Zen and feminism: Josy Thibaut

Zen and feminism: lived practices

Are Zen and feminism compatible? If we are to believe the words of the greatest masters and the experience lived and passed on by Zen nun and feminist activist Josy Thibaut, yes.

FR Français ES Español
Josy (1925-2017), mother of Master Kosen Thibaut, was both an unfailing practitioner of Zen and a seasoned feminist activist. For many years, she ran a zazen group in her home, which was the origin of the Zen Paris dojo.

Dream and anger

“How about a women’s strike?”

Men shall not reap

“Josy Thibaut, much inspired, came up with a wonderful slogan.”

Feminism at the Women’s Liberation Movement

After experiencing the post-war jazz scene in the Paris of Saint-Germain-des-Prés (when you arrived at the dojo she ran in her home, you were often greeted by a Louis Armstrong tune), Josy Thibaut resumed her studies at the Sorbonne in… 1967. Just before the energy explosion of May ’68, in which she played a full part.

  • Josy Thibaut à une manifestation du MLF, le 20 novembre 1971
    Josy Thibaut at an MLF (Women’s Liberation Movement) demonstration, November 20, 1971

Zen with Masters Deshimaru and Kosen

In 1978, when her son met Master Deshimaru, she too began practicing zazen.

After being ordained as a Zen nun by her son, who had become a master, she continued zazen without respite, running a small dojo at home.

Feminist songs

“And Sensei took it with a smile.”

You’re crazy!

Sensei and I started yelling at each other.”

Continue zazen

“I don’t want any feminism in Zen, everyone has to be the same.”
Josy started zazen at the age of 50, perhaps initially more to see what her son, the future master Kosen Thibaut, was into than as a personal quest.

Won over by the practice, she continued to sit in the lotus posture assiduously. She took part in all periods of intensive practice, or sesshins, right up to the age of 90, despite a hip prosthesis!

Masculine, feminine: bullshittin’?

But is Josy Thibaut an exception in a Buddhist tradition that more generally rejects women? At least not in the mahāyāna tradition of Great Vehicle Buddhism, of which Zen is a part.

The hīnayāna current, on the other hand, is more concerned with personal liberation than the emancipation of all beings, and generally denies women’s spiritual capacities.

Essenceless

“I haven’t been able to find the innate characteristics of the female sex.”

Non-fixed

“Immediately he becomes those wives and preaches the Law for them.”
Many Buddhist texts allow women to awaken only after reincarnation in male form. But Zen doesn’t attribute an essence of its own to anything. It sees everything as aggregates, the result of unstable and transient interactions. The most popular sutras of this school are therefore those that propose an overcoming of the male/female duality, seen only as the illusory opposition of arbitrary conditions.

The Buddha’s children shouldn’t be like this

The 13th century saw Japan enter the military regime of the Kamakura shogunate. In 1223, the future Grand Master Dogen, dissatisfied with his training at the Tendai school, went to China to study Chán with Master Nyōjo.

The Tendai school was founded by Dengyō Daishi in ancient Japan. Attached to the texts, tinged with Confucianism and close to power, it was the dominant branch of Buddhism in Japan before the rise of Zen. Hostile to women, it was more concerned with social prestige than spiritual emancipation. It couldn’t answer Dogen’s questions.

Exclusion

“Keep out robbers, liquor and women.”

Defilement

“The Tendai school presents women as incapable of attaining Buddhahood.”

Influences

“The Confucian tradition further reinforced the androcentrism and male-female inequality.”

Amnesia

“Why hasn’t any woman’s name gone down in Zen history?”

Parity

“Are there any women among the masters?”
Dogen brought back zazen, the heart of Zen, from China. Spreading the seed of Zen in Japan, he left Kyōto in 1230 to escape the growing hostility of the Tendai school. In his teaching, he spoke out against any discrimination against women in the practice of zazen.

In the Shōbōgenzō, Dogen opposes any position of inferiority assigned to women. Japanese society seemed relatively permissive at the time. But certain chapters of the “Treasury of the Eye of the True Dharma”, too revolutionary for the taste of the Buddhist clergy, were censored for a long time. They were circulated only as secret teachings, whereas Zen rejected all esotericism!

  • Josy en zazen aux côtés de la maître Rei Kiku Femenias
    Josy in zazen with Master Rei Kiku Femenias - Summer Camp 2010
Josy’s parallel commitments to Zen and feminism are far from contradictory. They illustrate the universality of Zen Buddhism, even if her relationship with Master Deshimaru was sometimes a little… let’s say, rough. In his landmark work, Dogen makes it abundantly clear: following the path is not the prerogative of men.

Beyond

“A monk who hasn’t attained enlightenment is useless.”

Essence

“Those who have not seen the essence of the Buddha-Way are far inferior to any woman who has obtained the Law.”

Principle

“What makes men more precious than women?”

The Buddha’s children

“The Buddha’s children should not be like this.”

This was at a time when the main branches of Buddhism cited being born a woman as one of the obstacles on the path to enlightenment. Meantime, in Europe, a 1233 papal bull laid the foundations for future witch-hunts.

Zen, feminism, and all that jazz

Josy Thibaut was born a woman in the early 20th century. She lived through the darkest and most elating periods of the “Age of Extremes”.

Her early love of jazz led her to fear the worst. During an inspection visit, German soldiers from the occupying army found an album of “degenerate” music. Jazz was not banned at the time, but after 1941 and the United States’ entry into the war, anything to do with American musicians was seen as a protest. Josy, a lover of swing, was more at home with black American players than with the French jazz of the time.

  • Gilles Thibaut accompagnant Sydney Bechet, l’un des géants du jazz
    Gilles Thibaut accompanying Sydney Bechet, one of the giants of jazz
After the Liberation of France, she frequented the clubs of Saint-Germain-des-Prés. Jazz was still far from being used, as it is today, to give a glamorous, consensual veneer to mass-market products. A music of rebellion, it united penniless youth and intellectuals. From anonymous students to Boris Vian and Simone de Beauvoir, fans communed fervently around a music style brought to them by musicians fleeing the institutionalized racism of their homeland.

In the 1950s, the French jazz audience, a minority in the population but spread throughout the country, was distinctly young, male, educated, and – relatively – anti-racist.

Rebellion

“Shut up, now it’s our turn to play!”

Anti-racism

“Boris Vian occasionally slips in a remark about racism in France.”

Masculinity

“French women were expected to buy products that supported their families, not jazz records.”

Josy’s husband, Gilles Thibaut, accompanied Sidney Bechet on trumpet at the Vieux Colombier club, a temple to the New Orleans style.

Personal and collective practice

If Josy’s three passions – feminism, Zen, and jazz – had to be brought together in a single coherent whole, it would perhaps be that of a practice that is both personal and collective. From militant commitment to a movement with no structure or hierarchy to the rigorous practice of a meditative posture practiced without interruption for 2,500 years, to music that gives pride of place to improvisation within small groups.

Social, political, and spiritual emancipation

On a deeper level, Josy never compartmentalized the different aspects of her activities. Those who knew her can testify how steadfast she could be!

Like the MLF, for whom “the personal is political”, perhaps she was always guided, in her various commitments, by an indomitable desire for emancipation, on all levels, without separation.

Josy Thibaut began zazen and activism in her second youth, from which she never left. She fought for women without reducing herself to her status as a woman. She advanced her chosen cause without rejecting anyone but fighting against an iniquitous value system. Without betraying, denying, or compromising, she practiced and promoted the zazen posture relentlessly, without any selfish goals.

Beyond gender

“Man, forget your masculinity! Woman, forget your femininity!”
Throughout her life, Josy has worked for the social, political, and spiritual emancipation of all beings. Whatever their gender, religion, sexual orientation, or skin color. Beyond their contingent determinations.

The Buddha’s children should be like this.

Olivier C

Sources

Source materials for his article.