Monday, April 22, 2013

Why Sakyadhita is Important: A look at Buddhist women's experience from the Therigatha and today

by Sarana Nona Olivia

Female monastics and Buddhist laywomen listen to His Holiness the Karmapa
at the 13th International Sakyadhita Conference, January 2013.

With a desire to translate the Therigatha and a small grant from Naropa, I spent part of summer 2000 at the Barre Center, learning Pali. Lucky for me, Pali is a close cognate to ancient Greek so with Andy generously answering questions and Mu Seong and Sumi making me feel at home, I was able to complete the 522 stanzas, or some 72 poems. Included in the Khuddaka Nikaya, the Therigatha is said to be verses composed by the first bhikkhunis, contemporaneous to the historical Buddha. Having been trained as a classicist and always looking for extant material composed by women, I was drawn to the Therigatha partly because it is among the oldest texts attributed to women and also because I wanted to see how it could be used as a teaching text. Clearly, since it had been preserved, it must have had a purpose.

I was not disappointed in translating these verses. I must admit that I don’t find them particularly compelling in their three English versions. However, when one enters through the primary language with its range of synonymic variables, a prismatic effect takes place. Of course this is true with most translations. In one example, for instance, antithetical to the belief that bhikkhunis were not allowed to teach men, we get a wonderful example of the Bhikkhuni Sukka teaching both men and women. In lines 54ff, an exasperated narrator asks, “What has happened to these men in Rajagaha? They remain as though they’ve been drinking wine (mansussa madham) and do not attend Sukka when she’s teaching the Buddha’s dharma?” (In the Culavedalla Sutta, the Bhikkhuni Dhammadina teaches the layman Visakha and is praised by the Buddha for it.) Then there are other very relatable vignettes: Vassitthi writes about her grief at the death of her son, “Grief-stricken for my son, totally mad, out of my senses . . . ” (133). We recognize the conceit of youth in this line from Vimala: “Young, intoxicated by my lovely skin, my figure, my beauty and fame, I despised other women” (72). By contrast, on aging Ambapali writes: “Formerly my body looked beautiful, like a well-polished sheet of gold; now it is covered with very fine wrinkles” (266). And of course many meditators sympathize with the unnamed bhikkhuni who wrote: “It is twenty-five years since I went forth. Not even for the duration of a snap of the fingers have I obtained peace of mind (67).”

But the recurring line that often comes to my mind is “I went to a bhikkhuni who was fit to be trusted by me.” This line shows up at least five times and always indicates a successful turning point for the writer of the verse.

Isn’t it ironic that while we are discussing the merits of secularizing Buddhism, most Buddhist women who desire to become fully ordained bhikkhunis are not permitted to do so. Because of sexism, in the best instances, and misogyny, in the worst, these women are forced to remain secular in spite of their heartfelt desires to ordain.

In a conference on secular Buddhism, we could limit our critiques to the saffron-robed monks who loom largely as the representations of the elite status quo. However, when examining the role of women in Buddhism, we must expand our interrogation and look at the roles of men and women in Buddhist communities in general. Discussions of gender inequalities within lay Buddhism is sidestepped, as we’ve all witnessed, by the claim that gender itself arises out of the delusion of self-view. But more insidious than that dodge is the claim that sexism is no longer a relevant issue in lay Buddhism; that unlike the prejudices of monastic Buddhism, lay men and women are equal, and that perceived gender biases and inequalities are mostly projections arising out of insecure (female) mental habits, which are based in unwholesome desires of the ego.

However, a number of women teachers from various lineages in North America report that they find themselves up against sexism coming both from their male colleagues and from the communities they serve. I queried a few of these women and heard among their complaints that they are perceived as less realized, less educated, less credible, and are therefore taken less seriously than their male counterparts. This leads to their receiving fewer prestigious teaching opportunities; to being overlooked for public speaking engagements; to remaining in a tacit role of mentee to a male mentor; and relegated to more “domestic” tasks, for example, to teaching topics such as “practice in daily life” and “dealing with emotions.” Not surprisingly, these women claim to receive fewer donations for their teaching than the men.

When I asked for concrete examples I was told to name the top ten teachers in meditation communities to see how many are women; to examine who speaks at seminal events such as the bhikkhuni ordination ceremonies; to consider which women have name recognition as result of the men with whom they are connected; who has the support of a partner, a co-parent, or a co-breadwinner; whose books are being published; and who has international support, and so on.

Again we could chalk these complaints up to the histrionics of a few disgruntled women. But for the sake of this paper, let’s act as if these complaints contain at least a grain of truth and that a remedy might be beneficial to us all.

Lay Buddhism and Gendered Spaces

Monasteries and nunneries are intentional gendered spaces, but what about insight meditation community centers, retreat centers, or study centers. Might our understanding of the feelings of disenfranchisement described above be expanded through an examination of the unintentional ways Buddhist communities might have imported the traditional view of male authority? This view would be more pernicious if it remained an unconscious inheritance.  

It might be interesting to consider whether these Buddhist centers have unknowingly maintained biases in the gendered space of the dharma seat. According to a study by Ronai, Zsenbik, and Feagan:
“Gendered Spaces” are social arenas in which a person’s gender shapes the roles, statuses, and interpersonal dynamics and generates differential political and economic outcomes and interaction expectations and practices” (Ronai, Zsenbik and Feagan 1997).
There is no doubt that the insight meditation communities have been working hard to re-contextualize Asian Buddhism for Western practitioners. Concepts that have long been accepted are no longer seen as absolutes, for example: rebirth, karma, and nirvana are being questioned and rethought. But the old paradigms of a gendered hierarchy situated between the foundation and the glass ceiling of some insight meditation communities become for women “a space where they find themselves emotionally, physically, or financially impacted in negative ways” (Ronai, Zsenbik, and Feagan 1997). It is good news that many men in Buddhist communities are standing against the blatant sexism in monastic communities. Nevertheless, the unhappy rumblings of the women I’ve heard from (who understandably insist on anonymity) claim that these very men remain blind to their own latent biases and male privilege. And it’s not just men who carry these biases; women can be equally unwilling to grant women full recognition and equality.

Happily, a majority of American men and women support the full ordination of women in Buddhism, but it seems that the simulacra of male authority has left its sticky residue on Buddhist communities in general. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a founder of Sakyadhita, said in a recent interview:
In fact, the mantra that women and men are equal in Buddhism acts as a kind of smokescreen to mask inequities that are clearly visible. Women continue to be sidelined in public forums, even by educated and otherwise compassionate people, both women and men (http://newlotus.buddhistdoor.com/en/ 2013-03-15).


This past January I attended my first Sakyadhita conference, the thirteenth international conference, which was held in Vaishali, India. This was the first time I was able to attend Sakyadhita; responsibilities as a mom and my academic calendar have always interfered. But this year I decided not to miss the opportunity. I didn't know anyone else who was attending but somehow I knew I'd be among friends. That sense of familiarity seemed present with many of the people I met there—people who hold loving-kindness and Buddhist ethics in the forefront of their minds. Much like the best academic conferences, the papers contained impressive scholarship, incisive analysis, and were followed by rigorous questioning. Unlike most academic conferences I’ve attended, the participants were excited to see each other, to collaborate and share, to welcome newcomers, and to celebrate the vast diversity present. From the moment I arrived it was clear that members of Sakyadhita are united as women in Buddhism. I found no sectarianism, no cliques, no divisions between lay and ordained. In fact, I’ve not encountered such solidarity in my forty plus years in Buddhist communities.  

The focus of the conference was “Buddhism at the Grassroots.” This topic felt natural to me as it seems that for many women the lack of institutional support always brings Buddhism to the grassroots. Participants came from thirty-two different countries, sharing their living circumstances, their struggles and successes, and telling of the evolution of current projects. Followers of Theravada, Chan, Pure Land, Zen, and diverse Tibetan lineages seemed to have checked any exclusivity at the door and listened eagerly to papers for reports of positive change, and with empathy for those many women who are suffering from discrimination, poverty, and isolation. In traditional Indian manner, we met in an enormous tent set up adjacent to the Vietnamese Mahapajapati Monastery for women. Some participants stayed in that monastery, others stayed in monasteries that dotted the road, and still others stayed in a hotel a few hundred yards from the conference site. Vaishali is a very small village in Bihar, an impoverished state considered “backward” by the Indian government. Our neighbors were subsistence farmers. Truly a marvel given the circumstances, there was a bank of translators and headsets for participants.

Women from diverse international communities gave updates on the work that Buddhist women are Haas, Huffington Post, 1/07/13). To my mind, for many Buddhist women, social justice is an integral part of their practice and this was nowhere more obvious than in the paper presentations and the workshops. Sakyadhita is both an intentional and a consciously gendered space. While there were a few men in attendance and at least one bhikkhu presented a paper on the importance of bhikkhuni ordination, Sakyadhita was created for the benefit of women. It began small and has grown in size and quality.With Ayya Khema, Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, and other pioneers, Karma Leskshe Tsomo founded Sakyadhita in 1987 and you could say that she did so as an act of social justice. In a recent interview, she said that she sees the gender imbalance that disenfranchises some 300 million Buddhist women as a human rights issue.

The conference meets approximately every two years, which allows projects to come to fruition and new ones to begin. Lekshe pointed out:
Buddhist women are becoming increasingly active working in their own localities and linking up to support one another. These international links provide vital inspiration, encouragement, and resources. The needs of Buddhist women in each country are different, however, which makes Sakyadhita all the more interesting. Buddhist women in Europe and North America are working on issues such as sexual harassment, greater representation in the U.N. and other international forums, historical research, textual analysis, including feminist analysis, and representations of women in Buddhist texts and institutions. Buddhist women in developing countries are vitally concerned with basic issues such as health, hygiene, access to Buddhist learning and practice, and training opportunities, including both monastic training and vocational training. (KLT ibid)
In Vaishali there were eleven contiguous panels and a total of forty-three papers. Papers ranged widely with topics, including educational programs for women; inscriptional evidence of upasikas in ancient India; the changing roles of Buddhist nuns in Cambodia, Bhutan, Korea, Australia, and America; and on Buddhist women in rarely represented communities: Kinnaur, Maharashtra, Sikkim, and Arunachal Pradesh. One paper surveyed the contributions of Vajrayana nuns in Malaysia who work with underprivileged children and women, provide free medical treatment, help the elderly, provide early childhood education, counseling, environmental
conservation and animal rescue. One paper questioned whether the role of nuns should be as social activists or reclusive meditators, another examined aging, and another pointed out her great good fortune of being born a woman so that she could bring critical analysis to the sexism within Buddhism. Other topics included the roots of gender discrimination, kindergarten teaching, and the work of B. R. Ambedkar for the advancement of women and the lower castes. And on the artistic end of my sampling, we saw a beautiful slide show on the nuns of Bhutan presented by a well-known Danish photo journalist, accompanied by a soundtrack she'd recorded of their chanting, which was stunning. Also the famous Tara Dancers performed the Twenty-One Faces of Tara and Paula Arai gave a paper on “The Healing Power of Beauty” in which she wrote:
Harmonizing diverse elements into an integrated whole is beauty-making activity in its highest and strongest mode. Expansive beauty provides a safe space for healing to occur. The larger the context in which one perceives oneself to be, the stronger the support one feels. When one feels alone and perceives things narrowly, it is easy to experience suffering. Beauty draws one’s attention beyond this illusion and directs it to the proverbial jewel net of interrelationality.
After the morning and afternoon paper sessions, each day included afternoon workshops on specific topics where women could meet in small groups and interact on a one-to-one basis. Topics in the workshops included women in leadership, using metta practice as a tool in clinical psychology, translating ancient texts and so on. Mornings began with meditation sessions lead alternately by nuns and laywomen from different traditions. In the late afternoons, nuns from different countries led group chanting, and in the evening, cultural events were presented by local performers as well as by conference participants.

I hope that my survey conveys the clarity, the warmth, and the compassionate intention in this consciously gendered space. And I hope that my survey makes clear the inclusivity—no one I met was anti-male; in fact, most of the laywomen are partnered. No one I met was anti-anything, for that matter. Perhaps that was my biggest takeaway. This conference was positively, overwhelmingly “pro”: pro-equality, pro-environment, pro-diversity, pro-scholarship, pro-practice, pro-listening, pro-kindness, pro-all the values that Buddhism has to teach. The people I met were genuine practitioners, in the broadest sense of the word. That such a gathering was marked by inclusivity was absolutely appropriate, since the inclusion of women as fully acknowledged members of the global Buddhist community is precisely the intention and goal. My greatest hope is that this genuine inclusion can serve as a model for Buddhist communities everywhere from here on out.

I’ll end with a relevant verse from the Therigatha, perhaps instructive for our group here:
Cala says, “As a Bhikkhuni I practiced mindfulness, developing my mind and I pierced the peaceful states, the stilling of the constituent elements, happiness.

Someone asks, “Following whose teaching have you shaved your head? You seem like an ascetic but you do not approve of sectarians (paasanda). Why are you being foolish?

Cala says “Sectarians outside this group have false views; they don’t know the true dharma” (182-184).
Presenters at the Secular Buddhism Conference
March 2013
This paper was originally presented at the Secular Buddhism Conference hosted by the Barre Center of Buddhist Studies, March 24-27, 2013.

Sarana Nona Olivia, Lay Buddhist Minister

Nona Olivia received her Phd from Brown University where she focused on the representation of women in ancient Greek and Roman religious rituals. A long time student in the Ajahn Chah lineage of the Thai Forest Tradition, she was ordained as a Buddhist minister by Gil Fronsdal. She recently completed a two-year project developing a Masters of Buddhist Studies curriculum for the Sati Center of Buddhist Studies, which is currently offering classes through the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, CA. She has taught at Millsaps College, University of Colorado in Boulder and at Naropa University. She is now employed as the Goodwill Ambassador for Minitab. She has two grown sons and two precious grandchildren. Nona is on her way to spend time practicing at Dongyu Gatsal Ling, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo's nunnery in India. You can listen to several of Nona's Dharma discussions at this link.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Nona and thank you for this rich presentation. I enjoyed your framing analysis and the tableaux of events and papers. I saw you last at the Congress on Women in Buddhism (Hamburg 2007) and am delighted that - perhaps out of its ashes - the Congress was a stimulus for some of the work and projects you describe.
    As a postscript, while I have read some critiques of 'rebirth' that you make mention of - and have found them inconclusive - I have not heard of any revisioning of the foundational terms 'karma' and 'nirvana'. I wonder about the motivation of that thinking, and I trust that the phenomenologically derived insights of practitioners of all persuasions keeps the practice grounded for its ongoing transmission. Perhaps this site will allow for further discussion on this.
    Thank you for your work of translating the voices of Bhikkhunis - voices otherwise lost to distortion, ventriloquism, and ignor- ance.