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.
Who is listening is just as important as who is speaking, and in several of the essays here Buddhist texts are cited without the author explaining the importance of the text for Buddhism, or for whom the text is—or was—meaningful. Certain Buddhist texts, such as the Dhammapada, are central to Buddhism and familiar to both lay and monastic Buddhists, but this is not the case for all the texts quoted in these essays, and that needs to be made clear to the non-specialist. With reference to issues of gender, the point is that celibate monastics and sexually active lay people have different texts that address their different concerns. Zelliot and Paula Richman are noteworthy exceptions in that they carefully introduce the timeframe of their texts and ground them in the experience of their audience. As their research shows, what is important is not just what a text said, but who paid attention to it.
The book concludes with two essays on homosexuality in Buddhism, a rarely discussed topic in Western scholarship. Cabezón, in his introduction to the collection, promises a bibliography on homosexuality and Buddhism in his forthcoming, unnamed book, but it would have been appropriate to include titles here. And, though Cabezón actually uses the word “lesbian” once in his essay, the concept that lesbianism differs from male homosexuality is simply ignored. I was never sure whether Cabezón was talking about women as well as men when he discussed homosexuality or whether it was his (unstated) intention to only discuss male homosexuality. Leonard Zwilling deals with lesbianism a bit in his article on homosexuality in Indian Buddhist texts, but clearly it is not what he is after. By virtue of its subject, Paul Gordon Scholow’s article on Kukai’s (774-835 C.E.) supposed introduction of homosexuality to Japan, along with Shingon Buddhism, can only concentrate on male homosexuality. While there is a shortage of material on lesbianism, the absence of an article discussing it is a telling limitation on the part of the editor.
Both articles are valuable, however, in that they shed some light on male homosexuality in Buddhism. Issues of sexuality in Buddhism, though, need to be discussed within the context of celibacy. For instance, Zwilling has a general discussion of sexual misconduct but this is mainly taken from the vinaya (rules for the nuns and monks) and so deals with monastics breaking rules of celibacy. What remains confusing is that while the vinaya deals with issues of celibacy, Zwilling uses the same material to discuss homosexuality only.
Schalow’s essay does not make clear what distinguishes the three texts he discusses from pornographic uses of Buddhist monasticism. In the West, too, lascivious tales about monastics were written for the amusement of the laity. No doubt certain monks and nuns broke their vows of celibacy and engaged in hetero- and homosexual relations. What needs to be understood is what this meant within the tradition.
The essays themselves range in time from the founding of Buddhism to the present day and are geographically diverse. The individual authors use a great variety of methodologies, but this diversity tends to enhance the book as a whole giving the reader the opportunity to see different scholarly approaches to similar topics.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.