Women spiritual masters, poets and yoginis have been harbingers of change.
Though the spiritual path is by definition of the individual, driven by her inner seeking and understanding, it has an important social dimension as well. One of the ways in which spirituality has engaged with society is through seva, or unconditional service. Through serving causes that may be considered “worldly” at one level, spiritual seekers might be affirming their allegiance with the ideal that lies at the core of an integral perspective — of the profound interconnectedness of life, and its indivisibility into compartments (even if these compartments are those of spirituality and the world).
Spiritual insights and values can and must be brought to bear upon the problems of the world. Insights such as interconnectedness, compassion, dissolution of the ego-self and so on, can become powerful agents of change if applied appropriately in the social sphere. Also known as “engaged spirituality”, it calls for a widening of the sphere of spiritual practice, that spirituality needn’t remain confined to cloisters and ashrams, but spread out into the world and find creative and contemplative ways of dealing with its issues.
For instance Mae Chee Sansanee Sthirasuta, a spiritual teacher from Thailand, started a centre some years ago to teach meditation. The suffering she witnessed among people who came for the courses inspired her to do more. Several projects were born out of this inner call, which have included working with abused women and children, taking care not only of their physical needs, but their spiritual well-being as well, and attempting to transform pain into love. Realising that it was not enough to help the “victims” because they were not the only ones who suffered in a conflict situation, Mae Chee began visiting prisons to help inmates become aware of their innate goodness, and act from a place of service and love in order to “break the cycle of violence”, in her words.
Another spiritual innovator is Joanna Macy, who has used the teachings of Buddhism to foster a new kind of environmental activism — one that is attuned with and based on the interconnected nature of reality. She is an eco-philosopher, and has created a ground-breaking theoretical framework for personal and social change, as well as a powerful workshop methodology for its application. Her wide-ranging work addresses psychological and spiritual issues of the nuclear age, the cultivation of ecological awareness, and the fruitful resonance between Buddhist thought and contemporary science. Thousands of people around the world have participated in her workshops and trainings. Her work helps people transform despair and apathy in the face of overwhelming social and ecological crises, into constructive, collaborative action. It brings a new way of seeing the world as our larger living body.
In the Asian context, because they have been so repressed, women’s spirituality carries an additional patina of social revolution. Women spiritual masters, poets and yoginis have been harbingers of change. By walking the path of inner revolution, they have broken through walls of prejudice, and widened the possibilities available to all women.