Women in Buddhism
by Maya Seligman

In the last year I have had growing interests in Buddhism. I saw the final project for our Women's Studies class as a perfect opportunity to try to answer some of the questions that had arisen in my head: The research that I did for this project helped me find answers to these questions (though I feel like I'm on a constant journey of learning, always finding new perspectives issues such as these). I would like to continue my studies of Buddhism, and even more specifically, Buddhism from the perspective of the woman. I have changed my oral presentation into written form, thus the following writing on this page unfortunately may seem to lack the fluidity of a normal paper. I also want to make the disclaimer that while the following information is from valid published sources, much of it is told within the context of my own interpretations and deductions of analysis. There are a range of different viewpoints in Buddhism, some of which are not necessarily taken into account in this project.

I hope you enjoy this piece of the Women's Studies project on spirituality, and feel free to email me at mseligm1@swarthmore.edu if you have any questions, comments or feedback!

The Project:

Women have been a part of Buddhism since the Buddha first made his enlightenment known in northeast India in the sixth century B.C.. Yet many obstacles have existed along the way blocking women from equal participation and opportunities. Zen Buddhism in particular has been an area filled with male chauvinism.

In some ways Buddhism can be considered historically progressive. Looking back to the earliest roots, several nuns and laywomen were among the Buddha's ablest and wisest disciples; a number of enlightened female role models have existed in Buddhism since. Especially in the Tibetan tradition, women dieties are used in meditation to awaken various aspects of one's personality.

As James Hughes writes, "Buddhism, as a way of living with compassion and insight, is radically liberating for women. Yet Buddhism as an historical institution reflects both 2500 years of men's power over women, "patriarchy," and women's struggle for empowerment. One can find within the Buddhist tradition women who prefigure modern feminism by two and a half millennia, and yet writings which equal the worst anti-women polemics of any religion" (Women & Buddhism, p. 58).

An important issue in Buddhism is the embodiment paradox. Looking at the mind-body connection, we come to question the role of our bodies. What do our bodies do for us as humans? One one hand, with Nirvana as our goal, enlightenment is attained only by transcending the body. Yet from another perspective, we can gain much from the daily experiences within our bodies, and there is a reason that we have our physicalities here on Earth. This represents the difference between having your body to being your body

While our bodies seem to separate us from each other, as one Buddhist woman describes, "If we stay very still, inhabiting our bodies with the finest degree of awareness, if we don't move away from anything, we may find our edges dissolving into the everything that includes no-body." (source to be identified in near future.) The body is experienced as permeable, borderless, empty space. Separation between mind and body dissipates.

An important questions for feminists and Tantric Buddhists is: Can women intrinsically understand the embodiment paradox better than men?

Well, as one Buddhist writes, "The earthiness and sensuality attributed to women, which the sexist side of Buddhism saw as their spiritual weakness, became a spiritual power in Tantric Buddhism" (Women & Buddhism, p.70).

According to Tantric Buddhism, female energy represents perfect wisdom. Every woman is a diety. As Craig Hamilton writes, "for the serious male tantric practitioner, women are to be worshipped, honored and revered as the bringers of enlightened energy into the world" (WIE, p. 39). Although both men and women recognize one another's divinity, the man is expected to respond to the woman as a goddess with numerous expressions of devotion.

What is sex in religion and spirituality? There is a wide range of different (often clashing) views on sexuality. While some are celibate (such as monks and nuns), some tantric pioneers felt that a celibate lifestyle did not in fact represent a mastery of one's sexuality, but rather a repression of and even a flight in fear from one's sexuality (Miranda Shaw, WIE, p. 41). Tantric practitioners believe that some are karmically in the right place for celibacy. Yet they also hold the belief that those people with an abundance of passion and sensually alive intensity would be putting their energy to waste if they did not tap into their own sexuality.

It is interesting to consider the irony in how the concept of "original sin" was introduced into religious thinking. St. Augustine was a monumental priest who struggled with his own libido, unable to control it. He concluded that we all have the element of sexual desires that predate mental control -- thus he identified these longings as the original sin. As a doctrine of the church, it became a tool for social control. (Margot Anand, WIE.)

Tantric rituals have been commercialized in the west, manipulated and misrepresented in some ways; it has been used to promote skills on how to improve sex, yet one of the fundamental beliefs in Tantric Buddhism is that pleasure is not an end in itself. It is a point of departure. Sexual acts are key practices to find the mind-body connections and reach a higher state of consciousness. There are also other ways to find these valuable states, such as dance, meditation, and tantric union with an imagined partner (masturbation).

In Tantric beliefs, the orgasm opens you up to the experience of ecstasy that is a channeling of the divine. It is a realization that is clear, pure and spacious, and it is empowerment for the women. At this point, tantric practitioners give up attachment to the actual pleasure, and instead they meditate that their bliss is devoid of intrinsic reality. Combining emptiness and pleasure replaces their ordinary sense perception. This relevant passage is from a tantric text:

The supreme bliss of orgasm.

There is neither passion nor absence of passion.
Seated beside her own, her mind destroyed,
Thus I have seen the yogini. [85]

That blissful delight that consists between lotus [vagina] and vajra [thunderbolt, i.e. penis],
Who does not rejoice there?
This moment may be the bliss of means, or of both wisdom and means...
It is profound, it is vast.
it is neither self nor other...
Even as the moon makes light in black darkness,
So in one moment the supreme bliss removes all defilement.
When the sun of suffering has set,
Then arises this bliss, this lord of the stars.
It creates with continuous creativity,
And of this comes the mandala circle [of the cosmos].
Gain purification in bliss supreme,
For here lies final perfection. [94-98]

(from Tantric Buddhism - sexual pantheism)

Tantrics' emphasis on male/female intimacy has been controversial and misunderstood throughout history. It has been met with reprehension by other religions. Tantric-practicing women have often been seen as promiscuous low-caste prostitutes.

Certain questions are worth thinking about in Tantric Buddhism: How set are the gender roles? In some ways are women being used as physical vessels for men to reach enlightenment? How is bi/homosexuality viewed?

The issues of Buddhism can be a fascinating vehicle for us to look at the relationship between our minds, bodies and spirits. One of the ways to reassess our social constructs of gender is to be able to define ourselves not just by our body or mind but by both together, along with our spirituality, ceasing to see each as separate unrelated pieces of ourselves. Thinking through these topics can influence our individual experiences of daily existence as well as the big picture of our social beliefs.

Maya has much more to share with you on the rest of her home page.

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