Few women play spiritual leadership roles within Buddhism, but that has not hampered a handful of Buddhist women clergy in this country.
The Rev. Rebecca MacDonald, hired five months ago as the minister for a Japanese-American Buddhist temple in Marin County, said that throughout her ordination training and her current ministry she has received equal treatment and warm support.
"It was surprising to me," said MacDonald, an ex-Catholic from Los Angeles. "I assumed that a woman, a Caucasian woman at that, would have to take a lesser role. But everyone has been warm and supportive."
Likewise, the Revs. Sandra Hiramatsu and Carol Himaka, more experienced clergywomen in the Jodo Shinshu branch of Buddhism to which MacDonald belongs, maintain that female ministers are accorded as much respect as their male counterparts.
'I Do Everything'
"I thought I was going to have more problems, but doctrinally we are equal and I do everything that a male minister does," Hiramatsu said.
However, acceptability might not have come so easily, they said, except for the precedent set by a British-born woman who died last week after more than 50 years of service in Jodo Shinshu ministry in the Pacific Northwest.
The Rev. Sunya Pratt died Feb. 17 at the age of 88 in Tacoma, Wash. A self-taught Buddhist, she was ordained in 1934 by a Jodo Shinshu Buddhist bishop. With her death, the U.S. ranks of women Jodo Shinshu ministers was reduced to five.
Leaders of the Tacoma Hongwanji Buddhist Church said that Pratt, who originally went to the state to help her husband run a button business, was active in her position as assistant minister even last year.
"She was highly regarded by other ministers," said MacDonald, the resident minister for the 60-family Buddhist Temple of Marin, located in Mill Valley.
MacDonald and the Tacoma church leaders were in Anaheim last weekend attending the annual conference of the San Francisco-based Buddhist Churches of America. (Unlike most Buddhist groups, the English words "church" and "minister" are used comfortably by the Jodo Shinshu movement in the United States, where congregations are very similar in organization to Christian groups.)
Buddhism, a complex religion and philosophy that seeks to explain human suffering and ways to find release from it, was founded by Guatama Buddha about 500 years before the beginnings of Christianity. From the Himalayan foothills where the prince-turned-teacher lived, the religion spread slowly and diversely through central and eastern Asia.
In most Buddhist traditions that have nuns and monks, the women are not equivalent in spiritual stature to the monks. In Japanese Zen traditions, roshis , or "teaching masters," are predominantly male, although both men and women have been initiated as masters in the teachings, and women roshis can be found in California.
Many Female Ministers
But Jodo Shinshu Buddhism (literally "True Pure Land Religion"), which does not make the ascetic demands of Zen and other forms of Buddhism, has many women among the ministers serving 10 million adherents in Japan. Yet, because temples there are family-owned and spiritual leadership is normally inherited, women ministers frequently serve only temporarily after the deaths of their husbands and before a son is old enough to take the spiritual reins.
The Jodo Shinshu mission to Hawaii and the American mainland of opened up ministerial possibilities for Americans whose Japanese-immigrant parents had never been associated with temple service and for Caucasians attracted enough by Buddhism to make it a career.
The Hompa Hongwanji Mission in Hawaii embraces 35 churches, or temples, and 10,000 member-families. On the mainland, the Buddhist Churches of America have 62 temples and 21,000 families. Officials say the membership figures are misleading in that they count only dues-paying families; the temples also serve Japanese businessmen working temporarily in the United States and non-member families who go to temples for weddings, funerals and other rites of passage ceremonies.
Astronaut Ellison Onizuka, who died in the Challenger shuttle explosion this year, was a lay member of an affiliated church on the big island of Hawaii and had been scheduled to be the keynote speaker at last week's Buddhist Churches of America convention.
Church officials readily admit that the denomination is still an ethnic one struggling with generational differences--many congregations have Japanese-born clergy and most members linguistically comfortable in Japanese.
Nevertheless, the seven students at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley include two Caucasian men who have nearly completed their training, as well as a Caucasian woman.
Two of the five female Jodo Shinshu ministers have returned to school to enhance their ministries.