Women and Buddhism: session at the MBC

Mala, Buddhist prayer beads.

Mala, Buddhist prayer beads. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Women and Buddhism

by Oxana Poberejnaia

Call for discussion

At Manchester Buddhist Convention 2012 I am inviting women and men, ordained and laypeople, to share their experiences, feelings and thoughts on the topic: women and Buddhism, and in particular women practising Buddhism here in now, in the West in 2012. Although historical analysis and geographical parallels would be useful.

The basic question is the same as in a “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” sketch about a sour-faced champion car racer: “Are you happy?” Are we, Buddhist women, happy with Buddhism? Are Buddhist men happy with the position of Buddhist women? Are we happy with the legacy we are leaving for future generations of Buddhist men and women?

This question can be re-phrased as: Are we happy because we should be happy? Because we strive to be happy? Because if we are unhappy it is our failure as women? Are we happy to keep other people happy?

Do these questions sound familiar? – Are these the same questions that women have to deal with anyway, in this patriarchal society we live in.

Absent women

I welcome any and every perspective on these questions and I disclose mine straight away: my position is that of feminism. Women in contemporary society have no place of their own. Women are seen and treated as deficient men: Men who bleed, men who cause nuisances to work places and benefit office by bearing children, men who have cycles of health, weight, and mental and emotional states. Women are constrained and contained – so that the patriarchal order of things carries on.

Women are denied their history, their language, their culture, their spirituality. Women have no land to stand on, no fortress to defend, because there is no place in society that women can call theirs. We are wives, daughters, sisters, lovers, carers, disturbers of peace. We are companions, consorts, “Other Women”, or enemies – all in relation to men. But we never stand on our own right.  We cannot describe us by defining us as what we are (as Tony Stark did for his suit).

I said that my position is that of feminism, and not male-bashing. Men do not benefit from patriarchy either. Men are involved in a meaningless non-ending struggle to be The First – which is logically and practically impossible. Men are denied their connection to themselves, to nature, to other people, as these qualities are a threat to the patriarchal system.

Is Buddhism part of problem or solution?

The question is very clear: Buddhism in the West – is it part of patriarchy or not? It is also very clear that this question is a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional one. Even starting to answer it will require a lot of defining terms, a lot of deciding which criteria to include in the analysis. Then come research and surveying. Then come individual opinions of a multitude of people involved in this issue.

Therefore, what I can say on this subject is necessarily a tiny drop in the discussion, and a very personal perspective. The discussion can carry on, beyond this post and beyond the Convention, should there be such a wish in the Buddhist community.

To put the general feminist inquiry into a more practical plane, let’s consider one issue: Do the same methods of training in the Dharma work in a same way for women and men? Do women compete in spiritual “sports” that are not relevant for our spiritual development?

Buddhist Psychology

Is the image of a Dharma practitioner masculine, feminine, universal, or neither? If there such a thing as a general human? The Buddha was a man, his Mother and his step Mother were women, his teachers were men, his companions were men, his first disciples were men. Since we often claim that Buddhism is accurate in its insights into human psychology, a question arises: insights into whose psychology exactly?

Some other questions to ask ourselves are: Which part of the metta meditation is most difficult for women? Which – for men? I cannot speak for men, but for me, the first part is most difficult – wishing myself to be well and happy. Even after I have realised this, I still say to myself: “Yeah, yeah, I really should.. “ but tend to skip that part of the metta meditation anyway.

Buddhist Ethics

A question about Buddhist ethics would be: Does it overlook women and focus primarily on men? Does it sometimes seem that Buddhist ethics aims to getting men to the place where women are already? Taking one saying from Sutta Nipata 1.8:

Even as a mother

protects with her life

Her child, her only child,

So with a boundless heart

Should one cherish

all living beings.

Should we not, as women, immediately refer this to our own experience, like so: “Oh, right, so, it means that I should cherish all living beings the same way I protect my own child (for women who have children) or as I already protect children of other women, my relatives, my friends, environment, and so on”. But do we as women do that – let’s answer honestly? Most of the time, we do not. Because when we approach Buddhism, we approach it as generic spiritual seekers, as the same deficient men we have been all our lives. And instead we start conjuring in our heads that Indian woman, whom the Buddha had in mind, whose properties we are invited to emulate.

Men’s Initiation Rites

When we come to Buddhist practice, we might enquire something like this:

As monastic practice is in many ways a model for our Western lay practice (since we know that many Buddhist lay practitioners in the East do not practice formal meditation), we might consider: Are Buddhist monasteries an extension and continuation of men’s long house, places of men’s initiation rites?

These long houses, supposedly, were part of many hunter-gatherer cultures, and survived in our fairy tales as houses in forests where a group of males live (as in Snow White). The features of long houses: exclusively male company, hard ordeals, which are taken on together, secrets, hierarchy, sense of belonging and achievement – carry on into our society in such institutions as army, sports clubs, gang culture, and various closed groups and professions, such as, say, a predominantly male University Faculty, or a political party.

How do you get ahead in the army, in a political party? By being the toughest, by pushing yourself the hardest. Are such measures of Buddhist “success” and “seniority” as a number of “strict retreats” related to this? And, considering family commitments of women, are they left behind when assessed by the number of strict retreats they have done?

Another feature of male initiation ceremonies, as well as of men’s predominant activity for millions of years – hunting – is silence. We encourage the practice of silence at our retreats and wider practice. Is it relevant or helpful for women?

If we value silence as a counterweight to “idle chatter” this might very well be relevant for men: their connection between emotion and speech centres in the brain is smaller than that of women. When women speak to each other, though, it can be idle chatter, or it can be a meaningful exchange of deep emotions and insights.

Let us ask ourselves: When women come together in deep spiritual connection, what do they do? Do they go in deep silence, like men, conditioned by thousands of years of hunting and fishing together? Or do they do something else?

Buddhist Institutions

Another question is: Is it more difficult for women to follow a male teacher (including the Buddha) or to lead in a Buddhist organisation? And – related to that: when giving a Dharma talk, is it more difficult for us women to emulate talks that men give or to tell the truth of our, women’s practice? I, for example, in ten years of practice had never ventured to say anything outside the boundary of what I have heard from my male teachers, until this note.

Why? Because I have bought in the whole hierarchy system and thought more of climbing the ranks of the Buddhist community here in the West than about my inner truth, the light unto myself that I should be following. I wanted to please the teachers, to show them that I am within the mould.

Menstrual Cycle

When pointing at the most obvious difference between men and women – i.e. menstrual cycle – does this affect women’s practice and should it be acknowledged by Buddhist teachers?

Is sitting practice adequate for women with menstrual cycle? Should we prepare women to the fact that their practice will be very different depending on whether they are in the menstruating phase of their lives, are about to start it, or are about to end it?

Should we take into account the fact that if women are menstruating, there will be four phases they will go through every moon cycle: a more energetic and extrovert one, an energetic one where energy is directed to caring about others, and introverted one, and a withdrawal phase?

Sex and how not to get attached to it

Buddhist teaching recommends steering clear of lust. One of the more well-known techniques for curing the mind of attachment to bodily shapes is meditating on a corpse. I cannot speak for men, but I was given to understand that men are willing to have sex at any moment of any day or night and that sex is what is on their mind a lot. Correct me if I’m wrong.

Conversely, I must say that every moon cycle there are days where I would do anything not to have sex. Anything. I would dig up potatoes – just don’t approach me with any sexual intentions. At the same time, during ovulation I would pretty much have anyone that’s moving. And during these three days a meditation on a corpse would perhaps curtail my sexual drive. Whether it should – that is another matter. As my desire to have sex during ovulation actually has a very clear goal: procreation. It is also a part of the surge of energies I experience during the Virgin and the Mother phases of my menstrual cycle, which is then followed by going within and withdrawal of the Enchantress and the Hag phases respectively. And I need this energy to compensate for slowing down during the more introverted phases.

Another aspect of this issue is that I don’t believe the corpse meditation would be as effective on me as a woman. The thing is, women’s sexuality is different from men’s in that we don’t lose our heads over a pair of nice men’s legs. In fact, I can’t recall one occasion in my life when I was attracted to a man because of his long or otherwise legs. Or his chest. Or his bottom. What do I notice in a man first? Watch “Scandal in Belgravia” – “Brainy is new sexy”. I personally like brains, wit, and a passion – for anything. Be it collecting Victorian tea cups. Women look for kindness and ability to raise children in their men. So, how would I cure myself of attachment to brains? By picturing a stupid man?

Preliminary conclusions

If that is the case, should women not concentrate on other aspects on their Buddhist practice: for example, concentrate on loving themselves rather than loving others, searching to insert more feminine into Buddhist hierarchy and leadership, seeking their own inner truth – and I cannot think about anything else, really.

We as women do not have a positive place in Buddhism in the same way as we do not have a positive place in society. We can just about point to what we are not, but how about what we are?

Perhaps Buddhist women in the West should start searching for genuinely female ways of practising Buddhism, without fear of getting it wrong. As my male feminist friend said, if the Buddha had been born in our times, he would not have become a Buddhist, he would have sought his own spiritual truth.

I feel that we women should not grasp at philosophy, psychology and practices of what might be an extension of men’s initiation rites. We had our own, women’s  secret societies, in cultures where men had theirs. And this is where we should look for inspiration. Perhaps not silence, but song? Maybe not sitting, but dance? Perchance not individual practice, but open sharing of hearts and minds?

If these thoughts evoke any reaction in you, please come to the session “Women and Buddhism” at the Manchester Buddhism Convention, in the Small Chapel, 12.45-13.30. Comment on this post. Ask further questions.

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7 thoughts on “Women and Buddhism: session at the MBC

  1. Josephine Connolly 16/10/2012 at 21:26 Reply

    Hi Oxana. I very much enjoyed our group at the session on Saturday thanks to you and everyone there. I didn’t get to read this before hand (pity) but I know that I will read it again and use it as a starting point for my own explorations. I will be sure to report back on any revelations. Did anything come out of the forum afterwards? Ta Jo

    • sunnysmile 18/10/2012 at 21:42 Reply

      Dear Jo, that you so much for attending the session. I cannot express how I appreciate women who are willing to grow, and find their true self, and to support their sisters. It is truly amazing. If you have time, you can also take a look at some results of discussions and links here: http://todmordenframedrum.wordpress.com/news/ – it is a frame drum/Sacred Feminine group that I run. At the forum, Fiona, Felicia and Jill turned up, I voiced the idea of having Women or Gender as the topic for the next Convention. This met a mixed response. Some people were enthusiastic, some suggested other topics, such as youth or environment, and some thought that having a particular topic would put a part of attendees off. So, we’ll se how this all develops. In the meantime, best wishes on your spiritual and creative path, and see you at the next Convention, is not sooner! 🙂

  2. sunnysmile 22/10/2012 at 14:05 Reply

    SGI’s approach to the spiritual equality of women definitely dates back to Nichiren Daishonin!

    Click to access kurihara.pdf

  3. Kate 03/11/2012 at 18:58 Reply

    Hi, if you know of ANY group like this in Melbourne, Australia, who delve into questions like this, can you PLEASE contact me? I am starved of information like this. My soul is screaming at me to explore this aspect of my being.

    Thank you – Kate from Oz

    • sunnysmile 03/11/2012 at 21:02 Reply

      Well, remember Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: Don’t panic. There are all these books and web resources about women’s spirituality: Women Who Run with the Wolves, When God was a Woman, When Drummers were Women, Red Moon, Leaving my Father’s House. There must be groups of women who get together to drum, to do shamanic journeying, there is Red Tent project.

  4. […] ← Women and Buddhism: session at the MBC […]

  5. […] I led a similar session last year, and we had a really interesting discussion. You can read about it here. […]

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