Western Buddhist Feminist Oppressors

This post contains an article sent to me by a friend, Rethinking Western Feminist Critiques on Buddhism (original link), by Cheng Wei-yi (鄭維儀). It’s sort of timely since I’ve been ranting about cultural issues in the Buddhist community since… well, since I’ve started blogging here. I enjoyed this article and felt it deeply resonated with my perceptions. But then when I came to writing this blog, I remembered the first thing I was ever taught when discussing something that stirs your emotions: question your assumptions. It was very clear to me that different readers would draw very different conclusions from this essay.  So I’m just putting the whole thing out there, typos and all. Take from it what you will.

If you’re interested in modern, transnational Buddhism, feminism and postcolonialism, then you’ll surely want to read on. (But it is long!)

Rethinking Western Feminist Critiques on Buddhism
重思西方女性主義對佛教的評論

The Fourth Chung-Hwa International Conference on Buddhism
第四屆中華國際佛學會議 

Cheng Wei-yi
鄭維儀 

Introduction

In this essay, I will outline a few problems that one might find in Western feminist critiques on Buddhism. I will argue that these problems are more about the needs of Western Buddhist women than about the concern for gender equality; not avoiding these problems may easily create oppression on Asian Buddhist women. To do so, I will apply Postcolonialism in the study.

However, the term ‘Western’ is difficult to define. I am unwilling to define the concepts of ‘white’ and ‘Western’ as “a position in a structural, hierarchal interrelationship” (Ang, 1995: 403) like some postcolonial feminists do, for I am equally unwilling to put difference among cultures in a hierarchal interrelationship. In this essay, two qualifications will be used to define the term ‘Western’: geographical location and the Juda-Christian tradition as the mainstream culture of the society, so the term ‘West’ includes Australia and New Zealand. Later, I will mention ‘Western Buddhism’; like the term ‘Western’, I also use the term ‘Western Buddhism’ as a generalizing category, which includes various Buddhist practices adapted by Americans, Europeans…etc. But the ambiguity in defining the two terms is difficult to avoid.

From Postcolonialism to Feminism

According to Edward Said (1978), the Orient “was almost a European invention” which “has helped to define Europe (or the West) as its contrasting image, idea, personality, experience” (20). Seeing from this perspective, I will argue later that rather than seeking gender equality in Buddhism, some Western feminist critiques on Buddhism are in fact used to identify the concept of ‘Western Buddhism’.

In addition, in this essay, the term ‘postcolonial’ does not merely refer to cultures that were once colonized by foreign powers. Rather, I am using the term ‘postcolonial’ more broadly to include effects of ‘cultural colonialism’ which are brought by capitalist influence/economic powers, for in order to expand the global market, “culture must fashion global consumer” (El Saadawi, 1997: 1332); so the poor is also likely to be culturally ‘colonialized’ by the wealthy, multinational capitalists with their power of media, advertisement, ideas of consumerism…etc. The poorer countries do not have to be politically colonized by foreign powers to experience the oppression on one’s own economy, language, religion, political structure…etc. Especially in the Information Age, messages travel fast; the wealthy West can more easily spread out their ideas, images, symbols, values…etc. to other countries. Western cultural influence is overwhelming. The message is clear: “you are not as wealthy as we because you don’t do things like we do.” The rest of the world is thus urged to accept Western values such as capitalist market, democracy and individualism. It is, then, another form of colonialism.

“Feminism” is also a generalizing category, for there are many types of approaches and strategies toward the study of women/gender/sex. Feminism probably originated in the late 19th century with the debate on “whether women should be confined to the private realm of home and family or be welcomed into the public realm of business and politics” (Young, 1999: 2). By the second wave of feminism in the 1970s, there emerged various forms of feminism. While reform feminists argue for the equality between male and female by reconstructing tradition, radical feminists urge for the end of patriarchy by emphasizing the essential difference between sexes (Morgan, 1999: 48). In religious dimension, feminists call for “women’s inclusion in liturgical or theological language, education, leadership, ritual and symbolism” (Young, 1999: 2). Feminist study of religion focuses not only on theoretical transformation but also practical actions, which allows women equal position and access as men.

Postcolonial feminism is one of the intellectual trends of feminism. Postcolonial feminists, along with minority feminists in both the East and the West, demand for gender recognition as insiders  (Young, 1999: 17). Postcolonial/minority feminists such as bell hooks argues that their voices as minority must be heard and that their experience as oppressed victims can hardly be understood by outsiders (e.g. white feminists). They question the claim of a common ‘sisterhood’ that is promoted by many Western feminists, arguing that the homogenizing and systematizing of different groups of women’s experiences are to erase the experiences of the marginal and resistant experiences (Mohanty, 1988). They argue that Western feminism often carries a flavor of white/Western superiority and does not necessary bring liberation to minority/coloured/ Third World women, for they are in turn oppressed by prejudice in Western feminism. However, the same might be applied to African and Asian feminists when they use their middle-class culture as the norm to study their rural sisters; it can also be applied to heterosexual feminists when they use their heterosexual values to study sexuality and/or homosexuality. Thus, postcolonial feminists draw attention to the importance of hearing the voices of ‘insider’.

The Western encounter with Buddhism has had a long history. But a more intense, serious contact came only in the past two hundred years with the expansion of European colonial powers that made the East and the West contact more frequently (Fields, 1981). Yet, it is only until the 20th century that Buddhism appeared as a form of practice to the Westerners (Batchelor, 1994). Studies on women in Buddhism emerged fairly early on with the I.B. Horner’s 1930 publication, Women Under Primitive Buddhism.

Reflecting the broader feminist movement, Western feminist critiques on Buddhism that emerged shortly after the second wave of feminism tended to focus on “the sources of religion’s distorted perception of women” (Morgan, 1999:47), by documenting the patriarchal language, images and symbols in Buddhist texts, or seeking to place women as the central role in Buddhist history. One of the examples is Diana Paul’s Women in Buddhism: images of the feminine in the Mahayana tradition (1979). It seems that after the 1980s, the investigation on Buddhist women’s religious experience appeared: examples include the 1988 book, Sakyadhila: daughters of the Buddha (edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo), which collects articles of Buddhist women from various cultural and national backgrounds, and Sandy Boucher’s 1988 book, Turning the Wheel: American women creating the new Buddhism, which tells the experiences of many American Buddhist women.

Another trend of Western feminist critiques on Buddhism is the attempt to formulate ‘Western Buddhism’. Regardless it is a conscious or unconscious effort, such a transformation is inevitable since Buddhism must always adapt to the culture that it is in. One well-known example of the attempt to transform Buddhism from doctrinal perspective is Rita Gross’ 1993 book, Buddhism After Patriarchy: a feminist history, analysis, and reconstruction of Buddhism. The trail to transform Buddhism from the angle of investigating actual experience as Western Buddhists is shown in the 1997 book, The Moon and Flowers: a woman’s path to enlightenment (published by Windhorse Publications).

Yet, Western feminist critiques on Buddhism are not without problems. The followings are three points that I find problematic in some Western feminist critique on Buddhism.

Hybrid Native

Western feminist Buddhists often view with Asian Buddhist institutions as patriarchal hierarchy and having oppressive nature (e.g. Boucher, 1988: 117). Not having bhikkhuni order in Theravada Buddhist tradition, for instance, is seen as the proof of patriarchal oppression. While I do not totally dispute with such arguments and agree that there are indeed patriarchal practices needed to change in Asian Buddhist institutions, I must draw attention to the way these arguments are formed. Some Western feminist Buddhists are inclined to see Asian Buddhist institutions and/or Asian Buddhist tradition as fixed objects which have not changed until Westerners come along. They see Asian Buddhists/Buddhism as the ‘native’ that is pure and is there to be studied. They generalize the ‘native’, take the ‘native’ for granted, and then formulate a theory that creates domination over the ‘native’.

To begin with, there is a tendency for the Western feminists to put all the ‘non-Western’ into a generalizing category — to be more precise, the ‘non-Western’ tends to be assumed to have a set of permanent, never-changing culture, value, language, customs, symbols, identity, belief…etc. that can be observed and studied by outsiders (e.g. Western scholars). And when the native changes, the Western scholars become unease and reason it to be the result of Western infiltration (Chow, 1994: 122-124)— even though a historical origination such as a pure race or a pure culture is nothing more than a myth, and/or a production of colonial stereotype that functions to maintain the Western superiority (Bhabha, 1983: 44). By seeing the  ‘non-Western’ as fixed objects, Western scholars can trace its ‘origin’ before ‘Western infiltration’, evaluate the ‘native’ as backward and inferior, and thus maintain the Western superiority. It is not unusual for Western feminists to assume that no change in Asian Buddhism may occur unless Westerners bring in new perspectives. For instance, in studying misogynist texts in Mahayana Buddhism, Diana Paul (1979) states, “[t]he illiterate lay Buddhist of both sexes may not have even known about misogynists texts. Furthermore, literature Buddhist women may not have cared to read antifeminist texts even if they knew of their existence” (xxiv). It seems to suggest that Asian Buddhists are passive actors and need Western feminists to remind them of the misogynist oppression. It also ignores the complexity in Asian Buddhists’ spiritual life, which may not necessary concerted on the study of Buddhist texts. It even neglects the possibility that these misogynist texts may have already been studied and rejected by Asian Buddhists— without the reminder from Western feminists.

However, the coincidence of the emergence of feminism with Buddhism becoming a form of practices to the Westerners in the 1970s is frequently taken for granted as the ‘evidence’ for changes brought by Western feminists (e.g. Senf, 1996: 69), and any positive changes afterwards should be contributed to Western perspectives; for it is the Westerners who introduce new and fresh path of practices to an age-old and rigid tradition which never has the capacity to change by itself. The implication hidden behind such arguments goes like this: not only should Asian Buddhists appreciate and even celebrate the changes brought by Western feminists, but also if Asian Buddhists do not change according to the suggestions made by Western feminists, Asian Buddhism will forever be patriarchal, unable to change and unworthy of practicing.

The problem is that the native never stays the same. Nawal El Saadawi (1997) says it very well: “[….] there is no culture without an economy to support it, without political institutions to defend it, without a land in which it can strike its roots” (1333). Culture cannot stand alone; elements such as economy and politics all have influence on culture. The assumption that Asian Buddhism has always been the same for the past hundreds or thousands of years does not make sense because economic, political, and many other elements have always been in the play and changing Asian Buddhism. Furthermore, given the frequency of global exchange of ideas, technologies, people and so on throughout the history, there is rarely a ‘pure’ native which has always been isolated and never been influenced by others. Therefore, a patriarchal and traditional Asian Buddhism that has never changed exists only in fantasy. The preoccupation to see the differences between the ‘pure’ West and ‘pure’ East either functions to maintain Western superiority, or runs the danger of losing sight of the commonalities and connections between women (Bulbeck, 1998: 6).

For example, to study the phenomena of the prosperous bhikkhuni sangha in Taiwan, one cannot simply attribute to the reason that “Chinese Buddhist women have as role models the female saints” (Karma Lekshe Tsomo, 1999:19), for Buddhism in Taiwan is a hybrid Buddhism. Early Taiwanese Buddhism might be said to be “secular-and-laywomen-oriented”, as Buddhist practices then were centered on vegetarian halls which housed large numbers of lay female practitioners, and Buddhist full-ordination was not even available in Taiwan until 1953. However, as colonial influences waged in (including the influences of Japanese Buddhism during the Japanese Occupation, Chinese Orthodox Buddhism brought by mainland Chinese refugee monks after 1949, and competition pressure from Western Christian missionaries), Taiwanese Buddhism has changed to “monastic-and-social-welfare-oriented” by the end of the 20th century (Li, 1996). Thus, if one wants to use Taiwanese Buddhism as an example of ‘the traditional Asian Buddhism’ to reflect the needs for changing Buddhist practices, then there is the question of which period of Taiwanese Buddhism should be cited. In addition, if one wants to study the ‘native’ Taiwanese Buddhism, one must face the nearly impossible task of splitting Buddhist practices in Taiwan by whatever means.

The point is that: a Western feminist cannot point at a practice in Asian Buddhism and then says, “Asian Buddhism is like that and has always been like that. We, as Western feminists, need to help Asian Buddhist women to be aware of their oppression and help them to change”. To say so is to maintain Western superiority over Asian Buddhists who are presumed by the above statement as backward and inferior. Perhaps Asian Buddhists have not changed their practices the way Western Buddhists do, but any change in religious practices is likely to be conditioned by economic, political and many other elements. Changes may occur naturally — that is, without ‘instructions’ given by Western feminists —, had the conditions permitted.

To remember that there exists no ‘pure’ native is also to remind us the importance of the wider social, economic and political conditions which a religion finds itself in. Some Western feminist Buddhists suggest that Western women transform Buddhism and make Buddhism a better and more humanitarian religion (e.g. Boucher, 1988: 148- 206). Such claims not only marginalize Asian women and men’s efforts in improving their religious life but also neglect the fact that certain transformations can occur in the West only because the West has the kind of social, economic and political conditions to make such transformations happen. Western women did not come along to transform Buddhism; it is Buddhism that has always been transforming.

Values vs. Norms

Another point that is often neglected by Western feminist Buddhists is the tendency to perceive Western values as the universal norm. When Western women confront Buddhism with their feminist values, confusion and/or conflicts may raise. It is manifested in Rita Gross’ (1997) struggle between her feminist anger and the Buddhist idea of ‘seeing things as they are”, and in Kate Wheeler’s (1996) question: “why am I doing in a religion whose formal expression is a highly defended, medieval, male, sexist hierarchy?” (57) The confusion/conflicts created by the difference in values might be natural; the problem exists only when one ‘normalizes’ one’s own values. Some Western feminists use their values such as individualism, economic control…etc. to evaluate Asian Buddhism; and when what appears in Asian Buddhism does not agree to their values, there is an inclination to judge it as a negative practice.

It is important to remember that what Western values take as a signifier for empowerment may not be so valued in other cultures: while the Western culture might value the individual, other cultures might value the community; while the Western culture appreciates wives, other cultures might appreciate mothers; while gender in the Western culture is determined by the body, gender in other cultures might be supported by a person’s role in the social relation… (Bulbeck, 1998). To use Western values as the universal norm serves to maintain Western hegemony.

Furthermore, using Western values as the universal norm runs the danger of ignoring the actual situation experienced by people in other cultures. For example, Western feminists generally view sex segregation as a patriarchal practice. Such an argument has its validity, for sex segregation might prevent women from pursuing the level of education and/or professional advancement which men are allowed to. Thus, Western feminist Buddhists often advocate the end of sex segregation in Buddhist institutions, encouraging male and female Buddhists to practice under the same roof (e.g. Gross, 1993: 247- 249). However, not all Asian women would agree to such argument. A Taiwanese bhikkhuni, Ven. Tian-yi, who was active and influential in the 1960s and 1970s, promoted the separation of female and male sangha (mixed-sex Buddhist temples were and are common in Taiwan) in arguing that nuns should establish their own temples. For her, a mixed-sex sangha would easily deprive women many chances of learning, working and practicing, for females might have the tendency to leave difficult tasks (e.g. heavy labour work) to males; or through the cooperation of sexes within the same sangha, female and male might be assigned to different tasks and women may never have the chance to learn and experience certain things. Arguing that women should become fully independent, she saw mixed-sex sangha implying female dependency on male, and sex segregation being the chance for women to learn and do everything by themselves. Her slogan included, “female sangha stands up”, “women lead women”, and “if a woman wants to be ordained, she must solve all problems by herself” (Jian-Yeh Shih, 2000). Sex segregation for her is an empowerment rather than a disadvantage.

There is more. Many, including women in both the West and the East (e.g. Findly, 2000: 133), view education as the essential means to improve the welfare of Buddhist women. Yet, the contemporary highly-respected and influential Taiwanese bhikkhuni, Ven. Cheng- Yen, does not encourage her disciples to attend Buddhist colleges. She argues that the more time one spends in studying canons, the more likely that one might become arrogant and less willing to put the Buddha’s teachings into real-life practices. For her, being a Buddhist is to put the Buddha’s teachings into daily practices, but not to spend one’s time in words. For her, “to know” is not good enough; one must bend down and “to do” (Jiang, 1990: 92-93).

The above two examples show the variation in values in different situations. Indeed, variation in values exists not only among cultures but also between academia and non-academia (Franzmann, 2000: 148-149), and between middle-class and working-class (Pierce, 1996). Thus, it is not surprising to see criticism from black American Buddhist women such as hooks and Pierce who see Western feminist Buddhists, of whom many are white and middle-class intellectuals, fail to reflect their black experience. As such, the tendency of Western feminist critique on Buddhism to universalize Western values — or, to be more precisely, white and middle-class values — creates a hierarchy that oppresses Buddhist women of other backgrounds.

Western Buddhism

We must ask: “Why do Western feminists study Asian Buddhist women’s religious experiences?” The answer may have more to do with Western Buddhists than with Asian Buddhists.

Firstly, the study of Asian Buddhists’ (including both sexes) religious experience might be essential for the formulation of Western Buddhism. Edward Said (1978) argues that: “[….] Orientalism is [….] a considerable dimension of modern political- intellectual culture, and as such has less to do with the Orient than it does with ‘our’ world” (29). Indeed, the 19th century Orientalist study on Buddhism tends to view Buddhism either as ‘rational knowledge’ or as ‘romantic fantasy’ (Batchelor, 1994: xi- xii), stressing the notion that there might be an alternative to the Western mode of society and culture. Buddhism as a ‘form of practice’ does not appear so to the Westerners until the 20th century. Even then, Buddhism is often used as a reflection for Westerners’ identification of self. For instance, the very title of Sandy Boucher’s book, “Turning the Wheel: American women creating the new Buddhism”, suggests a dualism that the Western = new and non-Western= old. The perhaps unconscious implication behind the title shows the need for the West to have a contrast in order to identify itself.

I would argue that after the second wave of feminism, there exists a tendency, in which the Western feminist critique on Buddhism has more to do with the formulation of the so-called ‘Western Buddhism’ than with the concern for transforming patriarchal practices. That is, only by pointing out the difference between Western and Asian Buddhist practices, the identification of ‘Western Buddhism’ may occur; for without an ‘Other’, there can be no Self. Once the difference between Other and Self is recognized, the researchers can subject the Other as the ‘non-Western’ and the Self as the ‘Western’. Without recognizing the difference in practices, the Western Buddhists cannot set themselves apart and call their practice as ‘Western Buddhism’.

Secondly, consciously or unconsciously, Western feminist critique on Buddhism manifests a hegemony which functions to maintain Western superiority. Consider the following statement by Rita Gross (1993):

All these new currents in Buddhism owe something to Buddhism’s immersion in the global network of ideas and influences, but the Buddhist feminist concerns are especially dependent on Western feminism and are taken most seriously by Western Buddhists. The most powerful agent promoting post-patriarchal Buddhism is the auspicious coincidence of feminism and Buddhism in the West. That Western Buddhists should have so quickly moved into leadership on this issue, which is so critical for Buddhism’s future, is due to an auspicious coincidence of two independent streams of influence……The Asian models were totally ignored, to the extent that it has been suggested that the single biggest difference Asian and Western Buddhism is the active and equal involvement of women in all aspects of Buddhist practice (218- 219).

The above statement implies that Asian Buddhist women are helpless objects: they are either incapable of improving their own situation or totally unaware of the patriarchal oppression, and Western women are smarter and more capable and only Western women can bring egalitarianism into Buddhism. Neither do I think a statement like this brings liberation to Asian Buddhist women, nor do I think it is a fair assessment on Asian Buddhist women. Taiwanesebhikkhuni Ven. Tian-Yi, whom I have mentioned and who had never been educated in the West throughout her whole lifetime, advocated the empowerment of female sangha, apparently without the ‘guidance’ from Western feminism. Even as early as the late 19th century, long before the emergence of Western feminist critique on Buddhism, Soto nuns of Japan began to improve their situation and claim their rights: from establishing nuns’ school to a nationwide organization (Arai, 1999). They showed the courage and determination of empowering themselves. Thus, the suggestion that only Western feminists know about empowering women is problematic.

Furthermore, some Western feminist critiques on Buddhism exhibit a danger that is frequently criticized by feminists themselves — the danger of marginalizing (Asian Buddhist) women. It is generally agreed that male scholars who write history do not always record the stories of women. In religious texts, “women tend to be excluded both within and by means of those texts” (Franzmann, 2000:74). Then, the celebration of having Western female Buddhist teachers/leaders by many Westerners (e.g. please see July 2000 issue of Shambhala) leads one to wonder whether it is true that Asian Buddhism seldom has female teachers/leaders, or it is merely the sad result of not being written down by religious historians. History is full of examples of leaving women’s stories out of texts. One better-known example is the transmission of bhikkhuni lineage from Ceylon to China in the 5th century which is a significant event unfound in any Ceylonese canon. In Taiwan alone, I can easily name many well-known and well- respected contemporary female teachers/leaders such as Ven. Hiu-Wan , Ven. Cheng- Yen, Ven. Tzu Hui, Ven. Tzu Jan, Ven. Tzu Chuang, Ven. Heng- Ching, Ven. Yi Kung, Ven. Yi Fa, Ven. Zhaohui and so on. Over emphasizing the success of Western female Buddhist teachers/leaders is to push the stories of many Asian female Buddhist teachers/leaders aside, doing the same thing as patriarchal male historian do when they leave women’s stories out of texts. Like male religious professionals who use the control of religious texts that ignore women’s stories to maintain patriarchal tradition, marginalizing Asian Buddhist women’s stories also serves to maintain Western superiority. For Asian Buddhist woman, it is not liberation but oppression.

Hence, the generalization and depiction of Asian Buddhist women as weak and oppressed victims of a patriarchal tradition in many Western feminist critiques on Buddhism serves two functions: one is to serve as a contrast so that the Western Buddhists can reflect on and formulate ‘Western Buddhism’; another is to marginalize the efforts and achievement of Asian Buddhist women in order to maintain Western superiority.  As such, Western Buddhism is depicted as the newer and better form of Buddhism that should replace the older and patriarchal Asian Buddhism. I am not saying that it is a conscious and/or intentional work of some Western feminists to fashion Western domination in the Buddhist world. The history of the past five hundred years is a history of the expansion of Western colonial powers, and Western superiority might be so embedded in the unconscious minds of many (including Westerners and non-Westerners) without realizing it themselves. I merely want to point out the problems so that future feminist discourse on Buddhism will not make the same mistake of creating a hierarchy, which oppresses Asian Buddhist women.

Conclusion

In this essay, I have shown the difficulty and complexity of feminist discourse on Buddhism. While Buddhism has a long history and is practiced in a wide range of cultures, it is essential to avoid using one’s own values to evaluate Buddhist practices of others. Any form of Buddhism is likely to be the result of a hybrid culture, so its origin cannot be traced and its ability to change cannot be easily determined. Things valued in one culture may not be so valued in another, so a Buddhist practice may mean one thing to this woman and another to that woman. Generalizing non-Western Buddhists and universalizing Western values are two problems needed to avoid.

I have also shown that during the process of discoursing Asian Buddhism, a ‘Western Buddhism’ arises. It is done through the process of comparison between and reflection on the practices of Asian Buddhists and Western Buddhists that a ‘Western Buddhism’ is formulated. I am not saying that there can be no ‘Western Buddhism’ without the comparison between and reflection on Asian Buddhism, for there has to be a ‘Western Buddhism’ (or Western Buddhisms). Since the social, economic and political conditions vary in different societies, one cannot expect that the practices of Western Buddhists remain entirely the same as those who live in a different social, economic and political condition. The problem lies in the process of identifying or formulating Western Buddhism, in which Western superiority is habitually created or sustained. While I must admit that works of many Western feminist Buddhists such as Rita Gross’ inspiring, I must also draw attention to the oppression and racial hierarchy created in these works. There can be no liberation for all women if the notion of Western superiority is to continue.

Of course, not all Western Buddhist women neglect the stories of Buddhist women in other cultures. In the book, Innovative Buddhist Women: swimming against the stream (edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo, published in 2000), the stories of many non-Western women are told; it is noted that not all of them seek to improve women’s welfare with the intervention of Western feminism. Their stories not only prove that Asian Buddhist women have the awareness and ability for improving their welfare but also show that there are Western feminists willing to listen.

Finally, I want to quote a statement from Ien Ang (1995):

Taking difference seriously necessitates the adoption of a politics of partiality rather than a politics of inclusion. A politics of partiality implies that feminism must emphasize and consciously construct the limits of its field of political intervention. While a politics of inclusion is driven by an ambition for universal representation (of all women’s interests), a politics of partiality does away with that ambition and accepts the principle that feminism can never be an encompassing political home for all women, not just because different groups of women have different and sometimes conflicting interests, but, more radically, because for many groups of ‘other’ women other interests, other identifications are sometimes more important and politically pressing then, or even incompatible with, those related to their being women (404).

In other words, recognizing the difference among women is not enough; accepting the difference in women’s interests is crucial. That is, a woman might be more interested in the struggle against religious oppression in her country than worrying about not having female leadership in the Buddhist sangha; a woman might be more interested in finding a stable income than wanting a female teacher; a woman might be more interested in putting the Buddha’s teachings into daily practices than debating about the validity of the Eight Special Rules…etc. Only by accepting difference, a feminist might avoid creating oppression on other women.

This essay is only a short discussion on Western feminist critique on Buddhism. I only want to outline a few problems in Western feminism that gain my attention and have not given detailed discussion here. Like I criticize the tendency of some Western feminists to generalize ‘non-Western’, I myself generalize the ‘Western’ in this essay. Certainly, not all Westerners are white, middle-class and heterosexual. Future studies on the similar topics might want to note the complexity of Western Buddhism. 

6 Replies to “Western Buddhist Feminist Oppressors”

  1. I skimmed the essay somewhat, but this really is a good essay. I always thought the feminist thing here was a bit overboard. I think a lot of nuns in Asia are happy with who they are and their station, but only us in the West shake our heads and think we’re put on this earth to correct everyone. Reminds me of Team American: World Police, the movie. 🙂

    (durka, durka)

    Thanks!

  2. Thank you, arunlikhati, for posting this article. Transnational and feminist issues are necessarily complex and defy the easy either-or categorizations we’re so fond of in the U.S. I am very encouraged that such complex issues are getting some attention out here in the wild world wide web because, regrettably, often these issues don’t get much attention in the mainstream press.

    So thanks for stepping into the fray!

  3. All my Buddhist teachers are (Asian) nuns, so I find this particularly interesting—thanks for sharing this. 🙂

  4. It is possible to participate in one’s own oppression. I’m just saying. What about Asian feminists? Where is there voice in this piece? Without it, this critique falls flat and the arguments almost devoid of relevancy in a real sense. It promotes the same “West vs East” mentality that it appears to criticize.

  5. I’m with Di (above). The critique is that we’re not listening to Asian women’s input here; well, then let’s have more of it. What developments towards the equality and dignity of women have taken place in Buddhism, apart from “western” feminist influence? I’m eager to honor these; and, on the other hand, if Buddhism’s culture has tended to discourage such developments (whether with that direct intent, or indirectly), I will certainly take note of that in forming my own response to / practice of Buddhism, just as I take into account Catholic misogyny and sexism in deciding whether and how to be Catholic. –Joan

  6. Thank you for this post. And for what it’s worth, as a Western feminist Buddhist (but hopefully not the problematic kind discussed in this essay…I try, anyway), I’ve generally found Western Buddhist spaces to be pretty patriarchal as well, just a different set of sexist cultural assumptions…

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