Dialogue between Tibetan Buddhism and feminism in Buddhist women’s lives by Sharin Shajahan Naomi

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Dialogue between Tibetan Buddhism and feminism in Buddhist women’s lives
Sharin Shajahan Naomi
PhD candidate, Murdoch University

Tibetan Buddhism or Vajrayana Buddhism is becoming increasingly popular in the Western countries and a significant number of women are adopting Tibetan Buddhism as their religious and spiritual practice. In this context, feminist scholarship has shed critical insight to this particular religion in terms of women’s equality, agency, subjectivity, and freedom as well as cultural conflicts. Renowned woman academic and Buddhist teacher Dr. Ann Klein has explained the necessity for a conversation between feminism and Buddhism on the basis of potential mutual exchange. According to Klein (1995, p, 192), ‘Westerners are often attracted to Buddhism . . . out of a wish to be more at home with themselves, especially... their gendered selves. Buddhism does not address this as an issue. Feminism does, and its partnership with Buddhist ideas and practices may bring a newly expanded form of feminist experience into being’. Feminist scholar Dr. Rita Gross (1993 a) has seen this engagement as a way to revalorization of Buddhism, which means the work of repairing the tradition in the light of feminist values.

The paper examines the existing scholarly literatures on feminism and Tibetan Buddhism in the context of women’s real life experience. The paper discusses some key areas where feminist views have engaged with Tibetan Buddhist teaching and practice in an in-depth ways. These areas include Buddhist concept of emptiness and subjectivity, female deities, suffering, interpreting the Buddhist texts in favour of gender equality, women’s presence and contribution in the development of tantric Buddhism, and developing a women’s movement for more egalitarian reforms in the monastic institutions and practice. Delving deeply into the biographical elements of outstanding Buddhist women practitioners as well as the auto biographical elements of the feminist scholarly works, the paper links the scholarly aspects of this dialogue to real life experience, and seeks answer to the questions ‘what is the role of this dialogue in Buddhist women’s lives? What needs to be done more to make the dialogue more inclusive, comprehensive and grounded? At the end, the paper contends that though this dialogue has been mutually enriching for both Tibetan Buddhism and feminism, it has yet to be more inclusive and practical in terms of understanding women’s heterogonous experiences, voices and perspective.

Clarifying feminism

Feminism is an ongoing developing paradigm with a diverse school of thoughts and it is very challenging to define feminism comprehensively. Feminism is often categorized as three waves of thoughts. Though this categorization is subject to some feminist critique, understanding the depth, content and extent of feminism through these three waves can bring much more scholarly convenience and charity, specially for the audience from interdisciplinary background.

The first wave of feminist thoughts originated in 19th century when the liberal women’s right movement emerged in the United states and Europe for equal rights to vote and access to public institutions (Krolokke and Sorensen, 2006). The second wave of feminism began in the 1960s to 1970s as several schools of feminist thoughts ranging from radical, Marxist, ecofeminism, psychoanalytic and so on (Nicholson, 2009). However, there was a common slogan that bought them altogether: personal is political (Krolokke and Sorensen, 2006). Keeping the key objective of political reform, second wave feminist thoughts explain the subjugation of women with in the wider and comprehensive dimensions of patriarchy, capitalism, heterosexuality, private space including the role of wife and mother (Nicholson, 2009, Rampton, 2014). A difference was drawn between sex - as biological, and gender as social construction (Nicholson, 2009; Rampton, 2014).. While the first wave of feminism was initiated by middle class white women, the second wave included women of colour and women from developing nations, with an aspiration for sisterhood and solidarity (Rampton, 2014). The third wave of feminism came in the mid-1990s, imbedded on post-colonial and post-modern thinking (Rampton, 2014). The feminist thoughts under third-wave are diverse with a common thread - accepting contradictory experiences, chaos, contingency, multiplicity and ambiguity of real life and challenging categorical, structural and binary thinking and universality (such as universal sisterhood) (Krolokke and Sorensen, 2006; Rampton, 2014). After second wave , third wave specially post-structuralist and post-modern feminists have extended feminist way of understanding woman more than theoretical and positivist approach. As a result, heterogeneity, particularity of individual life, woman’s subjective experience and textual interventions for expressing women’s experience in a better way are included within this wave of thoughts.

Though gender equality and women’s liberation are grafted at the heart of feminism, feminism as a discourse is not confined to any single term. However, the nature of feminist thoughts can be understood through an integrated view towards the three waves of feminism. For this paper, I would like to posit feminism in a broad way : feminism is a constant developing paradigm and open to any new potentialities for understanding women and their inner and outer world.

A glimpse on Tibetan Buddhism

Though the origin of Tibetan Buddhism can be traced towards the end of the 8th century CE in Tibet, it had its root in Vajrayana vehicle of Buddhism in India (BBC, 2004). Besides Tibet, Vajrayana Buddhism is followed in Bhutan, Mongolia and some parts of India and Nepal. As one of the Mahayana Buddhist schools, the path to seek liberation in Tibetan Buddhism or Vajrayana Buddhism upholds the basic seals of Buddhist principlessuffering is the essence of life, the reason of suffering is desire, and the cessation of desire is possible through attaining enlightenment. (The Dalai Lama, 1998; Surya Das, 1998) The unique features that distinguishes Vajrayana Buddhism from other schools are note worthy. In this school, the concept of compassion is more than being kind to some one. It is associated with the term ‘Bodhichitta’ - wish to free all sentient beings from the suffering realms of samsara. The concept of ‘emptiness’ in Tibetan Buddhism also varies from other schools of Buddhism. The emptiness of non-inherent existence manifests through interdependent, conditioned and impermanent nature of self and phenomena (Wilber, 2006). In this radiant play of form and formless reality, subject and object are conditioned, flux, and interconnected which ultimately dissolved into blissful nothingness. However, Tibetan Buddhism has four major schools (Nyingma, Kagyu, Gelug, Sakya) and their views have slight difference interms of understanding the emptiness.

Tibetan Buddhism cherishes the fact that every sentient being has the potential to become Buddha with in, which needs to be unlocked through particular practice. To pursue this goal, Tibetan Buddhist practice consists of both Sutras and Tanta. To develop a vast, spacious and unconditional compassionate mind with wisdom of emptiness, Tibetan Buddhism applies meditation, different rituals (like performing ‘puja’ or worship), visualizations of different male and female deities as complementary aspects of enlightened mind, and practices like prostrations as well as circumambulations with a contemplative approach. The distinctive feature of Tibetan Buddhist practice lies in developing Guru devotion for attaining enlightenment in faster way (Chuang, 2006).

The paradoxes related to gender

Among the basic Buddhist principles of Tibetan Buddhism, men and women’s equal potentiality for enlightenment and seeing the ultimate nature of reality beyond gender are considered to be in favour of women’s freedom and equality (Allione, 1984; Hass, 2013; Gross, 1993 a). But Buddhist principles and practice also talk about women’s body’s inferior status in pursuing enlightenment (Tsomo, 2004; Gutschow, 2004). Infact, some Buddhist prayers include not to be reborn as women (Gross, 1993 a). At the same time, Tibetan Buddhist’s distinctive tantric aspects speak highly about women. The wisdom of emptiness is symbolized as mother, motherhood principle is followed for generating highest compassion for all sentient beings, female deities and messengers are mediated upon for reaching the culmination of spiritual practice, all women are to be seen in the aspect of female deity, and outstanding women practitioners are respected as human embodiment of female deities and dakini (Allione, 1984; Shaw, 1995; Hass, 2013). It was even believed that if women could generate aspiration for enlightenment, she can develop spiritual realization faster than men (Changchub and Nyingpo, 2000; Gross, 1993 a; Shaw, 1995).

Feminist scholarship has shown these aspects of Buddhism as paradox, just like any other religion in the world. Buddhist texts talk about women body’s inferior status in seeking Buddhahood; at the same time, it teaches equanimity towards all sentient beings and not to be fixed to gender to realize the ultimate nature of reality - which is beyond any form and conception (Gross, 1993 a). In next discussion, we will see how feminist argument has dealt with these paradoxes in the areas of Karma, suffering and women’s equal potential for enlightenment.

Feminist argument on Karma, suffering and women’s equal potential for enlightenment

Buddhism is different from other religions in the sense that there is no single God or creator who creates and then determines the fate of sentients beings (Novick, 1999). Karma like loving kindness, generosity, morality can bring positive consequences in life after life, similarly karma like hatred, anger, jealous can bring negative consequences in the lives in present and future (Sestito, 2009). Based on this dynamic, our suffering varies in different ways. Since in comparison to men, women in general face bad treatments and have to lead lives with more suffering, Buddhist texts consider that women have ripened the seeds of this consequence in their previous life times (Gross, 1993 a; Gyatso and Havnivick, 2005). Woman’s body and its distinctive suffering like child birth, menstruation and so on are considered to be the result of past negative actions or karma in Buddhist texts (Gross, 1993 a; Gross, 1998).

According to feminist view, the concept of women’s inferior status than men due to their own karma needs to be understood in terms of the then context of India and Tibet - where women’s life was extremely exploited; there was not even social and political freedom, let’s forget about freedom to practice spiritual discipline (Gross, 1993 a). On that note, Tibetan women teacher Jetsun Kushala’s comment to feminist scholar Rita Gross is something to be noted: one need not say the prayer to be born as man as superior birth , if you are in America! (Gross, 1993 a p.82). This indicates that if the society is egalitarian, then the karma of women’s inferior status would not arise. Putting in Gross’s way, if Buddhism would emerge and develop in an egalitarian society, it would use the egalitarian principles in terms gender (Gross, 1993 a).

Feminist argument emphasizes that Buddhist teaching is ingrained in developing compassion and equanimity towards all. In this regard, some one’s past actions should not be basis for persisting inhuman, violent and discriminatory treatment (Gross, 1993 a, Khuankaew, 2008). Secondly, there is difference between being aware of karma as cause and effect and getting trap in the patriarchal interpretation. For example, if a woman is having abuse, it can be related to some past karma; but if the woman is pursued to accept this abuse or discrimination as destiny and let it continue without seeking justice, it becomes the patriarchal trap (Gross, 1993 a; Khuankaew, 2008).

Women’s body’s inferior status to seek enlightenment are also apparent from some Buddhist tales where woman practitioners changed their sex to become enlightened in smooth and faster way. These stories are often used to show that males are superior in the long run of Buddhahood. But feminist scholars have interpreted the tales of sex change as non-attachment to identity for sake of spiritual aspiration (Gross, 1993 a). Besides, they have found out the stories for a counter argument – to show the emptiness of gender. For example, one of the chief disciples of Lord Buddha ‘Saripurta’ asked a Goddess, why she did not change the female sex? The Goddess replied (as an indication of her view on emptiness of all phenomena and self, including the sex): how could she change the female sex which did not have innate characteristics. Then the Goddess by her supernatural process, changed Sariputra to Goddess and herself to Sariputra. After this exchange, when each one went back to their previous forms (Goddess to her female form, and Sariputra to his male form), Sariputra accepted that there is no inherent existence of either female or male characteristics. Both exist only conditionally. Just as the stillness of space is beyond male or female… one who perceives through enlightenment has the dharma which is neither male nor female (Gross, 1993 a p.73; Paul, 1985 p.236).

Androcentric interpretation plays an important role to the Buddhist stories which can be used to make women inferior to men. An example can show that how feminist interpretation can be useful to tackle Buddhist stories which possesses the risk of androcentric interpretation. Feminist interpretation to Lord Buddha’s teaching to his disciple Ananda in terms of not to interact with women is something worthy to mention. Ananda asked, ‘how are we to conduct ourselves, Lord, with regard to woman kind?’

‘ As not seeing them, Ananda’- Buddha replied,
‘But if we should see them , what are we to do?’-
‘No talking, Ananda
‘But if they should speak to us, Lord, what are we to do’
Keep wide awake Ananda.’(Gross, 1993 a p.44)

Apparently this story sounds very androcentric and bears the risk of patriarchal interpretation against women. However, Gross (1993 a) is interpreting it as guidance for protecting the celibacy of the monks on the ground that same would be true for the nun in the social context of that time. This shows that how the approach behind interpretation can change the way a story is perceived.

=Gender equality in the monastic order

Tibetan Buddhism is one of the schools of Buddhism where gender inequality in the monastic institutions is still prevalent interms of full ordination and hierarchical positions in the monastic institutions. Nuns cannot have full ordination like monks, and often discriminated in terms of economic and social facilities. Even the most senior nun has to show respect (like sitting behind, eating food after the monk takes it) the junior monks (Gutschow, 2004). A range of studies including anthropological one on nun’s situation in Himalayan regions and nun’s order in Tibetan Buddhist institutions show that the lower status of nuns in the monastic institutions has a negative influence on society’s view towards the nuns in terms of showing equal respect and giving support. (Tsomo, 1999; Tsomo, 2004; Gutschow, 2004).

However, over the years, there are some changes in Tibetan Buddhist institutions including opening teaching and educational degrees to women which they were not allowed to have before (Tsomo, 2013 ). Contemporary male teachers and leaders including H.H the Dalai Lama are found to be in favour of gender equality in the monastic institutions (Tsomo, 2004; The Dalailama,2006). H.H the Dalai lama himself has admitted that the Buddha was teaching on the scene 2,500 years ago in a the society which was a male-dominated society. If lord Buddha would stress the feminist views, nobody would have listened to him (The Dalailama,2006). This gives the message that Buddhist codes on gender equality interms of the regulation of monastic institution can be subject to change to meet the demand of time.

The women movement across the Asia and the West which has been developing since 80’s to promote well beings and equality of Buddhist women has played an influential role in this development in the monastic institutions (Tsomo, 2014; Tsomo, 2007; Bouchar, 2007 a). One of the strong example of this movement is ‘Sakyadhita’ international association of Buddhist women (comprised of Both Western and Asian women) which has furthered the cause on women’s equality in the Buddhist monastic institutions and community through lobbing, advocating with Buddhist lay and monastic leaders and creating awareness (Cowie, 2007, Tsomo, 2007, Bouchar, 2007 b).

Tibetan Buddhism and feminism on mutual exchange

Buddhist practice and teaching on suffering, wisdom of emptiness, female deities, and mind training have offered a fresh perspective to feminist insight through a broader understanding of women’s suffering and subjectivity.

Buddhist understanding of suffering is one of the areas from where feminist approach to suffering has taken insight (Gross, 1993 a; Gross, 1998). Feminist approach to suffering is more emphasized on patriarchal oppression, while Buddhist understanding of suffering has widened woman’s suffering going beyond patriarchal oppression (Gross 1993 a;Gross 1998). Feminist scholars have praised Buddhist practice, specially meditation for helping women to get freedom from destructive emotions in mind that is the cause of suffering in this world ( Gross, 1993 a; Klein, 1995).

Buddhist view of wisdom of emptiness have drawn a profound interest from feminist work, specially in exploring a new way of subjectivity through mind training (Gross, 1993 a, Gross, 1999, Klein, 1995, Shaw, 1994). In this regard, Klein’s (1995) intriguing work which is particularly focused on this area of gender emptiness in Buddhism and subjectivity. Klein’s work(1995) ‘Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self’ is is particularly important to remove the misunderstanding that Buddhist approach to self amounts to non-existence of self, and invites the insight that Buddhist way of experiencing non-existence of inherent self can be facilitative for woman’s freedom and a new way of being.

Klein explains how Buddhist practice including non-conceptual and analytical meditation, rituals as well as visualization of female deity can open up our mind to emptiness, which is actually a vast luminous space of unconditional love. It is not constrained by thoughts, concepts, forms, emotions; and that is why it is blissfully void. Though for the purpose of conventional world, this state is defined as void, emptiness, it is actually an inexpressible spiritual dimension beyond any language. Though this state is inherent in all beings, it is shadowed by innumerable thoughts and emotions. Once we discover the state through consistent practice, we can dwell on that and be aware of the impermanence, rise, fall and dissolution of all our concepts, thoughts, and emotions. The more we train our mind over the time with this this wisdom, the more we become aware of our habituated patterns of clinging to negative emotions and fixed identity or self. It does not mean that we lose our sense of self. But we move towards an unbounded way of being full of compassion. The other way round, we become more prone to positive thoughts. This unique experience and grooming of mind give us a grounding to the core of our being, which let us not to be lost in non-existence, as well as be mindful of our conventional self and identities which go through changes continuously. Klein’s view (1995 p.4) backed by Buddhist view on emptiness, can be a way to mediate the ‘the great divide’ in feminist work – essential self versus post modern self; in other words - a view of an intrinsic and universal womanhood versus the view of constructed, changing, conditioned sense of womanhood. Though not as extensive as Klein’s work, the same approach to Buddhist way of being has been seen as process of developing subjectivity through mind training by other feminist scholars like Gross and Shaw (Gross, 1993 a; Shaw, 1995).

The potential of Tibetan Buddhist view towards emptiness is not confined within a woman’s individual way of exploring a new sense of subjectivity, this view can also be linked with woman’s political identity. In Tibetan Buddhism, reality is constituted through two truths, the ultimate and conventional (Klein, 1995). Though in conventional level, everything including self and all phenomena exist as relational and conditional way, ultimate level is beyond all forms, conceptions, perceptions, and consciousness. Here the reality unfolds as two interrelated aspects where form and formless inter play through blissful emptiness (Klein, 1995; Shaw, 1994). This wisdom can make women aware of both form and formless nature of themselves and phenomena (Gross,2010; Klein, 1995). Since conventional sense of I is not denied, woman can take political position based on an identity as woman, at the same time go beyond gender nature in ultimate sense (Gross, 2010).

The interaction between feminist and Buddhist views on subjectivity brings forward another area of Tibetan Buddhism - female deities in Tibetan Buddhism. Often these feminine figures are associated with the blissful emptiness or the wisdom aspects of enlightened mind. This association is not absolute and static, and there are female deities who represent the compassionate aspects of enlightened mind also. More importantly, the female deities symbolize the feminine principle of our spiritual consciousness (Allione, 1984). The feminine principle is often misunderstood as naïve, weak, passive and dominated in a negative way (Shaw, 1994; Klein, 1995). This misunderstanding has been developed due to the patriarchal abuse of these principles to control and oppress women. Besides, there is reluctance of some feminist schools to the categorization of feminine and masculine with an apprehension that these categorizations would essentialize women’s quality and further the oppression (Allione, 1984; Campbell, 2002; Gross, 1998). This apprehension can be true if the feminine principle is used as an essential quality of women, and posited in opposition to masculine principle in a dualistic way (Gross, 1998). But if the feminine principle is understood as a quality beyond gender in a non-dual complementary relationship with the masculine quality, it can become source of wisdom to connect with the spiritual state, awareness and a way of being.

Among the female deities of Tibetan Buddhism,’ dakini’ has drawn a great interest from feminist scholars in waging an inquiry about the concept. Feminist literatures have clarified that though this symbol has been personified as female enlightened figures, the concept is beyond gender and ingrained on formless reality. However, the symbol of dakini in the form of female is deeply related with the archetype symbols that Tantra often uses in triggering a practitioner’s mind’s potential. Feminist literatures have seen dakini as a multilayered phenomena in the form of female figure – as a non-dual wisdom principle she cuts through the dualistic approach of mind and heal all the negative emotions; as a mystic messenger she appears as deity and trickster in guiding the practitioner, as feminine divine she is worshipped as power of wisdom; and as a woman form, she is often associated with outstanding female practitioners, consorts of great masters (Willis, 1989 a; Simmer-Brown, 2002; Klein, 1995; Willis, 1989 a). Thus, the concept of dakini has made feminist scholarships engage with Tibetan Buddhism in a comprehensive theoretical way. In this regard, feminist scholarship have identified that how the concept of self can be explored in an alternative way with the aid of non-dualist philosophy, and going beyond Cartesian dualism and binary relationship between subject and object. Through the endeavour of feminist insight, the concept of dakini has become a multilayered symbol for women’s freedom and subjectivity as well as a bridge between feminist theories and Buddhist non-dual philosophy.

The female deities in Tibetan Buddhism are related to the tantric aspects of Tibetan Buddhism. Shaw’s (1995) work made us notice that how women’s role in tantric Buddhism has been misunderstood by many Western scholars. They have often highlighted the promiscuity, unfortunate, object of pleasure, and sexual availability on women’s part in tantric practice. Some western scholars have understood this ancient tradition with the projection of a model of gender and sexuality that is different from the culture of mediaeval India where Tantra was developed. This scholarly projection was inherited from enlightenment ideals, Cartesian duality of body/mind/spirit and subject object duality. Shaw (1995) has articulated very strongly that how tantric practice is unique, which has little resemblances with Western epistemologies and ontologies. It cannot be reduced to dualistic a way of thinking, like male versus female, domination versus suppression and so on. In a tantric non-dual approach to reality, everything is interrelated, mutually interdependent and works as matrix. Same approach is applicable to male-female relationship in the visualization of male-female deity. Referring to the most revered Buddhist teachers, Shaw (1995) mentioned that how women needed to be very highly qualified in terms of spiritual upliftment and mastery for this practice in that time, and there were real women in mediaeval India who embodied these qualifications using bliss and passion for tantric practice. Unfortunately, women’s contribution and roles were overlooked due to androcentric interpretation of culture as well as little knowledge in the interpretation from Sanskrit and Tibetan to English (Shaw, 1995). Women’s works were not recorded by their successors, as a result, these contributions got blended anonymously into tantric Buddhist practice. Some women Guru’s valuable contribution even lost due to its special nature, which were particularly for female yoginis in mediaeval India. These practice did not survive in the development of tantric practice in the male dominated Tibetan Monasteries (Shaw, 1995).

Through Shaw’s work, we know that Indian scholar like Atisa (one of the founders of Gelugpa school of Tibetan Buddhism) had a woman Guru who bestowed him realization and Tantric teaching, or a majority of the eighty male ‘great adepts or Mahashiddhas of India had female companions (Shaw, 1995 p26 and p.74). We also come to know that many Tibetan Buddhist practice, such as practice for long life for spiritual development, fasting practice, had history with ancient women Gurus. All this information is normally not mentioned in the teachings that we read or listen in relationship to the masters and practice. It reflects what Shaw (1995, p.122).says, ‘many are not aware that the initiation they receive, the practices they perform and the public rituals they stage and attend are based on the revelations and teaching of a woman’ .

Linking the scholarly dialogue with women’s real lives

Until now, we have seen that feminism and Tibetan Buddhism are on mutual interaction in the theoretical areas. What is the role of this interaction in women’s real life experience? To link the scholarly aspects of this dialogue with the real life experience, we need to turn towards the autobiographical elements in feminist works and biographical stories of women.

Feminist scholarship emphasizes on the importance of autobiographical elements in the scholarly analysis. Feminist scholars and theologians tend to include more autobiographical elements and real life experiences than their conventional colleagues (Gross, 1993 b). Feminist works have reason to integrate autobiographical elements and subjective experience with their scholarship. This practice originated from the discovery that conventional scholarship which often claims to be objective actually promotes androcentric works by ignoring our inevitable stories and situated ness (Gross, 1998). As a result, the ‘false universalism’ becomes the despot in ruling the understanding of knowledge (Gross 1998, p.4). Unlike this practice, Feminists disclose their experiences to show how specific situations and conditions of human being (race, class, culture, sexual orientations) affect that person’s interest, concern and the scholarship he/she produces. Feminist works on Tibetan Buddhism include autobiographical elements to clarify this position as well as link the theoretical analysis with women’s experience.

The autobiographical elements of Gross’s work show that Buddhist meditation and practice worked as ‘gentling process’ of her aggression, anger towards the cause of gender discrimination (Gross, 1981, p.74). While feminist approach has helped her to identify the androcentric attitude behind gender discrimination, Buddhist approach has made her deal with the issue with much control over anger and other destructive emotions. Dr. Simmer-brown has shared in her work that how she has developed proper understanding and spiritual connection with dakini through both feminist inquiry and guidance from her Guru and Buddhist practice (Simmer-brown, 2002). Another feminist scholar Campbell mentioned about the role of feminist views to challenge her relationship with a Tibetan Master (Campbell,2002). These auto-biographical elements take us to the real life journey of women and we can understand that the dialogue between feminism and Buddhism is not confined within abstract theoretical analysis. The dialogue is also lived through the life journey of women.

Here comes the importance of the stories of women which can make the dialogue between feminism and Buddhism more practical, and something worthy to real life. Women’s stories in the form of personal narratives have been considered to be micro courtyard of political and social history. The individual’s voice is not only voice of her own, it is a tale of how a woman lived through a particular social and cultural context and in relationship to others and society (Riessman, 2001). Personal narrative with life story approach reveals nuances, complexities, subtleties and reflections that are otherwise left unnoticed .

Though feminist scholarly work has engaged with Tibetan Buddhism in a very analytical way, and included autobiographical elements to some extent, this engagement is limited due to the lack of women’s stories from heterogeneous background. Besides, these autobiographical elements are not enough to understand the intricacies of Buddhist practice and feminist views in real lives. As a result, there are many areas where the scholarly conversation may not sound very practical and reflecting real life complexities, confusions, and dilemmas of women Buddhist practitioners. I will shed a brief insight into few areas where feminist scholarship on Tibetan loses connection with real life experience of women’s Buddhist practitioners.

One of the distinctive feature of Tibetan Buddhism is the importance of Guru devotion for enlightenment (Chuang, 2006). Guru-disciple relationship has been considered to be a very controversial area in some feminist work in Buddhism. The way Tibetan Buddhist practice requires oneself to surrender to a Guru for higher spiritual realization is not completely compatible with Western way of subjectivity (Campbell, 2002). Therefore, Guru-disciple relationship has been a suspected area where woman may lost subjectivity and freedom in her relationship to Guru.

From some feminist works, it becomes evident that one needs a guide, a teacher or mentor for guidance in the spiritual path (Gross, 1998; Shaw, 1995; Simmer-Brown, 2002; Klein 1995). These feminist scholars had teachers and guide, and acknowledged that without their help, it would not be possible to understand the deep teaching that Tibetan Buddhism offers. It should be noted that feminist scholars have used the wordGuru’ in the sense of a teacher, mentor or guide from whom they could learn something. But Guru-disciple relationship is not so simple in real life.

From the real life stories of women practitioners like American nun and Buddhist teacher Pema Chodren, or a British nun and Buddhist teacher Tenzing Palmo, we can see how this relationship is very unique. Both Pema Chodren and Tenzing Palmo have recognized their Gurus from other teachers, developed devotion over years, dealt with mental challenges on the way to form unshakeable devotion, and ultimately, become successful in awakening their vast spiritual potential under Guru’s guidance (Hass 2013; Mackenzie, 1998). Despite being Western women, and having feminist views of gender equality, they have hardly applied the Western way of subjectivity and freedom to judge their Gurus; rather they have used their intuition and trust to form devotion. It means that Guru has very special presence in awakening one’s enlightened nature, and Guru-disciple relationship is something that needs to be understood from the real life experiences. This special relationship should not be understood and judged from the views of subjectivity and freedom originated from Western enlightenment discourse.

Compared to the interest on female deities and wisdom of emptiness, feminist scholars have given less time and scope to the theme of Guru-disciple relationship. Firstly, feminist scholars have not unpacked the concept of Guru with reference to all the teachings of Tibetan Buddhism. These teachings talk about the qualification of a person to be Guru and the careful observation of these qualities by the student before accepting him/her as Guru (The Dalai Lama, 1998). Secondly, their understandings are not accompanied by the experience of other women practitioners. As a result, the nature of Guru-disciple relationship in the real life and its relationship with woman’s subjectivity has remained a less well-articulated area of feminist perspective to Tibetan Buddhism.

The same lack is felt in some practice of mind training. One of the method for training the mind is to separate one self from the outer world through solitary retreat, sometimes with silence (Mackenzie, 1998; Allione, 1984). Both Allione and Gross have critiqued this method as men’s preferred way of spiritual practice in opposition to feminine and women’s way of being in the world. Gross has seen it as a kind of romanticising of aloneness. But there can be difference between a sense of aloneness and enjoying solitary time for spiritual realization. One can feel extremely lonely being with people, on the other hand, one does not feel alone during a solitary retreat. British Buddhist nun and teacher Tenzing palmo has spent twelve years in a cave in almost solitary retreat and had a profound spiritual realization to benefit others (Mackenzie, 1998). Besides, feminist approach on mind training has emphasized more on the wisdom of emptiness and compassion, and less on renunciation – a very significant aspect of Buddhist mind training (The Dalailama, 1998). Renunciation is the spiritual realization on the impermanent and suffering aspect of this transitory life as well as a strong determination to end this cyclic experience and suffering through life after life (The Dalailama, 1998). Though monks and nuns are the examples of very higher level of renunciation, renunciation is more about a state of mind which can be developed by anybody - monk, nun, lay man and woman. But how a woman who does full time job, raise children can develop renunciation in this world? If feminist work can include women’s stories to find the answer, that will be more down to earth response to the challenges modern woman faces in day to day life.

Asian versus Western’ is the another area where feminist works have posited a limited understanding on women’s heterogeneous experiences in a single cultural group. Feminist scholars tend to identify themselves as western and their works as western feminism (Gross, 1993 a; Klein, 1995). This identification can have an over arching implications of creating a culturally binary division - us (westerners) versus them (non-western) (Mohanty, 1991). The non-western women referred here are in both outside and inside the West (M o h a n t y, 2003).

It is true that the difference between Asian Buddhist women and Western women cannot be denied due to different history, culture and orientations to Buddhism and a sense of more individuality among Western women (Bouchar, 2007a; Bouchar, 2007 b; Klein, 1995). There is also difference between Buddhist practice in the Asian countries and Western countries. Buddhist practice for Westerners are considered to be more egalitarian, flexible, open to challenge, individual and personalized, as well as rationality based, while Asian models are seen to be hierarchical, community and culture driven, and rituals and devotion based (Gross, 1993 a; Gross, 1998; Klein, 1995; Baumann and Prebish 2002; Loy, 2010).

But it should be noted that clinging to a collective cultural identity like Asian, or non-western bears the risk of an understanding of master narrative with a sense of universalism, and homogenous cultural identity (Fleras, 2015). In the long run, it hides the heterogeneous aspects of individual identity and background, and overlooks uncertainty, complexities and chaos in human’s identity formation. (Fleras, 2015; Hammack, 2008).

While projecting division between different cultural groups, the diversity within a single cultural group should not be ignored. Western scholars themselves have accepted that there is diversity within the Western Buddhist paradigm (Coleman, 2001; Prebish and Tanaka 1998; Tsomo, 1995; Tsomo 2008). If we look at the stories of Western women, we can find the streams of heterogeneity of different lives. Some stories can be useful to trace the heterogeneity in the lives of Western women.

Let’s start with the brief story of the most senior Western nun Tenzing Palmo (Hass, 2013 a; Mackenzie, 1998). Her name was Dianna Perry before she took the Buddhist refuge name ‘Tenzing Palmo ’. Since childhood Dianna Perry felt a strong connection with Buddhist teaching and nun’s way of life. As a young seeker in Britain, she met a Tibetan teacher. But the encounter was not so pleasant. Unfortunately, the Tibetan Buddhist teacher tried to seduce her during meditation session and her endeavour to learn Buddhist practice from him did not last longer. Following the spiritual quest, she boarded to India in ship. In India, she met another GuruKamtrul Rinpoche’ from Tibetan Buddhist lineage. Instantly, she felt from the core of heart that he was the one who could guide her to the spiritual path. Eventually she became nun, took the name Tenzing Palmo and began to study with the monks in the monastery. When she experienced discrimination in receiving teaching, she decided to go to an another place in India which her Guru recommended. Though she found a nun community there, they were not supportive to the intense spiritual practice she wanted to do. At the end, she went to a solitary retreat in a cave up in the mountain and did extensive spiritual practice for twelve years with full devotion to the teaching of Kamtrul Rinpoche. The retreat was full of challenges, ranging from lack of food, illness, encountering wild wolf, stranger, devastating storm to the emotional challenges of losing her mother whom she didnot not meet for the last time. Though she wanted to carry the retreat longer, Indian police intervened. Her visa was expired, and she had to leave India. She returned to the outside world, became a famous teacher in the Western countries and set up a nunnery in India to educate the nuns.

The story of Americian Buddhist teacher Pema Chodren starts in different way (Hass, 2013 a). After encountering two divorces, Pema Chodren began to search for the answer to life in spiritual way. She met Chgyam Trungpa in USA. It was Chgyam Trungpa who became Pema’s spiritual guru and source of inspiration. Though initially it was unimaginable for her to be nun, she changed the decision within two years - she took nun’s ordination from H.H the Karmapa, one of the monastic leaders in Tibetan Buddhist institution (Hass, 2013 a). But it was not full ordination, since full ordination was not allowed in Tibetan Buddhism. When H.H the Karmapa met her second time, he suggested her to take full ordination of nun The interesting thing was H.H the Karmapa was fully aware that full ordination of nun was not possible under the lineage of Tibetan Buddhist institution, and even he, as a monastic leader, was not allowed to give full ordination. But the Karmapa referred her to a Chinese monastery to consult for full ordination and Pema chodren travelled to Hong kong to take full ordination. Gradually, from a simple school teacher, she turned into author of best selling Buddhist books and famous Buddhist teacher . After the death of her main teacher, Pema Chodren does practice and retreat under another Buddhist master in USA - Dzigar Kongtrul Rinpoche –from whom she found immense spiritual strength and guidance.

In the account of American Buddhist nun and scholar Karma Lekhche Tsomo, we see that she even did not know that her ordination as nun was not equal to the ordination of monk in Tibetan Buddhist institution. She came to know it from an Asian nun. Eventually she received full ordination in Korea (Hass, 2013; Bouchar 2007 a). Despite being a scholar, it was her real life experience in Asian Buddhist monasteries that helped to understand gender relations in Buddhist monastic institutions (Tsomo, 2004). Her life is more dedicated to support the Himalayan nuns and Buddhist women’s equality in the monastic institutions .

The story of Tsultrim Allione, an American Buddhist teacher gives a picture of a young woman’s unique phases of life - travelling to Nepal and finding spiritual connection to Tibetan Buddhism, becoming nun in India, leaving nun’s life and starting a new life as wife, mother of several children as well as a Buddhist teacher and author in USA (Allione, 1984; Hass, 2013 a; Allione, 2011). Allione’s took the decision to become nun while she was visiting Nepal. Co-incidentally H.H the Gyalwa Karmapa, a Tibetan Buddhist master as well as monastic leader of a Tibetan Buddhist school was visiting Nepal at the same time. During that time, Allione began to feel a strong spiritual urge to be nun. She went to the monastery where H.H the Karmapa was residing, offered him flower and requested for ordination of nun. Karmapa gave consent immediately. One of the reasons for such swift decision of Karmapa (which Allione mentioned) was his connection with her as disciple from previous life time. H.H the Gyalwa Karmapa even waived some preliminary rituals during the time of her ordination which were usually followed during ordination (Allione, 1984). But he did not suggest for full ordination which he suggested to Pema Chodren. As a nun, Allione studied Buddhism in free style under a Guru; without being in the monastic institution. Allione did not feel to take full ordination which Karma Leskhe Tsomo, Pema Chodren, and Tenzing Palmo took travelling to different countries. It can be said that she did not feel to take the full ordination, because if she really wanted, it would come up in her autobiographical account. At some point of her life, she decided to disrobe (quitting nun’s life), and began to lead a life as a wife and mother in USA. Soon she was authorized to teach at renowned Buddhist master Trungpa Rinpoche’s centers. After teaching at his centers for some time, she felt a constraint from the structure and organizational way of Trungpa Rinpoche’s centers. She wanted to give teaching by her own way. After several years, she had a second marriage and moved to Rome. Life took another shift when her newly born baby died in Italy and marriage relationship became strained. She renewed her focus on Buddhist practice and began to collect the stories of historical Buddhist women saints. Her second marriage also ended, and Allione became married for third time to David Petit. By that time, Allione has started to give teaching in her own way, and become renowned as an author and teacher. With David, she set up a Buddhist center ‘Tara Mandala’ in Colorado, which an intention to promote Buddhist teaching on the primordial wisdom of enlightened feminine. Besides being a renowned Buddhist teacher for integrating ancient Buddhist practice with modern day psychological practice, Allione has come through a long way – a nun, wife, single mother, grand mother and recently encountering the loss of her partner David.

In the process of exploring the heterogeneity in different lives, I will share the story of Janice Willis, a Buddhist feminist scholar (Willis,2008; Corless, 2002). As an African American baptist girl, Janice was personally troubled by the ongoing racism in USA. When she was studying at university, she participated in Black Student Alliance (BSA) demonstrations which even involved guns. At some point, she realized that that direct political action was not for her, and searched for transformation in peaceful way. In this quest, Buddhism responded with all that she need. Through her practice and study of Buddhism and guidance from her Tibetan guru, Lama Yeshe in Nepal, Willis not only learned how to deal with anger, pride, and self-hatred, and but also to be empowered as a woman. In this spiritual path, she did not abandon Christian belief, rather experienced a mutuality between two traditions for spiritual transformation.

Though it is possible to draw a line of similarity among these women on the basis of freedom of choice and individuality, the unique personal aspects of each Western woman cannot be denied. These individual aspects are inextricably related to women’s experience of walking on the Buddhist path. We can see while Pema Chodren has a Guru based on North America and does retreat there, Tenzing Palmo’s calling lie in India because of her Guru and then her works for nunnery. Though Tenzing Palmo, Pema Chodren, Allione emphasized the role of Guru and mentor in their spiritual journey, we do not find that aspect in Tsomo’s life. Both Tsomo and Tenzing Palmo had spent long time in India and experienced discrimination as nun in the Buddhist institutions which had an influential role in their activism and advocacy for equality and dignity of the nuns. But we do not see the experience of discrimination in the lives of Pema Chodren and Allione. It may be because Pema Chodren is based in some monastic communities in North America which are considered to be more progressive and ahead in terms of gender equality, and Allione did not join any nunnery in Nepal and India (Allione, 1984; Hass, 2013). Compared to Tenzing Palmo, Tsomo, Allione, and Pema Chodren, Janice Willis had a different experience of integrating Buddhist practice into her life, specially through a mutual exchange with Christian values. So we can see that though all these women are white Western, their experiences have diversity and distinctive features in a path to spiritual awakening. The individuality and particularity of their lives cannot be separated from their relationship to Buddhism.

The feminist scholarship have not included these dimensions of life stories which a personal narrative offers. As a result feminist scholarship on Buddhism can give rise to an homogenous understanding of women’s lives. No wonder, the way feminist scholars have used the term ‘Western women’ invokes a conception of a binary division between the Western and non-western women, as well as a projection that all Western women’s experience would be the same in terms of leading lives with Buddhist practice.

However, in terms of biographies of women Buddhist practitioners, one cannot but notice that there is a few biographical writings of contemporary Asian women compared to the biographical elements of Western women’s life - as nun, teachers and ordinary women (particularly in Tibetan Buddhist school) (Halafoff, 2013; Willis, 1987 b). However, there are stories of historical Tibetan women saints which were written with hagiographic elements (Allione, 1984; Havnevik, 1999; Schaeffer, 2004,). It is recorded with the intention to inspire others following the same path of the saints where ‘establishing mythical ideal and the communication of the sacred teachings takes priority over narrating the subject’s personality… the personality is stressed to some extent as far as to the spiritual process of individual’(Allione, 1984 p.56). As a result, sacred biography cannot serve the purpose of life story to understand the nuances of feminist and Buddhist path.

Recently, Michaela Hass has come forward to write the stories of twelve outstanding women who have played an important role in spreading Tibetan Buddhism in the West (Hass, 2013). Among them three were Tibetan, nine were Western. Among these three Tibetan women, the story of Khandro Tsering Chodren, wife of an extraordinary Master Jamyang Khyentse Chokyi Lodro, as well as a highly venerated present day woman master and living dakini , was written after her death . Another French Buddhist teacher Martin Bachelor has come up with eighteen stories of Buddhist women of different Buddhist schools, from which we can know stories of Korean, a Chinese, a Japanese, and a Thai nun (Batchelor, 1996; Wetzel, 1997). There are many ordinary women Buddhist practitioners, who do not teach, or who are not renowned as wife of Buddhist master, or interpreter of Buddhist teachers. Among these women, few memoirs of ordinary western women can be found (MacDonald, 2011). But the ordinary women practitioners from Asia or Asian ordinary woman practitioners around the world are left behind in terms of collecting women’s stories with their voices and experience (Wills,1987 b; Hass, 2013). There are few anthropological studies on Tibetan nuns and yoginis, which are useful for more anthropological religious understanding (Havnevik, 2000). Just recently yogini project is collecting the stories of women including Tibetan yoginies, teachers and other women practitioner (Hass, 2013; The Yogini Project, 2014 ). The project is still under process.


It should be acknowledged that feminism has engaged with Tibetan Buddhism with an indepth understanding in theoretical level. This engagement has opened the door for new perspective to women’s subjectivity and gender equality in nuances with Tibetan Buddhist practice. But in terms of relating to women’s real life experience with Tibetan Buddhism, feminist scholarship needs to include women’s stories from heterogeneous background and identity. Women’s stories can be source of inspiration, it can also provide the insight which theoretical debate cannot. The third wave shift to feminism has shown that the inclusion of women’s experience and narratives can offer a new way of studying women’s lives. If Feminist scholarship on Tibetan Buddhism work on women’s narratives with a more focus on heterogeneity, individuality and diversity, it can enhance the understanding on women’s relation to Tibetan Buddhism in a more practical way.


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