Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA

Issue No. 14 Spring 2017

Afternoon Keynote Address

by Pamela Ayo Yetunde, J.D., M.A., Th.D.


Give Yourself Permission to be ALL IN


I come trusting the wisdom of the Sakyadhita Conference organizers that I can offer a message consistent with the purpose of our gathering, which is to Engage Race and Exclusionary Politics in America.  And I also come with apologies and words of gratitude.  First, on behalf of those who honor and appreciate diversity and inclusivity, I apologize on behalf of this nation to anyone in this audience who has been hurt by the nationalistic policies coming down from our Executive Office, that are hitting families, communities, and sanctuary cities hard.  Second, I apologize if any way I have contributed to the nationalism that is trying to take hold.  I will do my best to resist this deluded and dangerous ideology.  I also want to share that I know many people who honor and appreciate the presence of people who have lived in other countries before coming to the U.S. to live.  Thank you for enriching us.  Thank you for being here.  May we all commit to keeping each other safe.


 My other apology has to do with the fact that I may not speak out of an expected Buddhist voice.  It is possible that I may be offensive to traditional Buddhist sensibilities and in order for me to speak the truth as I have experienced it, I am going to take the risk of being offensive, and I apologize in advance for any forthcoming unskillfulness.  With that said, I want to ask a question.  Can women be agents of change for diversity and inclusion within Buddhism, Buddhist communities, and the U.S. if we are also actively and simultaneously excluding ourselves as women?  Let me ask this question another way.  Can women who believe they should negate their femaleness, who believe their femaleness is the cause of a man’s sexual anxieties and desires, who believe their very bodies are more impure than any man’s body, who believe there are no women in heaven, who desire to be men in the next life, actually be agents of a deep change for diversity and inclusion in the dhamma, our sanghas, and in our society?  Women who hold these beliefs CAN be agents of deep change, but the deep change will first have to come from within ourselves, and then through ourselves through empowering relationships.


 In order for that change to begin, women under the sway of androcentric and misogynistic beliefs would do well to consider and contemplate The Buddha’s teachings on seeing through delusion.  As it pertains to delusion, let’s think about one of the prevalent human development stories pertaining to the historic Siddharta Gautama before he became The Buddha.  It is said that the historic Siddharta was a member of the Kshatriya caste -- the ruling and warrior caste, just under the highest and most privileged caste, the Brahmins.  As a member of the Kshatriya caste, Siddhartha had the power to kill enemies and enforce laws handed down by the Brahmins.   He could kill and enforce laws in a nondemocratic government.  In essence, he grew up deluded about others because of his privilege. This privilege was not only related to class and caste, but also to gender.  Women at that time were gathered in concubines and harems, grouped together for the sexual pleasure of men.   Did the historic Siddartha kill, enforce laws, and engage in nonconsensual group sex?  We don’t know, but history supports a reasonable conclusion that Siddartha was embedded in a nondemocratic misogynistic culture, and that his teachings or the Buddhist teachings that came after The Buddha embarked on his teaching life, included the understandings of women at that time.  In order for Buddhist women to be deep change agents on inclusion and diversity, I believe we will have to separate the spiritual teachings and practices from the Buddhist anthropology that degrades women.  Do you need permission to make the separation between spiritual Buddhism and anthropological Buddhism?  If so, who will you seek for permission?   You cannot seek anyone who is so beholden to the written Buddhism that they cannot think critically.  Whose permission will you seek?  I hope you are open to granting yourself permission.  Let’s pause for a moment to check in with ourselves.  We can grant ourselves permission to make the separation and dare I say we must engage in this work to undergo the change we need to go through in order to show up fully and deeply for ourselves as women, and those who are excluded from our sanghas and from society.  Scholars, let’s continue the work of feminist Buddhist scholars by studying Buddhist anthropology and reviving Buddhist humanism through an interdisciplinary approach that includes anthropology and biology.  But this work is not just for feminist Buddhist scholars.  We can all grant ourselves permission to awaken, and we can begin the separation of Buddhist anthropology from Buddhist spirituality with an examination of two suttas.


 In the Brahmayu Sutta in the Majjhima Nikaya 91, it is stated what the 32 marks of a great man are.  One of those marks is “his male organ is enclosed in a sheath.”  I mention this one to be clear that this sutta is certainly about men, not women.  In the sutta on The Eight Thoughts of a Great Man in the Anguttara Nikaya (160) it states:


1.  Dhamma is for one of few wishes

2. Dhamma is for the wise

3. Dhamma is for one who delights in the Unworldly

4. …contented

5. …secluded

6. …energetic

7. …mindful

8. …concentrated mind


Here we have a division between the body of a great man and the thoughts of a great man.  What are the body marks and thoughts of a great woman in Buddhism?  I have not found such concepts or lists in the suttas, and if they do exists, they did not become the prevalent notion of what great women are or can be, beyond being beautiful and dutiful towards her husband and being a dutiful mother and daughter.   Given the difference between a great male body and a great male mind, we can see through our own meditation experiences, including mindfulness of our bodies, that the description of the “great male mind” is not attached to whether a person has a male sex organ – these attributes are attached to practice, education, and the support of a sangha truly invested in a woman’s spiritual liberation.  So how did Buddhist anthropology become so misogynistic, especially when Siddartha was born of a woman,  was raised by women, married a woman, whose son was born of a woman, and whose life was saved by a girl who gave him something to drink when he was near death?  This young girl gave The Buddha his first inspiration toward his Middle Way realization.  Consider this.


In present-day Nepal, the country of The Buddha’s origin, menstruating girls and women are still severely and inhumanely ostracized during their periods in a centuries-long practice called Chaupadi.  In the March 10, 2017 National Geographic Article “The Risky Lives of Women Sent into Exile – for Menstuating,” it states that many believe menstruating girls and women are possessed by evil spirits.  Menstruating girls and women are viewed as unclean, untouchable, and powerful enough to bestow calamity upon the village, its people, livestock, and land.  Due to these impurities, evil, and powerful intentions, women are banished from their homes to stay in sheds and huts, no matter the climate, and no matter the predators, including snakes and rapist men.  Chaupadi is a practice that often ends in death.  Chaupadi is often attributed to Hinduism, but according to the article, “Nepal:  Banishment for women menstruating.  Is it driven by religion?,” the impurity of women is a belief found in other religions, including Buddhism.  “Every major religion views the menstruating woman as impure, despite the fact that there is nothing inherently impure about the process. Some religions view the impurity as strictly spiritual; others fear physical danger and harm as well,” says a 2007 report by the The Internet Journal of World Health and Societal Politics.   Focussing on the U.S., do attacks on Planned Parenthood and reproductive agency, with the return of patriarchy and androcentrism in the Executive Office,  feel like American women are being deprived of support around the consequences of menstruating?


In ancient Japanese Zen Buddhism, women were damned to the Blood Pool Hell because they menstruated.  I am not aware that menstruating, in Theravada Buddhism, is considered a condition that makes women impure, but what are we to make of the teachings that women cannot experience the highest concentrative states, or in Mahayana Buddhism, become a bodhisattva?  If it is not the presence of the female sex organs, is it the absence of the male sex organ?  Give yourself permission to separate Buddhist anthropology from Buddhist spirituality.  To promote inclusivity, that is, women’s inclusivity in Buddhism, you must give yourself permission to be ALL IN – body and mind, because being ALL IN is potentially life saving and dharma saving too.


When I wrote my dissertation, I utilized some of the writings of Buddhist nun Ayya Khema.  I believe Ayya Khema represented the suttas well in her commentaries, but I do not think she gave herself permission to be ALL IN and separate the misogynistic anthropology from the spirituality.  For example, she left her cancer untreated for years until the tumors bled out of her breasts, stating that having cancer increased her urgency about her spiritual practice. Was this spiritual bypass?  Khema said in her writings repeatedly that only arahants are loveable, despite the fact she gave birth to two children.  She said that The Buddha said there is no such thing as cancer, but that the body itself is cancer.  For me, this is dim and grim.  Khema was, however, an advocate for the fair treatment of women, but what if she had taken the step of critiquing Buddhist misogynistic anthropology while also honoring the suttas?  What if she had done that work to conclude that arahants aren’t the only lovable people, that she was lovable and an act of self love is cultivating good physical health before illness becomes worse and life-threatenting?  What if she had espoused, as a mother herself, that the body is not just prone to disease, but also prone to giving life?  Emphasis on the life giving parts of being human would have been a feminist turn in Buddhism.  Something in my gut tells me that to be life affirming is more helpful in advocating inclusivity, than being fatalistic.


Those of us who have studied the Therigatha know that those early Thervada Buddhist women simply utilized their understanding of the dharma and practice, just as it was taught, to challenge male monastics who attempted to denigrate them because they were women.  Those of us who have studied the early Zen women know that they went to great lengths to diminish their femaleness in the eyes of the male monastics who attempted to denigrate them.  Self mutilation should no longer be practiced in order to make men feel good.  Buddhist women in the U.S., whether you are from here or not, are you willing to look deeply at Buddhist teachings and practices that perpetuate women as impure?  If you are not willing, and you intend to remain unwilling to change your position, you probably won’t be very helpful in the work of Buddhist Women Engaging Race and Exclusionary Politics in America.  But if you are willing or can imagine a time where you might be willing, here are a few ideas we can act upon together to make significant changes.




For those of us who are all in,


1) The next time you hear a person say something negative about women as a whole, educate them.  Say that The Buddha’s cultural context was severely misogynistic and that none of his realizations pertained to knowing women’s bodies and minds intimately.  Say that the collection of suttas in the Pali Canon did not include whether The Buddha was grateful to the girl who saved his life.  And say that you will no longer sit quietly while people speak falsely about the nature of women, and if they continue to do so, you will get up off your cushion and walk out, and when they do it again, get up and walk out and start another sangha.


2) Proclaim compassion and Right Knowledge as your path to engaging race and exclusionary politics.  Buddhist misogynistic anthropology is largely devoid of compassion and is steeped in ignorance and fear of women and a resignation that society cannot be changed.  Practice self-compassion if you are a woman exposed to these teachings, and seek out the truth of women – our bodies, our minds, our experiences, our power, etc., and lastly for now,


3)  Familiarize yourself with the findings from the Buddhist Men’s Conference on Eradicating Misogyny.  Are you familiar with these findings?  This is a trick question to get your attention onto the probability that Buddhist men as a whole are not doing their work TOGETHER to engage the misogynistic exclusionary politics they benefit from.  Part of our work is to encourage them to do their work.  To the men here and in your communities, ask them about the idea of planning and attending a Buddhist Men’s Conference on Eradicating Misogyny in Buddhism, then ask them to do it.  If it doesn’t get done, we will still do our work, but we will do it knowing for sure that only a part of the work will be done, but that is it better than no work at all.  We will proceed in this work with the knowledge that having “the marks” of a great woman are not based on genitalia or anything physical, but on Right Intention and Right Action as we cultivate compassion, lovingkindness, equanimity, sympathetic joy, courage and wisdom.  These are some of the “marks” of being a great Buddhist woman.


I want to thank all the feminists who have been working on these issues since the time of the Buddha.  There are so many to name, and so many I believe who have gone unnamed, that I will not attempt to mention even the ones I know about, at the risk of excluding people.  Just know that our work is a continuation, not the beginning, nor the end.  Let’s do our part now by beginning to give ourselves permission to be ALL IN in our sanghas, in our country, and in the world.


Power to the feminine within us all!  Thank you.



Sakyadhita USA Encouraging Inclusion Across American Buddhisms

SUSA is the USA National Branch of Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women

Sakyadhita USA

P. O. Box 1649, Ridgecrest, CA 93556