“Suchness” of inequality vs. the “story” of patriarchy by Oxana Poberejnaia

oxanaIn the TV film about American suffragists “Iron Jawed AngelsAlice Paul (played by Hilary Swank) says to a psychiatrist who came to prison to assess her mental state during her hunger strike:

You asked me to explain myself. I just wonder what needs to be explained. Let me be very clear. Look into your own heart. I swear to you, mine’s no different. You want a place in the trades and professions where you can earn your bread? So do I. You want some means of self expression? Some way of satisfying your own personal ambitions? So do I. You want a voice in the government in which you live? So do I. What is there to explain?

Alice Paul

Alice Paul

These words strike us now as an obvious statement of facts. However, at the time (in 1917) they called forth hatred, arrest, imprisonment, and torture in the hands of people who did not want for these words to become a self-evident truth.

Many Buddhist teachers speak of something called “suchness.” This refers to the idea that things are just as they are, not as we would like them to be, how we think of them or how we represent them in society.

The “suchness” of men and women, it can be said, is that irrespective of gender, people want and have the right to pursue happiness.

“Suchness” is not like a fact of physics, though. On the contrary, it is only through the process of soul-searching, social debate and sometimes, political struggle that “suchness” of things comes to the surface. Furthermore, it takes effort to keep the truth within public consciousness once it is there. Feminism is case in point. Attacks against hard-won feminist victories never stop, in the Minority or Majority Worlds.

In Buddhism a way to discover “suchness” of things lies through meditation. We still our minds to see clearly. Through ethical behaviour, we gain enough psychological stability necessary for the exploration. Through inquiry we develop wisdom to arrive at the answers that reflect reality more accurately.

ThingsAsTheyAreBuddhist practitioners are taught to face each experience as it comes, without adding anything to it. Let me give you an example. For instance, an experience of a sexual fantasy might arise during meditation. An unskillful way of dealing with it would be thinking: “I am a bad meditator. Probably I will never be spiritual enough to be free from sexual fantasies. I should have never even bothered.” Rather, meditators are encouraged to sit with any experience and see what happens to it if you do not cling to it or push it away.

Another example would be thinking after a difficult conversation with a friend: “I got annoyed. This means she annoys me. This means she is a bad person, and I should not be friends with her anymore”. Or, alternatively, “This means that I am a bad person for getting annoyed. I will never be a good friend.”

Buddhists say we don’t know why exactly you got annoyed. You might have been tired. The friend might have been distracted by having a bad day and said something off the mark. Neither of these things MEANS any of the conclusions to which you can arrive if you don’t let things be just as they are.

All this additional stuff we attach to experience is sometimes called “story” in Buddhism. It is always better to examine this story, bring it out in the open and to see whether it leads to more or less suffering. Buddhist practice acts as a sort of a peeler, discarding one level of story after another to get to the bare truth of things.

With men and women’s inequality, stories that societies tell can be elaborate. They are often based in the “sanctity” of family, religion, nation, history, morality, even Nature. For instance, a story might go that women are the biological sex that is responsible for childbearing. Therefore, it MEANS that women must refrain from spiritual activities during menstruation and must stay with children at home, while men must pursue careers in the public sphere.

2000px-Igualtat_de_sexes.svgHowever, this is a story like any other. No biological function can MEAN anything in societal terms. Within the discourse of equality, arrangements are made to ensure equality, including career opportunities for women.

By the same token, within the discourse of inequality arrangements are made for women not to have career opportunities. It does not happen “naturally.” Women are denied education, votes, public presence and so on. At the same time men are conditioned into controlling women around them, because if men do not, they are ostracised for not being manly enough. This all takes energy and resources of a society.

The trick that patriarchal discourses use is that they present their stories of inequality as if they were things “as they are,” the “suchness” of things. And, conversely, feminists are portrayed as introducing superficial stories of equality, which only complicate things and disrupt a good and natural social order.

“Suchness” of things is difficult to reach on both the individual and social level. On the personal level as a Buddhist practitioner we drop bits of our personalities that we considered essential, but which turned out to be parts of our unconscious “stories.”

On societal level, powers that be have too much invested in patriarchal “stories,” and they will do anything to prevent feminists from seeing inequality as it is and from showing the “suchness” of inequality to others.


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: Activism, American History, Buddhism, Foremothers, Patriarchy, Women's Rights

Tags: , , , , ,

11 replies

  1. Thanks, Oxana. As regards letting things simply be as they are and not getting down on ourselves too much, a Buddhist friend shared this recently —

    “Don’t let one cloud obliterate the whole sky.” ~ Anais Nin

    The self criticism we put ourselves through may be very different, and the things that frustrate us unique. But maybe the quote from Anais Nin is more the crux of our worries than anything else.


  2. Thanks Oxana – good practice.


  3. As always, Oxana, a wonderful, well-thought-through post! thanks! I agree with you that story is the crux of our problems. As you say, “All this additional stuff we attach to experience is sometimes called “story” in Buddhism. It is always better to examine this story, bring it out in the open and to see whether it leads to more or less suffering. Buddhist practice acts as a sort of a peeler, discarding one level of story after another to get to the bare truth of things.” But I also think that there are many ways to deal with story. We can try to peel it back, but I believe we will never get to “the experience.” We will get to a less elaborated story. I also think we can decide on a different story, of course, within limits (otherwise we get delusion). For instance, if I’m feeling blue (not clinically depressed), I can decide that there’s no reason for this sadness and CHOOSE happiness instead. What this usually means in a real-life setting is that I then accentuate the positive in my life (all of which is “experience”), rather than dwelling on the negative. I guess I believe that you can get closer to embracing the life we are living in a variety of ways. Buddhism tends to take the “peeling path” (renunciatory via negativa, to use a Christian metaphor), while paganism and tantrism (the two traditions I’m drawn to) take the via positiva.


  4. “Buddhist practice acts as a sort of a peeler, discarding one level of story after another to get to the bare truth of things.”

    I understand the search for reality. On the other hand, the symbolism of things is not always self-evident and the less obvious meaning can sometimes be quite wonderful. So I don’t think we always need to live life so self-evidently, and thereby miss out maybe on some of the nuances.


  5. Thank you, Oxana. Does Buddhism have a feminist component? The other patriarchal religions, from everything I’ve read and heard, seem to do nothing but oppress women.


    • Hello, Diana! My belief is that this blog is all about how proponents of various religions, even those you consider patriarchal, work to make their religions more feminist. Buddhism exists now in a form of many widely diverse schools. Each should be examined individually in order to assess its patriarchy or feminism. I have written a number of posts about feminism and Buddhism for this blog. Just click on my name to see the title and an opening paragraph of them to see if any would answer your question. All the best!



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