The Enlightened Female – Buddhism, women and being a mother by Dr. Meg Adam

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The Enlightened Female –
Buddhism, women and being a mother

Dr. Meg Adam
Queensland, Australia

This paper is based on early stage research which involves an interpretative inquiry seeking to understand the roles of Buddhist women (specifically Western women following Tibetan Buddhist traditions) and exploring the contemporary role and influence of Buddhism on being a mother. The purpose of the study is to explore the application of Buddhist philosophy, teachings and practices to mothering. The research integrates feminist theory, social anthropology and an analysis of a body of Buddhist materials. The study utilises narrative and Mindful Inquiry and a full thematic analysis of interview material will soon be conducted underpinned by a feminist approach.

The research aims to explore the dynamic tension between ideals and practices relating to gender, as historically negotiated in Buddhism and the more modern influence of Buddhism on the role of women, women as mothers and parenting. Beginning with a cultural, political and religious background to Buddhist mothering, the key areas of investigation encompass historical and contemporary ideologies of motherhood, as well as real experiences of mothering within a Buddhist perspective and ideology. One intention of the research is to trace the intricate symbolic meanings attached to the role of motherhood in Buddhism, such as the representation of the feminine principle of wisdom as being the mother of Buddhahood (Noriko, 1995).

There is a large body of research available on women in Buddhism but an absence of academic research on Buddhism’s role on parenting or mothering. Metcalf and Sasson (2015) believe that family life in Buddhism has been marginalized, if not ignored. Research into the value and transformative nature of motherhood has only been undertaken by a few, perhaps because it is easy to slide into essentialism. As such, the study extends on that already conducted regarding women’s representation, roles and practice in Buddhism; but more significantly provides original research on the aspects of the influence of Buddhism on motherhood and parenting.

The research asks the questions: how does Buddhism construct gender representation and female roles, specifically mothering? How are these roles challenged, dismissed or supported either institutionally or socially? How does Buddhism, construct, influence or enhance the experience of the mother and the child(ren)?

Female representation and roles emerge as sociocultural constructs that are shifting and modernising as the Western Buddhist context develops. As such, the research examines the influence of Buddhism, in a modern Western Buddhist context, and provides direction for contemporary parenting within this context.

To date the research has utilised a qualitative research approach incorporating the investigation of several groups – ordained Buddhist nuns, women who classify themselves as Buddhist and those of the above two groups who are mothers and/or grandmothers. The research has invited women to provide accounts of Buddhism and mothering in relation to personal Buddhist and mothering journeys. The intent is not to develop these into theories but to put them to use to illuminate the data and provide some additional evidence to that which pre-exists. The investigation has so far comprised of twenty interviews, historical tracing of texts and description of the phenomena concerned with gender roles and parenting. Analysis of the interview data has begun but is currently still in the early stages.

The Growth of Buddhism in Australia

Buddhism is the largest non-Christian religious affiliation in Australia with 2.5% of the Australian population identifying as Buddhist. The last census, conducted in 2011, indicated that there were 528,977 people who identified as Buddhist in Australia. Representing a larger group than Muslims (476,291), Hindus (275,534) and Jews (97,300). There was a clear increase in affiliation to Buddhism between the years 1996 (199,800), 2001 (357,800) and 2011 (528,977). Therefore the number of people identifying as Buddhist had increased by 48% since the year 2001, and in 2011, was the second largest religious group in every state in Australia (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011).

Sixty nine point four percent (69.4%) of Australian Buddhists reported being born overseas, leaving over 30% as Australian born. So broadly speaking, almost three quarters of Australian Buddhists are what could be called Eastern Buddhists, or Buddhists from families originating from Asian countries who have migrated to Australia (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2011).

The remaining quarter, include so called Western Buddhists; generally Australian born Caucasians who have probably grown up in either a Christian or humanistic family, and who have adopted Buddhism. In 2006 women made up over half (53.14%) of those identifying as Buddhists in Australia. In line with this growth and numbers of women identified as Buddhist, there is also an increase in Western women being ordained as Buddhist nuns.

More detailed information such as which school, tradition or affiliation people belong to is not available. However, very broadly speaking, Buddhism can be split into two schools: Mahayana (the large vehicle) and Hinayana (the small vehicle). Hinayana is also known as Theravada. The focus of this study is those who follow the Mahayana path, or who follow Tibetan Buddhist traditions.

The Methodology

As previously outlined, the purpose of the research is to explore the application of Buddhist philosophy, teachings and practices to mothering and parenting. In this descriptive qualitative study, twenty participants were contacted, who were interested in Buddhism and who professed a personal connection to Buddhist philosophy, teachings and practice. The aim was to listen to, interpret and report the stories of these women regarding their transitions to motherhood from a Buddhist perspective, and to capture the narratives of Buddhism, women in Buddhism, mothering, valuing motherhood and challenges to existing dominant narratives. The intention being to contribute to knowledge on, and debate about, women’s lives within Buddhism, and to inform practice in areas involving the health and spiritual well-being of mothers and their children.

The study sought to explore with the participants, their experiences over time and in diverse situations. As such, the feminist and narrative research acknowledges the fluidity and multiplicity of women’s lives and that the truth of those lives is best expressed by women in their own words. The feminist philosophy recognises the manifold realities within a women’s life as well as across women’s lives and acknowledges the influences of religion and lifestyle. This approach is appropriate for this study because women become mothers and being mothers negotiate a period of major change.

The intent is that relevant literature and other sources of data, will be interwoven throughout the final thesis in response to topics raised by participants in their interviews. Baker and Diekelmann (1994, p.66) propose that “just as our lives tell a story, so to do our stories tell about our lives … by listening to the stories of others we can gain an inside out view of their practice, a privileged place where meanings can come together to shape, and be shaped by our shared experience”. In Narrative Inquiry this story is the basic unit of analysis.

Mindful Inquiry will be utilised alongside Narrative Inquiry. Bentz and Shapiro (1998, p.171) describe Mindful Inquiry in social research as combining “the Buddhist concept of mindfulness with phenomenology, critical theory and hermeneutics in a process that puts the enquirer at the centre”. Mindful Inquiry is based on thirteen philosophical assumptions (Bentz and Shapiro, 1998). The first of these assumptions emphasises the importance of mindfulness, being present in the moment, throughout the process of inquiry. As such Mindful Inquiry will help develop both reflexivity and voice in the research.

Similarly, Duncan, Coatsworth, and Greenberg (2014, p.255) introduced a model of mindful parenting as a framework whereby parents intentionally bring awareness to the parent-child relationship. This is done by developing the qualities of listening with full attention when interacting with children, cultivating emotional awareness and self-regulation in parenting, and bringing compassion and non-judgemental acceptance to their parenting interactions.

The interviews themselves were initially self-selecting following contact during participant observation. One interview led to another as people heard about the research at meetings or within groups and put me in contact with other women. All participants chose a pseudonym for anonymity and confidentiality in the research. However, a couple of women requested that their identity be honoured.

Demographic data with regards to length of time practicing or studying Buddhism, any other religious or spiritual identities (if offered) and any education or work relevant to Buddhism, was collected. The length of time that participants had practiced or studied Buddhism varied greatly from just a few years, three to four, to over thirty years. Data in relation to number and age of children or grandchildren was also gathered. Together with any other details participants offered; such as age and sex of the child(ren).

Buddhism and Women

In all societies, particularly the West, there has been a rethink of the position accorded to women. This reappraisal has included the position of women in religious traditions. So it is opportune to extend the notion of the place of women in Buddhism to the position of mothers in Buddhism (De Silva, 1994).

Throughout the history of Buddhist communities, images of the feminine have played a central role in Buddhist thought and practice, and surely such images of women as mothers, wives, objects of desire; had a significant impact on the lives of Buddhist women (Gummer, 2004). Blackstone (1995) states that wives did not command the same kind of respect in Buddhist literature as mothers.

Blackstone (1995, p. 226) goes onto say that it was believed that women were not pure, “for impurity resides within them; they lack physical, social and psychological containment, for their bodies ooze and they maintain close personal ties with family and they can never assume a position of superiority either with the sangha or as a representatives of the sangha before the laity”.

Historically Buddhism was regarded as patriarchal as Buddhist principles talk about a women’s body as being of inferior status in pursuing enlightenment (Tsomo, 2004). To be born a woman is viewed as negative karma (Terrell, 2009). So how can this be reconciled with Buddhism’s reputation as a philosophy and religion of equality and liberation, and the growth and attraction to women?

Terrell (2009, p.31) writes that: “Women’s identity is depicted in Buddhist scriptures as embodied and social, embedded in relationships with others, and dependent on things of this world – the world of samsara or suffering. Buddhist scriptures stress that women are connected to the physical realm of the senses and emotions, in contrast to men, who are more able to practice detachment, and are able to practice the spiritual path”.

Blackstone (1995, p.227) states that “Opposition to the household life is inherent in the concept of renunciation. Symbols of householder life (money, kinship ties, business, and concerns) are obviously antithetical to the path of a renouncer, and are used as such in the texts”. Contrast this with motherhood which many would say is the greatest opportunity for women to practice the spiritual path. It follows, that if the essence of Tibetan Buddhism is the selfless compassion for others then motherhood and the relationships between mother and child is probably one of the purest manifestations of this principle.

Buddhism and the Mother

The attitude of Buddha to the role of women was an enlightened one, even when judged by the standards of the modern age, particularly given the social matrix in which Buddhism arose where women were accorded an inferior position. This is not the area being explored or critiqued, as the position of women in Buddhism has been a subject of considerable interest and research in recent decades. However, a brief overview is required to set the scene for Buddhist mothers.

What makes the birth of Budda extraordinary is that he emerged from the right side of his mother’s body. It is also reported that extraordinary events happened in the world and around the infant as if the earth too celebrated the birth. It is said that Siddhartha immediately took seven steps after his birth and said “that this would be the last time he would be reborn” (Mizue, 2009, p.7). Therefore the female body can be expressed simply as a medium for the birth of a sacred being. Maya (Siddhartha’s mother) died seven days after the birth of Siddhartha and he was raised by his mother’s sister, Mahaprajapati.

Grummer (2004) notes that the female body’s connection to birth (and thus to samsara itself) and its often noted capacity to arouse desire in men render it unfit for the highest soteriological attainments. The death of the Buddha’s own mother one week after his birth might be taken to signify not only the samsaric taint of giving birth, but also the great power of the bond between mother and child, one that had to be broken if the Buddha was to be able to renounce all worldly attachments (Gummer, 2004).

Despite denigration there was always in Indian thought, an idealisation of motherhood and a glorification of the feminine concept (Dewaraja, 1994). Indian Buddhists believed that women were by nature more deeply involved with worldly existence than men because of female fertility. Motherhood was generally considered a wise and compassionate form of femininity, but mothers with their unconditional love for their children, involving strong karmic bonds, were regarded as the least capable of attaining salvation (Romberg, 2002).

The rise of the Mahayana helped some implications for the role of women in Buddhism. It has been claimed that the Mahayana entertained a more positive attitude toward the role of women than Theravada (Horner, 1930). Similarly, Clarke finds in the pages of various Vinaya editions “a family friendly monasticism” (Clarke 2014, p.152).

Mahayana sources often mention the infinite debt to one’s mother. The depth of a mother’s love for her children as the basis for the use of the figure of the mother as the paradigm of selfless compassion embodied in Bodisattvas and Buddhas. In the Bodisattva vows of the Mahayana, the Bodisattva is exhorted to be like a mother to all beings, and the Buddha himself is frequently described in motherly terms. Mothers, too, frequently figure in narrative literature as ultimate embodiments of attachment and the grief it brings (Gummer, 2004).

Among the basic Buddhist principles of Tibetan Buddhism is that men and women have equal potential for enlightenment and this means the reality is beyond notions of gender and therefore seen in favour of women’s equality (Allione, 1984 and Hass, 2013). In fact, Buddhism’s distinctive tantric aspects speak highly of women. The wisdom of emptiness is symbolised as mother, and the motherhood principle is followed for generating the highest compassion for all sentient beings. Female deities and messengers are meditated upon for reaching the culmination of spiritual practice (Naomi, 2014).

Gummer (2004, p.899) writes that “the notion of the compassionate, loving mother is surely also at work in the characterisation of certain prominent female bodhisattvas, such as Prajnaparamita (the mother of all Buddhas) and Tara (embodiment of compassionate action)”in Tibetan Buddhism.

Buddhism and Mothering

The love and joy that many mothers experience at the birth and during the development of their child(ren) can result in an opening up of the self to the spiritual side of humanity as well as an overwhelming and all-encompassing love for someone else besides the self (Le Blanc, 1999). Mothering requires women to constantly assess, confront and reflect upon personal and societal morals or values (Porter, 2006). These endeavours may cause mothers to alter their life view and goals and hence change their view of their self and relationships. Despite such recognition, even that available in women’s Buddhist teachings, mothers are seldom taken seriously as candidates for awakening. Despite how useful this wisdom and practices are in daily mothering. Kramer (2014) writes that the women around her were growing in leaps and bounds when becoming mothers. That they had first-hand exposure to selfless service, unconditional love, and letting go (Kramer, 2014). As such many believe that the Buddha’s teachings are shining examples for modern mothers, that mothers are natural vessels for spiritual growth.

Kramer (2014) believes that the main reason mothers are so underrepresented in Buddhist language, stories and practices is because Buddhism has developed largely through a monastic lens. She believes that Buddhist centres themselves still operate on a monastic model which includes long periods of retreat and the need for a controlled environment. Obviously this doesn’t mix well with a baby and one method of testing this is bringing a baby to a meditation or teaching session. Here the preference is for quiet, prescribed routines. As opposed to home life with children which is noisy, messy and unpredictable. In the monastic lifestyle long periods of dedicated meditation are possible. For a mother to leave a home for even a couple of hours can be a hardship for her and her young family (Kramer, 2014).

However, Kramer (2014) states that mothers have other advantages over monastics, that “Mothers have a PICC line into the heart of unconditional love so they need very little practice to realise the Bodhisattva vow of love for all beings. Their lives are steeped in selfless service and they are challenged to let go of attachments amidst the heat of the strongest attachment of mother to child” (Kramer, 2014, p. 2).

Family Relationships and Buddhist Tradition

Recent activity in research has brought long overdue scholarly appreciation to the centrality of family relationships in the Buddhist tradition (Starling, 2015). Metcalf and Sasson (2015, p.102) write that there are “many messy moments that arise when families and religious institutions interact … Buddhist institutions and Buddhist families are deeply and inevitably interconnected. They can never be pulled apart into neatly separate categories … Buddhist institutional power, in its various community settings, is invariably replete with social and family ties and dynamics”. However, it is often found that the relationship between religious authority and family ties can be one of competition (Metcalf and Sasson, 2015).

Metcalf and Sasson (2015, p.102) go on to write that “… Attempting to sever worldly attachments is certainly a key Buddhist goal, but is not necessarily the practice around which all Buddhists organise their lives. Family ties have surely always bound Buddhist communities together, regardless of how impermanent those families might be or how easily such ties can lead to dukkha. Placing the spotlight on family life brings these ties and practices into focus”.

Metcalf and Sasson (2015, p.106) believe that as a Buddhist parent “we are exquisitely conscious of the ongoing dynamics … as they play out in our lives and in our children’s. We conceive no more important field in Buddhist studies than this little one we cultivate”

“We are born, Buddhism teaches, to the parents and into the family we have deserved through the causes and effects of our previous lives. Hence our connection or life link without parents and grandparents, and to our brothers and sisters, is extraordinarily close” (Causton, 1991, p.4).

Buddhism, or religion itself, can be a cohesive factor within a family, or it can be the opposite. It can be particularly challenging in the case of a practicing parent with a non-practicing partner to find a balanced role for their religious practice within a family unit (Waterhouse, 2015). While this was the case for several of the participants, expressions of distress about this particular tension were not strongly voiced in the interviews.

Transgenerational Buddhism

A question central to the research is the transgenerational or passing down of religious beliefs and practices. How does this differ, or not, in Buddhism compared to other religions. A question for those in the West who have adopted Buddhism and become involved in family life, is how to raise Buddhist children in a non-Buddhist culture. As those who have adopted Buddhism in the West usually live among non- Buddhists and most or all of their relatives are non- Buddhists. Furthermore, not having grown up as a Buddhist, many people who have adopted Buddhism have little idea, and no experience, of how to present their Buddhist practice, which is not particularly child friendly, to their children (Gross, 2005).

A starting point was asking participants if they considered Buddhism to be a religion, a philosophy, both or something other. While many scholars consider Buddhism to be a religion, it is undoubtedly different from other religions in that there is no single God or creator who creates and then determines that fate of those who believe (Novick, 1999).

Corduan (1998, p.220) wrote “… That Buddha is not crucial to the essence of Buddhism … The point is that a teaching lies at the core of Buddhism, not a person”. The term Buddha literally translates to the “awakened one” in Sanskrit (Corduan 1998, p.220). There are no expressions of devotion to gods or a personal god” (Terrell, 2009, p.14). However, Terrell (2009, p.16) writes that “… Other scholars consider Buddhism to be a dharmic religion. It is a division of Hinduism that split and became its own spiritual structure. Buddhism was established in the sixth century before the birth of Jesus Christ. It came about in an era of discontentment regarding Hinduism’s indistinct theoretical origins. Terrell (2009, p.16) goes on to write that “… Buddhism is believed to be best understood as a philosophy rather than a religious system because it does not embrace a god”.

This aligns well with what the majority of the participants expressed. They identified Buddhism as a philosophy or “science of the mind” as opposed to a religion. Is this viewpoint advantageous of disadvantageous to teaching our children about the benefits of a Buddhist way of life? Waterhouse (2015, p.187) believes that:

Religions, Buddhism included, have their own internal explanations for processes that operate when children are socialised into the religious viewpoint of their parents and other close associates. Such explanations may be based on theological positions or on specific cosmological and/or soteriological viewpoints. One benefit of referring to sociological theory as well as to Buddhist theory is that sociological theory is widely applicable to social/religious groups and has been applied to numerous minority and closed groups. Openness to such analysis helps us avoid seeing Buddhism as too much of a special case in terms of societal processes, thereby missing out on useful insights”.

So while participants did not feel that Buddhism was a religion, they did feel that implanting some Buddhistseeds’ or beliefs were important. That it was important that there was opportunity for children to learn about the philosophy of Buddhism as an integral part of growing up. The children’s familiarity with the symbols of Buddhism and their knowledge about what the symbols represent were part of the cultural capital their mother was wanting to gift to them. The intent is that they would learn about these aspects of life in ways that would ensure they would have a lasting impact on the way they think and relate to the world, despite the fact that they may not embrace them, or Buddhism, on their own account (Waterhouse, 2015). Waterhouse (2015, p.189) quotes a father as saying “… Just because you are born to Buddhist parents doesn’t make you a Buddhist because Buddhism is a practice first and foremost … so you can’t just say I’m a Buddhist and not do anything. Its got no meaning.”

Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche (2014, p.6) believes that “… Since as Buddhist parents you can do so much to help your children, it would be a great pity, extremely sad, and very strange if you did not teach your children what you have faith in and what you have found to be beneficial for your own life”.

Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche (2014) goes onto say that it is important to educate your children in seven basic qualities. These seven qualities are based on a set of sixteen dharma rules compiled long ago for Tibet by one of the dharma kings, Songtsen Gampo, an embodiment of Chenrezig, the Buddha of Compassion. The purpose of these rules or guidelines is to ensure that everyone’s life is wholesome, and a source of peace and happiness for others, rather than a source of harm. He writes (2014, p.4-5) “… since from their own side your children also need to create positive karma in order to experience happiness and success, they need to be taught some basic qualities”. These seven qualities are kindness, rejoicing or being joyful, patience, contentment or renunciation, forgiveness, apologising and courage. Lama Zopa Rinpoche believes that parents need to practice these qualities in order to set a good example, as in this way children will be much more likely to develop these qualities themselves (Rinpoche, 2014).

Similarly participants spoke of structural guidelines, within Buddhism as being fundamental to their parenting. For example, the steps of the Noble Eightfold Path which are “right belief, right aspiration, right speech, right conduct, right means of livelihood, right endeavour, right mindfulness, right meditation. This is known as the middle way between denying one’s self and indulging in one’s self. It is a modest and centred method of existing (Terrell, 2009, p.14).

Kyabje Lama Zopa Rinpoche (2014) wrote a piece titled “Planned Parenting: Making your children’s lives meaningful” in which he stated that the “best way for parents to take care of their children is to think of them simply as sentient beings, rather than as “my child”. For example, when you generate bodichitta for all sentient beings … think that your child is one of those sentient beings … If you think in this way, you will have the same motivation to care for your children as you would for any sentient being” (2014, p.1).

He goes on to say that “you receive liberation from samsara from them and you also receive the realisations of the entire path up to enlightenment from them… instead of being driven by attachment to them, you use them in your Dharma practice, your children will give you enlightenment … Using children in dharma practice parents need to learn how to take care of their children properly. Whether you are a mother or father … you should consider those children to be your main object of practice or meditation. Since you spend so many years of your life with them, it is important to make them the focus of your dharma practice” (Rinpoche 2014, p.1-2).

Mothers within the Institution of Buddhism

One historic characteristic of Buddhism was the elimination of women from temples and shrines. This started in the second half of the seventeenth century (Kurihara, 2005). This is not dissimilar to the struggle Buddhist women who have babies or small children now face. Some participants recounted a period of virtually enforced abstinence from Buddhist centres and teachings as small children or babies are not always welcome in Buddhist centres or by Buddhist groups.

Since a significant proportion of the population consists of women who are mothers, it begs us to make teachings more accessible to them. The core Buddhist teachings have much to offer the mothers who are bringing up the next generation of Buddhist practitioners. Mothers are just as capable as anyone else in reaching enlightenment and deserve more attention in order to support their path. Kramer (2014) asserts that Buddhism cannot become firmly established in a culture until it is firmly established in the home lives of families.

The way in which Western women who have adopted Buddhism, is a departure from the way that Eastern Buddhists would practice. For Western mothers who have adopted Buddhism, their life is their study and practice, as they have families and often also have jobs and therefore don’t have time to pursue the time consuming disciplines of study and practice. These activities present different challenges to women practitioners – as how can one combine looking after a child with the demands of practice and study? Traditionally this question did not arise as most practice was done by men; the women who practiced seriously were almost always nuns, and childless (Gross, 2005).

Gross (2005, p.5) writes that the “attempt to combine child rearing with the demands of intensive practice and study is a major Buddhist experiment. At the beginning of the twenty-first century, it remains to be seen how well that experiment will proceed and whether it will persist from generation to generation”. Some Buddhist commentators claim that providing models of more equitable participation by women is the special karmic task of Western Buddhism (Gross, 2005).

Ensuing steps

Much of the contextual literature has already posed challenging philosophical questions on whether motherhood is an obstacle on the path of renunciation or the greatest opportunity for women to follow the spiritual path. The literature has not addressed the issue of children joining their mothers on this path, and how this might be encouraged or not. In seeking to understand the roles of Buddhist women and exploring the influence of Buddhism on being a mother, this study will continue to explore the application of Buddhist philosophy, teachings and practices to mothering. The research will question how Buddhism constructs gender representation and female roles, how these roles are challenged, dismissed or supported, and how Buddhism can influence or enhance the experience of the mother and importantly the experience of the child(ren) from the mothers perspective.

The current scarcity of academic research on Buddhism’s role on parenting or mothering directly contradicts the statement by Gross (2005) that providing models of more equitable participation by women is the special karmic task of Western Buddhism. This paper seeks to address and take a step along this path.


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