Although it can be said that the Buddhist teaching can benefit all, including feminists, it can also be argued that Feminism has a lot to teach Buddhist practitioners. Rita M. Gross made this point brilliantly in her “Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism.”
While Buddhism generally encourages investigation, it is still easy for a Buddhist practitioner to become complacent. This complacency can be caused by the feeling of safety that your particular school of Buddhism provides. How your mind works, how the world works are all explained, all is well, just keep practising in the assigned paradigm, there is no need for thinking outside the box.
However, Buddhists often forget that it is exactly outside the box where the Buddha has been pointing with his every teaching, ever since he got liberated. When a Buddhist practitioner is stuck, the vigour of Feminism can provide inspiration. Feminists simply never stopped, do not intend to stop now.
First-wave feminists started fighting for women’s political rights. These women pioneers sacrificed their comforts and even lives in the process. At the time when “to be a woman” meant to be a domestic provider for everyone’s needs and keeping quiet, they re-invented the role of a woman.
Similarly, the historic Buddha would often re-define concepts familiar to his contemporaries. He would turn outdated notions toward a truth that he had found through his practices. For instance, he would pour new meanings into habitual religious practices of Indo-Europeans of bowing to the six directions (the four cardinal ones plus earth and sky). About the earth, he said:
To worship the earth means to be fair to your servants, giving them work according to their abilities, paying them fair wages, and providing them with medical care when they are sick.
Then in the mid-twentieth century, came the second-wave feminism, which called for more attention to social and cultural structures, which together give rise to discrimination of women. However, Feminism did not stop there. The third wave came with the demand for even more liberation for women from all walks of life: black as well as white, working-class as well as middle-class, gay as well as straight.
This constant pushing of the boundaries is very similar to how our Buddhist practice unfolds. For instance, I came to Buddhist meditation with a very rigid, very forceful attitude of “I’m gonna get it”. So I approached meditation as a challenge and fought through it.
The first break-though happened when I witnessed that relaxing in my body during meditation did in fact relax and expanded my mind. It was a glorious feeling and an important discovery. I started paying much more attention to my body as opposed to my mind, which I had been cultivating unceasingly prior to that.
More insights and discoveries came. I kept confirming through my experience that easy does it and that gentleness and acceptance starts with me. Unless they do, they never work with other people or in the world. Like many other Buddhist practitioners, I let gross illusions and attachments to fall away first, such as the belief that the outside world is always responsible for my emotional state, or meat eating.
However, with each plateau on your way, there is another opening up. First it was about being right. Now I am working on not being so bothered about being right as long as happiness increases for everyone. And there is no end to this process in Buddhism until one “nirvanas”. (Some people prefer to use “nirvana” as a verb, precisely because if we think of it as a thing, it might appear limited, while it’s not.)
In the process of expanding Feminism, feminist theories also widened horizons for all of humanity. Post-structural feminism teaches that that “man” and “woman” are both social constructs, together with any other social identity, such as “straight”, “gay”, “middle-class” etc. This is a huge revolution in our thinking, which has not yet seeped deeply enough in our everyday discourse.
Maybe this is why the historic Buddha did not talk much about women’s issues: perhaps he perceived that all identities are dependent on the society and time in which they are propagated, and did not want “women” or “men” to get stuck forever with the teachings that he gave in his time in North India. Hence, his teachings can possibly be applied (after feminist scrutiny) to sentient being with any gender and sexual identity.
The theories of post-structural feminism can be used to back-up Buddhist teachings of dependent origination. For instance, Dhammapada starts with a verse:
Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought. If with an impure mind a person speaks or acts suffering follows him like the wheel that follows the foot of the ox.
In the context of poststructuralist Feminism one possible interpretation of this teaching is as follows. You are what you think of yourself. For example, if your self-identification is that of a “little wife”, you will live in a world where you are a little wife of an all-powerful, all-knowing man. Margaret Mitchell masterfully described this situation in her “Gone with the Wind.”
Melanie, who after the war has become a pillar of Atlanta’s society, does not realise it. She speaks of her husband and men in general as these lords of life, and puts herself in a subservient position. The only thing that keeps her from taking her rightful place is her own thinking. Thus her “wheel” – her life, follows “the ox” of her mind.
Oxana Poberejnaia is a frame drummer, writer and an artist at http://poeticoxana.wordpress.com. 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 exploring the Sacred Feminine through frame drumming, working with her menstrual cycle, frame drumming and shamanic journeying, while keeping the practice of Buddhist meditation. Her frame drum band Incidentals can be found here.