WOMEN'S LIBERATION IN BUDDHISM

By Rev. Patti Nakai
Buddhist Temple of Chicago

Throughout the history of Buddhism in Asia, the Dharma has been transmitted via cultures that considered women inferior to men. Undoubtedly, many of the outstanding Dharma teachers were male chauvinists. Yet the message of the teachings broke through their cultural prejudices against women. This message inspired female seekers to find true spiritual liberation in spite of their oppressed positions in society.

One example is in the story of Kisa Gotami and the mustard seed. The story is often cited in its brief form, but in the full version (which can be found in Paul Carus’s anthology, The Gospel of Buddha), the reader is introduced to Kisa Gotami as the spoiled daughter of a wealthy man. She felt her position in society was enhanced further when she married a man of high status. Then when she produced a male heir, she considered herself secure for the rest of her life. However, when her baby son became ill and died, she felt everything she staked her identity on had been destroyed. If only the child could be brought back to life, then her sense of worth in society would be restored. With the child’s lifeless body in her arms, she sought help here and there, but no one offered to resurrect her son. She eventually went to Shakyamuni Buddha and was happy to hear him tell her that he would revive her baby. All she needed to do was bring him a mustard seed from a house untouched by death.

It sounded like an easy enough task to accomplish. Each house she went to had mustard seeds on hand. But when she asked, "Has there been a death in your family?" she would always hear about the loss of various family members: "I just lost my mother," "My husband died last year," and "Our dear little one was taken away by a fever." After listening to the grieving of several people, Kisa Gotami saw the vanity of wishing for only her baby to be brought back to life. She then took her son’s corpse to the forest (the customary resting place of that time).

In encountering so many people who were coping with a tragic loss, Kisa Gotami not only learned about the pervasiveness of death, but also about the preciousness of life. Kisa Gotami realized it was shallow to consider herself important for being a rich man’s daughter, wife or mother. Seeking to learn the true significance of her life within the interconnected fabric of all life, she abandoned her social status and became a devoted disciple of Shakyamuni Buddha. As a nun, Kisa Gotami was said to give much encouragement to the younger women entering the order who felt insecure in leaving behind their secular positions.

Another example of the liberation brought to women through the Buddhist teachings is in the account of two disciples of Honen Shonin. Honen warmly welcomed both men and women of all social levels to his Dharma talks. Although he had been a highly esteemed priest at the elitist Mt. Hiei monastery, a powerful encounter with the Nembutsu teachings made him realize that Buddhism was meant to be shared with all people. From his reading of the Contemplation Sutra, Honen could identify with the character of Queen Vaidehi who is taught by Shakyamuni to see herself as a "foolish ordinary person" (bonbu). Freed of her sense of self-importance, Queen Vaidehi was able to see all lives as worthy of respect.

Honen’s students were eager to bring this message of all-encompassing compassion to those who could not get out easily. Two of the disciples went to the house of a powerful lord because the women serving there expressed an interest in hearing the Nembutsu teachings. After hearing the Dharma, the women no longer felt compelled to pump up their egos by seeking praise and reward from their master. Since the mistresses no longer acted as his submissive playthings, the lord was angry and had the two monks arrested and executed.

This event must have made a deep impression on Shinran who had been struggling with the conflict of his sexual desire and his training as a celibate monk on Mt. Hiei. He had been taught that women were defiled creatures to avoid contact with. But then he saw how important it was to his teacher Honen to spread the message of the Dharma to all people, including women – even for the two students to pay with their lives in this mission. Shinran, who later married and had children, carried on in this sharing of the Nembutsu teachings with both men and women.

Manshi Kiyozawa (1863-1903), as with the great majority of Japanese men, never thought of women as amounting to much. He appreciated his wife and was very loving towards his daughter, but his hopes lay with his sons and male students. However, I found that his writings speak pointedly about concerns shared by American women today. In our weekly discussion class at the Buddhist Temple of Chicago, we read Kiyozawa’s article, called "Human Commitment and Buddha’s Work," which served as supplementary material to Chapter Five of the Tannisho. In the article, Kiyozawa spells out the difficulty of fulfilling obligations to family and community.

I doubt if we can accomplish our human commitments as perfectly as we would like. Life is such that when one objective is reached, another is frustrated…There are other occasions when some unexpected obstacle reduces our original plan to naught…So, if we live life in such a manner that we absolutely must fulfill our human commitments, responsibilities, and duties, we will find ourselves in a difficult dilemma. We will suffer unbearably, as if bathing in water which is getting hotter and hotter.

By listening to Shinran’s teachings, Kiyozawa realized that it was his ego-attachment making him feel he was benefiting others by his initiative alone. In actuality, there had to be causes and conditions which allowed him to do those things. In this recognition that no action is done solely on the initiative and ability of any one person, Kiyozawa is able to let go of his selfish desire to take credit for things done to benefit others. When our study group read the article, one usually quiet Nisei woman spoke up about her frustrating experience of trying to take care of her young children while nursing her bedridden husband. Finally she had to tell her children she could not do as much as she wanted to do for them while their father needed constant care. She said her children then surprised her by taking on some of the household chores.

Hearing that, I could see that Kiyozawa, in his struggles to fulfill his many obligations, had much in common with many of today’s women. Labeled "super-mom" and "sandwich generation," these women are saddled with job responsibilities while also caring for aging parents, raising children and/or looking after a disabled husband. In those situations, the woman considers herself very self-sacrificing, but in reality it is her ego making her feel she is the one who is doing everything for everyone. She then loses sight of the interdependency of all life.

Shinran points out in Chapter Five of the Tannisho, there is a wholeness to life which makes us related to all other beings, not just our immediate family members. It is not just about "me" doing things for "the family," but it is all of life, including me, nurturing all lives, including my own. This awareness is the heart of "Namu Amida Butsu" which manifests itself as humbleness and gratitude. This perspective liberates the caregiving woman from the ego-driven sense of self-importance and martyrdom. In recognizing the karmic interdependence of all lives, she can continue in her duties knowing that she had been and is being helped in her helping of others. Conversely, she can then appreciate that others are helping to taking care of her needs.

In these and many other examples, we see that the Buddhist teachings can guide women to true liberation. It is the liberation from the dead-end ego-centered life and the liberation into the richly unfolding path of realizing our unique potential.

Suggested Readings:
-See my four-part series, Women in Buddhism, at www.livingdharma.org
-Rita M. Gross "Buddhism and Feminism" in The Eastern Buddhist, Part I – Spring 1986 pp. 44-58 and Part II—Autumn 1986 pp. 62-74
-December Fan: The Buddhist Essays of Manshi Kiyozawa, translated by Nobuo Haneda (Kyoto: Higashi Honganji, 1984)

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