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Buddhist Women Engage Race and Exclusionary Politics in America

"Give Yourself Permission to be ALL IN"

Pamela Ayo Yetunde, Th.D.

United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities


This blog article is adapted from Yetunde’s keynote address to the first annual Sakyadhita USA conference, Diversity in the Dharma: Buddhist Women Engage Race and Exclusionary Politics in America, held at University of the West in Rosemead, CA on April 1, 2017.


Can women be agents of change for diversity and inclusion within Buddhism, Buddhist communities, and the U.S. if we are also actively and simultaneously excluding ourselves as women?  Let me ask this question another way.  Can women who believe they should negate their femaleness, who believe their femaleness is the cause of a man’s sexual anxieties and desires, who believe their very bodies are more impure than any man’s body, who believe there are no women in heaven, who desire to be men in the next life, actually be agents of a deep change for diversity and inclusion in the dhamma, our sanghas, and in our society?  Women who hold these beliefs CAN be agents of deep change, but the deep change will first have to come from within ourselves, then through ourselves, then into empowering relationships with others.  What will set off this kind of intrapsychic, interpersonal, and interdependent change?

     In order for this kind of change to begin, women under the sway of androcentric and misogynistic beliefs would do well to consider and contemplate The Buddha’s teachings on seeing through delusion.  As it pertains to delusion, let’s think about one of the prevalent human development stories pertaining to the historic Siddhartha Gautama before he became The Buddha.  It is said that the historic Siddhartha was a member of the Kshatriya caste -- the ruling and warrior caste, just under the highest and most privileged caste, the Brahmins.  As a member of the Kshatriya caste, Siddhartha would have had the power to kill enemies and enforce laws handed down by the Brahmins.   He could kill and enforce laws in a theocracy, or nondemocratic government.  In essence, he grew up deluded about the humanity of others because of his privilege. This privilege was not only related to class and caste, but also to gender.  Women at that time were gathered in concubines and harems, grouped together for the sexual pleasure of men.   Did the historic Siddhartha kill, enforce laws, and engage in nonconsensual group sex?  We don’t know, but history supports a reasonable conclusion that Siddhartha was embedded in a theocratic and thus nondemocratic, misogynistic, paternalistic, and androcentric culture, and that his teachings, even as The Buddha, included some of the deluded understandings of women at that time. Are we trying to be agents of change in the U.S. today with yesterday’s deluded beliefs about people? In order for Buddhist women to be deep change agents on inclusion and diversity, I believe we will have to separate Buddhist spiritual teachings and practices from the Buddhist anthropology that degrades women.  Do you need permission to make the separation between spiritual Buddhism and Buddhist anthropology?  If so, whose permission will you seek?  Grant yourself permission and try to avoid slipping into the spiritual bypass technique of “noself, no permission” when self empowerment becomes difficult.  Scholars, let’s continue the work of feminist Buddhist scholars by studying Buddhist anthropology and reviving Buddhist humanism through an interdisciplinary approach that includes anthropology and biology.  We can all grant ourselves permission to awaken, and we can begin the separation of Buddhist anthropology from Buddhist spirituality with an examination of two suttas.

     In the “Brahmayu Sutta” in The Majjhima Nikaya, it is stated that a great man has 32 marks.  One of those marks is a covered penis.  In the sutta on “The Eight Thoughts of a Great Man” in The Anguttara Nikaya it states that the dhamma is for one of few wishes, the wise, who delights in the unworldly, is content, secluded, energetic, mindful and has a concentrated mind.  With these two suttas we see a dualism between the body of a great man and the thoughts of a great man.  What are the body marks and thoughts of a great woman in Buddhism?  I have not yet found such concepts or lists in the Pali Canon.  Given the difference between a great male body and a great male mind, we can see through our own meditation experiences, including mindfulness of our bodies, that the description of the “great male mind” is not attached to whether a person has a penis  – dharma-mind attributes are attached to practice, education, and the support of a sangha truly invested in a person’s spiritual liberation, yet in some places, like Buddhist Nepal, the female body still remains highly problematic because through menstruating alone, women are deemed a threat to the wellbeing of other people and livestock.  To ensure the wellbeing of the village, menstruating women are sent into dangerous exile.  Menstruating women sometimes die and are often raped when in exile.  In the U.S., does the return of patriarchy, misogyny, androcentrism and the push towards a Christo-theo-democracy in the Executive Office, feel like American women are being deprived of support around the consequences of menstruating?

           In ancient Japanese Zen Buddhism, women were damned to the Blood Pool Hell because they menstruated.  I am not aware that menstruating, in Theravada Buddhism, is considered a condition that makes women impure, but what are we to make of the teachings that women cannot experience the highest concentrative states, or in some ancient Mahayana Buddhisms, become a bodhisattva?  Give yourself permission to separate Buddhist anthropology from Buddhist spirituality.  To promote inclusivity, that is, women’s inclusivity in Buddhism, you must give yourself permission to be ALL IN – body and mind, because being ALL IN is potentially life saving and dharma saving too.      

           Those of us who have studied the Therigatha know that those early Theravada Buddhist women simply utilized their understanding of the dharma and practice, just as it was taught, to challenge male monastics who attempted to denigrate them because they were women.  Those women knew it was safer to be in dharma communities than it was to be a woman in secular society.  Those of us who have studied the early Zen women know that they went to great lengths to diminish their femaleness in the eyes of the male monastics who attempted to denigrate them.  Self mutilation should no longer be practiced in order to make men feel good.  Buddhist women in the U.S., whether you are from here or not, are you willing to look deeply at Buddhist teachings and practices that perpetuate women as impure?  ARE YOU ALL IN?

     For those of us who are all in, here are a few considerations: 1) The next time you hear a person say something negative about women as a whole, educate them.  Say that The Buddha’s cultural context was severely misogynistic and that none of his realizations pertained to knowing women’s bodies and minds intimately.  Say that you will no longer sit quietly while people speak falsely about the nature of women, and be prepared to get up off your cushion and walk away from patriarchal, misogynistic, and androcentric dharma teachings.  Be open to starting a female-affirming sangha.

2) Proclaim compassion and Right Knowledge as your path to engaging race and exclusionary politics.  Buddhist misogynistic anthropology is largely devoid of compassion for girls and women, and is steeped in ignorance and fear of women along with a resignation that society cannot be changed.  Practice self-compassion if you are a woman exposed to these teachings, and seek out the truth of women – our bodies, our minds, our experiences, our power, etc.

3)  Familiarize yourself with the findings from the Buddhist Men’s Conference on Eradicating Misogyny.  Are you familiar with these findings?  This is a trick question to get your attention onto the probability that Buddhist men as a whole are not doing their work TOGETHER to engage the misogynistic exclusionary politics they benefit from.  Part of our work is to encourage them to do their work.  To the men here and in your communities, ask them about the idea of planning and attending a Buddhist Men’s Conference on Eradicating Misogyny in Buddhism, then ask them to do it.  If it doesn’t get done, we will still do our work, but we will do it knowing for sure that only a part of the work will be done, but that is it better than no work at all.  We will proceed in this work with the knowledge that having “the marks” of a great woman are not based on genitalia or anything physical, but on Right Intention and Right Action as we cultivate compassion, lovingkindness, equanimity, sympathetic joy, courage and wisdom.  These are some of the “marks” of being a great Buddhist woman.

           I want to thank all the feminists who have been working on these issues since the time of the Buddha.  Know that our work today is a continuation, not the beginning, nor the end.  Let’s do our part now by giving ourselves permission to be ALL IN in our sanghas, in our country, and in the world.

Power to the feminine within us all!  Thank you.