Rita M Gross is her “Buddhism after Patriarchy” says that Buddhism is Feminism. I think I understand what she means.
The goal of Buddhist practice, Enlightenment, is often called Liberation. Liberation can be seen as the goal of Feminism too. In different schools of Buddhism is interpreted differently, but one of the classic explanation is that it is freedom from or absence of anger, lust and ignorance. Enlightenment is also described as a state of ego-lessness.
Rita M. Gross justifiably clarifies the Buddhist understanding of “ego” and “ego-lessness”, which is different from conventional Western notion of ego as “strength” or “scale” of personality. Rita M Gross points out that sometimes feminists say that women need larger egos, not smaller or no egos.
Buddhism sees any ego, any identity, big or small, macho or oppressed, as a hindrance to Enlightenment, Rita M. Gross argues.
As a political scientist, I can describe ego, or as I prefer to call it, identity, in terms of socialisation. Socialisation is the process we go through in order to become part of society as opposed to a lump of biological mass that our parents deliver into the world. Socialisation can be visualised as society flowing in and filling in that biological mass. Little by little, a human being becomes one particular expression of the society she lives in.
According to the specific circumstances of socialisation that expression can be conventional – i.e., an individual will be like most members of her society. It can be marginal: a person will be a homeless person, or an aggressive right-winger. It can also be extremely progressive – and the person then becomes a leader of a reformist movement.
We cannot live without identity – or a number or identities for various circumstances. At the same time, I believe that it is the goal of Buddhist practice to become free of your identity, independent from it.
Even within Buddhism this leaving identity behind has always been challenging. Mahayana, a younger branch of Buddhism compared to Theravada (the only surviving out of original Indian Buddhist schools), deals with this issue by creating a new, “correct” and “Buddhist” identity: that of Bodhisattva, i.e. an individual devoted to liberating every other being before reaching Liberation.
Identity is what stands on the way of feminist ideals too. The reason why it is difficult to control or get rid of harmful identities is because identity is not rational or intellectual. You cannot think it away. Identity is build into your body, into your biology.
I remember the first time when I clearly realised this. I was working in an American summer camp. During a traditional pyjamas breakfast campers started throwing bread rolls at each other, and the adults joined. I almost threw up. In Slavic cultures, bread is sacred. You never throw away bread crusts; you never put bread in the bread bin upside down. Throwing bread for fun is unthinkable. This is just a concept, an idea, a tradition. However, it has spread roots all around my organism and as I saw it violated I had a physical reaction.
This is what Buddhist practice is for: it gently peels off layer after layer of acquired constituent parts of your identity.
Most often it is male identities that are harmful to feminism. Somebody who has not experienced Feminist teachings, Buddhist practice, psychological therapy or any type of self-reflectiion practice, would find it difficult to discern within himself those traits which are beneficial and those which are harmful to him, women and society. See an issue of New Internationalist The Changing Face of Masculinity (July 2011) that reports initiatives across the world where men in groups discover building blocks of their male identities, which cause them harm, and together learn to abandon their macho identities. Most of these harmful traits a man would have picked up uncritically, through socialisation. These traits are all “him”, “himself”, his “identity” to him.
Sometimes it is parts of female identities or whole identities of women, created by capitalist patriarchal societies, which stand on the way of Feminism. At the moment an identity of a female consumerist is popular, especially in the countries that have relatively recently emerged from materialist scarcity and embraced capitalism. In a Ukrainian reality TV programme in which a country girl switches life with a city decadent girl for a few days, I heard the city girl say: “A woman must not work”. It was said as a credo.
Buddhist practice focuses on direct interaction with the world, not clouded by identities. Direct contact with the world can be painful, and one of the purposes and roles of identity is to cushion a person’s contact with herself, with other people and with the realities of physical world, such as impermanence. This is one of the functions of mindfulness: it allows for immediate experience, including that of pain, before pain is suppressed and turned into a harmful aspect of your ego. The idea is that moment by moment it is possible to deal with almost anything, whereas each painful experience, which is avoided, suppressed or ignored, caused more problems in the future.
Women can pick up anti-feminist identities in order to escape the pain of patriarchal goal. These identities include: a saint who has transcended needs for personal assertiveness, humble servant to everyone, who finds fulfilment in self-degradation. There is also “container” and “enabler” of male initiatives as opposed to “doer”. In some Buddhist schools, a woman is likened to the enlightened “space” (supposedly as a complement). This sounds too much like an “enabler” identity to me.
As a realist, I do not object to gradual replacing harmful anti-feminist identities with feminist ones – both for men and women. However, as a Buddhist practitioner and as a political scientist I argue that any identity, even a feminist one, is inevitable limited and conditioned by the society where it exists. Only complete leaving behind any identity can bring about true 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 frame drumming and meditation. Her works can be found on her blog.