Are Buddhist Women Happy? Part II by Oxana Poberejnaia

oxanaIn Part I of this post I started asking questions about whether Buddhism in the West is part of patriarchy. Today I offer a possible link between practices of men’s Initiation Rites and some of the elements of Buddhism.

Men’s Initiation Rites

When we consider principle practices of Western Buddhists, primarily daily meditation and meditation retreats we might enquire something like this: since monastic practice is a model for our Western lay practice, do Buddhist monasteries constitute an extension and continuation of men’s long houses, places of men’s initiation rites?

Vladimir Propp, a Soviet scholar of folk tales, argued that the motif of a fight with a large monster, which is present in many folk tales and myths, including St George and his dragon, has its roots in the practices of boys’ initiation in hunter-gatherer societies. That is a stage of societal development through which we all went.

These men’s initiation rites included excruciating physical trials (beatings, sleep deprivation, hunger, hanging the boys by hooks through the skin off the ceiling etc.). The goal was putting boys to test and also causing a change in their consciousness. See academic articles on this topic here and here.

Long houses survived in our fairy tales as houses in forests where a group of males live (as in Snow White). The features of long houses – exclusively male company, hard ordeals that are taken on together, secrets, hierarchy, sense of belonging and achievement – carry on into our society in such institutions as army, sports clubs, gang culture, and various closed groups and professions, for instance a predominantly male University Faculty, a political party, and boy-only boarding schools. Many of these institutions either rule their societies or educate ruling elite for their societies.

In the UK graduates of private paid schools (which are called public schools) are disproportionally represented in Government. See The Sutton Trust’s report for 2010, and articles on educational inequalities in the UK in Economist, and The Telegraph. It costs £150,000 to be educated at Eton.

You get ahead in the army or in a political party by being the toughest, by pushing yourself the hardest. I have noticed that in Buddhist circles “success” and “seniority” is often measured by as the number of “strict retreats” one has attended. Isn’t this related to patriarchal system of values? And, considering family commitments of women, are they not left behind when assessed by the number of strict retreats they have done?

A strict Buddhist retreat varies from tradition to tradition and from centre to centre. For Theravada school, it would mean rising early (say, 5 am), going to bed early (9 pm), eating only breakfast and lunch before 12 pm, and nothing afterward, and maintaining silence. The rest of time is spent in sitting and walking meditation, with toilet breaks. There also might be chanting involved, and possibly a Dhamma talk delivered by a teacher. Practitioners also have a chance to talk to the teacher in private about their meditation practice.

I will let you on a secret that few Buddhist teachers will tell you from the outset: in the early stages of your meditations training your body will probably respond to meditation with pain. In my case, it was pain in my back for a year and a half. Many people also experience emotional pain. This is a normal part of the process, and you get instruction on how to deal with it. However, most Buddhist meditators laugh when they are asked: “So, did you enjoy your retreat? Did you relax?” Buddhist retreats are not for enjoyment or relaxation.

Another feature of male initiation ceremonies, as well as of hunting, men’s predominant activity for hundreds of thousand of years, is silence. We encourage the practice of silence at our retreats and wider practice.

Sometimes silence in Buddhist practice is presented as counterweight to “idle chatter”. This might be relevant for men, as in patriarchal societies men are not encouraged to share their emotions or insights through speech. However, women, who are forced by patriarchal society to be carers-for-everyone-who-happens-to-be-in-the-vicinity, that is not a problem. When women speak to each other, it can be idle chatter, or it can be a meaningful exchange of deep emotions and insights.

In addition, silence prescribed to women on Buddhist retreats may be regarded as an echo of women’s situation in patriarchal society: we are not supposed to raise our voice. Whereas it might be beneficial to men in patriarchal societies to stop imposing their views on their world by stopping to speak, this is not relevant for women.

It has to be said that the ethos of being tough goes against that aspect of the Buddhist teaching which deals with relaxing, letting go and accepting any situation as is. It seems that Buddhism sends a mixed message: relax, but be very disciplined. Everything is all right as it is, yet the historical Buddha vowed on the Enlightenment night to stay under the Bodhi tree until he achieves Liberation even if his flesh and blood dry up.

I heard a Dhamma talk where a teacher mentioned a case of practitioners ending up in hospital after taking this vow literally. They caused some damage to their joints, I believe – which were treated successfully.

Thus, as Nancy Vedder-Shults mentioned in her comment for Part I of this post, “once the religion has become institutionalized WITHIN A PATRIARCHAL SOCIETY, men take over the leadership roles”. Once a religion has become institutionalised within as patriarchal society, its features, which have to do with violence, conquest, and domination become magnified, whereas its features that have to do with body, sensuality, joy, freedom, love and spontaneity become downplayed.

In the Buddhist case, conquest and domination mostly relate to internal strife, but it is a struggle nevertheless. And in the process of possibly beneficial curbing of negative personal traits encouraged by patriarchal societies, Buddhism also suppresses women and prevents them from developing their own version of spirituality, or even their own version of Buddhism.

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 through celebrating seasonal festivals, working with her menstrual cycle, frame drumming and shamanic journeying, while keeping the practice of Buddhist meditation. Oxana is an artist and an author. Her works can be found on her blog.

Categories: Body, Buddhism, Feminism, Hierarchy, Patriarchy, power

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11 replies

  1. Such interesting thoughts Oxana. I think you have well raised the question of what is “male” about the ways Buddhism is taught. My meditation often takes place out of doors following breakfast in my garden. It is not “difficult” or “deprivation-oriented,” but rather involves intense focus on the life in my garden–flowers, plants, trees, birds, bees, butterflies. When I focus on life, my “thoughts” stop, and I feel my connection to everything that is. I don’t suppose this kind of meditation would get me an A at Buddhist boot camp, but for me it works. Hee hee.


  2. PS I recently taught Wolkstein and Kramer’s Inanna. In the story of Inanna’s Descent, Inanna is hung by a meat hook. I always found this gruesome and “not feminist.” Do your sources mention this “female” initiation rite?


    • Thanks Oxana, you complete your meditation with a challenge to your readers, by opening the door to finding our own way!! It was said of Emily Dickinson that her “religion” had exactly one member. I think that’s true of all of us, we make what we can out of different faith traditions, and interpret their scriptures according to our understanding. My spiritual journey at this time is a mixture of Taoism (a very practical nature religion), with Zen Buddhism, feminism and eco-spirituality, along with the art of photography. In my religion of one member, there are no meat hooks, as Carol rightly objects to, regarding the ferocity of many ancient myths, but no one is nailed to a cross either. The Myths have some important psychological teachings that can be surprisingly healing. The Gospels and its parables are deeply compassionate. I do not mean to offend anyone. I am just saying, I think we all need to search out our own paths, and construct our journey with eyes and ears open. There are innumerable ways to heaven.


    • Carol, thank you very much for your kind comments. I will look into female initiation rites. But like Barbara notices, my guess would be that in matrilineal societies women’s initiations happened naturally at first menstrual bleeding, birth of children and menopause. Again, i am only guessing, but my feeling is that any other women’s initiation rituals would be a response to men’s initiation rituals, once women were pushed onto the back seats of spiritual life by patriarchy. Again, I am not a scholar into ethnography, but i would say that the image of Inanna hanging by a meat hook has to do with a response to male initiation rites, as in: “Women can be as tough as men” – which is I think is a patriarchal reaction.


  3. Men’s initiations are not confined to any one religion. I’ve just read a short piece in this morning’s paper about the deaths of 23 young men in South Africa during “nine days of initiation ceremonies that include circumcision and survival tests.” The article goes on to say that initiations “are common in South Africa, where youths partake in various activities as a rite of passage into adulthood….” Well, there are lots of different kinds of initiations. I have been initiated as a Jobs Daughter when was a teenager, into a ceremonial magic lodge, and as a Dianic Witch. All over the world, women give birth, the beginning of an initiation rite that lasts until the kid leaves home. Raising a child–now there’s a true beginning of a new phase of life! Religion may be only a small part of it. We just live and do the best we can.


  4. Very insightful article. I’ve always felt that Buddhism failed to live up to that core principle of detachment, which would mean disengaging from patriarchal hierarchies, the clinging to male authority. This from the very outset, since Gautama’s aunt had to press and beg for women to be included in the sangha. So that it was not a case of men taking over the leadership roles, but being central from the get-go. (They were much more successul in the repudiation of caste.) Who knows if Gautama really said anything like, “Women are full of passion, Ananda; women are envious, Ananda; women are stupid, Ananda. That is the reason, Ananda, that is the cause, why women have no place in public assemblies, do not carry on business, and do not earn their living by any profession.” But the Pali Canon is the oldest source we have to go on. But such doctrines are a different issue than the value of meditation, which is immense. Aside from competitions over who can sit the longest, which miss the point. In Nature, yes, yes.

    As for the meat-hook, i lean toward understanding such myths as addressing the suffering we pass through in life, those really acute experiences, rather than describing it.


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