Where does your conviction come from? By Oxana Poberejnaia

oxanaI sometimes feel a bit awkward about not having read a lot of feminist books and not knowing a lot of feminist theory. However, I draw support from the example of Zen, “the teaching beyond letters.”

zen_logo_by_vargux-d4lwlr5The number and scope of different Buddhist traditions might overwhelm non-Buddhists reading my ramblings or any other writings about Buddhism. Even Buddhists, as those who come to Manchester Buddhist Convention, of which I am a co-organiser, every year discover new Buddhist groups that have been hitherto unknown to them.

All these traditions claim to be an authentic form of Buddhism and those that are concerned with such things, trace direct lineage of teaching coming all the way from the Buddha. As the editor of the volume “Buddhist Scriptures” Donald S Lopez Jr notes (Penguin Classics, 2004), such diversity requires certain means of ensuring that this school’s particular teachings are still in line if not with the letter, then with the spirit of the historic Buddha’s teaching.

This could be a daunting task, considering that any Buddhist schools were and are being born now centuries and millennia later, and continents away from north India of 2,500 years ago.

One example of such alighting is given in the collection “Buddhist Scriptures,” in the chapter “A Zen master interprets the Dharma.” It is from the work “Muddying the Water” by the Japanese Zen Master Bassui Tokusho (1327-1387).

A layman comes to a Zen Master and starts the conversation by expressing doubts in Zen’s sincerity when it defines itself as a “transmission separate from the teachings, one which does not rely on letters,” as Zen similar to other Buddhist traditions has many writings and disciples learning a lot from teachers. The Zen Master replies by talking about the Zen mind, which acts of itself. (pp. 532-533)

Afterward the Zen Master reinterprets, in a Zen way, some major precepts of lay and monastic Buddhist life. For instance, the very first precept that both lay and monastic followers of the Buddha recite, the precept against killing is re-interpreted in the following way. “A person who has not yet seen nature drowns in a sea of thinking, thereby killing his own mind-buddha.” (p. 534)

The precept against stealing: “When confusion arises, it damages dharma assets and destroys merit. That is theft.” (p. 534) The rest of fundamental moral Buddhist precepts – against false speech, improper sexuality and intoxication – are explained in a similar way.

Even such a specific monastic precept as not eating after midday is given a new taste: “The true afternoon fast is embodying the way of no-minding [mushin] so that [outside and inside are] smashed flat together.”

Therefore, we can see that an external observer, when comparing Theravada and Zen vision of the said moral precepts, would not be able to tell they sprung from the same spiritual founder – unless expressly told so. Nevertheless, neither Theravada nor Zen authorities have any problem with this fact and never excommunicated each other from the more general “Buddhism.”

I believe that the reason for this is that both Theravada and Zen practitioners understand that the inner conviction indeed does not come from letters, either Pali Cannon or Zen Koans. More interestingly, Zen teachings claim very strongly that the ultimate goal of the practice – Enlightenment – paradoxically lies outside practice or effort. Instead, it is a birth right of all sentient beings.

SpartakiadaSSSRMoreover, although a great emphasis is made on practice and self-discipline in Theravada, one image is brought up again and again by Theravada teachers. It is that of the young Prince Siddhartha sat relaxed under a tree. It was a hot day and his Father the King was performing a ritual of first ploughing of the land. The young boy fell into the rhythm of the oxen walking, the plough treading the earth, the men walking behind it, the breeze rustling through the leaves and who knows what else.

Years later, unsatisfied with every existing spiritual teaching that Siddhartha mastered, he remembered that moment of complete peace from his childhood, and sat under a different tree, which has since came to be known as the Bodhi Tree – the tree of Enlightenment.

I feel that similarly, in feminism, we can learn a lot from books. We can find arguments to support what we have felt instinctively. We can attain tools for the struggle. We can learn techniques to effect positive change.

Stamp_Soviet_Union_1976_4601However, I feel that my true feminist conviction does not come from books or much of what I learnt in later life. It comes rather from my early childhood; from the way my Mom was treated by my Father, by her colleagues and by society – as an independent human being, equal to men around her. I also witnessed women in positions of power, authority and expertise. I assumed the same future awaited me.

So when I entered adult patriarchal world my conviction has shown me that the patriarchal order was wrong, not me. I am very lucky to have had feminist pioneers start the fight for me, and I am very lucky to have fellow feminist support me on the path. And that initial sparkle of knowing what’s right still sustains me.

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman cosmonaut

Valentina Tereshkova, the first woman cosmonaut

Other people might have different feminist inspirations: it might be a matriarchal Grandmother who held the family together, or a character from a children’s cartoon. I feel that these are just as helpful on the feminist path as book knowledge.


Oxana Poberejnaia is a content writer at http://content4you.org. She 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 10th 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. Her works can be found on her blog. http://poeticoxana.wordpress.com 


Categories: Buddhism, Feminism and Religion, Feminist Awakenings, Patriarchy, Women's Power

Tags: , , , ,

8 replies

  1. How lucky you are to have strong women role models in your life! When I was your age and younger, we said “sisterhood is powerful,” meaning that the support and confirmation we get from other women is crucial in our journeys. But we had very few older women to show us how to fashion our lives.


  2. Thanks, Oxana, for a wonderful piece. Are religious texts essential in order to live a good, moral life? is a question that often comes up in classroom discussion. You note that both Theravada and Zen practitioners assert that “…inner conviction does not come from letters.” Reza Aslan, a Muslim scholar (author of NO GOD BUT GOD and other books) says very much the same thing. “People don’t learn their values from religious teachings — people infused scripture with their own personal values.” Perhaps more and more, Abrahamic religious traditions are saying “out loud” what Buddhism (broadly speaking) has understood from the “get-go.”


  3. Traditionally, the Bodhi tree, the Tree of Enlightenment Siddhartha sits under is thought to be a fig tree indigenous to India (Ficus religiosa) — it’s a shade tree with huge, shining leaves, absolutely gorgeous — see photo here: earlywomenmasters.net/shobogenzo/b/bukkyo_sutras/bukkyo_bodhi.html


  4. No matriarch’s in our family. My mother was a slave, her children’s and her husband’s. After having grown up, or perhaps long before, when still a child I thought, never, never will I do this. And didn’t.


    • Yup. Women also have stories like this. Women have all sorts of back stories. Like one of my drum students, for instance, could not bring herself to sing in public, even Goddess chants and songs, because she was forced to sing in a particular religious tradition as a young girl.


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