Just Power

In a talk given at Smith College, Helen Tworkov reflects on a half century of American Buddhist women and reimagines the future of power.

Helen Tworkov

Imagine leafing through a pamphlet or perhaps a monthly magazine and coming across a guide to good behavior with advice that included the following:

Put on an ever-smiling countenance.
Do not move furniture and chairs noisily.
Do not open doors with violence.
Take pleasure in the practice of humility.
Always strive to learn from everyone.
Speak with moderation, gently.
Express yourself with modesty.

For many contemporary Westerners the assumption that this advice was intended for women probably runs so deep as to go undetected. Maybe your imagination has already leaped ahead to the idea that this could be a list of idealized feminine virtues of the Victorian era; or a set of guidelines for prim boarding-school girls of the 1940s; or perhaps a compendium of traits that the feminists of the 1970s rejected in favor of male behavioral models. But in fact, these behaviors were extolled in The Way of the Bodhisattva, a seminal text by the great Buddhist sage Shantideva, and delivered to his fellow—all male—monastics at Nalanda University in eighth-century India.

Barbara KrugerThroughout Buddhist history the enlightened masters have advocated behavior—such as the quintessential bodhisattva ideal of putting others before oneself—that progressive women today can easily associate with a legacy of oppression. And yet, with the world in such perilous straits, and in light of recent patriarchal and god-sponsored warfare, these behavioral archetypes have ramifications that, like the teachings themselves, expand far beyond gender. Putting down the cultural baggage, however, is easier said than done.

A thirteenth-century Zen teaching points to how the mind variously refracts the same object, and offers us a way to approach this issue:

First mountains are mountains.
Then mountains are not mountains.
Then mountains are mountains again.

This saying, first attributed to Ch’an master Ch’ing-yuan, has itself been refracted through many interpretations and differing doctrinal schemes. In the first line, “mountains are mountains” can convey a conventional view of reality based on accepted, collective, perceptual norms. The second line expresses a deliberative remove from convention, in which “mountain” is understood to be a construct of the human imagination, devoid of any independent meaning or existence. In the third line, when once again “mountains are mountains,” there remains only the pure, unfiltered view, neither constructed nor deconstructed, beyond acceptance or denial, beyond the duality of relative and absolute.

Using this Zen teaching as a lens through which to view Buddhism’s prized attributes—those that many Western women associate with oppression—we first see a mountain of human attributes classically associated in the West with the feminine: gentleness, modesty, speaking softly, humility, equanimity, altruism, consideration, obedience, generosity. With the second line we can deconstruct the cultural reality to uncover the myth of normalcy. Here, we are forced to consider that the cultural ideal has often been a very poor fit with the actual experience of women’s lives, that living a life of duty to one’s family, husband, children can be accompanied by tightly harnessed feelings of anger, inadequacy, and humiliation. Here the attributes appear as external masks, so that, say, generosity masks greed, kindness masks anger, obedience masks servility. In this view, not even women embody the so-called female virtues: mountains are not mountains, and women, as defined in the first line, are not women, any more than the traits they exhibit are virtuous. In the third and final line, the mountain appears again to represent the same attributes we see in the first view, but now, generosity is just generosity itself; obedience is just obedience—with no subtext, no gender, no psychology, and no history. Just obedience, just modesty, just humility—beyond female and male, beyond oppressor and oppressed.

It’s important to note that the above traits do not actually lie outside of constructed values, and in this way, do not reflect Zen teachings represented in the third line. Just the same, Shantideva identifies these attributes as those most appropriate for the followers of the Buddha; they are conditioned behaviors allied with taming the ego. By supporting liberation from self-centeredness, they help create possibilities for engaging in the sacred nondual dance of interdependence beyond relative and absolute.

American women have come a long way through hard-won ideological battles and changes in our educational and legal systems. All these efforts have significantly altered the way we live, and have increased possibilities for women. There’s a lot more work to be done, but I think that we’ve come far enough to ask ourselves not only how we can increase opportunities but also what we are going to use them for. The commitment to equality without attention to its application threatens to leave us emulating the flawed system we fought so hard to change. The shift that we’re seeking is not a lateral gender move from, say, George Bush to Condaleeza Rice, although in some quarters, this is precisely what is happening. Consider, for instance, that the commanding officer at Abu Ghraib was a woman, as were two of the six U.S. soldiers charged with sadistic abuses at the prison. For many of us in the West, the photographs of Abu Ghraib, and in particular, the one of PFC Lynndie England holding an Iraqi prisoner on a leash, reinforce the necessity of rethinking women’s strategies for equality; as well, they intensify the need for a whole new experience of what power might look and feel like from an enlightened perspective.

For a half a century, in the name of gender and religious equality and values, American women and American Buddhist leaders have beaten a path from the cultural margins toward the center, as if the center itself held the key to the kingdom. At this point in history, to continue in that direction without examination seems foolish, if not dangerously destructive. We’re challenged to do no less than formulate another view of power, or to adopt one more consistent with our Buddhist values. Returning to Shantideva, his injunction to “remain like a log” provides an apt image around which we might initiate a discussion about enlightened views of power.

Remaining like a log is not an action the American military would associate with the exercise of power. Yet Shantideva uses the phrase again and again to depict internal strength. For Buddhist practitioners who have struggled mightily to overcome the dominance of ego, “remaining like a log” can suggest new definitions of control, of dominion, and of power.

When the urge arises in the mind
To feelings of desire or wrathful hate,
Do not act! Be silent, do not speak!
And like a log of wood be sure to stay.
                                                             (5.48)

Shantideva advocates restraint, discipline, and nonreactivity. He speaks of taming, training, and subjugating one’s own ego. The invitation in Buddhist practice is to yoking, or leashing, one’s own mind, not another being’s.

Considering this nontraditional view of power, it’s perhaps not surprising that when Buddhism entered into the margins of American culture, gender played a pronounced role. In the 1950s we see two distinct streams of attraction to dharma: one was almost all male, the other almost all female. We have an intellectual interest catalyzed primarily by the books of D. T. Suzuki and Alan Watts, and championed by the Beat poets. But, with few exceptions, this interest did not extend to practice. The Beat scene was pervasively male, and for all its attraction to Eastern philosophies and its pungent and theatrical critiques of the United States, it enshrined the ethos of rugged cowboy individualism as much as Hollywood Westerns.

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