Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Radical Buddhist Reflections: Issues of Feminism

In the interview with Dolma Sherpa, there was a strong sense of feminism woven throughout our conversation.  In many of the stories she told me, the challenges she is facing, including the journey of experiencing and expressing her anger, are heavily influenced by her gender.  While most of what she said was too intrinsically linked with other ideas to isolate them as only feminist issues, she did make some wonderful points that I felt really needed to be seen.  In this first part, we are talking about the prevalence of White American Buddhists in Western Buddhist magazines and other media.  The complete absence of Asian Americans from these ranks is an issue with Asian American Buddhists and one that Dolma has come to see as huge flaw in the way that Buddhism is portrayed and practiced in the West.

I know one of the editors over at the Huffington Post and I like their religious section, but their Buddhist section is horrible.  They only have White American Buddhists writing for them.  They don't seek out Asian American or Asian Buddhists.  This article listed the top ten Buddhist women you need to know.  Other than the Buddha's Step-Mother, who I have never heard any Buddhist mention ever, it was all White American Buddhist women.  It was most disheartening.  I felt like they were denying our existence completely.  I can almost forgive not having an Asian women, but not even Asian American Buddhist Women?  I understand that they wouldn't have any of the famous nuns in Nepal, but only one Asian woman?  It's not that I think that something is owed to the Asian community, but to leave out Asian women like that was really wrong.  

In addition to her concerns about the invisibility of Asian Women in Buddhism, she shared her thoughts about the efforts by feminist westerns to "fix" the sexism of Buddhism for Asian Women.

There was a roshi from the San Francisco Zen Center who I heard talking all about how they are the leaders in feminism and that they are the branch of Buddhist that really admires women and fights for women's rights.  I'm sure there are more woman roshis here than there are in Japan, but it's that whole idea that we are poor little oppressed Asian women who can't speak for ourselves are aren't really even Buddhists.  When in history has that ever really been true?  When have women ever just put up with oppression?  People always get around it.  That's why nunneries have always been such places of power for women.  Your choices are either marry a man or become an awesome nun with all of these amazing women and have this power to create great social change.  It's a simple choice.  This kind of western feminism comes across as, "You are so oppressed and so little.  We are the ones who fixed Buddhism.  We are the improvement on Buddhism."  That's the part that is so painful.  The orientalizing of Asian Buddhism insists that we are the backward kind of Buddhism.  We are the ones stuck in our old patriarchal ways.  But what does getting a female roshi actually do?  How does that benefit women?  Of course it's great to put women in leadership roles, but how can you think that you are fighting for any kind of gender equality if you are willing to put women of color down as if we don't know what we are doing?  The implication is that we're not leaders in our religion.  When I look at the temples back home, who do you think is actually running the show?  It might not be feminine leadership in your terms or your way, but it's still valid.  Yet again, Western Buddhists are telling me what my Buddhism is.  My Muslim sisters can really understand this with me.  My friend wrote this great article that got in the New York Time about how her hijab is her feminism.  It basically said, "Me controlling what you can and cannot see is a huge feminist act and it has nothing to do with you and it's really none of your business.  It is about my spirituality and my religion."  I feel the very same way about my Buddhism.  You didn't fix us.  We don't need to be fixed.  If there is something that needs fixing, we can do it by ourselves.  You do not hold the final and loudest word on what Buddhism should be.