BUDDHISM, SEXUALITY, AND GENDER
Edited by José Ignacio Cabezón.
State University of New York Press: Albany, 1992.
241 pp. $16.95 (paperback).
José Ignacio Cabezón has brought together an intriguing collection of essays on gender and sexuality in Buddhism by first-rate scholars. As most of them point out, the bottom line in Buddhism is that ultimately gender does not matter. Yet Buddhist history, culture, texts, and symbols, to name a few of the topics covered in this book, all maintain gender distinctions.
Miriam L. Levering’s essay is a good example of the confusing views about gender that can be found in Buddhist texts, in this case the texts of Chinese Ch’an (Zen) Buddhism. She compares the “rhetoric of equality,” which states that gender does not affect one’s ability to achieve enlightenment, with the “rhetoric of heroism,” which she finds in gender-linked terms referring to the qualities needed for enlightenment.In other words, Levering shows that the literature of Ch’an Buddhism has two attitudes toward gender: the first is that theoretically it does not hinder the ultimate goal of enlightenment; the second is that descriptions of the qualities of people who have achieved enlightenment are replete with gender-specific references to male heroism. She then asks how this ideal continued to exist when many women had clearly achieved enlightenment and concludes that it continued because men were the primary participants and shapers of the tradition which “never allowed women’s experience and language to have anything like an equal influence on its expressive forms.”
Alan Sponberg’s article on women in early Buddhism demonstrates that conflicting attitudes about women existed from the earliest times. For instance, he carefully distinguishes women’s spiritual ability, which the early texts acknowledged, and women’s social and biological natures, which were generally seen as inferior to men’s.
Bardwell Smith, on the other hand, has a tiger by the tail in his study of Buddhist abortion rites in Japan. To begin with, he never states his position on abortion (and how this influences his research) or why he is studying abortion. This puts us back into the mythic realm of “objective” scholarship, a realm that has never and will never exist. Secondly, although Smith mentions at the beginning of his essay that he is involved in an ongoing research project using various questionnaires, his comments about the emotional lives of Japanese women give the appearance of pure speculation in that he never cites sources for his statements nor does he ever quote any Japanese women on the subject of abortion. A good methodological contrast to this approach can be found in Eleanor Zelliot’s excellent article on ex-Untouchable women who converted to Buddhism, which is much more convincing and immediate because of her use of the literature and words of Indian women themselves. Given Buddhism’s emphasis on personal realization and experience, letting the women speak through their own media is particularly relevant.
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