When I said in my response to Carol P. Christ’s comment that on one level Goddess spirituality and Buddhism are about the same thing, I am afraid it could have sounded shallow. What I wanted to express is that for a Goddess adherent, the primary goal is not to go through death and be reborn. Neither is the primary goal for a Buddhist to go through death and not be reborn. I believe they both seek the same thing: to be happy in this lifetime, to be comfortable with themselves and the world, to be OK with the reality of their own death. Carol says: “For me, regeneration applies to the community, to nature, to the whole, not to the individual”.
The two faiths just lead to this result by using different theology and practices. One of the ways Buddhism installs this peace of mind is by dissolving the very notion of an “individual” and thus, their impending death becomes less of a problem. From the Goddess side of things, listen to an episode of Karen Tate’s Sex, Religion, Politics podcast Enlightenment for the Rest of Us/Shamanism with Polly Campbell, author of Imperfect Spirituality: Extraordinary Enlightenment for Ordinary People. Karen is a Goddess advocate, and what Polly was teaching could be called secular Buddhism: the same breathing techniques, being in the moment and being grateful.
I believe that at a certain level of realisation, after a certain amount of sincere practice, people of all religions experience life in a similar way. I would also argue that when that happens, these practitioners let go of many conceptual teachings of their religions. Sometimes these people are called mystics. I do not believe that a mystical approach to life is necessary for such realisation. In fact, a person can be of most practical nature and still find life “quite satisfactory” as Carol confesses she does.
For instance, in the Soviet Union stories about Nasreddin Hodja, retold in two novels by Leonid Soloviev, were immensely popular. For Soviet secular people, he was the face of Islam: irreverent, witty, deeply compassionate, busy with helping poor people while others went to daily prayers.
The connection with Feminism here is not that women are inherently averse to theory, but that in our written history patriarchy controlled written and scholar knowledge and guarded it from women. Because of this repression, which still goes on in most Buddhist schools in traditionally Buddhist countries, women excel in practical matters such as the practice of meditation, education (especially of girls), building their own nunneries and so on.
From Rita M. Cross’ Buddhism After Patriarchy I learnt that in Tibetan Buddhism prominent women religious figures could not boast extensive philosophical knowledge, as they were not given the same education as boys, however, they were famous for their mastery of meditation.
Carol also asked me about the very start of Buddhism: i.e. Prince Siddhartha’s leaving his young wife and newborn son in order to achieve Enlightenment. Carol is wondering if the story of abandonment means that “women with children cannot become enlightened either. This answer also seems to assume that while Buddha “could” become enlightened without the burden of wife and family, even the so-called great man could not change the conditions of patriarchy and patriarchal marriage–even for himself, his wife, and his child”.
On the first point, I would say that no, it does not mean that. The historical Buddha was not a Buddha before Enlightenment, thus, not a “great man”. After his Enlightenment, the Buddha made a point of not being a social reformer, concentrating instead on ending suffering of individuals.
Moreover, there was no Buddhism to follow when the Prince left the palace. The historical Buddha (re)discovered a spiritual technique that enables Enlightenment. The technique is now out there for anyone to practice. We do not leave in a social vacuum, and neither did the historical Buddha. For instance, we nowadays cannot forego the dreaded “Festive Season”, even if we are not Christians. Or even if we are Christians and oppose the commercialised Christmas. People still expect cards, gifts and certain food from us. This is just one example.
In the Buddha’s time and his land, life was even more regimented. Every step of every person was accounted for, in accordance with their gender, caste and position in their particular community. I would say with complete confidence that yes, had Prince Siddhartha remained in the palace to live a life of a ruler he would not have reached Enlightenment. Now that he had done that, other can follow – men or women, with children or without.
One of the gifts that the historical Buddha gave to people, Buddhist meditation, is something that I personally would not abandon even if all Buddhist institutions had been rotten patriarchy through and through. Buddhist meditation is unique, and no other spiritual tradition that I know of offers anything similar. Its uniqueness as I see it is that the meditation does not lead you to a pre-determined goal or absolute: Universal Unity, God, Oneness, or anything of this sort. Rather, it peels your own unique layers of anger, greed and ignorance one by one, as you have acquired them. And the second point is that it never stops. There is always a step further, a level deeper. This has been described as “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind”.
You could ask – how about Enlightenment – is not that a goal of Buddhist practice? Yes and no. It is a goal all right, but Buddhist teachings are very careful in insisting that Enlightenment, (nibbana) is beyond samsara, causation and description in words.
Returning to the Christmas issue – and I know I am starting preaching early, but so do shops – start pushing Christmas on us early, don’t they? In the same way as Prince Siddhartha could not combine palace life with spiritual quest, running around malls, sweaty and shopping bags over your shoulders, forearms, and cutting in your palms does not go well with our quest: both feminist and spiritual.
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 frame drumming and meditation. Her works can be found on her blog.
- Cultural conditions and Spiritual Subtleties by Oxana Poberejnaia (feminismandreligion.com)