From Bihar, India—The Thirteenth Sakyadhita Conference by Rita M. Gross


Rita GrossAbove and all around us is a blue and white stripped fabric tent, as, about 250 strong, we participants in Sakyadhita’s Thirteenth Conference on Buddhist Women, shiver in the cold, listening to a wide variety of papers about women and Buddhism.  We are meeting in Vaishali, in Bihar, India, at a Vietnamese nunnery that was recently founded at the place where Mahaprajapati, the first Buddhist nun, was ordained.   She is a great hero to many Buddhist women for her persistence about receiving formal ordination as a nun, thus founding an institution that has endured for some 2,500 years in various parts of Asia, and now in the West as well, so it is fitting that we should meet here.  The nunnery complex is still incomplete and under construction, which is one reason why we are meeting, essentially, in the outdoors.  The thin fabric walls over little protection from the coldest winter in north India in forty years.  That was not part of the planning for this event! So everyone, speakers and participants alike, wear all the layers of clothing we have, and cheerfully practice patience.  It is quite a sight!

Sakyadhita, which literally means Daughters of the Buddha, is an organization founded by Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo to promote the interests and needs of Buddhist women worldwide.  It has national branches in many countries.  One of its main activities is to organize and sponsor international conferences on Buddhist women about every two years, always held in Asia.  Lekshe says that because most Buddhist women live in Asia, that’s where the conferences should be held, despite keen Western interest and involvement in these conference.  The first such conference was held in Bodhgaya, India, in 1987.  Many of these conferences have resulted in published books which have become an important source of information about Buddhist women worldwide.  These conferences are probably the focal point for the international Buddhist women’s movement, which is quite alive and well.

I have been told that this conference is being attended by delegates from thirty-eight countries.  Many nuns and a few monks are present, wearing robes in the many colors and styles that have developed in the Buddhist world—from the white-robed lay nuns of Thailand to black robed Zen Buddhists.  There are many grey-robed Korean nuns, many red-robed Himalayan nuns, brown robed Theravada nuns, and Taiwanese nuns in various shades of gold, tan, and beige.  The laywomen are less colorful, but no less vocal and visible at the conference.  Over a seven day period, the conference will feature forty-seven papers and numerous workshops.  Each paper is heard and discussed by the entire assembly, and there is a great deal of time for discussion and questions about the papers.  Most papers are presented in English, with translation into Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Marathi.

This is the fourth Sakyadhita conference I have attended, having previously attended conferences in Thailand, Korea, and Vietnam.  The conference draws a loyal international following of people who come back, time after time.  We don’t see each other between conferences and most of us don’t correspond between conferences, but there is always a sense of joyful reunion as familiar faces appear again.  In addition, many of us know each other by reputation and from our work.  This is the most international gathering I attend, and it is always so wonderful to see and sense the camaraderie between Buddhist women from so many different backgrounds and cultures.  Buddhism, and deep concern for the well-being and prospering of Buddhist women world wide are really our only common bonds.  But that concern is so deep and so familiar, despite our very great differences culturally and in the forms of Buddhism which we practice and to which we adhere.  There is absolutely no room for Buddhist sectarianism in this group.  We have too many common concerns as Buddhist women to be bothered by such things.

One major topic of discussion is always what progress has been made to restore full ordination for nuns in those forms of Buddhism in which it has been lost.  But there is an equal concern for Buddhist laywomen.  We are all serious practitioners of Buddhist discipline and lifestyle, whether lay or monastic, and that what unites us.  By no means are we all scholars.  Some participants are mainly practitioners or activists.  But there is no bias against scholars either, though this is not place for displays of arcane scholarship.

For me, this particular conference provided wonderful feedback on how much my work on Buddhism and feminism has penetrated into the Buddhist world.  People from literally opposite ends of the earth have talked to me about how much my work has helped them.  In one example, a young nun from Bhutan is doing a Ph. D. on Bhutanese nuns in which she is using my work.  Because Western feminist theological circles are so often so uninterested in non-Western religions, my work has often been a lonely journey.  It is gratifying to discover that, nevertheless, my work on Buddhism and feminism is well-received in the far corners of the Buddhist world.

This largely descriptive blog will be followed in a few days by excerpts from the paper I presented at the conference.

Rita M. Gross, Ph.D. is a Buddhist scholar-practitioner who teaches Buddhist dharma and meditation nationwide and who has published on many aspects of feminism and religion.  She received her Ph. D. from the University of Chicago and is Professor of Comparative Study of Religions, Emerita, at the University of Wisconsin—Eau Claire.  In 2005, she was named a lopon (senior dharma teacher) by Her Eminence Jetsun Khandro Rinpoche, head of the Mindrolling lineage of Nyingma Tibetan Buddhism.  Her books include Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of BuddhismFeminism and Religion: An IntroductionSoaring and Settling: Buddhist Perspectives on Contemporary Social and Religious Issues, and A Garland of Feminist Reflections: Forty Years of Religious Exploration.  She co-authored Religious Feminism and the Future of the Planet: A Buddhist-Christian-Feminist Dialogue with Rosemary Radforth Reuther and co-edited Unspoken Worlds: Religious Lives with Nancy Auer Falk.  Her forthcoming book is Religious Diversity—What’s the Problem? Buddhist Advice for Flourishing with Religious Diversity.  She live in Eau Claire, Wisconsin where she leads a small Buddhist dharma study group.  With her live three Siamese cats and a Border collie.  She gardens extensively and has about five hundred house plants.

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Categories: Buddhism, Feminism, General

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7 replies

  1. Hi Rita, so glad your work is being heard outside the western academy that in many ways unfairly shunned those doing constructive work but not working from within Christianity and in some few cases Judaism. Blessed be. Your pal, Carol

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  2. Great to get a report from a Buddhist women’s perspective! Thanks, and I look forward to hearing more. I think we all have a lot to learn by stepping outside our box of Western thinking.

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  3. This is very interesting. I’m devoted to, among other goddesses, Tara. I remember a long weekend of study and celebration of Tara when I was the only pagan in a room filled with Buddhists, not all of them Asian. The Buddhists didn’t care that I wasn’t one of them. We were all focused on the goddess. It was lovely. I hope your conference is lovely, too. Years later, I attended a performance by a school of Tibetan monks. (They were doing a world tour.) In the Q&A afterward, I asked, “Where are the nuns?” I was told, “They’re doing housework.” Not lovely. Like the Little Prince said, rien n’est perfect.

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  4. Thank you, Rita, for this descriptive post. It’s always wonderful to hear about the work of feminists all over the world, and all over the theological world. From another Wisconsin feminist in Madison.

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  5. Hello Barbara, Tara or Arya Tara is one of the great goddesses of hindu-buddhist tantric tradition. What is of importance to us in the south indian state of Kerala is the belief that the buddhist pureland Potala is supposedly situated in the hill named Potiyil malai in the Sahya mountain ranges which separate Kerala from the neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu. This is a place where deathless sages are believed to reside;where deserving purehearts are blessed with visions of these masters and are initiated by them in spiritual practices. The deathless yogi Babaji himself is believed to have been initiated into the higher techniques of kriyayoga here by sage Agastya, a deathless master. The bodhisttvas and budhhist deities are supposed to congregate here as also the masters from all traditions from all over the world in their spirit form. This a belief held for ages in Kerala for which I found a corraboration in Martin Wilson’s “In Praise of Tara; Songs to the Saviouress” in which he says that the seat of Arya Tara lies off South India, close to the tropical sea(p.95). We are the Southern most state of India and is surrounded by seas in two sides. Incidentally, one of the most sacred Mahayana texts “Arya Manjusree Kalpam” was unearthed from Sreemoolavasam(which Wilson mentions-p.39), one of the early medieval Buddhist sites in North Kerala now under the sea.
    And to Rita, who is a practising Buddhist and a Buddhist scholar I would love to point out the fact that Ayyappan or Dharmashastha who is effectively the most popular hindu god in South India(comprising the four states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh) whose mountain abode is situated in dense forests in central Kerala is thought by many to be a hinduised form of the Buddha. Women of menstruating age(10-50)are not allowed to visit this shrine or enter the forest surrounding His mountain abode which pretty well remind us of the early buddhist misogynist attitude. Men who go there are supposed to undergo rigorous austerities which includes abstention from alcoholic drinks, nonvegetarian diet, all interactions with women as far as possible, entering into arguments, altercations etc.,causing injury to all forms of life, sleep on the floor, taking baths twice a day etc for 41 days which remind one of the Buddhist pancha shila. The austerities begin with the wearing of a mudra or emblem which mark him out as a devotee. From then on he will be addressed only under the name of the God himself. The devotees greet each other using the same term-Ayyappan. Even the animals they comes across shall be addressed as Ayyappan only. The most striking feature of the pilgrimage to Sabarimala(mountain abode of Ayyappa), is the loud recitation of the saranam by pilgrims which remind us of the triratnas or the Buddhist saranam. While the buddhist saranam proclaims taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha, devotees of Ayyappa loudly proclaim their refuge in Ayyappa. Swami saranam, ayyappa saranam, swami saranam ayyappa. The ever youthful, charming, celibate god sits in a yogic posture-pattabandhanasana, displaying the chinmudra denoting the union of individual and universal souls which leads to bliss. He has a top knot or ushnisha, like the Buddha which shows his status as a great yogi. Ayyappan is an endearing term used by his devotees while his real name is Dharmashastha- one who imposes dharma or righteousness, a synonym for the Buddha which appears repeatedly in the Jatakas and the sanskrit lexicon Amarakosa.

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