March 08, 2013

Explorations in Buddhism and Feminism

Alex Caring-Lobel

International Women’s Day was instated in 1909 by the Socialist Party of America. Originally titled “International Working Women’s Day,” the event simultaneously commemorated the protests for the labor rights of women and furthered its cause. While its current de facto recognition might be likened to a sort of Mother’s Day that includes both childbearing and non-childbearing females alike, International Women’s Day is properly a labor movement, and a feminist one.

Since today is essentially a celebration of the feminist cause, it might be a good time to reflect on what feminism is—and what it was, and what it can be. In discussion, Buddhism and feminism tend to converge at two points: the ubiquitous sex scandal (Zen and Vajrayana, I’m looking at you), and the inequality of female monastics according to the Vinaya's rules. Instead of concerning myself with these points, of which plenty has been written about in Tricycle, I’d like to take a look at how the magazine has covered in several articles the parallel progression of American Buddhism and American feminism, and how the pieces might demonstrate the transformative powers of both.

Author bell hooks (read Tricycle's interview with her here) defines feminism as the struggle to end sexist oppression. I like this definition because, while gender equality is a noble goal, it’s also—in the US, at least—an insufficient one. Sure, we’re still staring either up or down at the glass ceiling (neither position is truly enviable), but the issue here is a kind of oppression by which both “victim” and “oppressor,” in their interconnectedness, are afflicted. This isn’t “Girl Power” feminism; this is a feminism that sees both men and women, and that has the potential to transform society as a whole.

When it comes to feminism, American Buddhism has been a mixed bag. It has unreflectively mirrored the extant gender injustices of American society at large, often reinforcing them, and also, here and there, provided a way out.

Despite this, Buddhist and feminist thought do have an undeniable affinity. Nancy Baker sums it up nicely in an interview with Tricycle in 2001:

There’s a strong streak of anti-essentialism in feminism, just as there is in Buddhism. It is the understanding that something like gender is not fixed or absolute, that not all women or men have some masculine or feminine essence that defines us. To put it in Buddhist terms, gender has no “self-nature."

As Nagarjuna and other Buddhist thinkers tell us, the precondition for change is emptiness. Thus, wherever we can critique essentialism, we open up the door for transformation. It seems, however, that many American Buddhist practitioners often don't bother to apply such critiques to what they dismiss as profane matters. Rita Gross (like Associate Editor Emma Varvaloucas in today's Buddha Buzz) recalls an instance of this: “Friends mistakenly assured me that as my practice matured, my caring about feminism would vanish." This obviously didn't happen, and instead, Gross found, "what vanished was my own rage, leaving the clarity of what I had already seen much sharper and more vivid.”

Obviously, we have quite a ways to go in seeing through masculine and feminine essences, but that's not to say we haven't made some progress. And this progress has allowed us to take on more difficult, entrenched issues. bell hooks speaks about this in her 1992 interview with Tricycle founder Helen Tworkov:

Feminists in general have come to rethink spirituality. Ten years ago if you talked about humility, people would say, I feel as a woman I've been humble enough, I don't want to try to erase the ego—I'm trying to get an ego. But now, the achievements that women have made in all areas of life have brought home the reality that we are as corruptible as anybody else. That shared possibility of corruptibility makes us confront the realm of ego in a new way. We've gone past the period when the rhetoric of victimization within feminist thinking was so complete that the idea that women had agency, which could be asserted in destructive ways, could not be acknowledged.

Just some food for thought. Be sure to read the two excellent articles linked to below.

 

Founding Editor Helen Tworkov’s feature “Just Power” and
Her interview with feminist author bell hooks.

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celticpassage's picture

Gender Is partly socially defined but not wholly.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Prior to the Lotus Sutra the belief was that women had to be reborn as men before they could become enlightened. Its story of the Dragon King's daughter indicates otherwise.