Are Buddhist Women Happy? by Oxana Poberejnaia


0The basic question is the same as in a “A Bit of Fry and Laurie” sketch about a sour-faced champion car racer: “Are you happy?” Are we, Buddhist women, happy with Buddhism? Are Buddhist men happy with the position of Buddhist women? Are we happy with the legacy we are leaving for future generations of Buddhist men and women?

This question can be re-phrased as: Are we happy because we should be happy? Because if we are unhappy it is our failure as women? Or as Buddhist practitioners? Are we happy to keep other people happy?

Do these questions sound familiar? – Are these the same questions that women have to deal with anyway, in this patriarchal society we live in?

Absent women

My position is that of feminism. Women in contemporary society have no place of their own. Women are seen and treated as deficient men: Men who bleed, men who cause nuisances to work places and benefit office by bearing children, men who have cycles of health, weight, and mental and emotional states. Women are constrained and contained – so that the patriarchal order of things carries on.

Women are denied their history, their language, their culture, women’s spirituality. Women have no land to stand on, no fortress to defend, because there is no place in society that women can call theirs. We are wives, daughters, sisters, lovers, carers, disturbers of peace. We are companions, consorts, “Other Women,” or enemies – all in relation to men. But we never stand on our own right.  We cannot describe us by defining us as what we are (as Tony Stark did for his suit).

I said that my position is that of feminism, and not male-bashing. Men do not benefit from patriarchy either. Men are involved in a meaningless non-ending struggle to be The First – which is logically and practically impossible. Men are denied their connection to themselves, to nature, to other people, as these qualities are a threat to the patriarchal system.

Is Buddhism part of problem or solution? 

The question is very clear: is Buddhism in the West part of patriarchy or not? It is also very clear that this question is a multi-faceted, multi-dimensional one. Therefore, what I can say on this subject is necessarily a tiny drop in the discussion, and a very personal perspective.

To put the general feminist inquiry into a more practical plane, let’s consider one issue:

Do the same methods of training in the Dharma work in a same way for women and men? Do women compete in spiritual “sports” that are not relevant for our spiritual development?

Buddhist Psychology

Is the image of a Dharma practitioner masculine, feminine, universal, or neither? If there such a thing as a general human? The Buddha was a man, his mother and his step-mMother were women, his teachers were men, his companions were men, his first disciples were men. Since we often claim that Buddhism is accurate in its insights into human psychology, a question arises: insights into whose psychology exactly?

Some other questions to ask ourselves are: Which part of the metta meditation is most difficult for women? Which – for men? I cannot speak for men, but for me, the first part is most difficult: wishing myself to be well and happy. Even after I have realised this, I still say to myself: “Yeah, yeah, I really should,” but I tend to skip that part of the metta meditation anyway.

Buddhist Ethics

A question about Buddhist ethics would be: Does it overlook women and focus primarily on men? Does it sometimes seem that Buddhist ethics aims to getting men to the place where women are already? Taking one saying from Sutta Nipata 1.8:

Even as a mother

protects with her life

Her child, her only child,

So with a boundless heart

Should one cherish

all living beings.

Should we not, as women, immediately refer this to our own experience, like so: “Oh, right, so, it means that I should cherish all living beings the same way I protect my own child (for women who have children) or as I already protect children of other women, my relatives, my friends, environment, and so on.” But do we as women do that – let’s answer honestly? Most of the time, we do not. Because when we approach Buddhism, we approach it as generic spiritual seekers, as the same deficient men we have been all our lives. And instead of thinking of our own experiences, we start conjuring in our heads that distant Indian woman, whom the Buddha had in mind, whose properties we are invited to emulate.

Oxana Poberejnaia was an Officer of the University of Manchester Buddhist Society while studying for a PhD in Government, and has been involved in organising the Manchester Buddhist Convention, now in its 9th year. Oxana is now exploring the Sacred Feminine while keeping the practice of Buddhist meditation.

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Categories: Buddhism, Ethics, Feminism, Women's Spirituality

Tags: , , , , , , ,

18 replies

  1. Buddhist Bhutanese women think their husbands have the right to beat them. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/10/buddhist-bhutan-wrestles-_n_821606.html

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  2. Andre, Thank you for your comment! This is very useful. I mentioned in my post that I talk about the situation of Buddhist women in the West, because this is where I live. Issues that Buddhist women face in the West are connected with the problems of the Minority World, whereas problems of women in the Majority World are different, be they Buddhist, Hindu, or Pagan.

    In addition, what is worth considering is whether Buddhism a traditional religion for a given country, a state religion, or one of religions present in a secular state, or one of religions present in a religious state – these would be all completely different.

    And finally, I would like to note that we in the Minority World have to stay sober and focused. It was alluring, and I am speaking from experience here, to think of Bhutan as this Buddhist paradise, especially due to their PR campaign of Gross National Happiness index. However, Bhutan holds 140th place in UN’s HUman Development Index, which measures life expectancy, literacy, education, standards of living, and quality of life.

    Before we start dreaming of Buddhist, Indigenous or any other paradise, let us look first if these people have enough to eat, how many of their infants die, and if they send their daughters to school – if indeed they have schools.

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  3. What does it mean to be happy? For a long time I equated being happy with being in a great long-term relationship. I also wondered how happy we can be if we are aware of the suffering in the world. Or does being happy mean for us that we give thanks for the gift of life every day when we wake up and for the kinds of love we experience daily and at the same time not give up the struggle to change the world, while not being attached to a particular outcome in relation to our individual efforts. I am not a Buddhist but I sometimes say I am a kind of a Buddhist because I have given up a large portion of the needing to have the world be a certain way that once caused me great suffering.

    I guess I think it is important to experience joy in the beauty that still exists in the world and to experience the pain of the world too. Is that happiness?

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    • Thank you for your comments, Carol! Well, I am no expert on happiness :-) In the title of my post, I meant “happy” more as “satisfied”, but I used the word” happy” because Buddhism is often presented in the Minority World as the path to true happiness. So, a sort of reflection on that: does the path that promises ultimate happiness to everyone satisfy its women?

      As for happiness, believe it or not, I have had the very same experiences as you. I put all my happiness in dependance on whether I was in love with a person and whether they loved me back. I do still worry about everyone else’s happiness in the world. However, it an old truism that we should pray to have wisdom to distinguish between what we can and cannot change. In addition, in Buddhist practice getting yourself free and happy first is considered wise, as to be able to help others reach liberation and happiness, one must no the way. There is also “dedication of merit” and “metta” practices, through which Buddhist practitioners have a chance to wish all beings well.

      Otherwise, I see happiness like you do. I give thanks every day, I appreciate the world, my friends, the nature… And of course, struggle for a better life for everyone is part of happiness. And also – just being who we are, finding our ground, standing our ground. I am happy also because I have freedom and opportunity to express myself creatively.

      Most Buddhist traditions would agree that happiness in Buddhist terms has to do with freedom from conditioning. True happiness is that which does not depend on conditions, such as wealth, health, good mood, good events and so on.

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  4. What a glorious teaching you share today, Oxana!

    Even as a mother
    protects with her life
    Her child, her only child,
    So with a boundless heart
    Should one cherish
    all living beings.

    In Zen, it is said, “a woman is a woman, a man is a man, this is thusness that is thusness.” So there can be no inequality, not only between the sexes but amongst all that is. In Buddhism all things have Buddha Nature. If we could all bow to one another therefore and serve each other as deities, we could heal society and the planet too. The following quote is cited from “Taking Refuge in the Three Treasures,” ed. by Nishijima & Cross:

    “The enlightened have no trouble recognizing the divinity in all creatures, as illustrated by a story about Ramakrishna. As Ramakrishna was performing a worship service at a temple, a cat wandered in just when he was about to offer food to the deity. Upon seeing the cat, Ramakrishna bowed down and gave the cat the food. Many people gasped in horror. However, Ramakrishna had perfectly illustrated what Vedanta [existence = Buddha Nature] is all about.”

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  5. Ross, thank you for your kind words and for sharing the story!

    Yes, in Mahayana Buddhism all things have Buddha nature. Also, both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhist schools teach that all phenomena arise based on conditions. So, it can, of course, be said that man is a man (especially in Zen, as Zen can say pretty much anything as skilful means to get a student enlightened).

    But it can also be said that Buddhism, like modern sociology, teaches that nothing in social reality has unchangeable essence or nature. It can be argued that Woman and Man are not just Woman and Man, but a temporary concept, resulting from a struggle of various political forces, the battlefield for which is language.

    For instance, just to take one, a saying “Who wears trousers in your marriage?” implies that man is quite simply the one who dictates their will onto others. These sort of social norms can be changed and do change.

    How society defines gender creates Woman and Man. For example, if a society does not recognise transgender people, a transgender Man is Woman in such society, because he was born with female genitalia.

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  6. Initially, I felt depressed by your post, but you shared in a spirit of openness. The Buddhists I know in the UK are peaceful people, very humble and who do bow to the Buddha in others. I love their greeting and goodbyes!

    We can’t rewrite history, or religious texts, but we can be hopeful in our daily lives, by not only becoming more aware, more peaceful but also ACTING from that state. For example, your story about Ramakrishna and the cat. I choose to talk to homeless people, and buy them a meal, wherever I find myself, for instance……

    After 10 years of searching, reading and thinking, I have concluded that the best thing I can do with my shattered Christian faith (shattered because of all the bigotry, hatred and abuse done in its name) is to bring hope in almost all encounters with people and sentient beings.

    Changing texts/the world is unrealistic. But we can choose to bring hope, and that is good enough in my opinion. Blessings!

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    • Annette, Blessings to you too and, first of all, as Douglas Adams would say, “Don’t Panic”. There is nothing to be depressed about. If someone in the 19th century had written that women don’t have votes, that it is unfair and should be rectified, that would not have been a cause for depression, but a call to action. And since women suffrage is reality now, I would say that changing the world is realistic.

      Personally I would not rely too much on reading and thinking as our faiths shatters. From my experience of Buddhist meditation I can say with certainty that the only thing that brings positive lasting and sustainable change is regular practice. It can be anything: jogging, gardening, singing, martial arts, meditation, shamanic journeying, Julia Cameron’s The Artist’ Way. The only condition is that it should be practiced regularly, ideally daily, wholeheartedly and while striving for excellence.

      Regular practice gives “flow”, which is one of the easiest ways to experience happiness. It gives confidence, rootedness, self-esteem, mental, psychological and physical well-being. Best wishes!

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  7. Thanks for this post, Oxana. The distinction between eastern and western Buddhism is essential, I think. Maybe then you could look at what transfers from the original religion in the East to the West when it comes to gender relations. You don’t answer that question here, but begin to ask the questions that are necessary to answering it.

    I would like to answer one of your questions, however: Is there a general human? A universal human? I believe that ultimately there are human characteristics that we all share. However, especially at this point in history, the differences between us are more important, and separate us in ways that are extremely significant (LGBTQ people, women, men, queer folks, different races, different religions, different classes, etc.). It’s the same question as with the American melting pot: if we see everyone as melting into one big, American soup, it’s very easy for those in power to overgeneralize about who we are, and we know who gets to do the overgeneralizing: white, heterosexual men from the upper classes and the hegemonic religions.

    That said, I believe there are psycho-spiritual practices in Buddhism that are useful to all of us, but I’m not sure the religion is good for all of us. What we’re seeing now in the US, for instance, is that some Buddhist women are at the forefront of the religion. But I believe that’s because it’s a young religion, and looking at history, we can see that at the early stages of a new religion, those who are skilled rise to the top (for e.g. Voodoo in New Orleans, for instance). But once the religion has become institutionalized WITHIN A PATRIARCHAL SOCIETY, men take over the leadership roles.

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    • Nancy, thank you so much for this thoughtful analytical reply! It is always a joy to me to speak to an intelligent person! Yes, I feel that tracing what transfers from the East when Buddhism comes West would be a Herculean task. I can only hope that scholars somewhere have published or are publishing research on this topic. I rarely read academic journals on Buddhist matters.

      At a glance, Buddhism in the West exist in three broad categories: 1. predominantly ethnic groups, where immigrants from a certain country carry on with their traditions. (Who nevertheless usually welcome westerners) 2. Buddhist schools which originated in the West, and 3. Buddhist centres which are attended predominantly by Westerners, who follow a tradition that originated in the East.

      When I talk about the schools that originated in the West I do not just mean Triratna, which is now actually present in the East as well, but also a Korean school Kwam Um School of Zen. Karma Kagyu, while a legitimate Tibetan school, is most known and wide-spread thanks to the activities of the Danish Lama Ole, who sets up centres around the whole Western world.

      It would of course be interesting to look at how deep patriarchy is embedded in these three categories.

      I completely agree with your points on universal human nature and on the present state of things in society. Cordelia Fine, author of Delusions of Gender,

      http://www.amazon.co.uk/Delusions-Gender-Science-Behind-Differences/dp/1848312202

      argues that humans are conditioned into gender concepts since before they are born. She also makes a good case about how social understanding, stereotypes and prejudices about gender shape our behaviour, our thinking, and also – what is most interesting – actually affect our biological make-up, our brains! This is so in line with a Buddhist teaching of conditioned arising: everything is shaped by conditions, nothing exists in isolation from everything else.

      I know from experience that Buddhist psycho-spiritual practices are useful to all of us, as you say, and I am going to write about it for this blog.

      It is such a great observation you have made about young religions and how they then become institutionalised into patriarchy. From what little I know about Islam, I think this happened there as well. Women used to hold leadership positions, but no more.

      So, thank you once again!

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  8. Thank you, Oxana, for writing this. I appreciate your insights and am learning from you in these blogs. From my understanding, early Buddhism started with sexism. I’ve read where the Buddha originally refused to ordain women as nuns, saying that allowing women into the sangha would cause his teachings to survive only half as long –- 500 years instead of a 1,000. Prejudice and by context, patriarchy, are so entrenched in all our psyches, it is hard to shake and it takes constant vigilance. See Peggy McIntosh’s paper on White Privilege which demonstrates lack of awareness. We are also entrenched into our genders (sexual differentiation of gonads takes place at about 2 months in gestation, testosterone hits the fetal brain around 5 months). Gunnar Johansson showed in the 1970s that we can tell a male from a female walking in the dark with only a few points of light on their joints. Aristotle’s sense of being happy was in the sense of perfect wisdom (the unity of intuitive reason, scientific knowledge, and the acting for the good of humanity). That’s morality, his virtue ethics. I had a Buddhist friend who taught me that we are attracted to that which causes us to suffer. And to free ourselves from suffering we must let go of wanting. It is much better to be in a being state than a wanting state. Then we don’t come at people with a blast of energy. In a being state, we just are. This is a ramble, sorry.

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    • Thea! Thank you so much for your comment. I can tell that you are passionate about fighting patriarchy. I agree with you that early Buddhism started with sexism. I think I cannot avoid writing a post about how it all started – with women in early Buddhism :-) Yep, the 500-1000 years thing is correct. The reason I think why Buddhism started with sexism is because by the time the Buddha started teaching, Indian subcontinent, and especially its northern part, where the Buddha was born, got enlightened and taught, was already deeply affected by the patriarchal religion of the invaders, the Indo-European horse-riding warriors. they had installed the caste system along with a pantheon of gods in which male warrior gods were superior. So, I think one explanation of why the Buddha sais what he said is that in that society if he allowed women into the sangha, people would have looked down upon the Buddhist religion – as patriarchal attitudes were already entrenched. The Buddha gave other instructions which arose purely from a desire to keep low profile, not to shock the Indian public at the time: for instance, he order the monks not to swim in rivers naked – after one occurrence of that.

      When asked directly if women can get enlightened, the Buddha said yes. So, in early Buddhism there is no discrimination against women spiritually, but definitely there is discrimination socially.

      I agree with you that shaking patriarchy off takes constant vigilance. But this is nothing new: Buddhism is all about mindfulness: being present in each moment. There is an Islamic parable, I believe, about gate to heaven opening ones a thousand times or something, and you have to be watchful at all times not to miss it. In Christianity there are practices of being constantly aware of God… and so on.

      Where I tend to take a different viewpoint from yours is where you speak about biological basis for gender. We are only as entrenched in our gender as our society wants us to be. It was never proven that foetal testosterone does anything, largely because it was practically never measured directly. Even if that testosterone does anything to foetuses, we don’t know how it can be translated into babies’ and children’s thinking and behaviour. For this and other arguments against biologically-defined gender see Cordelia Fine’s “Delusions of Gender” (The link is in my earlier reply to this post)

      Most of what happens to us in society is society-based. We can only tell a male from a female because males and females are taught, forced and coerced by society to walk in a certain way, dress in a certain way, laugh in a certain way.

      Aristotle is not my favourite philosopher, so… He was a perfect product of his misogynist society. I don’t take his views seriously.

      What your Buddhist friend told you can be rephrased thus: when we are attracted to anything, we will suffer. This is a Buddhist teaching, yes. And I completely agree with you that it is better to be in a being state. :-)

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  9. Hi Oxana. Thanks for answering. I read what I could online of the Cordelia Fine book, and would like to read the whole thing. I can’t read the 2nd half of it where she is talking about neurosexism. I can’t believe she says it was “never proven that foetal testosterone does anything” because even on page xxvii she says “there are sex differences in the brain.” I don’t argue that gender is society-based. I like her quote by Mahzarin Banaji who says “there’s no bright line separating self from culture”. But I see she does refer to Anne Fausto-Sterling who wrote The Five Sexes in 1993 and who pointed out the complexity of gender because it involves chromosomes, hormones, internal sex structures, gonads, and external genitalia. Sure, society forces people into pigeonholes about everything (otherwise, the kids on the playground/office/university/audience won’t like us). But to say hormones don’t affect the developing brain is just not true.

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  10. Hello, Thea!

    thank you for your reply as well.

    I am aware of the “chromosomes, hormones, internal sex structures, gonads, and external genitalia” criteria for determining biological sex. However, a social persona does not experience their gender based on these. For instance, a woman with internal sex structures of a male can live her whole life as a woman and never know.

    Cordelia Fine actually presents a very nuanced argument. testosterone does something to the brain, yet the correlations that people, especially popular science authors make between brain structure and thinking and behaviour patterns are most often based on stereotypes and prejudices. There is no scientific evidence for the popular left/right hemisphere “theory”. And the famous “thicker connection between hemispheres” that women possess and that supposedly give us some better connection between our emotions and language, is actually a feature of smaller brains. Smaller men also have a thicker connection compared to larger men.

    Cordelia Fine points out that there are infinitely more similarities than differences between a male and a female brain. However, differences tend to be publicised more both in academia and obviously, mass media.

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  11. Hi Oxana. Thanks for your response. I purchased the Fine book and am reading it. I only studied this aspect of the brain peripherally when I did my Ph.D. in computational neuroscience in the 80s. But I did my share of dissections and studied lots of the neuroscience literature. You seem to have such a strong attachment to this topic. I too care about women being treated equally but that doesn’t preclude the fact that women’s brains are different than men’s brains. The true statement is that everyone’s brains are different from everyone else’s. I was born a girl but was socialized as the son of my theoretical physicist father. I flirted with heterosexuality and also a sex change, but am a well-adjusted lesbian in a long-term relationship. I have no mothering instincts. I have an undergraduate degree in computer science, a master’s in engineering, a Ph.D. as I said. That puts me in the middle of Fausto-Sterling’s female category, but studying fields many women don’t go into. My brain is wired masculine in some ways, feminine in others. And now I travel around the United States teaching young women about cultural constraints using my play “We Did It For You! Women’s Journey Through History” http://www.wediditforyou.org. Patriarchal thinking holds us all down with its insidious assumptions. I battle it constantly in my thinking and my writing. I look forward to finishing Fine’s book. What’s your story?

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    • Hello, Thea! Thank you for your story. Believe me, I do my best not to get attached to anything, this topic included – that’s my 10.5 years of Buddhist training activated (part of my story). So I am not going to say anything on it here. I have PhD in Political Sciences (another part of my story), so the idea that social world with everything in it is a convention is mother’s milk to me. I also try not to construct stories about myself in ernest. Instead, I construct a multitude of stories through my writing, music and painting. If you have any time at all in your busy life, you could check out my website: http://poeticoxana.wordpress.com Thank you! Best wishes!

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Trackbacks

  1. Are Buddhist Women Happy? Part II by Oxana Poberejnaia | Feminism and Religion
  2. Gender and Human Rights Session at Manchester Buddhist Convention 2013 | Manchester Buddhist Convention

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