Thai Women in Buddhism
By Chatsumarn Kabilsingh.
Parallax Press: Berkeley, 1991.
110 pp. $12.00 (paperback)
Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, professor of Religion and Philosophy at Thammasat University in Bangkok, has written a book as skillful as a surgeon’s knife, and with the healing potential of ancient herbalist lore. In this case, the troubled body is nothing less than Thai society from the time of Buddha until now, and in particular its discrimination against women. In point of fact, her calm and succinct analysis of a culture’s systematic repression and denigration of women, reinforced by a patriarchal interpretation of religious teachings, could apply to most cultures. Written without rancor, her work seeks to redress an entrenched imbalance of power between the sexes and a biased interpretation of the worth and role of women—two factors that have caused untold psychic and material suffering for women.
Beginning with an overview of Buddhism in Thai history and perspectives on Thai women, Kabilsingh points out that the subordinate position of women in Thai society was formally maintained in its legal system, which was heavily influenced by Brahmanism and its vigorous repression of women. Chinese cultural values, which treat women as mentally and physically inferior, have also had a severe impact on Thai society. The psychological tragedy—as true in the U.S. and other societies as it is for Thailand—is that women born into gender-stereotyped societies generally internalize these beliefs and accept them as valid.
But what did Shakyamuni say that could have been construed as grounds for the repression and exclusion of women throughout Buddhist societies? The author examines Buddhist texts from a feminist perspective: “The Buddhist texts as we know them today were first written down at least three hundred years after the Buddha’s parinirvana [physical death] preserved in Pali (which was evidently not a spoken language).” While the Buddha spoke the dialect of Magadha, the northeastern Indian region where he lived, the Canon was written down at a later council in Sri Lanka, thousands of miles from the earliest Buddhist communities. Therefore, she notes, the authenticity of the Pali Canon as the actual words of the Buddha cannot be accepted without question, given these differences in time, language, and location. Furthermore, she observes, “The Buddhist texts were recorded by monks. The recorders chose to preserve the messages of the text according to their own subjective standards of what was important.”
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