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,