After Patriarchy

Sacredness in Everyday LifeRita Gross

The earliest model for this pursuit of clarity in the midst of daily life occurs in the Therigatha (poems of early Buddhist nuns). The commentary tells the life story of a nun who first became a lay disciple. After hearing Prajapati (the Buddha's stepmother who later became his disciple) speak, she desired to leave the world but her husband would not consent:

So she went on performing her duties, reflecting on the sweetness of the doctrine, and living devoted to insight. Then one day in the kitchen, while the curry was cooking, a mighty flame of fire shot up, and burnt all the food with much crackling. Watching it made it a basis for meditation on the utter impermanence of all things. Thereby she was established in the Fruition of the Path of No-Return.

When she refused to wear jewels after this experience, her husband finally relented and let her become a nun. While her story illustrates the possibilities of practicing mindfulness in household life, it ends by portraying the monastic path as superior.

Serious conflicts can accompany an attempt to combine the monastic and householder roles. "We often talk about practice and everyday life as opposites," explained one practitioner. "We feel zazen is 'pure' practice, while work or everyday life is 'applied' practice. And in both spiritual and scientific circles the 'pure' activity is more prestigious than the applied side of it." These conflicts are poignantly articulated by parents—women, for the most part—who were committed to formal lay Buddhist meditation practice before they had children.

People in this situation also often experience guilt over "not practicing" and "not being serious about Buddhism." Though the example is most dramatic for childrearing, it is important to remember that these same conflicts can arise regarding a broad range of "ordinary" domestic and work-related concerns of both women and men.

THE SITUATION obviously invites feminist reconceptualization, but the task is trickier and more subtle than it may first appear. The standard feminist critiques of other patriarchal, male-dominated religions apply to Buddhism as well: Buddhism offers little in the way of advice relevant to women's life cycles, bodies, or reproductive experiences. These topics are rarely discussed in classic sources and if they are the discussion is remote. Because of this paucity of traditional resources, practitioners—especially women—feel that it is useless to ask Buddhist authorities for guidance. One would do better to ask one's grandmother and to trust oneself. In the view of one frustrated mother: "I am personally reluctant to open this matter to patriarchal advice. What would Dogen Zenji, who never married, never had a child, never had a 'job,' possibly know about the difficulties that come with these situations?"

Elizabeth Murray, Phone II (1981)
Pastel and charcoal on paper

That childcare has never been revalorized, in Buddhist terms, from the parents' point of view, is somewhat embarrassing when we contrast it with the fate of many stereotypically male activities over the years. In Zen Buddhism, daily physical work has become a critical part of meditation training. Gardening, building, and maintaining the monastery, are all done with precise mindfulness and are regarded as central to overall training. (There are in addition to cooking and cleaning—typically feminine tasks—which have long been used as opportunities for mindfulness.) Notoriously, Zen Buddhism even lent its hand to disciplining warriors in Japan, providing them with meditation training to enhance their skills. Tibetan monasteries also had military components in some cases. If the stereotypically male pursuits of agriculture and militarism, two activities strictly forbidden in the vinaya (rules of monastic discipline) can be revalorized, one wonders why childrearing has not been. The answer, of course, is that few childrearers (usually mothers) had the opportunity to become Buddhist teachers. Further, early Indian Buddhists disparaged sexuality, and it too has since been championed by Vajrayana Buddhism both as symbol and experience. Only those activities specific to—and often central to—women's lives have been left out.

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