Feminism and Buddhism: constructive wave interference by Oxana Poberejnaia

oxanaAlthough 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 He would turn outdated notions toward a truth that he had found through his practices.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.

maxresdefaultThen 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.)

identityIn 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.

larger-back-wheel-of-ox-wagonIn 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.

Categories: Buddhism, Feminism, Feminist Sparks

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17 replies

  1. Some first wave feminists had a more comprehensive analysis than your evolutionary framework suggests. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Mathilda Joslyn Gage went far beyond the struggle for rights in their analyses of patriarchy and patriarchal religions.

    I would not be inclined to let Buddha off the hook as you did in this essay.


  2. Hi Oxana
    I just read your wonderful article and found it both thought provoking and a pleasure to read. As a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner I found it particularly fascinating the way you mention how Buddhist teachings can benefit all – even feminists. I wasn’t exactly sure why you referred to feminists as a kind of subgroup however I believe you are right that Buddhist teachings can provide positivity to everyone. Tibetan Buddhism views all sentient beings as equal but again I agree that as a Buddhist practitioner it is easy to become complacent just as a non Buddhist may also do. Nowadays your absolutely right, certain practitioners don’t investigate enough and simply accept facts, ideals and teachings etc. personally I feel culture & teaching has much to do with the way we practice. For example in the West we are a nation of quick fixers if we have a headache we take a pill if we want a solution to a problem we see a counsellor and so if we hear a teaching we accept it. This is often the nature of the Western mind – investigation is too much hassle but it’s absolutely necessary in order for us to understand the world around us.

    Personally As a Buddhist practitioner I see no difference between a feminist and my own mother, a feminist and my own teacher who is male because all are equal however at the same time, all bring their own unique qualities and each is dependent on the next to exist. As you quite clearly point out, dependent origination is a key belief in Buddhism and something which I have found to be acceptably true. As you know in Tibetan Buddhism we have many deities a great number of which are female for example Tara, Kwai Yin or Avolokateshwara but the feminine aspects go far deeper than that because of course the Buddha was Indian with strong connections to the Hindu Gods and Goddesses – Parvati, Laxmi, Durga, Kali, Rada etc.

    I do agree with you when you say that the Buddha did not speak too much about women’s issues and the reason behind this could be open wide for debate. Maybe as you say ‘perhaps he perceived that all identities are dependent on the society and time in which they are propagated’ however another possible reason may be because those issues are simply concepts of mind. For example when Prince Siddhartha Gautama achieved liberation he had attained great knowledge about the nature of suffering and how to alleviate it, but that suffering only exists in the mind it isn’t real or tangible. In Buddhism we talk about emptiness and how nothing really exists in the way we perceive it because there are always other factors surrounding it. When we look at the issue of feminism are we talking about the need to respect femininity or a feminist struggle for equality? If it’s the latter then this raises a deeper question about why Feminism is associated with struggle which brings us back to mindset. It may be necessary to acknowledge that not everyone shares the feminist view. Many feminists were born from non feminist mothers who adored the positions their husbands held as protector, breadwinner and provider etc. Yes I guess at the time the Buddha achieved liberation, women took the same stance in life for example being there to serve their husbands but is that a sign of weakness? I guess that very much depends on whose viewpoint you seek.

    You also refer to 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.

    This is a really nice example of how one person sees the other as ‘wrong or selling themselves short in life’

    We should always remember that each of us as a journey and just because they don’t all walk our path – doesn’t make them wrong or weak willed.

    Absolutely superb article thank you so much for sharing this.


  3. “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 is not.”

    Love your liberation of the word, nirvana, from noun to verb, thanks, Oxana. In fact, given the right conditions, I believe nirvana could happen to anyone spontaneously, regardless of religious faith, and even to animals. I once had a black cat who used to meditate and there were times when she seemed to me to transcend her everyday existence and moments of what appeared to be for her some sort of bliss.


    • Hello, Sarah! Thank you so much! This is most amusing! I would like to decline the honour of making “nirvana” into a verb, though. I definitely read or heard it somewhere, I just don’t remember where and so regrettably I cannot reference it appropriately. Otherwise, yes, I am a firm believer in nirvana for everyone!!!


  4. I can recount two interesting experiences I had with Buddhists. In the mid-90s, when Green Tara called to me, a flyer announcing a weekend led by Dagmola Jamyang Sakya flew off a bulletin board and landed in my hands. I went to the weekend workshop. Everybody else was already a Buddhist and familiar with the practices. I was the only Goddess worshipper in the room. And I felt perfectly accepted and perfectly comfortable. It was a lovely weekend.

    A few years later, I attended a dance by the touring Gaden Shartze monks. It was very interesting. I noticed that many of the monks were wearing aprons, and being a naive American, assumed the aprons indicated that the monks were dressed as women. After the dance, I asked two or three of the monks, “Where are the women?” The answer–“At home, doing the housework”! I was too started by this patriarchal reply to inquire about the aprons.


    • Hello, Barbara! This is so interesting, reading about your unique experiences. The flier story reminds me of my frame drum stories, I felt that they just landed in my hands to stay there. As a Buddhist practitioner, I always feel completely accepted and at ease among Goddess devotees. As for Tibetan monks, yes, the everyday reality of Tibetan life can sometimes fall short of the lofty ideals of Buddhism. However, I also once when to see singing, dancing and debating Tibetan monks. I loved it. It reminded me a lot of shamanic practices.


  5. I agree with your introduction, here, Oxana, that feminism is a great teacher, basically, because it liberates, and once you are liberated from one blindness, you are open to seeing many more things in a new way. A friend of mine completely turned my head around on something I had never questioned. But I think it was feminism, that is, being comfortable with a different way of seeing, that helped me open my mind to it.


    • Hello, Meg! Thank you very much for your kind words! Exactly! Feminism is so subversive, it just encourages you to question everything. I also have a friend who opened my eyes to the problems of overlooking the problems working class feminists face as opposed to their middle class counterparts – something I had never been aware of before.


  6. This article is really touching I can relate to your explanation on how Buddhist meditation helped you connect with your body. I feel like on a daily basis most people are so busy overthinking overanalyzing that they disconnect with reality or one’s body. Once that feeling of a reconnection with ones abilities kicks in it is easier to believe that one can make a change in his/her own life. The reconnection with ones abilities can also relate to your analogy of if you think you’re a “little wife”, you will be. There are many things both women and men can accomplish equally and we just have to embrace that idea and anything is possible.


    • Dear Zahida, thank you so much for your kind words and for your thoughtful comment! Indeed, reconnecting with your body can be so powerful. And even a thing so seemingly simple as relaxing can be immensely powerful. It sounds weird, but just sitting on earth in the sun can make you realise that you do not need all these tensions in your body, all these stories of inadequacy and that people or society as a whole hung on you. At the same time, you know that you do not need to dominate anyone either to be happy. Just being is enough. In your body. On this earth. Best wishes!


  7. Throughout religions there is the constant fight against female oppression. Many women don’t hold a powerful figure in religion. Apart from people in the bible, there are not many powerful females in church life. Popes and rabbis are a prime example of powerful positions in religions that are rarely held by females. This can be because of the “gone by the wind” phrase mentioned in your post. Females were on a mental state in which they were just part of the powerful person (male). For a longtime now females have moved past that mental state and have discovered that their mental state can be whatever they want it to be, and that’s powerful. I learned through your post that Buddha never mentioned topics or ideas on women and men. The only thing he cared about was happiness and not developing social roles found in society, which is what he got away from. I see Buddhism as being an empowering religion in which nobody can feel less then someone else.


    • Dear Xiomara, thank you so much for your interesting comments and for reading my post. The Buddha did mention some things about women and men sometimes, but it was not the main part of his teaching. As you rightly say, he was mainly concerned with eradicating suffering from everyone’s life. As this blog Feminism and Religion shows people of many religions work to making their religion more feminist, which can only be a good thing. Best wishes to you!


  8. Thank you for such an eye opening article. Although I am not an active practitioner of Buddhism, the philosophies behind the religion have always been of particular interest to me. Most of all, I personally believe that Buddhism is the least gender segregating religion to which I have come across. I don’t consider myself an active feminist, but I identify with many feminist idealism. Today I read my first article connect
    Buddhist and feminist idealism and opened my eyes to a whole new perspective towards both.
    For my understanding of the article you want to highlight the similarities of Buddhism and feminism that have been overlooked. The teachings of Buddha constantly encourage one to think outside the box, to meditate on concepts and redefine them, not by simple overview, but by engaging in-depth analysis and going beyond the limits constructed by familiar concepts to break through mental constrains and reach a state of nirvana. Similarly, feminist have –and have been for generations—constantly pushing the limits of traditionally defined female persona, thinking outside the box to break through cultural constrains for female liberation.
    Although I am aware of the everlasting search of Buddhist for mental liberation and feminist continuous fight for equality, I never connected the both together and how one can benefit from the other.


  9. Dear Paula, thank you so much for your kind words and for your successful summary of my post! Yes, exactly. I also would like to point out that both paths – Feminism and Buddhism – are quite challenging, simply because of their nature, as you say, of pushing the limits. So it is always good to remember one’s own well-being and to avoid burn-out. Within Buddhism, sangha (community of spiritual practitioners) provides such support. And in Feminism, of course, the support of our sisters in arms is invaluable. Best wishes!


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