Cultural conditions and Spiritual Subtleties by Oxana Poberejnaia

oxanaI am very grateful to Carol P. Christ and other contributors for their insightful comments and thoughtful questions to my post “Blindness of the Gals”. As I promised to Carol, here is my post that starts answering some of the issues raised in the comments.

I cannot say that it was giving birth to my daughter that first made me question my blindness to patriarchy in religion and culture. Rather, it was a gradual process of educating myself by reading works by feminist thinkers, and learning about the brave women and men who have been fighting and are still fighting for women’s rights.

There were other factors contributing to opening my eyes, which many other women would lack. Many people are born, live and die in the same culture. I went to the US as an exchange student for a year when I was 16, and at 23 I moved from Russia to the UK. A cultural shift happened when the country I was born and raised in, the USSR, dissolved and 15 new countries emerged in its place. These experiences demonstrated to me that what natives might take for the “natural way of life” is not. Whatever happens in any given culture is a result of a very particular historical process, which would be different for the Soviet Union, USA, UK and post-Soviet Russia.

One example of the need for cross-cultural contextualization is the fact that almost every book I read by Western women on the subjects of feminism and Sacred Feminine would inevitably say: “Our Mothers did not work”. Or “Our Mother had fewer choices in life than we do”.

Stamp(cropped) Valentina Tereskhova.

Stamp(cropped) Valentina Tereskhova. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now, this is not my experience at all. In my family and female lineage, all women worked – throughout the whole of 20th century, and I am sure, before. In the Soviet Union women worked as architects, engineers, film directors, judges, and so on. Valentina Tereshkova, a Soviet citizen, was the first woman in space. So, for me, the idea that women stay at home is foreign. Yet I could see that people in the UK and the US are “blind” to this simple fact that in other countries, particularly, socialist countries, women took on the same jobs as men – and got paid the same salaries for the same jobs.

Then of course comes the next catch: In the Soviet Union, regardless of women and men’s equality at work places, equality did not exist in the rest of life. For one, women worked two shifts in the USSR: at work and at home. And secondly, women were subject to similar set of prejudices, stereotypes, and mental, physical and verbal abuse as their counterparts in the West. All of that despite the fact that Soviet men could clearly see that Soviet women actually did all the jobs and did them well. I started noticing these misogynist jokes when I was watching archives of my all-time favourite Soviet comedy programme “Vokrug Smekha” [Around Laughter], otherwise perfectly decent and sweet. Except one point: almost all comedians and authors featured there were male, and many (I won’t say most) put women down in their routines.

Returning to the “Religion” part in Feminism and Religion. I would like to emphasize one point from Buddhist mythological history, which is sometimes overlooked: Buddhism as an institution might have never happened. The Buddha, once enlightened, realised that what he had realised was so subtle and counterintuitive, that not many people would get it. So he decided not to teach – and if it weren’t for the interference of a benevolent god, who pleaded with Buddha, the Buddha would have remained the only Buddhist in the world(s).

Footprint of the Buddha. 1st century, Gandhara...

Footprint of the Buddha. 1st century, Gandhara, with depictions of the triratna and the Dharmacakra. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This preamble might seem like a cop-out. However, it points to a very real factor that has been there from the very beginnings of Buddhism as an institution, and that is part of it still. The reason that the Buddha even started teaching, reluctantly, was out of compassion. He saw that there were a handful of spiritual practitioners in his time who, with a little help, would reach enlightenment, and so the historical Buddha started teaching. Since then, the Sutta Pitaka (one of the “Three Baskets,” a collection of texts in Trehavada tradition of Buddhism) tells us of numerous people – women and men – who also achieved enlightenment: some after direct contact with the Buddha, some without it. The Buddha gave specific teachings to individual people who came to him with particular problems. The Buddha never directed his followers to convert nor did he issue decrees for the whole of humanity – only for his monks and nuns, who came to him willingly.

It follows, then, that currently you only have to mind anything that the Buddha said (according to the texts preserved by a patriarchal institution) or anything that emerged as sacred Buddhist texts after the Buddha’s Parinirvana (passing on) if you are interested in enlightenment and trust the Buddha, his Dhamma (teaching and truth) and his Sangha (monastic or more broadly also lay community of followers) to guide you there. My emphasis on “you” and “yours” might seem unusual to a Western reader, used to Abrahamic religions. But this is just the thing: Buddhism is not an Abrahamic religion, although it is a patriarchal one. The goal of Buddhist teaching is not salvation for the whole of humankind or establishing a new world order.

This principle also goes to the issue of “underlying premises” versus the practice of meditation. Buddhism does not make ontological claims. It is not like Buddhism first teaches some ultimate truth, and then offers a way to reach it, i.e. meditation. In one Buddhist tradition in the West, called Samatha, practitioners are not allowed to use their centre’s library until they have been practising meditation for a year. (They can, of course, read Buddhist books elsewhere). The idea is that your meditation is your own teacher.

Thus I suppose my feminist convictions now are in a certain way the result of my Buddhist meditation practice.

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.   

Categories: Buddhism, Feminism, Human Rights, Non-Theism, Patriarchy, Sexism, Spiritual Journey, Women and Work, Women's Rights

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5 replies

  1. Thanks Oxana, I like the rule that no books are read until the practitioner accomplishes a year of meditation. I love that Shakyamuni attained enlightenment whilst meditating under a “bodhi” tree, truly a scripture in itself. There’s a closeup of the leaves and other pics of the tree, some with birds and others changing colors with the seasons at Wikipedia (see Ficus religiosa). Buddhism is marvelously liberating, in my view, it gives you back to yourself, whole and brightly shining, much like feminism.


  2. Hi Oxana —

    Interesting post. You don’t make the connection directly (I think Sarah does), but you imply the parallels of moving between cultures — and seeing that each one organizes life differently, and therefore, that we can order our lives differently when it comes to women’s issues — and practicing meditation, which gives us different perspectives on our lives and allows us to make change as well. I know in my life that living in Germany for a year as a 20-year-old prepared me when I returned to accept the women’s movement as having valid understandings about the patriarchal U.S. culture in which I lived.


    • Hello, Nancy! This is a great way of putting it. Thank you. Yes, indeed. Both experiencing different cultures AND the practice of Buddhist meditation give me a sense that human reality is not set in stone. We can indeed organise both our individual lives and social life differently. After having practised Buddhist meditation for a while, I stopped saying things like “I am just this way” – and I find it unconvincing when other people say so. It applies to society as well. When people say: “This is the way of life, this is a natural order of things” – this does not make sense to me at all. So yes, thank you very much for your comment. :-)



  1. Peace of mind vs Dogma and Capitalism by Oxana Poberejnaia | Feminism and Religion

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