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Buddhist Feminism (Part 3)

When the Hindu Tantric tradition began to seep into Buddhism, with its complicated sexual yogas and meditation, it had a radical effect on certain Buddhists’ attitude toward women. The earthiness and sensuality attributed to women, which the sexist side of Buddhism saw as their spiritual weakness, became a spiritual power in Tantric Buddhism. The female yogi, “yogini”, who channels her sexual energy into meditation in the midst of the sex act was seen as one of the most important teachers a Tantric monk could have (an idea reflected in Herman Hesse’s novel SIDDHARTHA). For instance, the Tantric master Marpa, and his wife, shared a “long and highly fruitful relationship” with the consort-guruess Da-me-ma, and the Tantrist Savari was taught by two sisters, Logi and Guni, who, As Tantric consorts, helped him to important breakthroughs on his path.

In Tantric symbolism, female energy represents perfect wisdom, related to voidness and the womb, while male energy is linked to compassionate action. Implements such as the bell (female) and the lightning bolt (male) were held in stylized forms during Tantric rituals, symbolizing these energies, and during the sexual ritual, the yogi and yogini would meditate on their union as the union of these two principles.

The PrajnaParamita (Perfect Wisdom)
must be adored everywhere
by those who strive for liberation.
Pure she stays in the realm
beyond this empirical world;
In this empirical world
she has assumed the form of a woman.
In the guise of a woman
she is present everywhere…
Woman in all social positions
must never be despised,
A woman is Divine Inspiration.
Only in this world
she has assumed bodily form.

(Guenther, p.83, 1952)

Some Tantric yoginis were royal or upper-caste, but many were also low-caste, while many monks in this period appear to have been upper-caste. Thus, monks involved in affairs with Tantric consort-gurus were not only offensive to Buddhist discipline but also to caste-sensitivities. The King Dombhipa was driven from his throne when his twelve-year Tantric relationship with a low-caste woman was discovered. After retiring to the forest to continue their practices, they were finally put to death. When the Indian monk Tilopa, the founder of a great lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, was just a Student monk he was visited by an ugly, old woman who asked if he understood the Dharma. Frustrated, he answered ‘‘no”, which caused her to dance with glee. Embarrassed, he answered “yes”, with which she began to weep. She revealed herself as one of a number of demonesses who had been entrusted by the Buddha to guard special teachings until wise enough people arose to understand them. Throwing respectability to the wind, Tilopa embarked on a journey to the demonesses’ realm, engaging all the demonesses and their queen in sexual yoga in order to win their teachings. After this he became a social outcast, and took a low-caste woman, a sesame-seed-oil (“til”) maker, who taught him her trade, and from whom he got his name.

The Tantric Siddha Vajraghanta had a woman liquor-merchant as his consort, with whom he travelled and taught. When the Tantric master Saraha had a block in his practice he met a woman Tantric who was working as an arrow-smith. (Professions such as the making and selling of weapons or alcohol are not considered proper for a Buddhist and are usually pursued by other religious groups or low-cast people in Buddhist societies; yet, the Tantrics took up these professions as spiritual disciplines.) Saraha lived with her as his consort-guru making arrows, and had many breakthroughs. When the King came with A crowd to criticize Saraha’s low-caste liaison, he replied:

I am indeed a Brahmin, and I live with the daughter of an arrow-smith, caste or no caste: there I do not see any distinction. I have taken the sworn vows of a bhikkhu (monk) and I wander about with a wife: there I do not see any distinction. Some may doubt and say “Here lies an impurity!” but they do not know.
(Ray in Gross, 1980)

Even the relationship of husband and wife becomes a Tantric practice situation, as in the story of Saraha asking his wife for a radish curry. Before she had returned he had gone into a trance which lasted 12 years. After he came up from his meditation, he again asked for the radish curry. Informed that radishes were now out of season he determined to go to the mountains to meditate. Upon hearing this his wife answered that just removing his body from the world was not renunciation, and his trances had not helped much if, after 12 years, he had not given up his desire for radish curry. Chastened, he achieved a profound enlightenment.

After Tantric Buddhism became institutionalized in Tibet, sexual yogis became rare and celibate monks again became the norm. But the tolerant attitude towards sexuality remained. As in Freud’s notion of infants’ “polymorphous perversity”, where sexual pleasure has not yet been localized in the genitals but is experienced equally by the whole body, Zen and Tantric disciplines teach one to experience one’s senses (including consciousness) fully, without neurotic blocks and limitations. For celibate monks and nuns in these traditions, sexual energy could still be worked with through visualization meditation and yogic exercises, perhaps more powerfully because of their celibacy; by forgoing the socialized obsession with genital sexuality, they more easily opened themselves to a richer moment-to-moment experience of life.

There are probably numerous stories waiting to be re-discovered, or that have been irretrievably repressed, of strange, uppity nuns, with offensive practices and doctrines; in Therevedan countries, a weakness for heresies such as Mahayahism, or semi-erotic devotionalism; while in Mahayanist countries, we might find cults centered around women claiming power as incarnations of female bodhisattvas, or bisexual yoginis dedicated to spiritual androgyny. (Sister Khema points to divisions between orthodox and liberal nuns during the Anuradhapura period, during which Tantric ideas were known, and had some following in Sri Lanka. It was nuns from the Tantra-sympathetic Abhayagiri Vihara went to China to Ordain nuns there.)

In Tantra, the highest states of enlightenment are represented by the sexual union of two deities, both of which the meditator identifies with; reminiscent of Jung’s male and female archetypes present in every psyche. Homosexuality in the male Sangha has been known since the earliest days, and there are disciplinary rules against the intentional emission of semen (as in masturbation) and in penetration of the penis into any animal, or human orifice “the depth of a sesame seed”. Though lesbianism is not (to my knowledge) explicitly discussed in Buddhist scriptures, there were undoubtedly numerous cases dealt with in the history of the Sisterhood. (We might reflect that today, especially in the West where homosexuality is rapidly becoming a legitimate lifestyle, there are fewer reasons for a rigid segregation of the sexes in celibate communities.)

An example of a wildly unconventional, and very earthy, celibate is the revered Tibetan saint Milarepa, a hermit who preached in spontaneous verse. Though he usually preached to women by attempting to convince them of the pettiness of their vanity, grossness of their personalities, or the shortness of their lives, his “Song with Nine Meanings” indicates a clear understanding of women’s special burdens:

In the morning you get up from bed
in the evening you go to sleep
in between, you do endless housework,
you are engrossed in these three things.
Grandmother, you are an unpaid maid…

The head of the family
is the most important one,
income and earnings are the next most longed for things.
Then sons and nephews are wanted most.
By these three you are bound.
Grandmother, you yourself have no share.

Question your own thoughts and your mind examine.
You should practice the Buddha’s teaching;
You need a qualified and dependable guru.
And then things may be different for you.

Agenda for a Buddhist Feminism

A thread of Radical insight can be traced down through Buddhist history, liberating the men and women exposed to it from patriarchal culture. Yet Buddhism never developed a clear analysis of the patriarchal aspects of ego, of male-privileged access to dharma-practice, or of the disempowering socialization and position of women. Consequently, after the first burst of dharma in a society, patriarchal culture, allied with the rising class of male religious professionals (monks), reassert the status-quo.
Fortunately, changes in the contemporary world, especially in the West, seemto be encouraging Buddhism toward a revival, a turning-point where the old forms passed down from the sexist counter-revolutions must be dropped. Dharma-practice
is quickly evolving from its agricultural adaption, where meditation and study were possible only for an aristocratic and monastic elite, to a post-industrial adaption in Asian cities and the West, where earlier hierarchies are being transcended.

The development of a feminist dharma, a “stree-yana” or “women’s vehicle”, only seems possible today as a synthetic praxis develops out of the dialectical dialogue of “Buddhism-meets-feminism”, integrating the theory-and-practice of both. Feminism is one of the many results of the European Enlightenment, and it is only in this generation that Westerners and radicalized Asians, socialized in the assumptions of liberal democracy, are beginning to fashion a Buddhist culture appropriate to those assumptions.

Near the top of the Asian Buddhist-feminist agenda will be the revival of the order of Sisters and its democratization vis-a-vis the male Sangha, Nuns have very little prestige in Buddhist countries today. In Thailand, nuns cook for themselves and for the monks, as well as performing other labor which would be forbidden if they were fully ordained. They frequently have merely replaced motherly responsibilities with those of celibate housewives, though with even more exaggerated subservience than laywomen. Nuns, poor and humble, live lives much closer to the spirit of renunciation than the privileged monks; if their obvious piety and perseverance could be recognized, and given equal prestige with monks, it would have a revolutionary effect on Asian Buddhism.

Re-establishing the full-ordination, however does not seem to be the path to such equality. Therevedan nuns have tried, and are still trying, to have Therevedans accept the legitimacy of the Chinese nuns’ ordination lineage, though with little success. Also, inequality is built into the rule of full-ordination itself; of what value would it be to have a legitimate ordination lineage if one simply ignores the highly repressive rules that are the basis of that lineage? Even for rural Asian women, the opportunities for spiritual growth are greater in lay-life than they would be in an orthodox Sisterhood; such a Sisterhood is not progressive today. Finally, even if full-ordination was reestablished, and its legitimacy accepted without the extra rules, nuns still would not have the same prestige as monks; the root of the problem lies in the whole attitudinal and social structure of patriarchy, not in the presence or absence of a certificate of equality.

The institutionalized male monopoly on spirituality can be seen in the typical temple sermon; a monk addressing 100 women arid children and five old men. In Sri Lanka,, monks are already beginning to resent the enthusiastic attention some lay women give to the needs of the rapidly growing body of 10-vow nuns. Nuns, poor and living in shacks or spartan convents, are completely dependent on their lay women supporters. They could potentially be Gramscian “organic intellectuals” for lay Buddhist women, synthesizing and articulating women’s interests in a religious form. The denial of monastic educational opportunities to nuns today can be seen as a structural constraint of patriarchy placed on the ability of nuns to develop independent discourses. While the earliest nuns in Lanka had access to education and taught lay women (Goonatilake, 1982), many of them having come from the advantaged classes, the typical nun today is a poorly educated, lower class spinster or widow, who is preoccupied with tending shrines and performing ceremonies. Nuns could be powerful social workers, as the nuns in the Catholic Church are, combining their spiritual discipline with compassionate social service. In fact, as the result of lay women’s and nuns’ agitation, nuns are now being organized and trained in Sri Lanka and Thailand, in meditation, Pali, Buddhist philosophy, and social service work. The Sri Lankan government only began to register its upwards of 2000 nuns in 1984, and has just established a fund for their support. Khantipalo gives an estimate of 70,000 nuns in Thailand, with more than 5000 organized in the Foundation of Thai Nuns, and involved in social work.

Though other religious groups {such as fundamentalist Muslims and Hindus) are certainly more repressive towards women than Buddhists, the position of women in Buddhist countries, and among Buddhist ethnic minorities, has much room for improvement. Yet apologists in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma blithely assure us that since Buddhism provides freedom to women, that hysterical "women’s lib" is an unwanted western import. For instance, this editorial appeared in the Chinese/Sinhalese publication Young Buddhist, based in Singapore, in 1983:

Buddha did not forget women either. He defined the role of women in His time. The dual function of women in society- namely, as mother and wife, a husband's best friend- was clearly defined by the Buddha…

Is there, in the first place, any inequality of the sexes? Is it not a figment of imagination of women? Why can women not remain women? Why must they feel their security threatened unless they also move into the domain of the male? If women were intended to perform the functions which men perform, then they would have been born men and not women!

If it is for economic reason that a wife has to work to help the husband support the house, then there is justification. But if a woman becomes so highly educated
and then remains a spinster, then it is a totally different thing. For then she has not fulfilled the role which nature had intended her to play…

In short, why can't women just remain women and do what women ought to do and not be a "woe to men"?

One of ten women in Bangkok is a prostitute, sold to businessmen on sex-tours from Buddhist Japan, with the tacit approval of the Thai Buddhist military government. The policies of Asian countries rarely pay serious attention to encouraging the independence of women in development projects, such as through income-generating skills. Rather, young women’s labor is generally exploited in Buddhist countries the same way it is in others (with the possible exception of the post-Buddhist societies of Mongolia, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, North Korea, China and Tibet, though we unfortunately have very little information about the condition of women or Buddhism in .these countries.) Sadly, there is little available in English about the phenomenon of Untouchable Buddhists in India, who began to convert to escape their caste status in the 1950's under the leadership of Dr. Ambedkar, much less about their women, who were doubly oppressed, as women and Untouchables, by the caste system and its impurity concepts.

Buddhist-feminist, male and female, must seriously examine the patriarchal aspects of ego, the patriarchal thought, speech and behavior which inhibits wisdom and compassion. Monks should not be allowed to shift blame for their lack of mindfulness by accusing women of seductiveness. The territorial possessiveness of men, obvious in their hysterical reactions to "hysterical" women's libbers and the rising power and assertiveness of women, must be pointed out. When women object to the inferior status of even the original enlightened nuns, and call for equality, Asian monks point out that women are merely reacting from wounded pride or ego. Bowing to men is merely a discipline to help nuns earn humility. Yet, it seems most women precisely don't have a problem with pride or "ego", while most monks apparently do. Wouldn't the skillful discipline today be to have every monk bow to every nun, no matter how long she has been in the robe? (I laugh at how inconceivable this is!) Better yet, let us simply put away humiliation of either sex in favor of the more rigorous discipline of honest equality.

Fundamentally, a Buddhist approach points to the processes by which we make others into objects, and then commodities for use. We make others into sex-objects, labor-commodities, casualty statistics; we separate ourselves from "the Third World”, "non-Buddhists”, Nature, As socialist-feminists point out, this process of alienation of women is not just a phenomenon of consciousness ("male chauvinism"), but also is dependent on the way women work in society, the way families are run, the form of education given. In order for us to relate to one another in the light of compassionate wisdom, rather than through the alienating tangles of thought, we must change society from top to bottom, from the psyche to the street plan, transforming every social structure that reinforces and manifests the oppression of one person by another.

special thanks to Molly Brown for transcribing this from the original 1984 essay

(To be continued - Part 4 on March 8 - Part 1 is HERE)

James Hughes Ph.D., the Executive Director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, is a bioethicist and sociologist who serves as the Associate Provost for Institutional Research, Assessment and Planning for the University of Massachusetts Boston. He is author of Citizen Cyborg and is working on a second book tentatively titled Cyborg Buddha. From 1999-2011 he produced the syndicated weekly radio program, Changesurfer Radio. (Subscribe to the J. Hughes RSS feed)


Thanks for these articles, especially part 1 and this part 3.

Herman Hesse’s “Siddhartha” is a good read, although my understanding is that this is proposed as a fiction of the path to enlightenment for the Buddha, and not based on any real fact? - Albeit Siddhartha Gautama establishing Theravada by way of meditation tuition from travelling Samanas(?) (Yogi’s), which is based on fact?

“Siddhartha” by Hermann Hesse

Please provide some more info that disputes this opinion if you are privy?

Déjà vu anyone?

For those that are interested, here is a link also to “Island” by Aldous Huxley, which features some of the sexual philosophy as described in this article.

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