August 20, 2014
A Buddhist-feminist scholar responds to an all-male panel on the “risks and benefits” of opening Buddhist leadership to women
Earlier this week the website Patheos published a panel on the topic “2014 Religious Trends: Expanding Leadership Opportunities for Buddhist Women—Which Way Forward?” The panel introduction ended with this question: “What are the risks and benefits of opening Buddhist leadership to women?” As a Buddhist-feminist scholar who has watched and participated in the rise of female leadership in the Buddhist world for the past four decades, I have my own question to ask in response: Risks? What risks? What could possibly be dangerous about women taking leadership roles in Buddhism? We have been doing so in large numbers for quite some time and nothing untoward has happened to Buddhism or to Buddhists as a result.
Far more serious and problematic, however, is the fact that this panel discussion on Buddhist women includes no women! Seven men—but no women—were called upon to discuss the “risks and benefits” of opening Buddhist leadership . . . to women! Rather than solving any of the centuries-old problems of Buddhist male dominance and patriarchy, such a panel only perpetuates it. Someone who didn’t know better but encountered this panel might draw the conclusion that Buddhist women are too passive to speak for themselves and lack the knowledge to do so. But this is far from being the case.
It is unbelievable that after many years of women’s increasingly visible leadership in the Buddhist world, especially the Western Buddhist world, no comments from women were included in the panel. It becomes even more absurd when we take into account the fact that about half the teachers in the Western Buddhist world are women, many of whom are well known and highly respected. Nor, for the most part were any of these important and prominent women leaders and scholars even mentioned by the men asked to write about “expanding leadership opportunities for Buddhist women.” How could anyone take this panel seriously? These days, few people will take a discussion seriously on any topic of general social concern that does not include at least a few female commentators. How much less so a panel on a topic pertaining solely to women, especially when Buddhist women have already stepped forward to lead and are doing so very well?
I do not fault the seven men who wrote short essays for this panel, in part because I suspect that they were not informed ahead of time that only men had been invited to contribute. I know some of these men and know that they themselves are supportive of expanding leadership opportunities for Buddhist women. But I most definitely do fault whoever put this panel together for unbelievable levels of ignorance and arrogance. If this were 1970, not 2014, such an all-male panel might be explicable, even relevant. But in 2014, it is too late to speak and act as if men alone are still in charge of everything and can creditably speak for and about women, as if no women were confident and competent enough to speak for themselves, and hadn’t already begun to transform Buddhism into its post-patriarchal future. It is far too late to overlook all the women who have come forward as teachers and scholars of Buddhism and to ignore the many, many significant books and articles that have been published on topics pertaining to gender and Buddhism.
Men don’t run the world by themselves anymore, and it is not up to men alone to expand female leadership opportunities. We’ve done quite a good job of that ourselves already, and some of our male colleagues have been supportive as we do so. When will others get with the program? And don’t you think it’s about time they do?
Rita M. Gross is an author, dharma teacher, and professor emerita of comparative studies in religion. Her latest article for Tricycle was "The Man-Made Obstacle" (Summer 2014).