Today let’s talk about the relationship between the Ultimate and the relative. I do not have the answers to these tricky questions, I would just like to outline the problems. Why, on the Buddhist path, do I often tell myself and others not to rush to get Enlightened immediately? Why do I often keep silent about my friends’ attitudes that I find not so feminist?
There is an old platitude that the theme of the Soviet films about social problems was the “struggle of the good against the better.” This was the case because in the USSR there supposedly was no class struggle and no problems proceeding from the rule of the Communist Party. So in the scripts the conflict was set up between good Soviet people and even better Soviet people, the latter even more dedicated to the Communist ideals.
The fact that I am a feminist and follow a Buddhist path must mean that in principle I am all for “the better” and even, “the best” – that is, a social world where women and men enjoy equal rights and everyone is enlightened.
In everyday life, however, unexpected difficulties arise. For instance, what do you do about your female friend, who, having divorced, now spends all her time beautifying herself? She has had an unhappy and dependent marriage. Her husband had dominated her in every way, including dictating her appearance. Now, free of his influence she exercised her freedom by trying to construct an image of herself that she finds appropriate.
As a feminist and as a meditator, I might find her choice unwise. I might say to her: instead of working on your looks, why don’t you work on your internal world? However, would that be wise and compassionate? The woman has had the courage to escape a clearly oppressive situation. She is now taking her life into her own hands. I can only hope that with time she will get on track of a more spiritual life. Or not.
The thing is, as a Russian proverb goes: “Someone else’s soul is twilight” – meaning it is a black box, something to which you have no access. I cannot know which struggles exactly each person has faced, which hindrances she had to overcome to get where she is now.
One of my female friends for example lost both of her parents when a teenager. This was during one of the most economically deprived periods in Russian history. Is it my place, really, to urge my friend to spend time meditating, or to work on being more feminist, or to even quit smoking, when I cannot imagine what she had had to go through to survive?
In Buddhism, we say that intention is crucial. One sets a firm intention to end all suffering (to get enlightened), and then moves towards this goal little by little. In addition, the concept of rebirth let us have the hope that people who do not get it in this life will in the next. So, within Buddhism, I can almost comfortably say: “It is not their (or my) time to get enlightened yet, let them (or me) take their time.”
Nevertheless, from a feminist point of view, it feels wrong to say: “Let’s live for a bit longer in an unjust world, it is not quite ready for feminism.” We want equality here and now, obviously. And yet – it is important to see, I feel, that social practices are not mechanistic. They are often more like living things, like plants, for example.
For instance, the practice of women beautifying the outside of themselves is definitely connected to women’s inferior position in society. However, in various cultures it can also be connected to women’s self-respect, perceived high status, confidence, even hygiene. And these connections are not Lego-like: we take one connotation out, but leave the rest in. They are more like different stems of the same plant: we take one out, the whole plant wilts.
So I cannot force my feminist views on another just because I have grown lucky enough not too have those perceptions.
In Buddhism, no teacher shocks a beginner meditator with profound spiritual truths that the teacher had found through decades of deep meditation. For one thing, the beginner would not be prepared for these. And what’s more, these truths would not be helpful to her at this point anyway. We all start with the necessary first steps: calming the mind, finding more balance in life, finding more love for oneself. It is only after meditation and one’s inner life have become more familiar that we move on to things that can be more startling, like emptiness and no self.
Again, it feel wrong to say that the first wave of feminism must have happened before the second wave with its emphasis on the politics of gender and sexuality. And maybe it must have happened the right way from the very beginning. However, history is what it is and inclusion of problems related to gender into the feminist discourse happened later than problems related to the diversity of human sexuality.
Historically, we can say now that the first-wave feminists made it possible for the later activists to bring these matters into the light, even though they did not have the chance for various reasons to fight for the rights of people to be who they are without fear.
What’s even more interesting is that hopefully later generations will find that our current feminism falls short on some grounds. Hopefully, people of the future will find ways to make social life better and eradicate the last instances of inequality.
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.