In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Prominent Buddhist Women in the West

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Mahayana Nuns in the West
  • Independent Buddhist Women Teachers and Activists
  • Women in Jodo Shinshu or Shin Buddhism

Buddhism Prominent Buddhist Women in the West
Ann Gleig
  • LAST REVIEWED: 18 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 March 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0207


Women have played a significant role in both the historical transmission of Buddhism to the West and in shaping a distinctively Western form of Buddhism. Buddhism was transported to the West through two distinct currents: Asian immigrant and Euro-American convert communities. Although women have made important contributions to both of these, it is in the latter that we find a historically unprecedented amount of female teachers and authority holders. Many of these women have gained attention for challenging patriarchal and sexist aspects of traditional forms of Buddhism and innovatively adapting Buddhist teachings to contemporary Western contexts. Others have been more concerned with the preservation of classical Buddhist teachings and establishing Asian Buddhist lineages in the West. All have engaged in a range of activities from teaching to translating, scholarship to social activism. While no means exhaustive, this entry aims to highlight some of the most prominent Buddhist women in the West. It should be noted that the overwhelming majority of women featured here are North American converts in Theravada-Vipassana, Zen, and Tibetan Buddhist traditions. This is not only due to the fact that these populations have been active in shaping Buddhism in the West but also because Asian Buddhist women in the West and Asian American Buddhists have not, due to racism, received the same attention or resources as Euro-American converts. A similar lack of visibility pertains to Buddhist convert females in devotional traditions such as Jodo Shinshu and Soka Gakkai. This brings into focus the important question of what counts as “prominent”? There are, for example, many female ministers in the Buddhist Churches of America who are prominent in the community they serve but who for a variety of reasons are not visible in popular media or academic literature. As the disproportionate amount of scholarly and popular attention on meditation-based convert forms of Buddhism comes under question, however, one can anticipate a greater and much-welcomed focus on female Buddhists from a wider variety of traditions.

General Overviews

There are a number of edited collections devoted to prominent Buddhist women in the West, particularly focusing on their role in shaping a female-friendly modern Western form of Buddhism that is inclusive, egalitarian, and democratic. These texts typically contain a range of essays, interviews, and memoirs written by and about prominent individual women and highlight common issues such as gender, sexuality, family life, and institutional authority encountered by Buddhist women in the West. Many of the most prominent Buddhist women in the West such as Rita M. Gross, Judith Simmer-Brown, Pema Chodron, Tsultrim Allione, Maurine Stuart, Toni Packer, to name just a few, feature in all or several of these collections, and so they function as useful reference material. Boucher 1993 was the earliest collection to celebrate a distinctively Americanized and feminized form of Buddhism. Dresser 1996 presents an anthology containing the critical perspectives of some of the main American women who teach and practice Buddhism. Friedman 2000 gives a more sustained focus on seventeen female teachers who are significantly shaping the face of Western Buddhism. Gregory and Mrozik 2006 offers a panoply of American women’s voices that include popular Buddhist teachers, authors, artists, and activists exploring their experience of Buddhism in America. In a similar vein, Karma Lekshe Tsomo 2010 discusses how American women understand and apply Buddhist philosophy to the Western world. The most recent collection comes from Miller 2014, which covers similar ground as the collections preceding her in reasserting the significance of female Western converts in shaping a distinctively Western form of Buddhism. Although not exclusively focused on women, Harding, et al. 2014 is useful in shifting geographical focus from the United States to Canada. Similarly, Gutierrez Baldoquin 2004 highlights the neglected experiences of Native American, African, Asian, and Latina Buddhist teachers and practitioners. This edited collection features some of the main females, such as Jan Willis, Mushim Patricia Ikeda, and Bonnie Duran, who are promoting diversity in American Buddhism. Popular Buddhist magazines such as Shambhala Sun and Tricycle have also featured special issues and articles on prominent female Buddhist teachers in the West. For a historical overview of women in Buddhism in the United States that highlights significant events and influential figures, both lay and monastic, see Dugan 2006.

  • Boucher, Sandy. Turning the Wheel: American Women Creating the New Buddhism. Boston: Beacon, 1993.

    Feminist author and Buddhist practitioner Boucher’s pioneering collection aims to integrate feminism and Buddhism through advancing the development of an inclusive feminist-friendly Western Buddhism, which includes the experiences of lay and monastic Euro-American converts, Asian immigrants, and people of color. Prominent teachers featured include Rita M. Gross, Judith Simmer-Brown, Ruth Denison, Ayya Khema, Joanna Macy, and Maurine Stuart.

  • Dresser, Marianne. Buddhist Women on the Edge: Contemporary Perspectives from the Western Frontier. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic, 1996.

    This collection aims to critically explore the experiences and concerns of American women practicing Buddhism through individual chapters from a range of Buddhist female teachers and practitioners, including well-known figures such as Anne C. Klein, Sandy Boucher, and Thubten Chodron.

  • Dugan, Kate. “Women in Buddhism in the US.” Pluralism Project Research (2006).

    This informative essay gives a historical overview of Buddhist women in America, with pithy sections on Buddhist teachers and monastics, Buddhist women and social activism, Buddhist women in academia, and Buddhist women and art.

  • Friedman, Lenore. Meetings with Remarkable Women: Buddhist Teachers in America. Boston: Shambhala, 2000.

    Friedman interviews twelve prominent female Buddhist teachers from a variety of traditions about their encounter with Buddhism, practice experiences, and teaching styles. Some such as Pema Chodron and Ayya Khema gained positions of authority and visibility in traditional Buddhism. Others such as Toni Packer and Jacqueline Mandel left institutional Buddhism and forged a path as independent teachers.

  • Gregory, Peter N., and Susanne Mrozik. Women Practicing Buddhism: American Experiences. Boston: Wisdom, 2006.

    This collection, originating from an academic conference, contains a variety of voices from well-known dharma teachers, authors, activists, and artists and focuses on the particular experiences of women in American Buddhism.

  • Gutierrez Baldoquin, Hilda, ed. Dharma, Color, and Culture: New Voices in Western Buddhism. Berkeley, CA: Parallax, 2004.

    Using the “Four Noble Truths” as its thematic structure, this collection features Native American, African, Asian, and Latina Buddhist teachers and practitioners. Although not exclusively focused on women, it contains essays by some of the most prominent Western Buddhist women of color, such as Jan Willis, Mushim Patricia Ikeda, Bonnie Duran, and Marlene Jones, reflecting on race and Buddhism.

  • Harding, John S., Victor Sōgen Hori, and Alexander Soucy, eds. Flowers on the Rock: Global and Local Buddhisms in Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2014.

    This edited collection charts and analyses the growth of Buddhism in Canada. In doing so it puts pressure on some of the common typologies and analytics applied to North American Buddhism including implicit value judgments at work in the covert/ethnic divide. Not exclusively focused on women, three chapters discuss both ordained and lay female Buddhist experiences in Canada. Also its analytic reworkings are useful in rethinking common assumptions around Buddhism and Western feminism.

  • Karma Lekshe Tsomo, ed. Buddhism Through American Women’s Eyes. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 2010.

    This collection features American women sharing their applications of Buddhist philosophy and practice to a variety of situations from abortion to alcoholism, monasticism to mothering, in a contemporary Western context. Tsomo draws a parallel between these voices and the words of the female elders (theris) in offering an important record of Buddhist female experience.

  • Miller, Andrea, ed. Buddha’s Daughters: Teachings From Women Who Are Shaping Buddhism in the West. Boston and London: Shambhala, 2014.

    Miller revisits prominent female figures from Theravada, Zen, and Tibetan lineages such as Ayya Khema, Pema Chodron, and Joan Halifax, and reasserts their importance in shaping a distinctively Western form of Buddhism. The focus is mostly on Euro-American converts, although there is one chapter on Sister Chan Khong, a Vietnamese Buddhist nun and peace activist who works with Thich Nhat Hahn.

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