August 17, 2011

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

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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