From the Buddhist point of view, all phenomena are conditioned, i.e. they arise, carry on, and come to an end because of other phenomena. Buddhism does not look at anything we experience as “things”, but rather as processes.
Confusion arises due to various factors, chief among them : 1) vague sense of “ego”, and 2) language. The vague sense of ego is portrayed in Khemaka Sutta as the last delusion that a monk drops before getting Enlightened, so we won’t worry about it now. Where language is concerned, Buddhism stands on similar positions to those of postmodernism and feminism, i.e. our social world is defined by how we speak about it. One can say that we actually create society by the act of speaking.
There is a phrase: “My marriage broke.” Did it? “Show me the shards,” a Zen Master would say. There is no such thing as a “marriage”. There is a series of events and processes of thought, feelings, and word and physical exchanges between people, which at first were not happening (before the spouses met), then happened in various ways (during “marriage”) and now are happening in a new specific way (during and after divorce).
One of those “things” is, of course “Woman”, another is “Wife”, and yet another “Mother”. There are not such “things”. If there were, those of us who combine all three in their persona would be three different people. Nevertheless, each society/class has rigid job descriptions for each of those words. And once we realize we are a “girl” as opposed to a “boy” we start relating to the societal “woman” thing. It can be complete compliance, it can be total rejection and rebellion, or it can be a mixture of the two, but there is no way we can escape the phantom “woman” thing of our society and class. Even if we are transgender, we are still moving toward or away that “woman” thing. As a Buddhist practitioner, I feel that the only way to liberate ourselves is continuous mindfulness.
In patriarchal society, a woman is supposed to be a servant to man. This can be disguised as “a beautiful, other-worldly lady”, as “damsel in distress ”, “a muse” – as long as this word remains a possession of men – a rescuer is permitted to have sex with the damsel and he keeps the copyright. She is supposed to be supportive, caring, and above all – silent. Patriarchal society will not spend resources on her, so she is expected to survive whichever way she can.
This in some cases leads to a situation when we women end up more resilient and more independent than men. We also are usually more supportive of each other, (overflow of all the care we pour on the men in our lives). All of this does not mean that women are inherently stronger or inherently morally superior to men, it is simply the way we are conditioned.
Once my first meditation teacher gave me advice to be mindful of my feelings of injustice and frustration as I had to wash dishes someone left in the kitchen during a retreat. I followed the advice. You cannot go wrong with mindfulness: it is always good to be mindful. In the same vein, in would be good for many men to be mindful of their sense of entitlement: “What gives you the right to think that someone will take care of your dirty dishes?”
We women, especially feminists, have done quite well on the fighting side of things: we learn assertiveness, we take our rights back. However, where we fail very often is in the caring side of things. Once a battle is won we feel warm and fuzzy, we immediately fall back on the societal “Woman”, “Wife”, “Mother” role and before long we find that we have ignored our own needs in serving others, and this time we have no one to blame except ourselves. We did it out of love and care.
So, I say we need to learn to love and care, not just fight, in a feminist way. Recently a female friend, in a circle of female friends, told about an upsetting day with her partner with whom she is on a break. She realized that she dropped her independent self that she had re-acquired during the break, and started caring about him, trying to make sure he was fine and that they went for a walk to where he, not she, wanted. I laughed and I hope she did not take this as insensitivity. It was more a nervous reaction to the sad truth: we are still working hard to overcome societal conditioning.
I am suggesting a mindfulness exercise, based on my own experience. When serving food, I have always given not just bigger, but also better slices, morsels and chunks to my husband and daughter. So, one day I promised myself to consciously give myself best pieces. I found it so hard. I did so a couple of times, and then I dropped mindfulness, and automatically my hand reached for a more attractive grilled onion slice to give to my husband.
I watched my intentions: what was it that drove me to put myself down? Sometimes it was that we had had an argument, and perhaps I was trying to appease my husband. Or sometimes perhaps I felt that I was not fulfilling my role as a “Wife” in some ways, being a person with a busy creative and community life. So, at least in food serving I intended to return to societal status quo. But one of the more poignant realizations was that perhaps I was doing that to honour my Mother, who has always led a selfless life. Perhaps I have felt that putting my needs on top of the list would be betraying her, saying that she has gone wrong. Watching juts how we are trapped will lead to liberation.
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 marking 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. She teaches framed drumming and meditation. Her works can be found on her blog.
- First steps into Buddhist meditation (24hourzen.wordpress.com)