Lehigh University
Lehigh University


Buddhist scholar discusses problems and promise facing women in Tibet

What do Tibetan nuns and tantric female masters have in common?

According to Janet Gyatso, Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies at Harvard University, they both embody certain rich and suggestive female gender ideals.

Gyatso spoke Tuesday afternoon in Sinclair Auditorium as part of the lead-up to the visit by the Dalai Lama in July. She discussed the history of women in Tibet, the struggle of Tibetan women to become nuns, and the intersection between sex and gender as theoretical categories.

“What does it mean physically, physiologically, psychologically, and socially to be a woman?” Gyatso asked. “In the contemporary period, I think these are very productive and interesting questions.”

In her own field of Tibetan Buddhism, Gyatso noted that there are important resources for use in examining questions about the role of women. One such resource is tantric Buddhism, an area heavily explored in Tibet.

“Tantra is about a lot of things, one of which is using human sexuality in very particular religious ways,” Gyatso said. “Tantra involves interesting research about the nature of male and female—how they are different, how they interact, and what their implications are for our own experiences. It calls into question what our sexuality has to do with some of these larger generalized forces we sometimes label as ‘male’ and ‘female.’”

Another resource is Buddhist monasticism. “We underrate the implication of monasticism and the practices of celibacy,” she said. “These practices are enormously fascinating in terms of what they say about human experience and sexuality.”

And a third resource is the study of real Tibetan women and how they exhibit female gender ideals. “We must remember that these gender ideals float around, but it doesn’t mean people actually live them completely,” Gyatso said.

The rebirth of female ordination

In addition to providing some resources to help decode the role of women in society, Tibetan Buddhism also puts up some roadblocks, Gyatso said.

“Patriarchy and misogyny—in Tibet as much as the rest of the world—stand in the way of looking at women’s issues and how things about women are characterized in certain ways,” she said.

One example of patriarchy in Tibet is the resistance to the current movement to allow women to be ordained.

“In Buddhist history, right around the time of Buddha, full ordination was available to both men and women,” Gyatso said. “But because of a variety of factors having to do with patriarchy, female ordination lost support from the lay community.”

Today, there is a strong movement to re-establish full ordination to women throughout Asia.

“There is an international women’s movement in which women have started taking ordination from Chinese nuns’ orders,” Gyatso said. “It will be exciting to see how it plays out. There are a lot of conservative males who don’t want to see it happen, but there are some enlightened male monks who are happy about it.”

One such supportive monk is the Dalai Lama.

“The Dalai Lama gave a talk at a conference on female ordination in Germany last summer, and he made the claim that there is something intrinsic about women that makes them naturally more compassionate,” Gyatso said. “He also made the striking statement that he thought feminism was a good thing.”

Tibetan female ideals: helpful or harmful?

To illustrate some of the gender ideals rooted in Tibetan Buddhism, Gyatso showed images of women who embody certain roles and explained their significance.

The first image of a female goddess illustrated the ideals of compassion and generosity.

“In Buddhism, compassion is an extremely important social and ethical principle,” Gyatso said. “It comes right along with the notion of ‘no self.’ It means that instead of obsessing about myself all the time, I can pay attention to other people, and this ability to perceive where someone else is coming from naturally brings with it compassion and love for others. A mother’s love for her child is one example.”

Other ideals expressed in Gyatso’s images included that of an enlightened female, with a narrow waist and full bosom, and a figure of the dakini, a gender ideal coming out of tantric Buddhism.

“A dakini is not exactly a female Buddha, but in some traditions, she is understood to be a female form of Buddha,” Gyatso said. “She is beautiful, powerful, but also very unpredictable—almost like a trickster. She is good at destabilizing things and will pull the rug out from under your feet. She is a source of visionary revelation, and she speaks in a kind of code.”

Gyatso noted that these ideals can be beneficial or harmful to women. For example, take the dakini. “The idea of speaking in codes, destabilizing, and operating away from the center of authority; in some ways, this is attractive, but from a feminist perspective, what power does it give?”

Taking a human approach to the study of women

As a scholar and teacher, Gyatso said, she encourages her students to take a human approach to the subjects they study. One way to do this with regard to the topic of women is to look at real women—“the way they are negotiating certain questions and experiencing certain problems in their lives,” she said.

To do this with her audience at Lehigh, Gyatso showed a photograph of a female tantric master with whom she spent time with in Tibet.

“This woman has a social role as a dakini, and she runs a nunnery; but she is also a real person,” Gyatso said.

Upon their first meeting, the master admired Gyatso’s hiking boots, and the two formed an immediate female bond over shoes.

This master holds a powerful role in Tibet, leading a group of 50 to 75 nuns and staying below the radar screen despite tight government control over religious activities.

And she herself exhibits some of the female ideals Gyatso discussed.

“She gave full esoteric meditation teachings and was very knowledgeable, but she was humble and refused to acknowledge that she was a teacher—this is a female gender thing, the tendency to say, ‘I don’t know anything,’” Gyatso said. “She also survived a cultural revolution by pretending to be crazy—she played on a female role and used it to her advantage.”

It’s not always clear whether the tendency to embody these female ideals is a good or bad thing, not only in Tibet, but in the United States and the rest of the world, Gyatso said.

“There are a lot of questions from a feminist perspective about to what degree these ideals are viable or desirable,” she said, “and I think it is important to engage this information in a personal way, but also to retain a critical perspective on it.”

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama’s visit will include a series of teachings as well as a sold-out, half-day public lecture on July 13. The five-and-a-half days of teachings, sponsored by the Tibetan Buddhist Learning Center in Washington, N.J., will take place July 10-15.

All of the events will take place in Stabler Arena on the Goodman Campus.

For the latest information on the Dalai Lama’s visit, check out Lehigh’s Dalai Lama Web site.

--Elizabeth Shimer Bowers

Posted on Wednesday, April 16, 2008

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