August 20, 2014

What Were They Thinking?

A Buddhist-feminist scholar responds to an all-male panel on the “risks and benefits” of opening Buddhist leadership to womenRita M. Gross

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).

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Dekyi's picture

All Buddhist women should be thankful Ms. Gross is tenacious and willing to challenge the status quo. As she stated, women are already leading and teaching effectively, especially in the West and most of us are supported and encouraged by male teachers (mine is Tibetan) who recognize our skills and unique view of the dharma. We need not wait for the patriarchal system to catch up and accept what is already happening. In other words, panel or no panel, women are leading and teaching. This fact indicates that the panel is not needed and that there is a subgroup who fails to recognize the strong role of female teachers as Buddhism continues to grow in the West. However, we also may acknowledge that even though we value our faith in Buddhism as being ahead of the curve with life's big answers, this is simply a reflection of greater society and we have a long, long way to go for women to get the credit we deserve. Next time the panel should be, "Men in Buddhism...Leading Female Teachers Discuss How To Help Men Catch Up."

conroy.r's picture

The whole institutionalisation of Buddhism has gone largely without criticism in this exchange. Why do we want to have 'leaders'? Why do we need institutions? I'm not suggesting that we don't, but we need to question any system that has allowed blokes in frocks to call the shots.

I recall a sermon at Christ Church, where I sang for many years. The preacher wondered what would happen if Jesus and the apostles walked in on choral evensong. Would he turn to them and say "Yes, this is exactly what I had in mind"?

The privileged position of the clergy and the institutions of Buddhism will create an elitism that manifests itself as discrimination in all its forms. Filling some of the roles in the organisation with women will not encourage asking basic questions about the very nature and existence of the organisation.

Time to tackle the problem at the root.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Human beings evolved socially. We've surpassed other species precisely because of an innate urge to institutionalise, first as families, villages and now as a global economy connected by the internet. But also innate within are the three poisons of greed, belligerence and ignorance which, when unleashed, are capable of corrupting any man-made institution, even the most spiritually well-meaning.

Jayson's picture

I suppose you could say that they weren't thinking. I agree that we shouldn't fault the participants who probably didn't know about the lack of representation, but the organizers should've had better judgement. Maybe they were subtly influenced by Mara...

does being a woman make
when the mind's well-centered,
when knowledge is progressing,
seeing clearly, rightly,
into the Dhamma."

via Soma Sutta:

Dominic Gomez's picture

"they weren't thinking": They were. Just not using wisdom while they were at it.

Jayson's picture

Agree. Well said. That's a better way of putting it.

buddhajazz's picture

ZOWIE, this girl in on-fire!! Thnx Rita for covering all the bases. Even to the final comments about the work women have done to expand female leaderships--and--SOME is not enough.
"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?" We need another revolution--whatever happened to the Feminist Movement?

Dominic Gomez's picture

"Whatever happened to the Feminist Movement?" It transmogrified into the Humanist Movement. The Buddhist movement has some catching up to do, eh?

mattbard's picture

... goodness gravy!!! that this is even an issue is disturbing. ... . class , color and gender make no distinction in the meditative/ spiritual world.... I mean right now, not in some future politically correct imaginings. simply put- any system that is not inclusive has a serious problem. matt

kammie's picture

These people should have gotten the point when they couldn't (if they tried) round up any women for their subject. Maybe there's something wrong with the subject, would be the point they didn't get. I lost interest as soon as I saw that all the panelists were male. Although I did think of looking at Buddhist Women You Should Know. After reading all these comments I did try to look at that one, but the link only took me to the Patheos website and I couldn't find the symposium. I tried twice but still couldn't find it and only came away with the sense that the website doesn't exhibit much of a sense of a path. Maybe that's why they were so off the mark on that symposium.

wsking's picture

In the West, we are more interested in what is between your ears than what is between your legs!
For heavens sake! I am shocked at this "symposium". Why can't we get out of this patriarchal rut?

buddhajazz's picture

I wish I believed that..."ears/legs" interpretation of our American culture. The patriachy still continues in my world, even in social conversations, my reaction frequently to the reason we can't "get out of this P rut." ho hum....

workbc9's picture

Not sure about the symposium, didn't waste time to listen, but I like your statement "we are more interested in what is between your ears than what is between your legs" but then you say you are "shocked" at the symposium, I guess cuz it all dudes and we need to unleash the patriarchal rut. A man or woman CAN have equal insight in the human condition of the other or know. So who cares if a panel of urologist recommending prostate cancer treatment or cures is all women. I don't. I just want results. The rest is just an obsession and pointless suffering.

workbc9's picture

Not sure about the symposium, didn't waste time to listen, but I like your statement "we are more interested in what is between your ears than what is between your legs" but then you say you are "shocked" at the symposium, I guess cuz it all dudes and we need to unleash the patriarchal rut. A man or woman CAN have equal insight in the human condition of the other or know. So who cares if a panel of urologist recommending prostate cancer treatment or cures is all women. I don't. I just want results. The rest is just an obsession and pointless suffering.

dharmaqueen's picture

Anyone who would even consider the question of gender bias in Buddhism is not a Buddhist. Get real. If you subscribe to the picking and choosing mind - then go for it. But you are not a follower of the Shakyamuni Buddha.

Asine's picture

What risks are there? Consider Ven Dhammananda, supposedly a very knowledgeable Buddhist and the leading face of the Theravada bhikkhunis in Thailand. Now that she has got her own temple, the first thing she does is to install a Medicine Buddha in the Main shrine and introduce Tibetan style mantra chanting.

wsking's picture

Medicine Buddha mantra is very powerful cleansing. Try it.

buddhasoup's picture

Not as risky as selling amulets, dispensing lottery numbers, flying on jets and buying property with sangha money in California, as some male Bhikkhus have done.

Here's the website page that describes how the Medicine Buddha came to be:

What Ven. Dhammananda is doing at Songdhammakalyani Monastery is remarkable. Take a spin through and advise as to what risks are being cultivated in such a wholesome environment.

wsking's picture

Um, there is no other way to fly except on jets! Is there? So if we are invited to travel somewhere far away and fly there with everyone else, of course, we will all be on a jet!

If you want to buy land for a monastery, what other money are you going to use but money that has been donated to the sangha? Is there something wrong with that? If the sangha decides to buy land and build a monastery, that's the best use of the money! Sangha does not sell amulets or lottery tickets. You will have to give some proof of this.
Dharma stores are another question.

Both Tara and the Medicine Buddha have been known and practiced by people in the Southern School for many hundreds of years. I found them both carved in ruins in Sri Lanka.

Charles Prebish's picture

Like Gary Gach, I was NOT informed that there were no women to be included in their feature. I immediately wrote to them and suggested three women who should be contacted at once: Rita Gross, Karma Lekshe Tsomo, and Mavis Fenn. I further indicated that if these individuals did not choose to join the discussion, I would be happy to furnish many more names of women to them.

workbc9's picture

I find this gender power stuff kind of pointless. Who cares if a bunch of Buddhist dudes want to give some opinion on Buddhist chicks. it all religion nonsense. Women should revolt and create their own Buddhist schools and traditions if they are sidelined. And their own conferences and debated or lecture series. Just bypass and haul ass, don't get anchored by tradition.

buddhajazz's picture

Yes, separate but equal? How did that work out? Remember? But I'm beginning to think it would be a strong beginning or a trial-run. ho hum...

workbc9's picture

I find this gender power stuff kind of pointless. Who cares if a bunch of Buddhist dudes want to give some opinion on Buddhist chicks. it all religion nonsense. Women should revolt and create their own Buddhist schools and traditions if they are sidelined. And their own conferences and debated or lecture series. Just bypass and haul ass, don't get anchored by tradition.

garygach's picture

What *were* they thinking of!? I can't speak for “they” -- sometimes it's hard enough for me to know what I think. Whaat - do I think? But, seriously, I'd like to air my sense of all this, so I can *see* what I think. (I don't write to tell people “what I know,” but to see what I think. And if I were a better writer, this would be wayy shorter)

So what was *I* thinking? Well, having received a cordial invitation, I sat down and wondered what I, lacking an extra X-chromosome, might bring to the group. I admit trying to second-guess what some of the other entries might, I'd hope, already address … news, say, from Sakyadhita … … maybe view(s) of the controversy around Ven. Ajahn Brahm's ordination of nuns, as the invitation alluded to … maybe word on difference of cultural views, east and west, as the invitation also alluded to – and how that dynamic's playing out in the 21st century … perhaps other woman contributor(s) might treat how women -- having a great eye for picking up on social imbalance, due to their own historical exclusion from so many situations of power – have, as priests and educators, replaced hierarchical models with more communal approaches to sharing power … reports from various contemporary women Buddhist leaders as to the evolution of their sanghas under female nurturing, for generations now … and, the, to-me, as-yet, unknown ... ... ...

Such were my initial thoughts. So I staked out a corner, off to one side of the main stage of presumptive women – to air some prompts and branchings that I'm still thinking through, some from on-going discussion in my sangha's diversity study group … particularly observations made by Jo-ann Rosen … and that leading to my current readings in the book 'Far from the Tree' by Andrew Solomon … … … … assuming that in the symposia, I'd be in the minority … and decided on ringing theme and variations on inclusivity …. so-called "center vs, periphery" … … … & noting that gender, like selfhood, is not monolithic … nor separate … & spotlighting diversity within gender … (how is it, for instance, that a spiritual leader might embrace women's voices but remain silent as to Queer Dharma, be it of women or otherwise) … and locating the diversity of gender as existing within, what Charlotte Joko Beck (may her memory be a blessing) called A Bigger Container (ABC) … and see where that went. So I wrote, vetted my writing with advance readers, and sent it in

I won't dramatize my own shock, seeing my best intentions ambushed by (here we go again) samsara, that vicious cycle of ignorance … … … that is, when I saw the convivial *context * I'd imagined, the literal space in which my lone note might take its place in a resonant chord … instead, like they say, conspicuous in its absence

So this week, it's been yet another opportunity to practice … particularly, for me, the practice of engaged Buddhism … taking on whatever's in front of one's nose, right now … and working with it so as to heal and transform … one's self and others, as one

One thing I've learned, thus far, is a reminder, that power doesn't descend from some Eye in the Sky … as, initially, I expected my friends who, day after day, emailed me, their own shock, would post a drop or two of their response at the comments section … until, I finally realized, no one would, anywhere on the site … the 800-lb. gorilla in the room being invisible? … and so posted my own, for all to read … yet another encounter with the poison of illusion, ignore-ance, shutting down, the waiting game …

Two emails, I received (from Arinna Weisman and Zenju Earthlyn Manuel) particularly, articulately, brought home to me the tragic irony immediately at hand. The editors of the conference ( female, by the way ), spoke of the “entrenched traditions that create obstacles for women.” Noe they find themselves with an artifact on their hands whose impact replicates the systemic injustice and structural violence which they themselves surely find unconscionable. Bitter truth. And, up until now, I'd considered intention the basis of karma. But now I'm learning further … how best intentions can be trumped by the conditioning of power and privilege. And this fuels my resolve to study, recognize, understand, and transform these deep-rooted patterns so as to break the cycle, in myself and others

The Chinese spelling of “crisis,” is “danger” + “opportunity.” May the folks at Patheos practice what they publish, learn from their mistakes, find the selfless courage to eat the blame, and post the sincere repentent apology that, acknowledging their missing the mark, could open heaven's door, for reconciliation and peacebuilding. To their credit, they've forged the largest multifaith platform on the Interweb, and still relatively new. Maybe they might see their situation here as a prompt to allot a portion of their illustrious site to a new space, to air a diversity of voices … an engaged spirituality portal, say, open for guest bloggers … as well as, obviously, to expand their list of female sources by at least one order of magnitude

*Full disclosure*: I was Buddhist editor at Patheos in 2010. For the past four years now, I've been hosting Haiku Corner at Tricycle. --And, as western adviser at Buddhist Channel I've witnessed the intensity and frequency of back-and-forth cross-talk that the Internet engendered during the controversy following Ven. Ajahn Brahm's ordination of nuns. Ultimately, the site published a day of Noble Silence, so concerned parties might talk amongst themselves, rather than depend on us as their pulpit. If a peace treaty were possible, and beginning anew enjoyed, as well they should be – perhaps too Tricycle and Patheos might find future opportunity for bridgebuilding of common cause, if only to exchange links or guest editors from time to time. Together, we are one

I'll repeat one paragraph I posted in my comments to my own piece, before signing off. I feel it important to state I am sensitive this is more than an academic topic, with real lives at stake, in this very moment that I write, and which are in need of being addressed  And that I don't feel I speak for women, need to explain things to women, nor possess any special vantage for speaking about women. I have, rather, been keenly admiring of the growing number of women addressing vital issues of concern in Buddhism, on various levels and fronts, with strong passion and insight, with rigorous discernment and fierce, fearless compassion – and will continue to be honored to consider myself their student

And ok. Now may may be the time for Buddhist righteous indignation. But my own, given, strong suit may be elsewhere. I'm glad my note of mindful peacebuilding here is not a lone one (thank you, BuddhaSoup). No mud, no lotus. Meanwhile, I look forward to reading further, listening deeply, for catharsis, healing, and transformation – both in myself, and in the world. I note the subtitle of the conference, with which this all began : *Which Way Forward?* The path is the goal. There is no path to peace, peace is the path. Our bright future, the next step, is now

l i n k s :
Arinna Weisman
Zenju Earthlyn Manuel
Haiku Corner
Buddhist Channel
My Patheos' text & comment
Home .:.

buddhasoup's picture

It might be a good idea for Patheos to open the door to a rebuttal panel comprised of female Buddhist teachers and leaders, to submit essays as was done in the first panel. Then, a third round of short essays of men and women reconciling the various points of view. This approach might seem cumbersome, but it's probably not so burdensome considering the amount of difficulty this misfire has produced. I'd welcome the chance to see a group of essays from leading female academics and leaders on the issues raised, and then invite a discussion among all involved.

Maybe out of the lemons this event generated, some lemonade can be made.

Martin C.'s picture


Bhikkhu Jo Jo's picture

“… what are the risks and benefits of opening Buddhist leadership to women?” I found myself speechless when I encountered this question. Perhaps — hopefully — the author intended the meaning to be the challenges to and benefits of opening Buddhist leadership to women. Indeed, Coleman in his article points out some challenges.
It is certainly appalling and quite telling to not have included female teachers in this panel, the contributions of the panelists were worthy. However, after reading them I just felt unsatisfied, like something was missing. I wonder what that could be? :) It was quite unfortunate to see the caliber of the panelists that were pulled together for this endeavor on an important topic and to have excluded the very voice of those whom they were discussing. Additionally, I felt that none of the articles truly addressed any of the questions raised.

garygach's picture

A shockeroo for me too.
My invited donation there is now appended by my comment, below it, which may be more to the point of this forum, than my article itself (bereft of its anticipated context of voices). I'll see if I can open out my personal sense of this bitter mess, if it might skillfully serve. Thank you.

with a bow,
& 3 breaths

brando.lee.lundberg's picture

Many religious practices have a long ways to go towards gender equality. I sincerely hope we can all use the teachings to hold this discussion in a mindful way. One has only to look at some of the new trends emerging in mainstream America where many men are left wondering what role they play in society (ref. The End of Men and the Rise of Woman by Hanna Rosin). A new paradigm is needed, where we recognize the small mind strengths and weaknesses of our sex, and use them to our advantage collectively rather than through the traditional means of competition, and focus on embracing each others inner strength where the boundaries of our sex fall away.

rami's picture

Thank you Rita for bringing this to light. I am so, so weary of "enlightened" men hogging the spotlight on the topic if sexism and exclusion in my community. How many times have I sat in a room FULL of women, listening to the male teacher expounding on social justice ... meanwhile exploiting every ounce of the cultural benefits bequeathed upon him by fact of gender, crossing ethical bounds of sexual conduct with self justification and excellent rationalization. What are the risks and benefits of MALE leadership is the more pressing question in my experience. I would opt to not have male teachers, except that that would be sexist.

buddhajazz's picture

Yes, I am still surprised that in a group of women, when a man joins, women defer. And then his voice becomes the strongest testament. ho hum....

wsking's picture

I don't think we need to pay any attention to them and their symposium. Let them sit in the corner and play with their Legos.

We have work to do and we ARE doing it! Involving them just makes too much fuss anyway. We are quick, fast, and to the point, why involve them? They'll just try to slow us down, and who cares what they think anyway? You go, Girl!

Men! Dearly beloved, but they never think ahead about practicalities Just like Frank Lloyd Wright, who had almost completely built the Waterfall House before he realized he had forgotten the kitchen! He had to quickly redesign it out of a cupboard! ....I mean...we ARE being it and doing it already. Risks? How dare you! Outrageous! Humph!
"Mene, Mene, Tekel, Uppharsin !"

buddhajazz's picture

Thnx, had to read Daniel's interpretation on that one. For me as a non-theist, I'll have to trust some other intervention. And I do believe "we are the ones we've been waiting for"...or something like that. Now which hand of the mythical Durga holds the appropriate sword?

buddhasoup's picture

I have scanned, but not reread carefully, the articles that comprise the Patheos panel discussion. The ones that I scanned were surprisingly bereft of any real discussion of the substantial role of women in Buddhist practice, commencing around 2600 years ago and winding up today with many significant female teachers, both ordained and lay. While the call of the question was curious ( "risks and benefits of women in Buddhism" ??), few of the articles actually addressed in any detail the issue presented.

Prof. Gross might be disappointed that she did not receive an invitation to contribute to the panel (someone forgot to put a postage stamp on the envelope...) but her essays ( esp. in Tricycle) have always been, to me, beautifully nuanced and complex, well reasoned, insightful, scholarly, and targeted to the call of the issue. I do not feel that these characteristics apply to some of the articles from the Patheos panel, and perhaps she should be glad the invitation letter was not properly stamped.

yamayogagirl's picture

Wow! This seems incredible. Just a day or so ago I watched a video of THE DALAI LAMA who said from his own mouth that he would not be surprised if the next Dalai Lama is a woman! He even said the world would be a better place because women are less aggressive. I also would like the esteemed gentleman that wrote the opening statement to name the perpetrators of inappropriate student-teacher conduct. Everything I've read on that subject has indicated it is coming from the MALE leadership.

PatheosAdmin's picture

Rita, We invited a number of women to contribute to the symposium, but they either didn't respond or declined to participate. You were among those we invited to contribute. You didn't respond to the invitation. In light of that fact, I'm quite puzzled that you're accusing us of "unbelievable levels of ignorance and arrogance." We would love to add a contribution from you if you're willing.

Rita Gross's picture

First I want to set the record straight. I was NOT initially invited to write for this panel when it was being planned. It was already a fait accompli BEFORE I knew anything about it. I was first made aware of this all-male panel last Friday morning by Tricycle magazine, which sent me the link and asked me to comment on this inappropriate panel. My initial reactions are captured in the blog I ended up writing for Tricycle, which is posted above My reactions to what was already a finished piece seem to be quite typical to those of other Buddhist women leaders. I was incredulous that anyone could think that in 2014 an all-male panel discussing Buddhist women’s leadership was appropriate. I must emphasize again that no one from Pantheos approached me to contribute to this panel BEFORE it was posted in its all-male form.

Later last Friday morning, well after the panel had been posted and I was already writing about my reactions for Tricycle, someone from Pantheos did email me, asking me if I wanted to join the panel. That was too little, too late. I don’t know whether or when other women may have been invited to write for this panel, but I was not invited in a timely or an appropriate fashion. I am not going to become the token woman trying to rescue this misguided venture. Women have been asked to play that role far too often.

Thus, I am dismayed to read in comments above that Pantheos claims I was asked to participate in this panel and refused. As you can see from the timeline I narrate, it is not correct to claim that I was invited to participate in this panel. I was only asked to rescue it and the fact that mis-information about the supposed "invitation" I received is posted only increases my incredulity about the whole set of events.

rami's picture

I have heard this kind if claim before in my own industry, when all the presenters are men. "Oh we invited loads of women but more men said yes." Well, that's when you either try harder, ask more women, or examine what in your approach is alienating -- like maybe women who were supposedly invited were completely appalled by the insulting and patronizing topic?? "Risks and benefits" indeed. We are not talking about the Catholic Church, we are talking about an institution that ALREADY has prominent woman leaders. If you're talking about women and you can't get any of them to respond to the topic you can bet its because it's sexist.

It is ignorant and arrogant to have a panel of only white men speaking on women's leadership in value terms ("risk and benefit"), even if you "invited" women. If you tried and failed to engage women, you should have cancelled. It is a disservice to the inquiry and discrediting of the writers to present such an imbalance.

Dominic Gomez's picture

Sounds like a case of too little too late. Gender bias harks back to a time when it was believed females were incapable of enlightenment and had to be reborn as males.