Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Humble need not mean downtrodden

There's always a fine line in a tradition that teaches you to work with your own perceptions and to welcome difficulty as fodder for practice between self-effacing and self-erasing, between sering others and failing to care for yourself.

I admire Buddhist nuns, who cheerfully sit at the back of the room and stand at the end of the food line, for their deep sense that they are serving all beings by serving the male monks. Yet, as they in a culture and institutions shaped by patriarchy, I wonder if others care for them in the same way. (OK, mostly I don't wonder; I see that they don't.)

Karma Lekshe Tsomo is the president of Sakyadhita ("Daughters of the Buddha"), the most important international association of Buddhist women, and of Jamyang Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the education of Himalayan women. She was the first person, in the late 1970s, to advocate for education and better conditions for Buddhist nuns. 

"They're telling the nuns, 'Oh, you're so humble, you're not interested in gaining prestige and power like these Westerners,'" Lekshe says with a calm voice but a quizzical look. "Well, I just wonder why they are not telling the monks that. If women are perpetually disadvantaged, this is what you end up with. Surveys show that the nuns' health is by far the worst of any group. Their educational standards are by far the worst too. There is a lot of work to be done, and awareness raising, especially among women."

Michaela Hass, who's written a forthcoming book on women in Buddhism, talked to Lekshe in this article for the Huffington Post called "The F Word in Buddhism: 'Daughters of the Buddha' Discuss How Buddhist Women Can Achieve Equality."

What is holding women back? Hass writes:
"Sexism," Lekshe candidly sums it up. She is not afraid to use the F-word. "Feminism," she says, delivering the punch line with a coy smile, "has been called the radical theory that women are completely human." The gender imbalance affects Buddhist women worldwide. "We are talking about more than 300 million women dedicated to peace, honesty, loving-kindness and compassion. Certainly we would want to optimize the talents and potential of these wonderful women." In the West, more and more teachers recognize this potential, but "women have almost no voice in Asian Buddhist institutions. For women to move into positions of leadership, they need to be fully educated and trained."

I'm currently reading "Buddhism After Patriarchy" by Rita Gross. The Buddha was radical for his time and place because he taught the same things to women and men. Gender-based discrimination seems largely to have been added by subsequent patriarchal cultures. It's time to care for -- and listen to -- the  nuns.
The Mandala Dance of the 21 Praises of Tara at the Sakyadhita conference

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