Saturday, July 12, 2014

Shakyamuni Buddha was a Feminist & the Buddha is your Mom (III) - Ajahn Brahm and gender equality: a petition

I am not Theravadan. In fact, the first Sangha I belonged to was non-denominational. We studied writings from each of the three main traditions. Since then, over the last five years, my practice has been rooted in Zen. Nonetheless, I've greatly appreciated the work of Ajahn Brahm not only as it relates to the path, but also his efforts to support the practice and advancement of women in his lineage.

Over the years my on-line presence has opened my eyes to sexist attitudes that remain embedded in our society, attitudes that when triggered can destroy a woman, family and community, regardless of race, country, profession, and accomplishments -- during peaceful times as well as during war. The resulting harm is an extra burden of pain, hostility, fear and defensiveness that is carried forward for generations as exemplified by ongoing conflicts today.

Speaking for myself, I admit I've been partially blind due to being white and having spent most of my years in academia. That doesn't mean I haven't experienced sexism, it means privilege has made it easier to ignore, deny or rationalize using other explanations.

As a result of my increasing awareness of sexism throughout our globalized culture, I've grown curious about how women have fared historically and in practice in Buddhism. Especially since most religions have used their authoritative influence to encourage a sense of entitlement over women that contributes to the perpetuation of gender inequality and violence. In the U.S., the early vigor of the women's rights movement has been lulled to sleep and archived in hallowed halls as "Women Studies" and numerous books that go unread by most. Sexism and a sense of entitlement has crept back in via the religious right, the media, the entertainment industry and corporate marketing that rely on inaccurate, oversexualized and unrealistic depictions of women to market their stories and products subliminally feeding us poisoned views every day. The Buddha's truth is a message and practice of equality:

Men are not entitled to women's bodies and minds.

It is with these thoughts that I add my voice to those petitioning for Ajahn Brahm's paper on gender equality to be presented at the  2015 UNDV conference.

I agree with others that have suggested neither practice or realization depend on gender, nor should it depend on ordination. However, that realization is not prevented by obstructions is no excuse for willfully maintaining or causing obstructions that can harm others.

For men as well as women, we need to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression. The current policies of the Thai Theravadan Sangha and their treatment of Ajahn Brahm mock the Buddhas truth. It is my view that withholding ordination and requiring hierarchical protocols based on gender rather than respect and merit (such as those for bowing and evaluation described in the Five Points) encourages an attitude of entitlement in the Sangha and in society. A sense of entitlement underlies much gender-based violence in Southeast Asia and throughout the world. I am not so naive to think that changes in the policy towards ordination and service for women would solve the problem of exploitation and gender-based violence on its own, but at least reinforcement of the attitude via religious authority would be lessened.

If one thinks of the awareness that gives rise to the good will and kindness of all beings towards one another, not doing wrong is whatever speech and action maximizes that for both enlightened and unenlightened beings.

For more on women in Buddhism and the issue of ordination I also recommend a plethora of posts on Bhante Sujato's blog, as well as recent articles and posts (and associated comments) by Rev Danny Fisher, Hilary Cadigan in Chaing Mai City NewsBhikku Cintita Dinsmore, Justin Whitaker at American Buddhist, Joan Halifax in the Washington Post, and a recent review of efforts to restore Zen's female lineage by Mary Fowles  in Tricycle.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Shakyamuni Buddha was a Feminist & the Buddha is your Mom (II): Hobby Lobby

If dropping off views is about identifying one's own biases in addition to meditation then I'd like to point out a couple biases articulated in the preceding post.

The concept or role of mother and the nurturing it represents has been biologically linked to the feminine even in circumstances where women are not functioning in that role. In fact, some of the most obvious discrimination I've faced has been in the role of teacher and the different expectations students have for the amount and type of attention they feel entitled to due to gender. (From my experience I'd say that women and men are equally biased in this regard at least in the U.S. education system.) Lately I've sometimes wondered if Shakyamuni wasn't being sneaky in suggesting a more nurturing path independent of biology and genetics, although that may depend on our definitions of notions such as freedom, happiness, compassion and metta. 

Another obvious bias in my preceding post is the suggestion that feminists are an angry bunch. I personally think most feminists today are humanitarians quietly walking their paths in life with compassion and equanimity until they're broad-sided by trouble, often due to an expectation they'll be treated with respect. I think that's true for most of us regardless of gender, although gender can cause complications.

I hope this week's Supreme Court ruling in favor of Hobby Lobby helps a few more 'feminists' wake up to the fact that gender equality is not a done deal even in first world countries like the U.S. In recent years women appear to be loosing ground. The loss might not be such a surprise to some in view of Justice Scalia's past remarks suggesting that the 14th and 15th amendments don't apply to women, remarks that carry the potential threat of leaving women hanging out to dry. 

The Hobby Lobby decision is problematic in that scientific fact doesn't support their argument, it furthers the rights of corporations over people, is hypocritical, and denies women equal rights to health care, an effect that will place further stresses on women and families at or below the poverty line who do not have a choice as to where they're employed. A commonly held bias that is reinforced by the mainstream media in the U.S. is that contraception is about promiscuity and sexual freedom, when it at least as much or more about the health of women and families. The decision is already affecting recommendations in numerous other cases more broadly affecting women's health.

I don't mind saying that I've signed a few petitions this week that I'll be writing about, and contributed to's efforts on more than one issue. 

At the moment I'm reflecting on my good karma living in a country in which I am free to speak up about these issues for my sisters and brothers that may feel similarly but may not be so free to speak for the benefit of all beings.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Shakyamuni Buddha was a Feminist & the Buddha is your Mom: Patriarchy, Materialism, Capitalism versus What the Buddha Taught (I)

Yes, Shakyamuni Buddha was a feminist. Even though he probably didn't know because of the biases of his society.  I assume that Shakyamuni didn't know since he initially excluded women from his sangha.

Why do I say that Shakyamuni was a feminist when the word 'feminist' and the feminist movement didn't exist in his time? According to Wikipedia feminism is "a collection of movements and ideologies aimed at defining, establishing, and defending equal political, economic, cultural, and social rights for women." Logically sentient beings of the female gender comprise half of the total. It's that simple.
It's sad that ~ 2500 years and many generations later sexist biases* linger even among those affirming what the Buddha taught. Sexist biases exist in the internalized conditioning and rationalizations of both men and women. In fact, recent trends suggest that sexist behaviors and biases are on the rise, whether as a result of increased economic stressors, as a backlash against the effects of the first waves of feminism on the psyches of both men and women, or as a result of a media and entertainment industry that caters to competition and greed.  That the same is true for racism and classism is not cause for complacency though it can be a source of compassion.

One reason anti-feminist and sexist biases still exist within "Buddhist" communities and sanghas may be that what the Buddha taught has been passed through the generations via patriarchy -- a patriarchy every bit as stuck in the biases of it's various societies as Shakyamuni was. Women have been the oft silent and/or silenced in all branches of the tradition.** Nonetheless,  the path out of suffering Shakyamuni recommended included the eight-fold path and the immeasurables of loving-kindness (benevolence), compassion, empathetic joy, and equanimity -- maternal qualities, qualities that through a combination of genetics and cultural conditioning are more often expressed by those of the feminine gender though admittedly in imperfect fashion. From the Metta Sutta:

"Even as a mother protects with her life
Her child, her only child,
So with a boundless heart
Should one cherish all living beings..."

One of the reasons I've been reticent to identify with feminism in my life is my own bias against militant and/or confrontational approaches it's been associated with in the past. A militant confrontational approach seems to be the very antithesis of what the Buddha taught and more often than not closes the doors of communication, as well as conflicting with the kindness and nurturing I'd like to see more of for all beings. I, like I assume many women in my generation, typically considered advocating for feminist causes as risking losing the very qualities I treasure, whether in myself or others. Thankfully the current generation of feminists recognize this aspect of the conflict and the fact that it is played out in the oft confused aspirations and expectations of both genders. ***

In contrast, I've been willing to identify with what the Buddha taught precisely because it fosters qualities of nurturing, kindness, relationship, non-violent communication, cooperation and collaboration over the greed, materialism, competition and capitialism that are so abundant in our society. However, a 'Buddhism' that uses the emptiness of phenomena and no-self to justify inaction and ignorance at the expense of the above qualities is a selfish 'Buddhism'.

It wouldn't be accurate to say that the only time women are mentioned in the Buddhist tradition is when they are mentioned in relation to the numbers of ordained Buddhist women and scandals of abuse.**** On the other hand, given that the relationship between men and women is so immediate to our daily experience I'm surprised that it hasn't been the subject of more discussion in  'Buddhist' communities and sanghas I've belonged to since it is rich fodder for examining the subtle and more explicit ways our biases and ignorance contribute to and maintain inequality -- whether it be the inequality of sexism, racism, or classism. We hear so much about injustice, tragedies, disasters and war, but we prefer to remain superficial and ignorant about the injustices that occur on a daily basis in our homes, backyards, communities and work. Not just mothers are suffering -- everyone on the planet and even the planet itself are.

* Everyday Sexism, Laura Bates; Why So Slow: The Advancement of Women, Virginia Valian

** The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women,

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Excerpts from “The Heart of Compassion: The Thirty-seven Verses on thePractice of a Bodhisattva"

If all the mothers who have loved me since beginningless time are suffering,
What is the use of my own happiness?

Therefore, to really exchange
My own happiness for the suffering of others is the practice of a bodhisattva.

Though I may be famous, and revered by many,
And as rich as the God of Wealth himself,
To see that the wealth and glory of the world are without essence,
And to be free of arrogance, is the practice of a bodhisattva.

For a bodhisattva who desires the joys of virtue,
All who harm him (her) are like a precious treasure.
Therefore, to cultivate patience toward all,
Without resentment, is the practice of a bodhisattva.

Merely for their own sake, even shravakas and pratyekabuddhas
Make efforts like someone whose hair is on fire trying to put it out:
Seeing this, for the sake of all beings,
To practice diligence, the source of excellent qualities, is the practice of a bodhisattva.

Knowing that through profound insight thoroughly grounded in sustained calm
The disturbing emotions are completely conquered,
To practice the concentration which utterly transcends
The four formless states* is the practice of a bodhisattva.

To be continually mindful and alert,
Asking, “What is the state of my mind?”
And accomplishing the good of others is the practice of a bodhisattva.

For his own benefit and that of others, Thogme, a teacher of scripture and logic, composed this text at Rinchen Phug, in Ngulchu.

* The four formless states, or absorptions: (1) the sphere of infinite space, (2) the sphere of infinite consciousness, (3) the sphere of nothing at all, and (4) the sphere of neither perception nor non-perception. They correspond to the states experienced by the gods of the four formless realms, which are the result of sustained absorption in samadhi without profound insight.