Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Freeing Women from Depression - Some Preliminary Thoughts

Two names that sound similar to me are Sylvia Plath and Sunya Pratt – the names of two very different women. Most people know of the poet Sylvia Plath (1932-1963) who suffered from depression and committed suicide at the age of 30. There have been times in my life when I strongly identified with her – feeling there is so much you want to give to and get from the world but you feel like a failure, unable to be what people consider “a good woman.”

So this past Sunday when I was guest speaker at the Seattle Buddhist Church I said that the occasion they were commemorating – the annual honoring of Shinran’s wife Eshinni and daughter Kakushinni – “sends the wrong message to our young people.” I said the message it was sending was that women were valued only for being supporters of some great man. To honor someone who really contributed to Buddhism as her own person rather than as someone’s wife or daughter, I said the Seattle temple should be commemorating Rev. Sunya Pratt (1898-1986).

Contrary to the 1986 L.A. Times article (, Rev. Pratt was not an entirely self-taught Buddhist but as Rev. Ama’s book (Immigrants to the Pure Land) clarifies, she was the student of one of the top scholars of Shin Buddhism of the time, Rev. Gendo Nakai (unfortunately no relation to my husband). As Rev. Ama’s book details, Rev. Nakai was a visionary in realizing for Jodo Shinshu to develop a foothold in the West, it needed non-ethnic Japanese ministers and he trained several. But Sunya Pratt seemed to be the one person who really grasped Jodo Shinshu (not stuck in the moralistic Theravada mode as Ernest and Dorothy Hunt of Hawaii were).

Why didn’t she succumb to the depression of women such as Sylvia Plath? I believe in “Namu Amida Butsu” she heard the voice of encouragement from the entire universe – “You can do it – don’t listen to the petty complaints. Listen deeply to the aspiration to bring all beings to awakening.”

At the International Association of Shin Buddhist Studies conference in August, there was a paper presented by Prof. Angela Andrade on depression. Although Angela-sensei can’t always attend the biennial IASBS conference, I’m always happy to see her and listen to her papers. A non-ethnic Japanese from Brazil, she has been deeply permeated by the Shin teachings and was able to spend some time in Berkeley studying under Dr. Haneda (pictured together below). At this IASBS conference, I was glad she presented the paper “An Inquiry into a Contemporary Expression of Pain: A Shin Buddhist Approach.” I wished we had more time for her to dialogue in public with Dr. Carmela Hirano, a practicing psychiatrist and minister assistant at the Salt Lake City temple.

Reading Prof. Angela’s paper I see the clue for freeing women from the kind of depression Sylvia Plath experienced. Although “general” Buddhism addresses the issue of real vs. delusionary sense of self, Prof. Angela’s paper points to Shinran’s radical key to liberation from depression:

What a joy that I place my mind on the soil of the Buddha’s Universal Vow, and I let my thoughts float on the sea of the Inconceivable Dharma.

In Shin Buddhism, no woman has to be the “good girl” – we can be like the song from the Disney film “Frozen” singing, “I don’t care - what they’re going to say, let the storm rage on.” In a way, it’s no wonder that Rennyo Shonin found women particularly receptive to the Shin teachings. “Society already tells us we’re flawed – now we hear the Buddha telling us to flap our wings and fly into the great horizon.”

Getting back to my talk at the Seattle temple, I said to the young folks, “Dream big – even though your parents and others say you can’t do that because you’re a girl or you’re a boy, you’re Japanese or Spanish whatever. In Namu Amida Butsu we hear Amida which means ‘no boundaries.’ Find yourself a good teacher like Rev. Sunya Pratt found in Rev. Gendo Nakai. That’s the way to be who you are and not what others say you have to be.”

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