Sunday, January 09, 2011

Misandry and Mahayana

I read something by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche the other day that really set me to thinking. He wrote a simple but compelling account of his mother, Mayum Kunsang Dechen, late consort of the late Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche. In the course of his narrative, he mentioned the following story:
"... a young American woman came to Nepal a few years ago. She was interested in the Dharma, but she didn't want to take refuge with a male Lama. She wanted a female teacher. She liked my mother and went to her many times asking if she could take refuge with her, but my mother said, 'No, this is not the proper way. You should go and see this Lama, that Lama.' The American girl said, 'If you won't give me refuge, I will not take refuge at all.' So my mother gave her refuge and teachings. In those days, the American girl was quite young and it seemed to me that she was doing some kind of practice afterwards. She has returned to America, so I don't know what she's doing these days."
The story is distressing, but not uncommon. We have all seen and heard of similar situations. I personally heard a Western woman, who earnestly felt herself to be a properly ordained nun, assert that she would leave Buddhism if she was forced to take instructions from a man. 

For some reason, it seems such thinking began to emerge in the 1980s -- possibly as a outgrowth of Western feminism, possibly from other factors -- and it continues to the present day. Incredibly, there was once even some sort of backlash against Guru Rinpoche, when a number of women sought to avoid visualizing him, and actually removed his image from their altars! This, and things like this, prompted Gyaltrul Rinpoche to comment:
"Maybe some of you women might prefer to focus on a female lama, but you needn't worry because a primordial wisdom being, such as Guru Rinpoche, is of both sexes. There's absolutely no distinction: he is lama, yidam, and dakini."
I do not intend to be critical, but I simply do not understand how misandry and Mahayana are supposed to fit. Are you professing to adhere to a particular faith, and then immediately bending that faith to suit your neuroses? Are you taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha for the benefit of all sentient beings just so long as no men are involved? 

Surely, you recognize that in the context of the Great Vehicle, yours might be a minority view?

In the West, gender issues in the context of sangha are sticky. Really sticky. For example: we have some Western female commentators -- some of them style themselves as gurus -- who stress gender issues to the point of featuring them, and engage in all sorts of hyperbole about "empowering dakinis," or "roaring" about this and that. 

Dakinis are already empowered, and we really should stop our roaring long enough to hear their roaring.

Some of these putative teachers claim all that befalls them is in result of their  status as women, i.e., if you disagree with them, you disagree "because they are women." Of course, they gather like-minded individuals, and spawn a great deal of rhetoric about their particular "lineage."  We even have the example of franchise sanghas based on alternative sexual preferences. Over time, this becomes a form of sectarianism -- nothing more, nothing less -- and that is something we need to very carefully examine. The Dalai Lama writes:
"It is sometimes said that a major cause of the decline of Buddhism in India eight hundred years ago was the practice of Vajrayana by unqualified people, and sectarianism caused by corruption within the Sangha. Anyone teaching Tibetan Buddhism should keep this in mind when they refer to the precept, 'every action of the guru is to be seen as perfect.' This is an extremely dangerous teaching, particularly for beginners."
Women do not -- and let me repeat: do not -- need to feel disenfranchised or oppressed in or by Tibetan Buddhism. The first Tibetan to achieve enlightenment following the teachings was in fact a woman: Yeshe Tsogyal. There are numerous instances of highly realized female teachers and practitioners ever since -- far more than most people realize -- so, we can say the trail has been well and truly blazed.

Misandry -- contempt of men -- together with misogyny -- contempt of women -- are nothing more than gender-specific expressions of misanthropy -- hatred of human beings. Since this is the very opposite of Buddhism, why should we give any voice at all to such thinking? Why should we pay this any attention, or give it any ground? Isn't this something we should try to overcome?

Really, this is self hatred -- another facet of the ego raging out of control.

I imagine there are numbers of women who might stop me at this point and say, "this isn't hatred of men, this is just a simple preference," and that is well within anyone's right to so state. However, preference born of attachment and aversion is just another reason to suffer, just another reason for things to go wrong, just another reason to fail. If you want to make Buddhism a dumping ground for malfunctioning appreciation of your actual status as a valuable human among other humans -- or let me say, as an ordinary sentient being among other sentient beings -- then I do not think you will be very successful.

In my own life, I have had the good fortune of meeting very great male teachers, and I have also encountered very great female teachers. When I met them, their gender was absolutely unimportant to the experience of their teaching. You know, when you see kindness and energetic wisdom in one place at one time, it is like seeing the sun. You don't stop to think, "Is this male? Is this female?"

Similarly, I have been many times to hospital, and many times quite ill. When I was at the hospital, I had female nurses, male nurses, female doctors, and male doctors. When I was all smashed up, or really very sick, I did not stop to consider the issue of gender at all. These were caring people who were trying to help me in a difficult situation. You know, if somebody gives you medicine, you should be grateful. Is it appropriate to refuse the medicine, saying, "Oh! I will not take this medicine unless a woman gives it to me!" or, do you just take the medicine and get well?

We bring enough baggage to Buddhism as it is. We really do. We don't need to manufacture issues, or cater to passing issues, or lead the charge up the hill to kill the windmill.

Our shared religion -- if you want to think about it that way -- is fundamentally about love.

No strings attached.


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19 reader comments:

David said...

Thank you for this- very well said. I have seen the harmony of Sangha torn up by these issues, and the results were very sad. To be sure, sexism does exist, and gender discrimination has marginalized female practitioners at various times in Buddhist history as well as in the present day. More often than not, however, particularly in the modern west, it is simply a kind of ego-guise that people put on to feel important, and in some cases, to earn a living or at least some fame or notoriety. People see what they want to. If they look for sexism, they will find it; if they look for racism, they will find it. This is exactly the opposite of pure view.

Anonymous said...

As a woman, I can understand the wish to communicate with another woman, and I do not think this automatically equates to hatred of men. However the points you make are valid from a Buddhist perspective, well reasoned, and gently stated so I welcome your comments on this matter as a breath of fresh air.

Nightprowlkitty said...

This issue has come up for me recently and made me uncomfortable, but not in a bad way.

I am reading "In the Forest of Faded Wisdom," poems by Gendun Chopel. In one of the poems (61) he talks about Christianity and the the "protector" Jesus. At the end, the last two lines were: "May all the children of Adam/Be freed from the sin of Eve. Amen"

So I took that personally as I'm a woman, lol. After reflection, I realized I had no idea at all what Gendun Chopel meant by those words and was just projecting my own conflicts onto them.

Then I am reading the Medicine Buddha sutra and one of his vows was to alleviate the torments of being a woman and allow those women to be reborn as men.

Again, confusion!

I was brought up as a Jew and my father once told me there was a prayer that men said, thanking God they weren't born as women.

So it's not hard to get a chip on one's shoulder over all this.

Then there's Tara who deliberately says she will be reborn as a woman, sort of admitting in a way that there's some difficulty with the gender.

Karma. Attachment. And who doesn't like having an excuse for the kleshas encountered in practice? lol

I'm glad Medicine Buddha vowed to help women, specifically. But I can't say I understand the sutra, having only read it once.

Homohabilis said...

A woman practitioner came to the roshi, complaining that she'd heard it said that women cannot become buddhas.

The roshi replied, "What makes you think you're a woman?"

Stephen said...

This post reminds me of the issue of using Mandarin, as if the use of Mandarin is essential to Mahayan Buddhism in general. Where I live, there has been a campaign to use Mandarin, with the slogan that a Chinese must use Mandarin in order to have "SELF-RESPECT". "Self-respect" ??? Mandarin-speaking Confucianists are protesting against Mandarin-speaking Christians who plan to build a huge church near the main Confucious temple in China with the support of the Manadrin-speaking Chinese government. Mandarin-speaking Buddhists and Taoists are lossing out to Mandarin-speaking Chinese Christians who are converting China's Chinese rapidly. As long as Mandarin is used, there is self-respect. As such, Madrin-speaking Confucianists, Taoists and Buddhists should be satisfied that as long as there is "self-respect" in the use of Mandarin by Chinese Christians who proselytise and who convert to Christianity, right ? Oh, by the way, the Mandarin-spekaing Chinese government under Chairman Mao destroyed Chinese culture and tradition but used Mandarin. There is self-respect, right ?

Produce Stand said...

I think misandry is blown out of proportion. Women have been second class citizens in many cultures, and the feminist movement is an attempt to make men and women equal.
For misandry to to an issue, women would have to some how become the major sex in society and be the ones calling the shots and limiting men to certain jobs, opinions, feelings, ect.

And to tell women they have to "transcend" their gender, is true, because we do. But this is hardly ever told to men, since they are seen and the default, so the behavior and opinions of men isn't "gendered" persas it's just normal.

Sometimes you just have to see it from our perspective.

I do have to say that I enjoy this blog immensely!

Jin B said...

If you're not getting over gender in a relative (and that's subjective) hurry while you're attempting to align / merge with / enter the dharma, I for one cannot easily imagine what one would be doing with all these esoteric and arcane teachings. All this Buddhism business. But then that's just me.

PemaT said...

As a female practicioner and Ngagma of a community of them, I do not share the attitudes of exclusive female sexism you decribed, even if I understand the neurosis against men that some women cannot drop due to the traumas they have got because mistreating and discrimination. And sure, besides the term misandry, which I find exagerate and victimist, you're quite right in your exposition.

However, I just arrived yesterday from a Drupchö in my community of Ngagpas, male and female. It was our Root Lama there as well as a ritual managing Lama, both exiled tibetan. I have being traying to learn Chöpon activities, with some subtil expressed difficulties because of my gender, in former retreats. Tis time while arriving I went to the torma making place and asked to the Lama what can I do. He sayd to me there is nothing to do. One of the other Chöpon student came, a man. After 20'' the lama asked him to prepare some color. I stayed there for a while and he persisted to ignore me. Finally I went away and did not tray anymore to get into that activities for the rest of the retreat, because this is discrimination for me but if I say something about they accuse me of praid and having wrong views about the Lama.The meditation place was arranged later in a form where ALL the instrument where played just by men and ALL the places in first lines where occuped just by men. The only allowed activities for Ngagmas was, for the youngest an more beautuful ones, to bring the Tsok to the Lama in a seducing manner.

Is this not misogyny? Or how will you call it, please?

Stephen said...

What if the agenda is "Mahayana Buddhism = Mandarin = Chinese self -respect" ? IF this equation is false, then is there any wonder if some Chinese in the minority who do not speak it well or at all, and who do not like others who "try too hard" to promote Mandarin ? Imagine a group of Buddhists who usually speak English, suddenly use Mandarin when they are near you. What's their agenda, especially if it happens to often systematically ? As I pointed out earlier, speaking Mandarin by the Chinese is something only superficial. Mandarin-speaking Christians are growing rapidly in China, and they have been proselytising successfully in Mandarin. Bibles in Mandarin are distributed and read by millions in China. Mandarin-speaking Confucianists feel threatened by a proposed huge Christian Church to be built by Mandarin-speaking Christians next to the main Confucian temple in China, with the support of the Mandarin-speaking government. Millions of Mandarin-speaking Chinese led by the Mandarin-speaking Chairman Mao destroyed much of Chinese culture and tradition in China during the Cultural Revolution. This included the persecution of Mandarin-speaking Buddhism in China. To behave as if "Mahayana Buddhism = Mandarin = Chinese self-respect" and to promote the use of Mandarin with that in mind is at best superficial and at worst a form internal racism, etc. What's the agenda ? Let's get real.

Editor said...

Dear PemaT:
Nothing to stop you from telling them what you just told us.

PemaT said...

Dear Tenpa:

Of course I'll do it.

But first I had to come back home, breathe and next weekend I go to say it to my Lama, just in a relaxed way.

The fact is they are used to an male focus world where women where not considered and is very difficult for them understand that we are educated and instructed human beings with not difference here, in the west. I'm in Europe.

Thanks for your nice blog!!

Padma Kadag said...

Pema T: Yes...go and discuss with the Lama what you are experiencing. I can say that what you describe is not the case with Chagdud Rinpoche. Everywhere Rinpoche displayed all sexes in all positions of vajarayana practice and this still continues

Editor said...

Dear PemaT:

Just tell him directly. It has been my experience that many Westerners are reluctant to speak candidly, which is ironic, because real lamas appreciate and respond to candor.

Just tell him... this is how I feel; as a Western woman, this is how I responded to the events in question; here is what I want you to consider, or take into account.

You don't need to excuse yourself, edit yourself, or feel shy... as you say, just calmly lay it out for him.

It isn't impolite to lay things on the line with a teacher. What is impolite is to keep things locked up and unsaid, while smiling and offering scarves.

Anonymous said...

We (all) very often get trapped in our vessel's temporary issues...


flamingseed said...

Right here you have an example of why gender matters. On the absolute level, there is no male and no female. Of course, gender is irrelevant. But on the level of the relative, there are very real difficulties encountered by women in the dharma. For a woman to want the example of a female teacher may just be honoring her need for a role model on a human level, and it might be an essential step for her to heal something on the human level that will later allow her to drop it for a more "dharmic" view. I think that is exactly why Tara vowed to come back as a woman. If this is such a non-issue, why would she do that? The medicine metaphor certainly makes sense on the surface, but but if a woman has been raped by a man, she may understandably have trouble receiving medical treatment by a male doctor--this may be an unfortunate response to trauma, but it is certainly understandable. I hope we can have compassion for the women who are in the midst of healing such traumas and taking steps toward the dharma to do so--even if they can't yet take in Guru Rinpoche. Can't Yeshe Tsogyal or the dakinis serve them just as well for the time being as a doorway?

Anonymous said...

Interesting that the Dalai Lama says that when he has personally been the cause of much disintegration of pure Buddhadharma by his illegal ban on the Dorje Shugden practice and his enforcement of it with violence. See for proof. Unpopular, I know, but his media image is NOT what disenfranchised Tibetans see.

Padma Kadag said...

flamingseed. If individuals approach the dharma in a way which deepens their understanding of the dharma then that is a relevant path. What concerns me is the organized "paths" which have cropped up here in the west which are meant to make a painless transition into the dharma. Most, I believe, miss the mark and do not practice dharma as taught by Shakyamuni or Padmasambhava, Yeshe Tsogyal, and Machig Labdron. We tend to forget that Guru Rinpoche and Yeshe Tsogyal are one in the same. Whether there is a dorje or a lotus does not matter.

Anonymous said...

Check out Mandala Magazine website for an interview with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo. She has a matter-of-fact view. No fancy language, just basic common sense.

She is a breath of fresh air.

Grace Stewart said...

simple as can be there is incredible amounts of physical, mental, emotional, sexual abuse many women endure that has effects/affects beyond what words to convey. To expect a woman to "get over" this before taking refuge is not reasonable. So, I say, simply make prayers to the yidam that you feel suited to for the ending of the suffering that exists and for all abuse to end between men and women; look in the mirror that is you and regret that the divide even exists in yourself.