Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA
Issue No. 7, Summer 2015
This year’s Sakyadhita Conference near Yogyakarta, Indonesia, the 14th international conference, inspired its participants, including professional and amateur photographers alike. The camera-wielding crowd captured and shared beautiful images, now circulating on the Internet, of women monastics in postures of meditation and other breathtaking moments of joy, contemplation, and solidarity. For the uninitiated, the peaceful photographs of monastics in meditation only obscure the difficulty and discipline of the 8-fold path that, according to the Buddha, leads to more enlightened cognitive framing, and so the diminution or cessation, of life’s suffering.
The images, nonetheless, are as important as they are captivatingly beautiful. They secure for posterity an historical record of the rise and flourishing of an awareness of the dignity, the rightful place, of Buddhist nuns from many countries, from India and Taiwan to Germany and the United States. The nuns struggle for recognition in a Buddhist world is still
largely governed by their masculine counterparts—monks, male teachers, administrators, and sangha membership. Sakyadhita 14 conversations concerned the historical reconstruction of women’s contributions to full ordination issues to current community projects. Multitudes of attractive images of Buddhist nuns were captured by the photographic gaze as they presented papers, attended workshops, met old and new friends, savored the wonderful food, basked in the warm hospitality of our hosts, and toured local sights, including the famous pilgrimage site, the 9th century Borobudur Temple. During all these activities, the cameras clicked away—photographically framing particular faces, events, places. My own favorite is a photo I took of a window from within the 8th century Candi Sari. The sunlight shines through the window frame, casting shadows deep into the dark temple where 8th century monastics chanted, read, meditated, lived, and died.
Social theorist Judith Butler, who writes about the political function of framing, argues that when we choose our frames, photographic or narrative, we anchor and augment the significance of that which lies within the frames and we diminish or make invisible that which is left outside. Butler dwells particularly on the meanings erased or never articulated, the subjects or subjectivities left outside of frames. She considers ponderous questions: What are the conditions under which a life is apprehended as a life? As a loss that can be grieved? What are the implications of framing or choosing not to frame with word, images, attention, certain populations or people?
Until recently, Buddhist nuns have been virtually excluded from important historical, social, and political narratives. Their lives have not been apprehended as lives worth attention and respect. An unspoken function of Sakyadhita International conferences has been to correct this misogynistic omission. Critics of the monastic focus tend to lift up the many people besides the nuns at Sakyadhita International conferences. There are many non-monastics at the conferences with motives plural, complicated, and overlapping: service, solidarity, career, curiosity, spiritual tourism. They are lay people, including hosts, volunteers, supporters, students, donors, academics, translators, travelers, news crews, and others.
For some years, the opportunity to witness monastic women and their crossing over the thresholds into positions of leadership has been a trajectory of my own spiritual pilgrimage. I’ve been drawn to the story of their struggles and their story has helped me to understand and reevaluate my own. Traditionally speaking, a pilgrimage ultimately concerns the journey, the way, and not even particularly the goal—typically “transcendent” activities such as encountering the exalted leaders, listening to learned expositions, or touching sacred temple stones.
The power of pilgrimages extends largely from the experience of liminality—the tenuous, transitory nature of travel, the fleetingness of time, the unfamiliarity or expansion of space, the unmooring of identity from its usual tethers. The travel itself becomes a metaphorical journey of self-realization. Despite the pictures, postcards, books, souvenirs, and other trinkets so pervasively available at sacred sites, the pilgrimage well-taken ultimately eschews the functions of framing. Its realizations happen in liminal spaces outside of frames anticipated by oneself or constructed by others. At Sakyadhita 14, these frames were the program of events, the papers, the presentations, and the photographic recording, for all posterity, beautiful and powerful images of female monastics in meditation, contemplation, or celebration, seemingly progressing slowly but steadily into a more equitable gender future.
My own pilgrimage was revved into high gear on my flight from Seattle to Tokyo. I walked the cabin frequently, restless, restless, restless for Sakyadhita 14 to begin! Alternately, I stretched out full-length on the floor of the walkway behind the economy-class restroom, eyes closed, body relaxed, contemplating in awe how I was being hurtled through space and time zones to an unfamiliar place. Yogyakarta! Central Java! Adventure! Meditation! Spiritual awakenings ahead!
Then it happened—insight into the way things actually are. It happened in the interstices, outside the frames of my expectations, idealizations, assumptions, of ordinary mind. A woman four rows ahead of me, traveling alone, slumped over into the aisle. It took a few moments for anyone to fathom what was actually taking place. Soon the unconscious woman was laid out full length on the floor while anxious flight attendants rushed to and fro and morbidly curious passengers pushed in to watch while a volunteer rigorously administered CPR. Ten minutes, 15 minutes, 20 minutes to no avail. The woman would not be resuscitated. After some uneasy exchanges, male passengers carried her lifeless body past me, her arm swinging nonspecifically, to lay her down in the very walkway where, 30 minutes beforehand, I myself had lain down. Her body covered the same space my own body had so recently filled. The implications did not evade me. Temporary curtains were taped across the passageway to hide the makeshift morgue from public view. The woman was dead and, like other passengers, I was stunned. Then I was thoughtful. Was hers a life to be grieved? Who would be inconsolable when they learned she slipped out of the frame of human life? Was her death a loss for a spouse, a sibling, a child, a stranger, no one? When the aircraft landed in Tokyo, masked medics, hands in disposable gloves, rushed onto the plane to where her lifeless form lay and the rest of us were hurried off the plane.
Conference time began and ended. I went home to Cincinnati. I had thought of the dying passenger throughout the proceedings and I continued to do so. The conference photographs and videos began to arrive. At first, it seemed that the images, so aesthetically beautiful and spiritually edifying, so historically significant and so personally meaningful to many, could not ease for me the exacting lesson of death—life’s ultimate liminal space, outside the frames—some beautiful, like authentic religious sentiment, some noxious, like its commodification—that we use to avoid noticing death waiting quietly in the interstices for its moment to arise.
Time passes. The woman who died perhaps still traverses the bardo of death, seeking a rebirth. Her family, friends, even strangers, move in and out of states of mourning and remembrance: Her loss was surely grievable. The nuns in the photographs continue their struggle. Their time is coming. The clerks at the conference site welcome new guests. The academics compose new essays. The stage crew sets up somewhere else. The photographers seek out ever more moving scenes and the journalists search for different stories. The women who could not afford to go to Sakyadhita, or who were too sick, infirm, or tied to their roles as caretakers to go, try to relinquish their disappointment. The young Buddhists at Sakyadhita 14 imagine how they would have lectured differently from their elders. The conference organizers look ahead toward Hong Kong. The photographs of the nuns circulate around and around.
The frames we each choose cross and crisscross, focus and fade away. I meditate, still imperfectly. Breath in, gap, breath out, gap. It’s all liminal space, sisters. Small deaths; small rebirths.
1 See, for example, Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? (Verso 2009) and Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (Verso 2004).
Carol L. Winkelmann, Ph.D., is a professor at Xavier University in Cincinnati, Ohio, where she teaches linguistics and gender & diversity studies courses She belongs to the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism. She’s interested in Tibetan nuns in India and the development of Buddhist women’s leadership.