Speaking to an audience at the University of Oregon last week, the Dalai Lama discussed the possibility that his successor could be a woman. Women, he said, are more sensitive, compassionate, and nurturing. He pointed to his own mother and listed the maternal characteristics women share.
And then he leaned forward, as if to share a confidence with the thousands of people there. "And she will be attractive!" he said, and leaned back laughing.
I have the deepest respect for the Dalai Lama, and I watch his talks as often as I can because I think he is genuinely lovely, kind, and respectful. He is an amazing balance of qualities: happy, serious, intelligent, accessible, caring, and firm. I appreciate his support for women, including, I'm told, the often-neglected Tibetan nuns.
I am sad, though, that he describes women this way, using maternal stereotypes and bringing in looks, even as a joke.
Lama Tsultrim Allione, a New Hampshire native who became a Tibetan nun and now leads a dharma center devoted to promoting the feminine, says she was drawn to Tibetan Buddhism precisely because it presented a fuller view of women than western society.
"What I found powerful was the blissful and active aspect of the feminine," she says. "The dakini is powerful and naked -- and she's wise." Dakinis, the female embodiment of wisdom in Tibetan iconography, are also wrathful and spiritual.
"The positive feminine isn't only about that compassion aspect," she says.
His Holiness certainly knows that. Despite his forward-looking work in science and his incredible compassion, he's a 20th century monk when it comes to discussing gender. Dalai Lama is a difficult job -- he's the spiritual leader of the displaced Tibetans, the face of Buddhism to much of the world. I hope his successor is compassionate and kind and wise and fierce and blissful -- and an extraordinarily gifted woman who can overcome the opposition her position would generate.