Monday, December 2, 2013

Involving Men and Media in Buddhist Women's Causes

by Raymond Lam

Bhikkhuni ordination in 2011 received strong support
from bhikkhus and laymen (photo: khemarama.com)
As I begin this contribution for a women’s blog, I have to first acknowledge my background and privilege. I am constructed as a man and all men in a patriarchal society possess male privilege. Initially, I thought a publication tailored for women’s experiences didn’t need yet another man’s intrusion. Yet maleness need not be a disqualification. Men have an essential role in the Buddhist women’s movement and they can bring tangible benefits. When I began editing Buddhistdoor International, I allied the publication with Sakyadhita to learn more about Buddhist women’s progress and struggles on the ground. Over half of Buddhistdoor’s columns and opinion now belong to female voices, lay and monastic. The gender imbalance is intentional. Furthermore, in less than a year this blog has become one of the best resources for reading the stories of Buddhist women.

I fulfil a mere courtier’s role to Buddhist women’s causes. It sounds obvious, but men who support women’s causes need to assist women leaders, not assume leadership. Without this mindfulness, men won’t sufficiently empathize with the vision of meritocracy that many Buddhist nuns and laywomen work towards. Privilege is not always about economic inheritance; it also means visibility and reach, ease of access to a voice in the media, and influence over the powerful—opportunities most women in history have been denied.

When considering the disadvantages Buddhist women still suffer, two setbacks stand out: lack of visibility and exposure in media, and lack of recognition by men. The rise of female leaders has helped to push back against the lack of visibility. The Internet and social media have also allowed more platforms to be built for female-friendly media. Yet I could direct you to Sandy Boucher’s excellent article and its observations still stand accurate:
“With the exception of Pema Chodron . . . the public face of Buddhism is very much male. Robert Thurman, the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, various handsome, fresh-faced Tibetan monksthese are the folks who appear over and over on the magazine covers of our own Buddhist magazines, as well as in general publications like Time and Newsweek to represent Buddhism" ("From Our History to Our Future").
Ven. Analayo's insightful observations about Theravada
Vinaya law and his development of an online course
at Hamburg University on bhikkhuni ordination
have demonstrated that men, with right intention and
right view, can become valuable auxiliaries to women's
Male indifference or hostility to female prominence and authority may explain why this has occurred. Yet, even though patriarchy in religion has sidelined women, sincere and good men still have a critical role to play in fostering a better environment for female leaders. Look at the brave Theravada monks who have argued for the legality of ordaining women: Ven. Analayo’s point in his recent groundbreaking essay about women’s ordination is that it is legal and necessary for monks to ordain nuns in the Theravada Vinaya if all other possibilities are exhausted. In this respect, men have played a critical role in the revival of the Theravada nuns’ lineage from the outset. (Click to read Ven. Analayo's article)

My sisters’ urgent task is to co-opt more males to their cause, and my brothers must rise to their challenge. We must convince males that this is not a revolution against the old order but an improvement of it. Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo said once, “As an ancient tradition struggling to survive under very different social conditions and faced by intensive conversion attempts in many countries, Buddhism needs to utilize all of its human resources, especially women.” In this single sentence, Ven. Lekshe captured the basic argument. The Buddhist women’s movement should co-opt the entire Fourth Estate, for it can serve as the broadcasting branch of women’s causes. Inviting commentators, pundits, cultural critics, and columnists will help female monastics to disseminate their message. The power of the press is to be able to meet the challenge of the problems that Ven. Lekshe identifies: drastically different social conditions and intense conversion attempts. There is a place for Buddhist media and Buddhist journalism and one of its potential beneficiaries is Buddhist women. (Click to read Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo's article)

The benefits of unleashing women’s potential are evident in Chinese Buddhism. In the West, Chinese civilization is seen as patriarchal but the story is a bit more complex. Led by Master Daoxuan (596667 CE), the Vinaya School (律宗) played a critical part in establishing the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya as the clerical law throughout China. By this historical accident, the living Dharmaguptaka Vinaya allowed for full female ordination in not only China but in also all other Mahayana-dominated cultures near its orbit (Korea, Japan, Vietnam, and Taiwan). Taiwanese nuns, in particular, lead trailblazing initiatives such as establishing the global humanitarian group Tzu Chi, by being among the first to perform marriage ceremonies for lesbian couples, and by participating proactively in the sustainability movement.

I have no intention to disown this millennia-old inheritance and the tradition I serve. Rather, I prefer to understand my situation as a moral calling to join with Theravada and Mulasarvastivada sisters and brothers in the journey to make women and men (as well as transgender and intersex individuals) equal in the Theravada, Dharmaguptaka, and Mulasarvastivada codes.

We have come full circle. Just as Chinese civilization, a culture based on patriarchy, became a mighty stronghold of a Vinaya permitting full bhikkhuni ordination, men (and even journalism) can also become facilitators of Dharma equality.

Raymond Lam: Journalist and Editor 

Raymond received lay ordination as an upasaka (attendant) of the Chinese Vinaya tradition and is a practitioner of Mahayana Pure Land Buddhism. A journalist of religion by trade, he is the editor of the Buddhistdoor International website. He is also an archivist of the Awakening Buddhist Women Resource Library and a member of the International Ch’an Buddhism Institute and the Hong Kong Journalists' Association. His major interests are Silk Road studies, history, comparative theology, and Huayan Buddhism.

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