Sunday, March 29, 2015

Spiritual "Feminine Principle" and Real Women

There is in all visible things an invisible fecundity, a dimmed light, a meek namelessness, a hidden wholeness. This mysterious Unity and Integrity is Wisdom, the Mother of all, Natura naturans.

… All that is sweet in her tenderness will speak to him on all sides in everything, without ceasing, and he will never be the same again. He will have awakened not to conquest and dark pleasure but to the impeccable pure simplicity of One consciousness in all and through all: one Wisdom, one Child, one Meaning, one Sister.

From Hagia Sophia by Thomas Merton

We wrapped up our weekly study class winter term comparing and contrasting Shuichi Maida and Thomas Merton on a note common to both men – the spiritual principle of the “eternal feminine.” Merton expresses his veneration of the feminine principle in his prose-poem Hagia Sophia (quoted above), referring to the Eastern Orthodox focus on Hagia Sophia (Greek for “holy wisdom”) as the source of Virgin Mary’s inspired purity. Maida sings praises of the feminine principle in his commentary on Goethe’s Faust titled Eien ni josei naru mono (that which becomes the eternal femaleness).

Several decades ago I started reading Maida’s book with the intention of translating it. I thought it would give people insight into my teacher’s background – it was the book that Dr. Haneda happened to come across which became his gateway encounter with Buddhism and Shinran’s teachings in particular. As rich as the book is in relating Goethe’s Faust to Jodo Shinshu (see the excerpt translated by Dr. Haneda in The Evil Person), I couldn’t help feeling disturbed by Maida’s sexist and racist comments. Probably other Western women have felt this way – you want to translate and promote your teacher and/or his teacher, but it’s hard dealing with that imperialistic Japanese mindset which denigrates darker-skinned people and women who aren’t focused on being the perfect wife and mother.

As much as Maida, Merton and other revered teachers poetically praise the “feminine principle” in spirituality, it doesn’t carry over into a demand for more women to participate in religious leadership. Avena, a minister at a protestant church who occasionally joins our study group, said many congregations feel short-changed if they have to settle for a woman minister. She’s heard people say, “If we had more money, we could afford a male minister.” (And I thought only Japanese American temples and churches spoke that way.)

I think we need to disconnect the spiritual “feminine principle” from language associated with the stereotyping of real women. So many times my husband tells me I’m not acting in the temple’s best interest when I’m too girly, trying to be “meek and accommodating” while dealing with a demanding member or negotiating with vendors of goods and services. Instead of “masculine” and “feminine” to group certain traits, we should use non-gender terms. The problem with the words “passive” and “aggressive” is they sound too passive and aggressive. So I propose using the geometry terms, concave and convex.

[graphic from]
There are times when we human beings in our jobs and relationships have to be more convex (“leaning in,” assertive) and times to be concave (witnessing, receptive). But in spirituality we discover more and more how deeply concave the great Life within and around us is. Accounts of the militant, jealous Zeus/God are reflections of the convexity of our childish temper – we want to be the punisher of all who don’t go our way.

Maybe this isn’t the best suggestion, but I hope all of you future Maidas and Mertons out there can experiment with religious vocabulary so that real men, women and intersex people (a shout out to our member Lynnell) aren’t boxed in by expectations regarding gender and spirituality.

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