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The Power of Denial:
Buddhism, Purity, and Gender

Bernard Faure
Princeton, NJ, and Oxford: Princeton
University Press, 2003
482 pp.; $65.00 (cloth), $27.50 (paper)

Bernard Faure began his exploration of sexuality and gender in Buddhism with The Red Thread (1998), focusing on desire and the proscriptions for male monastics. He continues his inquiry in The Power of Denial, which contains everything you wanted to know—and then some—about Buddhist conceptions of women, and the effect of gender on practice. The questions Faure raises are important ones: Is Buddhism a tool of liberation or oppression for women? What might a more egalitarian Buddhist practice consist of?

Faure, a professor at Stanford University, approaches his subject in his usual thorough manner. The wealth of historical, sociological, and cultural references may be daunting to some readers, but those who persevere will be rewarded. For anyone trying to reconcile the notion of enlightenment as empty of distinctions with the androcentrism that runs through Buddhism, this is a good place to start.

Faure reaches beyond conventional views, marshalling evidence that “Buddhism is paradoxically neither as sexist nor as egalitarian as is usually thought.” From a gender standpoint, it is far from monolithic: beliefs about women differ within individual Buddhist traditions, and from culture to culture. In a chapter on “the rhetoric of subordination,” Faure dissects the notion of “woman as temptress” (who diverts man from the path to enlightenment) in light of social mores. He also describes how women in Japan were traditionally barred from buddhahood by the “blood taboo” associating menstruation and childbirth with defilement. The Ketsubongyo (Blood Bowl Sutra), an apocryphal scripture disseminated through Soto Zen, describes the “Hell of Blood” to which women alone are condemned in the afterlife [see opposite page]. To this day, Faure points out, Asian Buddhist women are encouraged to pray for rebirth as a man. (Having encountered this view repeatedly during my ten years as a Zen nun in Korea, I was particularly interested to read about its historical and sociological origins, and to discover how a folk superstition grew into a deeply entrenched Buddhist belief.)

Faure takes a critical look at what he calls “the rhetoric of equality,” especially in the Vajrayana and Ch’an-Zen traditions. “The gender equality of Tantric ritual works usually to the advantage of men,” he asserts. And the nonduality extolled in Zen texts has not translated into equality for women in either social or monastic milieus. During the decade after his return from China, the Japanese Zen master Dogen championed equality between men and women, monastics and laypeople, writing in his classic treatise, the Shobogenzo, “Both men and women can realize the Way.” But in old age, as Dogen’s interest centered on monastic life, “this theory [of equality] will no longer be mentioned, or rather, it will be strongly denied,” Faure notes.

Ultimately, Faure proposes that the way to overcome gender disparity is to reinvigorate Buddhism’s essential equality, with women taking the lead. Buddhist nuns, whose orders were created by—and are still controlled by—male clerics, would be better served going outside the traditional forms to create new models of religious experience. “It may be more productive to develop alternatives, to simply bypass the whole structure as largely irrelevant and assert the right of women to appropriate the Buddhist teaching outside of a monastic framework,” he suggests. Some of the liveliest material in The Power of Denial concerns the small group of “unruly” women—courtesans, wandering nuns, prostitutes—who dared to defy or depart from the Buddhist patriarchy and live in relative freedom “on the borderline” between monastery and mainstream. These pioneers, Faure suggests, can serve as inspiration to the “silent majority” of sangha women.

The short section “Afterthoughts” is the author’s succinct, heartfelt summary of his personal views. For these fifteen pages alone, the book is worth buying. Here, Faure asserts that Buddhism’s bias against women is less about gender than power: “Its conception of women . . . cannot be understood without reference to large societal developments, like political ideology, the history of the family, of children, of the aged. . . . ” To create a more egalitarian Buddhism, even the idea of awakening must be modified, “moving away from . . . the sudden overturning of heaven and earth or the abstract negation of all duality, toward a more humble, down-to-earth, gradual realization of the beauty and mystery of life, a world in which some differences remain to be enjoyed, while discrimination is forever abolished.”

Women and Defilement
An excerpt from the Blood Bowl Sutra

The Venerable Moggattana once saw on a vast plain in Tsuiyo prefecture of U state, a Hell of Blood. Its width was 84,000 yujun [approximately 7 km], and in the center were 130 kinds of iron chain instruments of torture. Countless numbers of women from the human world, with dishevelled hair and shackles on their wrists, were suffering greatly in that hell. Three times a day the Lord of Hell forces the sinners to drink the unclean blood. If they do not drink he wields an iron bar. Cries of the sinners resound far. Moggattana felt pity and compassion and asked the Lord of Hell: “I can see no men from the human world suffering in this hell. Why is it that so many women only are suffering here?” The Lord of Hell answered Moggattana: “This is something which has no relevance for men. Only women defile the head of the earth gods with blood from giving birth, because they wash blood-soiled clothes in the rivers and pollute the flow. Many good men then draw up that water to boil tea and perform memorial services to various sacred gods, and so the gods have come to hate the defilement of [women’s] blood. The great general of heaven announces the names of those who have defiled the earth and rivers, and enters them in the ‘Register of Good and Evil.’ One hundred years later those women will suffer the torment [of the Blood Hell] for this when they are waiting for their lives to end.”

—From “Women and Buddhism: Blood Impurity and Motherhood” by Nakana Yuko, in Women and Religion in Japan, edited by Akiko Okuda and Harttdo Okano, translated by Alison Watts, published by Harrassowitz Verlag, Wiesbaden, 1998.

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