The 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?
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?
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.
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.