was editor of the FZIA’s journal, Zen Notes, starting with Volume 1 in 1954. Additionally, she also edited books about Sokei-an, i.e. “The Zen Eye” and “Zen Pivots.” Through her transcriptions of his talks, the institute was able to continue on the lineage without having a formal teacher.
Maurine Stuart, a.k.a. Ma Roshi or Mother Roshi, was a Canadian Rinzai Zen rōshi who was one of the first female Zen masters to teach in the United States. She became president and spiritual director of the Cambridge Buddhist Association in 1979.
Lu Sheng-Yen, commonly referred to by followers as Grand Master Lu (師尊) is the founder and spiritual leader of the True Buddha School, a new religious movement with teachings from Buddhism & Taoism. Lu is known by the sect as Living Buddha Lian Sheng and is revered by his disciples as a Living Buddha.
Rita M. Gross was an American Buddhist feminist scholar of religions and author. Before retiring, she was Professor of Comparative Studies in Religion at the University of Wisconsin–Eau Claire.
Kunzang Dekyong Wangmo
Sera Khandro Kunzang Dekyong Wangmo (1892–1940) or Sera Kandro is considered an emanation of Yeshe Tsogyal, and in her lifetime was a Terton of Tibetan Buddhist Vajrayana, a biographer and autobiographer, and a highly respected teacher. She taught Dudjom Rinpoche, Chatral Rinpoche, and the First Adzom Drukpa, Drodul Pawo Dorje, among other high lamas.
Vicki Mackenzie, an author and journalist, was born in England and spent much of her early life in Australia. The daughter of a naval officer, she graduated from Queensland University and became a reporter at the Sun newspaper in Sydney.