Monday, June 17, 2013

Women on the Path: The Transnational Sangha

by Vinita Agrawal
Free am I, oh so free am I
Being freed
By means of the three crooked things:
The mortar, pestle, and my crooked husband!

(Therigatha 11)

In the quest for enlightenment, men and women are equal. Emancipation is a matter of the heart—so why should it matter whether the individual who seeks it is a man or a woman? In reality however, women who are on the spiritual path have vastly different stories to tell as compared to their male counterparts. They face many obstacles in their endeavors towards self-realization—more, perhaps, than in any other area of their lives.

Family and societal pressures, traditional mindsets, dictates of patriarchy, and lack of women teachers are some common difficulties that stall women from seeking the road to liberation.

The Buddha himself was not free from a feeling of acute hesitation in ordaining women into the sangha. But the Buddha’s hesitation needs to be clarified and placed in its right context. He hesitated because he felt that the induction of women into the sangha would stretch the fabric of that society too thin, as many women would be drawn to it.

He finally relented and gave in to the constant urging of his attendant (and cousin) Ananda by ordaining the first Buddhist nun, Mahapajapati Gautami, who was also his stepmother and aunt. This happened more than 2,600 years ago. 

Since then many women have attempted to achieve the bliss of sainthood. But they face acute gender repercussion issues. In the modern times, the position of women on the path is going through a critical re-examination across the globe.

Parrot's Beak by Diana Paul
In parts of the West, Buddhism and feminism have almost become allies. Women teachers like Tenzin Palmo, Rita Gross, and Diana Paul are at the forefront of convert Buddhists. They participate confidently as practitioners, teachers, and guide other women towards the realization of self-worth. Tenzin Palmo, however, recounts some obstacles in her early days: “When I first came to India I lived in a monastery with 100 monks. I was the only nun. I think that is why I eventually went to live by myself in a cave. The monks were kind, and I had no problems of sexual harassment or troubles of that sort, but of course I was unfortunately within a female form–according to the males, an inferior birth.”

Recently in Dharamshala, India, Kelsang Wangmo, a German nun, achieved the rare honor of becoming the first female Geshe—the highest scholastic honor in the Tibetan tradition. There were several obstacles initially in the course of her study. For example, many times, when it was her turn to teach a class, she would walk into the classroom and find it empty of students. Male students did not want to learn from a female teacher.

Also in Dharamshala, the Jamyang Choling Institute (JCI) was founded by Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo (an American Buddhist nun) in 1988 to educate Himalayan Buddhist nuns and laywomen who would otherwise have no opportunity to receive any formal secular or spiritual education.

The point is that when religion is practiced with initiative, courage, and imagination by women, it can spell nirvana for them just as it does for men. Arhantship is open to all who are willing to put forth the effort.
Geshema candidates taking written exams at Jamyang Choling on May 28, 2013
Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, the first Thai bhikkhuni to ordain in the Theravada tradition, gave up her life of “high heels and painted nails” as she termed it. After her ordination she received hate mail and allegations that she had ordained for donations and for publicity. In such trying times, it was Buddha’s teachings that came to her rescue.

At least one Zen Buddhist community, the San Francisco Zen Center, began the practice of chanting the names of female elders recorded in the Therigatha, ending with an acknowledgment of “all the forgotten women ancestors,” on alternating days, in an attempt to keep the inspiring role models of ancient practitioners alive in the modern times.

Case studies show that after Voramai Kabilsingh received ordination in 1971 in Taiwan, the country became an ideal location for dynamism and women’s resurgence. Women’s lives changed dramatically for the better because Taiwanese society became more open to both challenging authority and gender negotiations and discussions. Major Buddhist women’s organizations have woven themselves into Taiwan’s social fabric by running multimillion-dollar enterprises, including temples, schools, hospitals, and other social institutions.

Indeed, women alone can make their voices heard because their problems are unique to them. Articulation and diligence is the key for women who wish to evolve on the spiritual path.

On June 28, 2005 His Holiness the Dalai Lama noted, “Were the Buddha to come to this twenty-first century world, seeing the actual situation in the world now, he might have changed the rules (for the ordination of women) somewhat.” He also stated that if need be, his next reincarnation may well be a woman! There are predictions from Sakyamuni Buddha to be found in the thirteenth chapter of the Mahayana Lotus Sutra referring to the future attainments of Mahapajapati and Yashodhara, an indication that the future of women on the path seems to be promising!

Illustrated Korean manuscript of the Lotus Sutra, Koryô (Goryeo) Dynasty (918–1392), ca. 1340, folding book, gold and silver on indigo-dyed mulberry paper; 106 pages; each 33 x 11.4 cm, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Vinita Agrawal: Scholar & Poet

Born in Bikaner, India, on August 18, 1965, Vinita Agrawal did her schooling in Kalimpong and Kolkata and college at Baroda. She is a Gold Medallist in MA Political Science from the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda and earned the UGC scholarship in college. She has worked freelance as a writer and researcher ever since but has remained a poet at heart. Currently she
resides in Mumbai.

She has published papers on subjects as diverse as Buddhism, historic monuments, gender equality, cooperatives, comparative media analysis, cultural connectivity in the SAARC region, and the Tibetan diaspora. She has a profile of interviews to her name out of which a few have found place in MBA manuals published from Cambridge. She has done transcription of video journals on HRD and has several book reviews to her credit. She has conducted a few workshops on higher consciousness at conference venues.

She was invited by SAARC to read her poems at the SAARC Literature Festival at Delhi 2010, Delhi 2011, and Agra 2011. She presented papers on gender issues in Buddhism at two international conferences, one in Sri Lanka in February 2012 and the other in Vaishali (Bihar) in January 2013.

She is a life member of INTACH (Indore Chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage), which works for the preservation of the art and cultural heritage of the region.

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