Exploring the F-word in religion at the intersection of scholarship, activism, and community.
Author: Oxana Poberejnaia
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 had been involved in organising the Manchester Buddhist Convention. Oxana is exploring the Sacred Feminine through frame drumming, working with her menstrual cycle, and shamanic journeying, while keeping the practice of Buddhist meditation. Her world music band can be found here. https://somaworldmusic.wordpress.com/
A female friend recently posted an article by a woman writer about motherhood. The article was entitled “Children are NOT life’s flowers” (referring to a famous Russian saying which means that children are what makes life beautiful).
A number of women contributed comments under this post. The discussion revolved around the image of an ideal mother and how we real mothers should relate to it.
It is amazing that in the current atmosphere of bringing out into the open so many issues, motherhood is not much discussed. Sexuality, gender and abuse are OK to speak about and question. At the same time, it is only within medical profession that such issues as “baby blues” or post-partum depression are valid topics.
A poem by Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, “Call Me By My True Names,” lists various situations from natural world and the world of humans, most of them to do with violence and death. He claims in the poem to be both: the victim and the perpetrator of violence.
This poem has always bothered me. I can understand a world perspective where you express solidarity with all the sufferers, but how to come to terms with identifying oneself with the oppressors and murderers?
At my current limited level of understanding of the Buddhist teaching I can only say that perhaps the words: “I am a rapist and a murderer” point to tendencies that are present in all of us. First and foremost it is a tendency to divide, to separate. The most noticeable separation is between the “I” and the “outside” world.
First we counter position ourselves against all the others. Next we start believing that it is possible to achieve happiness just for ourselves, at the expense of the others. So we live egotistically. From here, I suppose, there is only a small step to rape and murder.
I watched this short video on facebook about Sisa, an Egyptian woman who spent forty years a man in order provide for her family. There is a longer version on YouTube. Sisa, a widow, decided to work to feed her children, and consequently grandchildren. In Egypt, a woman can only do unpaid jobs within a home. So Sisa had to pretend to be a man by wearing male clothing and head wear. She takes casual jobs, such as shoe shining or brick laying.
Then Sisa made the news and was honoured by governmental officials. There is footage in the report of Egyptian men watching that footage. Apparently, the men were impressed by Sisa’s efforts and they developed respect for her. One man, who knows Sisa personally, says for camera: “I treat her like a man, because she works like a man”.
The implication being, I assume, that Sisa is only worthy of respect because she acts like a man is expected to act. And another implication is that Sisa is an exception. He only prepared to treat her differently, as all the rest of the women in Egypt apparently cannot work as men.
We may ask: why should we be patient and kind while we are the ones who are being oppressed and wronged? I don’t have an answer for that, only that through history positive change has ever been affected only by people who made more effort than the ones who wanted to keep the status quo.
Recently I need to take a deep breath every time I glance at the news headlines. There are terror attacks and military conflicts. People kill each other and cause each other immense suffering. The worst thing is that so many of these conflicts are between people who have lived side by side for centuries: between related ethnic groups or neighbouring people.
I have found that often, while reading news items about tragedies and injustices, I often take sides. I seem to “naturally” support one warring party. This would depend on ideology, ethnicity, or culture that I share with one of the rivals. This is nothing new. People have been joining their brethren in war for the history of humanity.
However, our time is interesting in that we have access to many opposing views. In my life, every time I take a side, eventually I manage to find information or discover a point of view, which supports the opposite side.
As Po said in “Kung Fu Panda”: “I’m gonna get myself some Inner Peace… Inner piece of what?”
This basically lays out a path of spiritual work for most of us. We aim for peace, yet somehow we feel that we must do something in order to achieve it – rather than just be peaceful.
Another joke that captures this paradox perfectly is:
“My son started doing meditation. Well, that’s something. At least he’s not sitting around doing nothing.”
Sitting around doing nothing seems to be the worst sin in our society. Buddhism is quite radical in this regard. The path to Enlightenment leads through sitting around and doing nothing. Anything and everything else that we do to keep ourselves busy is determined by society, hence impermanent, hence not the truth. Continue reading “Internal Strife – External Conflict by Oxana Poberejnaia”
I have recently noticed an interesting thing: just like the Buddhist goal of ending suffering requires consideration of others, so often feminist change requires thinking about other women.
I often had conversations with people on both these subjects. I heard actual people say: “I do not want to end my suffering, the reason being…” And the reasons can differ. Some consider suffering to be part of genuine human experience, some find a spiritual advantage in having suffered. While some simply say that they are fine with their suffering; they are used to it; change would bring even more suffering. Continue reading “Ending Suffering for the Sake of Others by Oxana Poberejnaia”
I have recently watched one of these real life entertainment documentaries. This one was on plastic surgery. A woman went under the knife to enlarge her breasts. The female presenter, wearing sterile white, peeped into the operation theatre and, facing the camera, said excitedly: “This operation might be life-changing!”
I thought: “Yes, precisely.” The money that the patient spent on breast implants could have bought – what? A trip to a strange land. A course for her to improve her employment prospects or to broaden her horizons. Art supplies for her to create something. A water pump to provide clean water in a village somewhere in the world where children die from preventable diseases caused by dirty water. Part of a salary for a teacher who works in a school for girls somewhere in the world where girls need extra help getting education.
What we choose to spend money, or indeed any resources (time, energy) on depends on our story of life. What is life for us: a race to the unattainable ideal of glossy magazine covers or a spiritual journey we share with every other creature on earth? Continue reading “Stories vs. What Is by Oxana Poberejnaia”
I know a man who says to his daughter: “You should be ashamed of yourself” when he wants to imbue some good habits in her. One example would be not putting her dirty socks in the laundry basket. It might seem trivial, but I don’t think it is. I feel that shame is a toxic element of our personalities. I believe shame results in negative consequences, such as sabotaging oneself and health problems.
Many spiritual traditions, including Buddhism, perceive guilt as a trigger for moral development. The rational is, when we feel bad about something we had done, we will change our behaviour for better. The question is: how bad exactly are we supposed to feel, both in terms of quality and quantity of that feeling? Continue reading “The Burden of Shame by Oxana Poberejnaia”
This saying is one of those that sound a bit curious to a Western ear. It is almost as if the Buddha was against fun or humour. However, we all are familiar with the Buddha’s depictions where he smiles. The canonical texts also bear witness to the Buddha’s smiling.
It has become clear to me that the Buddha points here at the preciousness of the limited time we have in this human life. In short, he was saying that suffering is not a laughing matter, and life is not a joke.
Time is running out – the message that is even more relevant today, as it relates now not only to each of us individually, but to all of us as a species.
Viśākhā is often called the greatest female lay follower of the Buddha. She prompted the Buddha to give numerous teachings. She also donated generously to the Sangha (monastic order). Her crowning contribution was building a monastery called Migāramātupāsāda.
She is said to either die as a “stream-enterer” (a person who will definitely become enlightened, no matter how many life times it will take). Another account about her afterlife says that she would live for eons in happiness in one of the divine realms before achieving the final Liberation there and then.
Viśākhā appears in numerous Suttas of Theravadin Canon. From the modern feminist point of view, the content of these discourses reinforces patriarchal gender stereotypes. In particular, Viśākhā is portrayed as a caring Mother for her relatives, Bhikkhus (Buddhist monks and nuns), and other people.
The sense of separate personal identity is elusive. It is difficult to observe, find and bring to the surface of consciousness where, according to Buddhist beliefs, it dissipates naturally, like a bubble of foam popping. In the same way patriarchy is entrenched in so many different ways and on so many different levels in society that it is as difficult to reach out to it and weed it.
There is a Sutta in Theravadin Canon called “Khemaka Sutta” (About Khemaka). The main character in the Sutta, Buddhist monk Khemaka explains his understanding of the “lingering residual ‘I am’ conceit, an ‘I am’ desire, an ‘I am’ obsession.” Khemaka says that it is as difficult to capture and wash away as the remaining scents in clothes that have been washed over and over again.
In Western psychology, there is a notion of catharsis: allowing one self to experience previously repressed emotions. For instance, ancient Greek tragedies like Oedipus are seen as these psychological journeys for the audience. The spectators initially refuse to admit they have certain forbidden impulses. However, through empathising with the protagonist they unwittingly allow themselves to experience those. Healing happens as a result.
I once heard an educated non-feminist say that it would not matter if women came into positions of power. He gave examples of Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi and other women and pointed out that once in power they started wars and engaged in other aggressive tactics, just like men politicians.
Firstly, the obvious logical mistake is that not every woman is a feminist, in the same way as not every man is an agent of patriarchy. Secondly, when talking about systems and key positions within these systems, one can see that these posts will play the role that is predetermined by the system.
It would not matter if a head of a patriarchal organisation is a feminist or not. She or he will play a role of a head of a patriarchal system. That is, unless she changes the system altogether and it ceases to be patriarchal.
This reminded me of verses from The Dhammapada, a collection of ancient Buddhist verses, which speak about having no home and leaving no trace. By behaving thus, we remain independent of the dominant systems and give our opponents no opportunity to control us.
I suddenly felt sad. Not depressed, but low and sorrowful. I realised that it must have been because I had just exploded and answered my husband in an angry, tense voice. He had said something and I reacted in this overblown manner. What he said could have been construed as an encroachment on my rights as a woman and a human. Whether this was the case or not, I was saddened by my own violent reaction.
How did that happen? Earlier that very day I was walking outside, quietly surveying autumn scenery of the North West England. The leaves were starting to turn in earnest. The birch trees sent their yellow carved leaves to the other side of the road, which did not have birch trees. I was in a state where my “I”, my “Ego” was relaxed and not constricted to just the confines of my body. I became conscious of this fact and a thought arose: “Here we go, finally I am getting close to Liberation.”
What is, would you think, one of the foremost problems that my Russian friends and relatives mention to me? Economy? Politics? Personal and family issues? Nope. It is immigrants in Europe. I hear genuine concern and aversion when my friends mention the number of Muslims in the UK or the fact that there are predominantly black arrondissements (city districts) in Paris.
This mystified me. I sensed that although they were talking about countries foreign to them, they perceived the situation as a personal threat. Why should this be so?
I postulate that it is my old frenemy, identity (or “ego”, or “self” – whichever you prefer) that is at work here. I also realised that the same mechanism works wherever people protest against feminism, contrary to all and any rational arguments. Very often, even women protest, to their detriment.
Recently I have come across several stories of women’s fringe spiritual movements or practices. This made me think about the role of outsiders’ or minority views in religions and society.
Patriarchy pushes women and their issues to the margins of society and religion. It seems that there women sometimes invent their own spiritual practices. These allow women to stand their own ground in religious matters, to preserve self-respect and to keep the hope of the highest spiritual attainment.
Quite often these beliefs and practices seem shocking in their bizarreness and their stubbornness not to accept orthodox norms.
I have entitled this post O Tempora o mores after a sentence by Cicero, meaning “Oh what times! Oh what customs!” I would like to discuss how some of the messages we get from religious writings are defined by the age in which they were written.
As a result, I argue that it is wiser to pay more attention to the overall message of a given spiritual tradition, rather than to subject our view on a single quote.
One of the most popular texts in Thai Buddhism (which is of Theravada tradition) is called Phra Malai Klon Suat, “Chanted Version of Phra Malai.” It was reproduced copiously in the 19th century, with the earliest version dating from the 18th century. However, its origins are believed to be more ancient, coming from the original Indian Buddhism.
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 the TV film about American suffragists “Iron Jawed Angels” Alice 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?Continue reading ““Suchness” of inequality vs. the “story” of patriarchy by Oxana Poberejnaia”
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.
In the medieval European philosophy, woman’s body was seen as a vessel filled with sins, while man was regarded as a more spiritual being. This is one of the reasons why the concept of body is reassessed in feminist studies and why body is elevated in neo-paganism and Goddess spirituality. My fear is that nowadays body can be treated as an instrument for social advancement.
We still live in a society that is deeply hostile to women’s bodies. Alla Demidova, an actress I respect for her talent and her critical mind, did a programme of Christmas-related poetry. I could not listen to more than five minutes of it.
The poems have been all written by men. I am not saying that men do not have the right to write about birth. I am saying that our prevalent image of Christmas should not be based on male view alone. In this sense I much better like the Carol from “The Vicar of Dibley” (one of my favourite British comedy series, about a female Vicar), which describes the movement of baby Jesus through Mary’s birth canal.
At the time of climate change and crises of capitalism we need to drop our sense of entitlement to comfortable life or even to life at all. Nature will not spare us just because we are humans. When the meltdown of economic and environmental systems occurs, we are all going down: humans and non-humans, women and men, spiritual or not. We have almost run out of time.
Victor Pelevin, my favourite contemporary Russian author, has a novel called “The Sacred Book of the Werewolf“. I love it in part because, like Kill Bill, it is a rare creation by a male author, which manages to capture the female warrior spirit.
It starts with the main character, a Chinese Buddhist Were Fox who lives in present-day Moscow, consoling herself: “What else (or What the fuck) did you expect from life, A Huli?” A Huli is her name, supposedly meaning Fox A in Chinese. It is also a swear phrase in Russian, meaning “What the fuck?”
There are three vicious circles: patriarchy, samsara and wanton destruction of environment. All three lead ultimately to annihilation of life. All three are incredibly difficult to escape. One of the reasons for this difficulty is that there are pay-offs. Someone or something benefits from keeping the cycles going.
A former monk and hospice worker Rodney Smith, now the Founding teacher in Seattle Insight Meditation Society uses the phrase: “Be complete in incompleteness” quite a lot.
When applied to Feminism, to me it means a couple of things. First, I find it hard, but I have to accept the fact that I will not probably experience the fullness of triumph of Feminism in my lifetime. I am of the “I want it all and I want it now” variety, but in this case I will have to come to terms with the fact that even my closest loved ones might not be fully feminist.
Only recently a woman close to me criticised Angela Merkel for her masculine style of clothing. I honestly thought that we had stopped judging politicians based on their gender or the clothes we think appropriate to that gender.
I believe that as feminists what we are striving towards is not just equality between women and men, although this aspect is crucial. Feminism has contributed to developing of such disciplines and practices as deconstruction, environmentalism, LGBT rights, and animal rights.
I have recently learnt about features assigned to women and men by a Tibetan Lama. Women are seen as having better access to qualities of space and therefore holding special kinds of wisdom that lead to Enlightenment. Men, on the other hand are better suited to create and act within space, and this they are rightful owners of the actions that lead to Enlightenment.
In popular Goddess spirituality it is also normal to find distinction between women and men’s core traits. The properties assigned to the “feminine” and the “masculine” usually follow the same pattern: Goddess stands for interconnectedness, and thus relations and caring for others. God (if there is a place for him) is about protection and action.
I am afraid to say that to me, this approach only embeds patriarchal order by putting women firmly in the sphere of domesticity, even if in the elevated role of “Domestic Goddess”, while men are still expected to go out, fight and thus organise and rule society, which women are expected to preserve.
I 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.”
The 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.
Feminism can be loud and in your face. Feminists can be unapologetic and radical in their statements. I could never bring myself to be abrupt with proponents of patriarchal views. Being a middle class Brit from a Soviet background, I withdraw from awkward situations and prefer to keep discussion within civil forms of defined discourse at conferences and letters to my MPs and to the BBC.
People who know that I practise Buddhist disciplines might say that this also plays a part in my avoiding direct confrontation. It is true but only up to a point. I do not rush into an argument mostly because of my training not to rush into anything, but to first become mindful and see where the impetus for my action is coming from: is it something worthwhile or is it some undigested trauma from childhood? It is usually the latter. Continue reading “Cheeky Buddha by Oxana Poberejnaia”
There is a story in the collection called Avadanasataka (One Hundred Legends) of the Sarvastivadin school, one of the schools of early Indian Buddhism that did not survive to present day, relating one episode from the Buddha’s previous lives. The story is about king Padmaka who sacrificed his life to cure his subjects of a disease. Here is an academic article about this episode.
The Buddha was prompted to tell this story of his previous life in order to illustrate to his monks, once again, the workings of karma. All of the monks in the Buddha’s milieu were sick with a digestive disorder, while he remained well. The Buddha presented the story of king Padmaka as a proof that no good deed is ever lost and that what he had done then has an effect now in that the Buddha has good digestion.
The origins of the Buddhist Nuns ‘ Order are a contentious issue in Theravada Buddhism. Paradoxically, it is also the issue that is not discussed a lot. Which is surprising, as in current Buddhism there is a gaping hole where a Theravada Bhikkhuni (Nuns) community should be. The prevailing view is that the nuns’ full ordination line was irrevocably lost long in the past and cannot be restored.
There are separate attempts here and there to bring Theravada Nuns’ Order back, including Ajahn Brahm’s ordaining a group of nuns in Dhammasara Monastery in Australia in 2009. This resulted in severe criticism by some Theravada religious leaders and expulsion of Ajahn Brahm and the monastery he leads from the organisation of the Sangha of Wat Nong Pah Pong.
Mahayana Nuns receive full ordination, as it is considered that historically the Order did not lose continuity since the Buddha’s times. However, for both Theravada and Mahayana something called “The Eight Garudhammas” – the eight heavy rules – remain a painful issue. These are the rules that the historical Buddha is supposed to have given the first nuns to whom he gave ordination. These eight rules were the condition on which the Buddha would even allow women to become Bhikkhuni.