Women and Poetry as a Tool for Liberation

This piece appeared in the Quarterly Electronic MagaZine from Sakyadhita USA, Issue No. 12,  Fall 2016, titled, AMERICAN BUDDHIST WOMEN.

I speak here of poetry as a revelatory distillation of experience, not the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean — in order to cover a desperate wish for imagination without insight.  For women, then, poetry is not a luxury.  It is a vital necessity of our existence.

—Audre Lorde, “Poetry is Not a Luxury” in Sister Outsider: Essays & Speeches

I closed my eyes and saw the Mother of all Buddhas
Smiling through both of our tears.
A recognition that Awakening is peeking through the shadows that so often stretch into the corners of this mind.
The hopes and fears and wants and aversions, lurking.
The story of being a woman.
It’s the inescapable Truth that has driven generations of
Women practitioners before me to seek Awakening.
Leaving familiarity and the comfort of social norms—
Breaking rules, hearts, boundaries.
A place beyond where ego and intellect rationalize,
It sleeps…
and it yawns as the heart trembles.

 My love affair with writing began long before my affinity for the Buddhadharma. I can recall being preschool aged filling pages upon pages with swirly figures; my rudimentary attempt to write before I had even been taught the alphabet. My teens were partially spent in my bedroom, music blasting, steeped in hormonally-driven brooding, putting pen to paper, thinking “no one could possibly understand me…” It’s taken me years to find my “voice” as a writer which is, of course, always changing. So often my feelings of loneliness, isolation or heartbreak have been the central focus of my writing—be it prose, poetry, or even song lyrics. I’ve done my fair share of writing since I took my refuge vows in 2007, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that I felt spontaneously inspired to write poetry again, motivated by recent heartbreak, but this time fueled by my thirst for awakening.

 I’m an American practitioner of Tibetan Buddhism, but I increasingly feel inclined to call myself an “interfaith Buddhist,” as I learn more about the various lineages of the Dharma and how they intersect. I do have a “heart teacher,” as the Tibetan tradition emphasizes a student-teacher relationship, although I also recognize that I have many teachers. I’m in my second year of University of the West’s three year master’s in divinity Buddhist Chaplaincy program. This semester, in my Women in Buddhism class, we’ve explored how poetry has been an inseparable part of many women practitioners’ lives, starting with the very first female-identifying sangha members, during the time of the Buddha. This discovery struck something in me—that gut feeling of “Yes! Me, too!” Thousands of years of women practicing the Dharma and writing poems…I can’t find a way to put into words how moving, and fierce, that lineage feels to me. The difficulties they each faced, some more unimaginable than others, their perseverance and determination to practice and wake up…all of their heaviness and continued pursuit of freedom. It blazes.

 Within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition there is a history of “dohas,” or “songs of realization,” which are usually written spontaneously. Without actively setting out to write in this way, this element of spontaneity feels the most authentic to my poetry style. I rarely sit down to write without first feeling a jolt of inspiration strike me. A deep and sudden urge hits, a compulsion of sorts, and the words pour out. If I notice myself starting to think too much about what I’m writing, I pause, take a breath and relax my mind. I feel empowered when I write poems and I recognize it in other women’s poetry—unapologetic, the fierceness.

 This spontaneity brings to mind the Zen notion of satori (sudden awakening), the Tibetan formless meditation practices of Dzogchen (great perfection) and Mahamudra (great seal), and Vipassana (insight). I’d imagine it is present in all Dharma practices. Perhaps poetry is also a tool for liberation. It is certainly connected to many who are striving to awaken—an expression of our innate awareness, even if it seems utterly mundane. Women throughout history, who might otherwise have not felt heard, still using their voice. If that’s the case, maybe my longing to express heartache has been an attempt to tap into something beyond my sadness, something deeper that I was not aware of prior to being a practitioner. I’ve heard Dharma teachers speak of compassion as profound heartbreak, in the ultimate sense—that which moves the heart so deeply it cracks wide open and you recognize the interconnectedness between ourselves and all beings.
May it be so.

When I close my eyes
And find the stillness in my heart,
I can see the countless women
Who have sat before me.
Sitting with me.
A lineage of persistence, courage, a spirit of fearlessness, wisdom, compassion, and
The Wild Heart.
“Stay steadfast,” they whisper, as I falter.
They pull my feet to the earth and from that groundedness,
I touch Groundlessness.
And “the tears they shed yesterday,
Have become the rain”  of blessings
That showers me with their grace.
And to them,
I am ever grateful.