Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Book Review: Buddhism After Patriarchy

From the title of this post, unless you have any real interest in Buddhism, you might be thinking that you'll just skip this book review. I promise that it really is way more interesting than it might sound. Well, I think so anyway.

I really do believe that many people, atheists and agnostics included, have a very real yearning to spiritually connect with something larger than themselves. Unfortunately, organized religions are so often corrupted with human error, prejudices, and biases that belonging to a particular religion can be a turn-off for many. At its heart, this idea is what religious scholar Rita Gross' Buddhism After Patriarchy is about. (I have previously reviewed Gross' Feminism and Religion). All quotes in this piece are from Buddhism After Patriarchy, unless otherwise stated.

1. Background

For many reasons, I left the Christian church feeling very disillusioned with, and alienated from, it as a woman, and later as a lesbian. I have written before of how the mostly-unquestioned concept of a supreme male deity does a real disservice to the dignity and humanity of women- half of the world's population. I find it extremely troubling that the idea that the most Supreme Being is male is taken for granted by many, if not most, Christians. For this, and many other reasons, my rejection of Christianity does not come from a desire to live an amoral, immoral, or "heathen" life. Nor does it spring from a place of mockery towards those who choose to be believe in these things.

So, when I left Christianity, a process of many years mind you, I had this vague immature concept of Buddhism as being some sort of ideal, perfect non-Western belief system. Since there is no deity that is worshipped in Buddhism, I mistakenly believed that Buddhism would be free from the sexism that limits Christianity (and other monotheistic male-worshipping religions). But alas, it wasn't that simple.

As Rita Gross recounts, Buddhism was founded by Siddartha Guatama- a man of upper-class standing who abandoned his family (including his wife and small child) "to pursue spiritual liberation" (9). This option, mind you, would not have been available to most women who had children during this time, somewhere around 534 BCE. Almost immediately, sexist rules were instituted in this new spiritual belief system. Specifically, Siddartha's aunt asked, and was refused, multiple times if she and other women could join this new order. When a nuns' order was eventually permitted, "the nuns were required to accept eight special rules as a precondition for their admission to the order; these rules subordinated the nun's order to the monks' order" (9). Further, it is taken for granted in the Buddhist world that each successive reincarnating lamas," in which a teacher is considered to be "an emanation of the celestial Buddha," will be a male (88-89). A male baby boy is always chosen for this honor. And, because he receives a very privileged education "it is no wonder that so many of these boys do turn out to be exceptional people" (89). Unfortunately, the institution of the reincarnating lama reinforces the idea that females have inherently less spiritual capacities than do males.

Thus, although Buddhism is a very different belief system than the 3 mono-theistic religions, something it shares with these religions are some of its male adherents' conclusions about "woman." As in other religions, the derogatory conclusions of some male adherents are then transmitted as the religion's ultimate "truth" about women. For example, "One conclusion asserts that there is some basic problem with the female gender. Women are though to be much less likely than are men to make significant progress on the path and Buddhist men declaim on the preferability of maleness over femaleness" (23). Variants of these themes run through many religions. I believe they play a large part in why many women, in particular, find organized religion unsuitable.

Yet, what perhaps makes Buddhism redeemable is that the Buddha's (Siddartha) reasons for at first refusing the right of women to practice Buddhism were not "due to belief on his part that women are inferior or unworthy" (34). Rather, his refusal must be understood in the context of the patriarchal times he was living in. Despite his spiritual aptitude, it remained an "unfortunate truth" that the Buddha lacked experience and consciousness with respect to the negativities of male-centrism (Ibid.). Like the Dalai Lama today, who is supportive of upgrading the status of women in Buddhism even though he's not a leader in this movement, the Buddha was not hostile and unsympathetic to the movement (35). Besides:

"...probably the overarching and dominant reason for the reluctance to [upgrade the status of women] is simple. It was too unconventional. Buddhism was not a socially revolutionary movement seeking to create a reformed society, but a path of individual self-removal from conventional society.... the Buddha was not a social reformer seeking to correct social injustices and inequities" (36).

This is not much consolation, of course, to many Buddhist women, particular Western women who have been influenced by feminism. But it could indicate that the motivation for women's lower status in Buddhism was not based in misogyny or hostility towards women. As Gross recounts, "None of the major Buddhist teachings supports gender inequity or gender hierarchy" (209). Rather, it has been unenlightened humans- male adherents with power- who have created inequity and have used religion, including Buddhism, to perpetuate it by passing it off as spiritual truth. Gross goes into great detail regarding the different types of Buddhism and how they compare and contrast with one another with respect to their views on women. That sort of detail is beyond the scope of this book review, however.

2. Male-Centrism

Like much scholarly literature, Buddhist history is largely written from a male-centric perspective that passes itself off as "objective" or "neutral." This is problematic because, as Gross writes, male-centric history, "by definition, cannot be accurate. It will be riddled with omissions about women, but will also, in most cases, whitewash many negatives about the patriarchal past" (19). What this tangibly means is that, when the subject of women in religion is discussed "women are experienced and discussed as the other, as objects, as 'they' rather than 'we,' as exception to the norm that need to be regulated, explained, and placed in the world" (23). The Old Testament does this frequently as "god" directs most of "his" commandments under the assumption that those "he" is speaking to are male beings.

This male-centric theme in Buddhism is evident in an "oft-quoted metaphor" that likens the "Inherent Buddha-nature" in all living beings to a fetus in a "foul female womb" (83). As Gross writes, "This is typical of [male-centric] thinking, in which the author identifies more readily with a fetus than with a female human being" (Ibid.). It makes sense, of course, that men would more readily identify with a fetus in a womb than with a pregnant woman. But this perspective is not objective or universal. For, women may just as readily identify with the pregnant woman in the metaphor than with this unborn being inside of the woman. Small examples like this of male-centric perspective passing itself off as universal are ubiquitous. Volumes could be written just documenting all the ways in which religious and historical texts exclude the female perspective. I pointed out only a couple just to show how ingrained, how taken for granted, it usually is that a text, deity, or enlightened one is speaking to and for a male audience.

Yet, Gross observes that despite overwhelmingly male-centric record-keeping practices, Buddhism has retained a document called the Therigatha, or the "psalms of the sisters," which is an ancient historical text written by elder Buddhist nuns, or, "women with high spiritual achievements" (51). Such a record is unique since most historical and spiritual accounts are written by men about men. And, when women are actually mentioned, accounts are still often written by men from the male perspective. Thus, such accounts, whether intentionally or not, are often imbued with male attempts to demean spiritual women, degrade their abilities, or project their own fantasies onto women.

For instance, mothers are often "idealized as completely self-giving," which is, of course, convenient for men to believe (83). Women are portrayed as inherently subservient, because that too is convenient for men to believe. The Therigatha is unique because it is a historical/spiritual account written by women about themselves. Not surprisingly, "the theme of freedom-both spiritual and social- dominates" the Therigatha and the poems within this document "contrast significantly to culturally dominant stereotypes about women as subservient to men and dependent upon them" (Ibid.).

Im sum, this book review could have taken many directions. So if you are at all interested in these topics, I urge you to check out one or more of the author's books yourself. This particular book, as Gross' writings usually are, was eye-opening, provocative, and really made me think. Like Gross, I also believe that Buddhism can "fix" its sexism. Recognizing that "gender roles" are, at their core, nothing more than ego fixation would be a simple, obvious remedy. A person's sex tells us nothing about a person's capacity for spiritual enlightenment or transcendence. And gender roles are nothing but socially-created prisons, dictating proper and improper activities for the sexes, that "trap both men and women in half-humanity" (131).

Personally, I find that I can still strive to live by Buddhist ideals without subscribing to what some Buddhists say, think, and believe about the spiritual capabilities of women. For me, living by these ideals within a godless spiritual system is far more workable than seeking to live by similar ideals in a faith system that tells me to unquestioningly worship a male deity. In Buddhism, "there is no gendered Absolute or Supreme Being valorizing the male sex" and so I don't have to deal with that major distraction (137). I refuse to call myself a Christian because doing so would make me complicit in the continued spiritual oppression of women. In fact, for this reason, I usually prefer not to label my beliefs at all.

I've seen far too many self-aggrandizing religious folk, shouting their devoutness from every rooftop, miss the forest for the trees. You know them. They're so busy cherry-picking verses of scripture that align with their own prejudices that they fail to display the most important and simple principles of all: compassion and loving-kindness. At their core, these ideals are what all major religions are about. I try to focus on those principles in my own life every day. I care much more about living by these ideals, than I do about which religion is "right," which one will "save" me, which (usually male) "god" is the real one, and what this "god" did or didn't say about a particular social issue.

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