Electronic Journal from Sakyadhita USA

Issue No. 12 Fall 2016

Rev. Monica Sanford received her M.Div. in Buddhist Chaplaincy from University of the West in 2013 and became an ordained Buddhist lay minister in 2015. Prior to that, she received a Bachelor of Science in Design (Architecture) and also studied city planning at the University of Nebraska - Lincoln. She is currently employed as UWest's Institutional Planning, Effectiveness, and Campus Culture Officer, while also serving as Campus Chaplain. Rev. Sanford is studying for her Ph.D. in Practical Theology (spiritual care and counseling track) at Claremont School of Theology.

Buddhism and feminism can be brought into relationship with each other through a third definition of feminism – a definition of feminism in Buddhist terms, which I often use when trying to present feminism to Buddhists.  According to this definition, feminism involves “the radical practice of the co-humanity of women and men.”

 —  Rita M. Gross, Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism


I grew up assuming that women were already liberated. My mother and father both got up and went to work in the morning. They were both educated. My father dropped us off at school and my mother fetched us from the sitter after school. My mother cooked and my father did the laundry. My older brother and I had the same allowance, the same bedtimes, and we got bicycles for Christmas in the same year.


This was all possible because women in the past had fought for the right to vote, the right to work, and the right to the birth control that made sure my brother and I were carefully planned. Their struggles ensured we would grow up in a stable, egalitarian, two-income, two-car household.


If, occasionally, my mother would say things like it was “unprofessional” for her to wear slacks to work (even though she was always cold), I would chalk it up to historical legacy. She was born in the 50’s, after all, before women were as fully and completely liberated as they clearly were for my generation. She still had the better power tools, so it all balanced out.


I was never terribly interested in feminism because I assumed feminism was over. We’d won.


So I walked into male-dominated offices, male-dominated professions, male-dominated college departments and assumed this was just a legacy. It would all be even once the older generation aged out. I had a kind of willful blindness.


Sometime during my early twenties, I started paying more attention. I started listening to the construction supervisors coming in off the job sites complaining about their wives when they didn’t know I could hear them. I started to see my female classmates in the College of Architecture struggle as their confidence was slowly eaten away, until they were quietly shunted into a different (“less demanding”) major – which somehow always turned out to be interior design for the women and construction management for the men, never the other way around. I started to notice how much female faculty were interrupted and male faculty weren’t. I resented how the salesman at the car dealership talked to my father more than me, even though I knew exactly what I wanted for my money (and my father repeated said “I don’t know. It’s up to her.”).


Women’s liberation? Hardly. Patriarchy had only become more pernicious for insisting that since “legally” men and women were “equal” now we all ought to play nice and not make a fuss.


I was still incredibly fortunate to have a strong mother, egalitarian and supportive father, good brother, powerful women teachers and faculty, both male and female bosses who valued me, and good friends of all genders. As a result, I’ve come into this patriarchal world fully equipped to demand my rights and stand up for others, to call people out for discrimination and harassment, to speak unafraid to those in positions of power, and to watch my own back and those of the women (and men) around me.


Then I read the buddhadharma. I found Buddhism at a time and in a place where there was very little Buddhism to be found. I studied on my own from English language books written by teachers with large western followings. I traveled hundreds of miles to learn to meditate in mostly-white sanghas.

I knew there was sexism in Buddhism, but my pattern repeated itself. I assumed it was in the past, a legacy of pre-modern Asia or, at worst, under-developed Asian countries where modern life hadn’t quite taken hold yet.


How smug and naïve I was!


A female birth is still regarded as an inferior birth in Buddhist doctrine. Not only are the eight special rules for Buddhist nuns still practiced today, they are still defended by wide swaths of the Buddhist sangha as the inviolate and unchangeable word of the Buddha (despite the Buddha having left clear instructions for how to change the rules). Traditional bhikkhus refuse to restore the full ordination of women and expel their own monks for fighting alongside their bhikksuni sisters. Laywomen still proceed into and out of the main shrine hall after men in temples throughout North America. Sexual abuse and harassment still cause scandals even in the most ‘westernized’ Buddhist centers.


These are all the obvious flaws and the obvious places to stand up and say, “No, this is wrong.” Many have done just that and Buddhism now has flourishing sanghas, east and west, fully supportive of women as equal members.  As with patriarchy itself, however, there are far more subtle manifestations.


There is the ‘emptiness argument.’ Teachers (both men and women) tell us not to cling to this gendered body since its all ‘empty’ anyway. Women’s voices and our very clearly gendered experience (since we are not nāga princesses, capable of transforming our bodies as we wish) are thereby subtly invalidated.


There is the ‘suffering argument.’ Since every human being experiences suffering, sadness, anger, fear, and other emotions, we naturally have the capacity to understand one another despite otherwise superficial differences in circumstance.  Again, women’s voices are silenced and the instructions of more senior (often male) teachers are imposed as more authoritative, despite their lack of experience with the particulars of female joy and suffering.


There is the ‘inner work first argument.’ We cannot control others, we can only work to tame our own minds and our reactions to others. Don’t get angry because anger hurts you more than the other. So there’s no need to call out unacceptable behavior and, if you do so with anything less than absolute calm, you yourself may be reprimanded.


There is the ‘do not criticize argument.’ We should not speak negatively of others, only praise their positive qualities. Certainly we should never criticize our fellow practitioners or teachers as it might damage the reputation of the sangha and the Dharma. This only promotes more silence and allows unacceptable behavior to perpetuate.


In this context, can a woman even pursue liberation (in the fully Buddhist sense of the word)? Do the causes and conditions even allow for it?


YES! I say.  Not only do the conditions allow for it, they cry out in need of it, demanding liberated women to do the hard work of liberating women!


Doing the inner work, for me, has meant shifting from a “No, but…” approach to a “Yes, and…” approach.


Yes, women are still subject to everything from sexual assault to micro-aggression in the modern world and we are working together, as men and women committed to equality, to do better for people of all genders, races, sexual orientations, religions, and abilities.


Yes, women in Buddhism are often treated as second-class citizens and we are fully capable of complete, total enlightenment.


Moreover, getting enlightened, becoming our wisest, most compassionate selves, will better enable us to work for the liberation of women and the liberation of all beings at the same time. We can (and must) do the inner work and the outer work at the same time, improving our non-selves and improving our causes and conditions in tandem. These two things are as interdependent as everything else.


Being a woman isn’t a detriment. We got in on the ground floor of suffering and social oppression. That’s a great place to start because it helps us build bonds of empathy and compassion with others subject to all forms of suffering – without assuming we know everything about their suffering any more than men know everything about ours (or we know about theirs)!


Yes, men don’t always see what we see or know where we’re coming from, and they can be fantastic allies. Yes, my father stereotypically can’t cook, and yet for years he made peanut butter and honey sandwiches for us once a week so our mother could finish her college degree. Yes, my brother could have overlooked the invalidations his female school mates were subject to, and I could use our relationship to ensure he didn’t. Today he actually has a great job with a wonderful female boss that a more sexist man wouldn’t have gotten (though I can take no credit for this). Egalitarianism opens up more options for women and men.


Yes, I could have walked away from Buddhism when I found the sexism and misogyny still embedded in this great religion, and I chose to stay present for that suffering because of what Buddhism teaches me about it.


There is no liberation for all beings without the liberation of women. And there are no liberated women without women’s liberation.


Don’t stay silent if anyone ever tells you different. Enlist their help, instead.


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