Zen Q&A In a world of toxic masculinity and male privilege, how can you learn to trust men after a lifetime of karma that doesn't encourage that? Barry Magid September 21st 2017

Heather asks:

My question relates to women, toxic masculinity, male privilege, and learning to trust men, when you have accumulated a lifetime of karma that doesn't encourage that intuitively. I am raising three lovely men, and I would appreciate any insight into this modern koan as a single mom and a single woman.

This is an interesting question to be asked in a Zen context which traditionally might be the last place to have it either asked or answered. Toxic masculinity, male privilege, these things seem to have defined Zen for a long time in a lot of contexts, and it’s not always clear that even now in America we are learning to outgrow that heritage and find new ways of doing things.

In one regard, I think I was lucky to have a woman, Joko Beck, as my teacher. But Joko in some sense might not look like she embodied the feminine in that she was certainly as tough and demanding as many male teachers, but what I think she did bring to practice as a woman was a respect for vulnerability and emotional reality. She wanted to work with people’s vulnerability and emotion, and she did not see Zen as a discipline to make us tough or impervious but to allow us to become open and vulnerable, things that are traditionally seen as feminine virtues.

But Heather asks about trusting men, and I think that when one has been mistreated or injured by patriarchy and masculine authority, one has to first of all be self-protective, not assume that state of affairs is inevitable, and the only way to survive in that world is to become like your oppressor, as strong and powerful and aggressive as the people who have done things to you in the past. One has to hold onto the belief and the hope that there is another way to be, another way to teach, another way to relate. I think the first thing is to not put up with bad treatment, not feel like it’s the price you have to pay for the teaching in whatever context.

I think one of the biggest transformations of Zen in America is the number of women teachers that are now available. There were of course women teachers in Japan but basically they taught in contexts where they only taught other women. I think now in America we have the situation where men and women are being trained by women teachers, and I hope that this is going to bring about a fundamental change in the flavor and texture and feeling of Zen, to do something to move away from that hypermasculine macho toughness that I first encountered when I began to practice.

As to the question of trust, I think that we can begin to trust people when we can see their vulnerability and that they can acknowledge their vulnerability to us. When we can relate at that level, vulnerability to vulnerability, rather than exclusively from strength to strength, then I think that we begin to transform relationships, and I think we begin to get unstuck from gender-based stereotypes. I suspect that’s what Heather’s doing raising her boys. In a sense I hope it’s what I’m doing with my students -- that we learn to be open with each other, be vulnerable with each other, not think that our project together is to cultivate toughness or endurance, but to allow ourselves to be human with one another.

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