Women’s Lib & Buddhist Lib on Extinguishing Suffering. ~ Deborah Bowman

Via elephant journal
on Aug 17, 2011
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Photo: Deborah Bowman

Who doesn’t want to be free of macho attitudes and stacks of laundry? Stereotypes and binding bras? As long as we are talking about freedom, how about escaping that nasty inner voice that says, “you’re not nice enough” or “not tough enough?”

What twisted internalized oppressor gave that voice a say anyway? Is there really a sexist pig inside our heads? Whether woman or man, aren’t we all victims of repressive norms and social constructs?

The Women’s Liberation movement would say yes. The Buddhists would offer a qualified no. What do they have to learn from one another? Aren’t both pushing us toward greater connection and freedom?

I can’t imagine a female or male not benefiting from the liberation promised of either movement. Yet what they say and what they do can seem to be two very different things. This is where we can learn from each another.

Women want to be equal yet we make men the bad guys. Who wants equality with an evil twin? Buddhists say we are all perfectly pure in nature, yet recently in Nepal some want to evict a Buddhist nun from her religious community for being gang raped. Why isn’t anyone shouting about this?

As a Buddhist I know we are not victims, but that we do suffer terribly from ignorance, greed and hate. In Buddhism we just don’t draw a line between them and us. In fact, the freedom from suffering that is promised is based on the negation of a “them” and an “us.” It’s our habituated ideas of “you” and “me” that are at the root of our suffering.

So how is this going to help our nun in Nepal? As a feminist I want healing and restorative justice for her. I want accountability and the wrong righted.

We live in a violent world. Entrenched positions make us enemies to one another and to ourselves. As a gestalt therapist, the inner dialogue I am privy to of every unhappy person who walks into my office is not pretty. It’s often harsh, sexist and fixated. It’s easy to recognize this painful discourse as I cringe when I hear those voices in the space between my own earlobes.

Is it the Buddhist libber and the women’s libber in my head that need to square off?

Buddhist Libber: In taking the Bodhisattva Vow in the Buddhist tradition I commit to uprooting the causes of suffering and not resting until every living being is liberated.

Women’s Libber: Sounds like your vow encompasses the work I am doing to bring to consciousness the suffering of women and children in a sexist society and work for equal treatment and opportunities for all.

Buddhist Libber: I also view equality as important and understand all humans have the opportunity to liberate themselves from suffering, even under the most terrible conditions of social injustice like the nun encountered.

Women’s Libber: Great, so she has a chance for nirvana while she lies unconscious for three days after being beaten and raped? How does that help sisters around the world at risk anytime they walk down the street or get on a bus?

Buddhist Libber: I hear your frustration. I support working to change traditions and economic factors that put so many at risk of serious harm. I just want to insure that people understand that nothing can make them a victim of the outer circumstances. That complete freedom is available in every moment.

Women’s Libber: But she is a victim of oppression and violence. I know you understand that the causes and conditions of discrimination create suffering. Why are you such a purist?

Buddhist Libber: Because self-liberation is possible. Why deny anyone the possibility of rising above the worst of human tragedies? At the time of the Buddha, a woman named Patacara met with the sudden and cruel death of her husband, children and parents. Mad with grief the Buddha approached her when everyone else sought to avoid her. He reminded her, “In your many lifetimes you have shed more tears for the dead than there is water in the four oceans.”

In his presence she returned to her senses and devoted herself to the practice of meditation. Patacara later experienced the indivisibility of all phenomena and in extinguishing suffering, gained enlightenment. She rose to become a masterful teacher and leader of a large community of nuns.

Women’s Libber: The story of Patacara is incredibly inspiring, a woman who became equal to the Buddha, one who is awake, in her lifetime. I just want to be careful not to let the story of one individual’s journey deflect from the predicament of whole classes of people who have little chance of meeting with teachings that could lift them from distress.

The social critique of feminist theory is crucial in getting to the heart of gender bias and hatred that keep women oppressed. Direct action to protect women’s basic rights to nutrition, health care, legal protection, literacy and work is essential. In most countries even these fundamentals are restricted and unequally distributed to the female sex.

Buddhist Libber: I appreciate the energy and wisdom behind your arguments. In Buddhism the basic needs of food, health and education are considered important in fostering a climate where individuals can pursue complete liberation. We make a great team.

Women’s Libber: I’m a player as long as you don’t get too high and mighty. You know, religious people are prone to that.

Buddhist Libber: I understand your concern. Buddhism as a social institution is dreadfully patriarchal, something obvious in the original deliberations about the nun.

Women’s Libber: Yes. I read that a concert on her behalf raised money for her hospital care. The international community spoke up and her status in her sangha is being reconsidered. Several women helped drive that effort. It’s a team I’m happy to serve.

*All photos by Deborah Bowman


  Deborah Bowman, Ph.D., is a Naropa University professor, psychologist and author of The Female Buddha: Discovering the Heart of Liberation of Love. She escapes Boulder every year for Asia to shoot photos of Guanyin, Superwoman Bodhisattva of Compassion. She’s grateful to her husband Stephen who can’t spell either but is the best Buddhist fact-checker in the world.  Find Deborah on twitter, facebook and at thefemalebuddha.com


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7 Responses to “Women’s Lib & Buddhist Lib on Extinguishing Suffering. ~ Deborah Bowman”

  1. Stig Edwardson says:

    It seems that a persistent focus on an "us vs. them" perception only serves to reinforce separation. The basic truth is that we are one. I choose to focus (usually not very successfully!) on that truth, and to accept the human condition as a manifestation of ignorance of that truth, and of domination of the ego.

  2. Padma Kadag says:

    Interesting take on western thought and the application of Buddhism. I think that this scenario could be interpreted as two equally effective means, with completely differnt results, from different origins. But Buddhism has the ability to be inclusive of the Women's Libber but not visa versa. Feminism is not a path to liberation in an ultimate sense. It is a temporary relative path to an impermanent happiness. The feminist analogy is no different than a gay or lesbian, householder or monastic, businessman or itinerant yogi analogies. The path to liberation for a Buddhist is the Buddha, nothing else. Women suffer. As do men, hellish beings, animals, pretas, demi-gods, gods and goddesses. I do find it interesting though your matter of fact insistence that "Buddhism" is "dreadfully patriarchal". Unfortunately the prevalence of the monastic buddhism is how buddhism is judged, particularly by feminist non-buddhists or by prominent female western buddhists now selling the sacred feminine. Believe it or not there are lineages in Buddhism right now and in the past where the female was seen no differently.

  3. An update on the assaulted nun in Nepal might be illuminating.

    In fact, there was an international outcry (among Buddhists) against the notion that a raped nun must be in violation of the Vinaya. That is incorrect by nearly any interpretation of the Vinaya. The Nepal Buddhist Federation backed down a few days agp and retracted its claim that the nun must be removed from her order. Since then, the nun has been released from the hospital and is now in the care of another nun, Ani Choying Drolma, who runs the Nuns Welfare Foundation.

    I also agree with Padma Kagag — Buddhist history is not uniformly about the oppression of women. Many Asian cultures are strongly patriarchal, but even so some lineages have treated women as equals, at least part of the time.

    There is no real conflict between Buddhism and feminism. However, from a Buddhist perspective feminism is seen more holistically, IMO. It's not just about somehow giving women higher status within a patriarchal culture but realizing that gender role is a socially constructed illusion that limits men as well as women.

  4. Dear Christine,
    Thanks for your reply and emphasis on separating the actual teachings of the Dharma from the cultural influences and practices surrounding it. Nevertheless, Buddhism as a social institution is also a particularly influential carrier of the culture and its historical and predominant patriarchal attitudes. Even many of the early sutras express misogynist ideas castigating women as evil temptresses or morally weak. While these writings are reflections of limited human understanding at the time, they still influence the attitudes of current practitioners in many countries.
    The past 4 years I have presented papers at and attended the conference of International Association of Buddhist Universities. As many as 84 countries have been represented at any one of these conferences. There are still many people there, that as a woman, it would be improper for me to begin a conversation with.
    We do have agreement on your reflections regarding the open lotus that mindfulness creates. That's why I have the example of Patacara and her incredible healing and liberation as an awakened one.

  5. Dear Stig,
    I appreciate your concern about an "us" vs. "them" perception that can reinforce separation. While the inseparability of "you " and "me" is a particularly important teaching in Buddhism, I believe it is still important to look at how we get ourselves off that track and how we can address those flaws in our thinking and attitudes. I believe looking at the particulars of racism or sexism is a good place to begin. Change is actually harder when we focus on how things should be than how they actually are. Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche has a lovely saying that I believe addresses this issue: "Erring and erring I walk the unerring path." I believe it is important to look at the errors of our social institutions, even the beloved ones in which we practice and study.

  6. Dear Barbara,
    Thanks so much for your reply and update on the nun and her care. You are one of the people whose writing helped get the word out about this sister in Nepal. I believe your effort as well as many voices in the international community contributed to the change of heart by the Nepal Buddhist Federation and the care she has received.
    While the social institution of Buddhism has not uniformly been about the oppression of women I still see it as a historically significant carrier of persistent patriarchal attitudes. Religion, as a vehicle of cultural attitudes, has the added strength of the position of an "ultimate authority. " God says, Mohammed says, Buddha says…. As Buddhists we must be willing, as the Zen story suggests, "When you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him". How lucky we are to be in a tradition that rejects the Buddha as anything outside ourselves; that is willing to question our every way of thinking and being, including our doctrines and the flaws of our social institutions surrounding our practice and study of the Dharma.
    Yes, I too see no real conflict between Buddhism and Feminism on an ultimate level. It's my relative self that needs to hash things out from time to time.

  7. […] was in this frozen space of liberation, I met my daughter for the first […]