16: Gender in Buddhism

Tue., Aug. 19th, 09:00-12:30

Beyond the Teaching: Contemporary Dzogchen Practices of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns in Western China

Cho, Yasmin (Duke University, Durham, NC, USA)

Many scholarly works have been produced on the recent revival of Tibetan Buddhism in China. These works mainly analyze the issues of emerging charismatic figures, involvement of non-Tibetans, or its influence on Chinese urban centers. In this paper, I will focus on two distinctive and interrelated phenomena of the movement, which the previous research lacked: 1) revitalization of Dzogchen (The Great Perfection) teaching, and 2) massive participation of Tibetan nuns in Dzogchen practice. In particular, I will draw on ethnographic research conducted in a leading Dzogchen retreat center called Yachen in western China. Despite the controlling policies of the Chinese government, Yachen has been rapidly expanding since the 1980s and currently houses over 10,000 nuns and 2,000 monks. By focusing on the lives and practices of the nuns in Yachen, I will discuss how and why Dzogchen has been revitalized and is expanding briskly in an unsettling time and a harsh political environment. In addition, I will show how the particular teaching method called “direct transmission” and the intimate master-disciple relationships of Dzogchen are related to the massive involvement of Tibetan girls, who have been for so long inconvenienced and denied many precious teachings and opportunities for making direct connections with great masters.

Since the 1980s, when China embarked on a series of economy-driven policies alongside the east-south coastal regions, there have been peaceful and unprecedented waves of populations moving towards the most remote and isolated western parts of the country to pursue spiritual purity. Kham Tibet (eastern Tibet), albeit still heavily restrained, has emerged as a new epicenter of the revival of Tibetan Buddhism for the past three decades, while central Tibet (TAR) has been severely controlled by the Chinese government, which has made many religious practices and activities restricted or outlawed. This trend not only shows the redirecting shift of both human and material resources from the center to the peripheries, but also re-highlights the oldest, yet uninterrupted lineage of Tibetan Buddhist teaching—Dzogchen .

Historically speaking, the lineage of Dzogchen was transmitted into Tibet in the eighth century. Since then the lineage has been brought to the present through the form of direct transmissions by skillful Dzogchen masters. This profound teaching is being continued and spread in a far-flung corner of Kham Tibet by extraordinary Dzogchen successors as well as the rigorous participation of thousands of devoted Tibetan nuns. As one of the main sources of attraction for so many girls and of producing an uncanny religious dedication in China, I believe Dzogchen has a life beyond the originally intended “self-perfected” state of mind. By contextualizing Dzogchen and treating it as a living practice rather than a fixed esoteric ancient teaching, I believe it allows me to elucidate the inner dynamics of the current Tibetan Buddhist devotion in China and to offer a new understanding of changing gender relationship in Tibetan society as well as in Buddhist tradition.


Reading between the Lines: Strategies for Imagining Buddhist Women in India

Ohnuma, Reiko (Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, USA)

Focusing on a number of Indian Buddhist narratives featuring women, this paper will consider the validity and usefulness of reading “between the lines” of such narratives to uncover the lived experiences of Buddhist women in pre-modern India. In the Pali Vinaya, for example, the “bad” nun Thullanandā, through her constant misbehavior, is responsible for the promulgation of more rules of the Bhikkhunī Pātimokkha than any other individually named nun. Yet it is often possible to read “between the lines” of these accounts to see the values for which Thullanandā might stand, and to speculate about the lived experiences of the actual women only imperfectly represented by her character. To what extent can we interpret other shadowy female figures in Buddhist literature in such a manner? In addition, I will also pose the question: Can this “reading between the lines” be stretched even further by considering the accounts of contemporary Buddhist women who speak in their own voices? Can we use the voices of contemporary women to fill in the gaps found in pre-modern literature authored by men?


Why Don’t Buddhists Want Lumps on Their Heads? Implications of Indian Notions of Masculinity for Contemporary Buddhists

Powers, John (Australian National University, Canberra, AUS)

Discussions of the Buddha’s unusual physiognomy are a pervasive concern of Indian writers. In Pāli suttas, commentarial works, Mahāyāna sūtras and śāstras, scholastic treatises, and stories about his life, he is described as having a fist-sized cranial lump, an enormous tongue, and a sheathed penis, among other abnormalities. The 32 major physical characteristics (lakṣaṇa) of a “great man” (mahāpuruṣa) are the inevitable results of successful Buddhist practice and are incontrovertible testimony of his spiritual attainments. This view of the body appears to be largely an Indian phenomenon; discussions of Buddhist training in other regions seldom if ever, to my knowledge, list their acquisition as a goal. Indian texts indicate that the characteristics are acquired serially as a result of successful engagement in Buddhist practice, but I am not aware of anyone, no matter how advanced, manifesting them, nor of any Buddhists today who indicate a desire to replicate the Buddha’s form through their religious endeavors. This presentation will examine the ramifications of Indian notions of the Buddha’s body and their relation to practice for contemporary Buddhists: should the implicit misogyny of a model that assumes the male physique is utterly superior to the female concern us? If a body with the odd features attributed to the Buddha seems freakish and undesirable to Buddhists today—and if acquisition of such a body is the inevitable outcome of Buddhist practice—what are the ramifications of ancient Indian paradigms for people today who identify as Buddhists?


Two Ways to Generate the Flawless and Perfect Mūlasarvāstivāda bhikṣuṇī Vow

Roloff, Carola (Universität Hamburg, Hamburg, GER)

From August to October 2012 by invitation of the Department of Religion and Culture of the Tibetan Government in Exile, a “high-level scholarly committee” comprising ten monk scholars – including two representatives from each of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism – gathered in Dharamsala to examine the possibilities of reviving the Mūlasarvāstivāda bhikṣuṇī lineage. The Research Committee focused on finding ways and means to assure that the ordination will be ‘flawless and perfect’, and to assure that the nuns, like the monks, will become Mūlasarvāstivāda. The findings of my own research suggest that there are two ways to generate the flawless and perfect Mūlasarvāstivāda bhikṣuṇī vow. One way would require to base the vow on a Vinaya passage, which from a traditional point of view is the Word of Buddha (buddhavacana), but from a historical-critical point of view is not only dubious, but also misogynistic. The other way is not explicitly accounted for in the ancient Vinaya or Vinaya commentaries, simply because it was not made an issue during those times. This solution would not only involve a “re-reading” or new, contemporary interpretation of the texts with a critical and at the same time constructive attitude, but also require to give up the claim for superiority of one's own Vinaya tradition and to meet with another tradition on equal footing. I will present the two ways at stake based on my latest findings in the Tibetan translation of the Bhikṣuṇyupasaṃpadājñāpti taking the ‘underlying' Sanskrit manuscript into consideration, and discuss the implications of those findings for the future of women practicing Tibetan Buddhism.


Gender in Buddhist Praxis: Texts, Theory, and Social Reality

Tsomo, Karma Lekshe (University of San Diego, San Diego, CA, USA)

Recent highly publicized international incidents of sexual violence have generated renewed interest in gender issues in religion and society, including questions about gender justice and injustice in contemporary Buddhist societies. This paper takes Buddhist texts and narratives as starting points for an exploration of Buddhist approaches and responses to gender studies and feminist studies in religion across a spectrum of issues and traditions. The paper will explore constructions of gender, the renunciant ideal, and images of monastic women through the multifarious lenses of Buddhist textual traditions.

Many Buddhist texts extol the Buddha’s perfect physique and portray the ideal of human perfection in male form, while sending mixed messages about women. Can these discourses profitably be re-read or reinterpreted today, based on historical-critical studies, or should they be relegated to the bin of arcane history, as relics of a bygone era? Perhaps it is possible to read “between the lines” of Indian Buddhist narratives and begin to uncover the lived experiences of Buddhist women in pre-modern India as a way to better understand ourselves. Gender analysis has just begun to be applied to Buddhist texts and biographical narratives. Re-reading these texts through new interpretive lenses may yield fresh insights on issues of gender, sexuality, and social organization. Perhaps these texts contain clues for addressing domestic violence, gender injustice, psychological trauma, and other contemporary social problems.

Sometime during the fifth century BCE, the Buddha reputedly admitted women to the sangha, the Buddhist monastic order, albeit on an unequal footing, at least according to the texts preserved and transmitted by Buddhist monks. These texts tell stories of women’s travails and the joys of liberation, some in the words of liberated nuns (arhati) themselves. These stories, found in the vinaya and related texts, were transmitted to China, Korea, Tibet, and other lands as part of a centuries-long process of appropriation, adaptation, and reconfiguration of Indian Buddhist philosophy, practice, and institutional structures. This paper examines classical Indian texts of monastic discipline for women (bhiksuni vinaya) and surviving accounts of the lives of nuns in diverse cultures as variegated lenses for understanding Buddhist women’s experiences from early times up to the modern period.

This paper will examine diverse genres of Buddhist literature – canonical texts, biographies, and ethnographic studies of contemporary nuns’ communities – to assess what parallels can be drawn between the lives of nuns at the Buddha’s time and the lives of nuns in China, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand, and Tibet today. For example, to what extent does the bhiksuni vinaya continue to function as a template for monastic behavior and to what extent have the precepts, often of necessity, been modified or ignored in response to cultural and social mores? The objective of this broad multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural overview is to measure what changes against what remains the same, to assess through the lens of gender the choices monastic practitioners have made and continue to make as they attempt to preserve and practice the world’s Buddhisms. 


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