When in the meditation hall men and women sit on different sides, we could call this “sitting separately,” but if you look deeply, you will see that there is no segregation. In other words, one group is not being excluded from the principal group. Clearly there is no discrimination. Both sides of the meditation hall are equally peaceful, have equally beautiful cushions, and an equal access to the altar. In Mindfulness Training recitations and transmissions and in formal meals and ceremonies where monks and nuns wear the yellow formal robe, we sit separately. There are several reasons for this. The first is purely formal. The monks have their order of ordination and the nuns have their order of ordination; in these ceremonies we sit in order of ordination to be aware of who is our elder and who is our younger brother or sister.
The second reason is a matter of energy. A man’s and a woman’s energy differ in certain significant aspects. This is something physiological and psychological. For all of its benefits, the movement for equality of the sexes has very often meant a woman has had to push her way into a man’s world and compete with men on the terms of a man’s world. This has been very stressful for many women.
Personally, I am very happy to be a Buddhist nun where I can be truly enlightened as a woman and do not have to try to fulfill the enlightenment of a man. When we sit separately, I look over to my brothers and my heart is filled with appreciation. I know they support my practice and I wholeheartedly support theirs.
During sitting meditation and at any time when deep concentration is needed, our being is very finely tuned. Sexual feelings can be very disturbing both to the person who has them and to the person who is the object of the feelings. That is another reason for sitting separately. Our physical proximity can water the seeds of these sexual feelings.
In more traditional Buddhism, sitting separately is always de rigueur. Thay has loosened this considerably by allowing the Thursday mindfulness lunch to take place without sitting separately. There are retreats in which practitioners practice sitting meditation with men and women sitting next to each other. We have the right to enjoy both ways and feel the different energies for ourselves, so that in our local sangha we can choose how we want to organize ourselves. Many of us are very happy to have the best of both worlds.
—Sister Annabel, True Virtue