Some scholars of religion are working with the Buddhist tradition to ensure that it loosens its patriarchal confines to offer equality to both sexes (1). These scholars are best described as reformists, as in the feminist study of religion (also see Feminism) there are usually two major perspectives: the revolutionary and the reformist. Scholar of Japanese religion, Kawahashi Noriko, observes the difference between these very different approaches,
“The revolutionaries find gender discrimination to be so entrenched in the traditions of Judaism and Christianity that these faiths cannot change, so they seek to discard those traditions. The reformists, while recognizing traditional gender discrimination, also find that Judaism and Christianity convey a message of liberation, so they seek instead to transform the traditions” (2).
Here Noriko refers to feminist scholars within the Christian and Jewish religious traditions, but the same can be said for Buddhism as she herself demonstrates. Reformist Buddhist scholars, like their peers in Christian and Jewish circles, do not reason to the conclusion that Buddhism is immune to reformation, especially since a number of women, mostly Buddhist women, desire to restore Buddhism. These individuals come from diverse backgrounds that include the temple wives of male priests, female priests (nuns), those women who are a combination of both, and women who do not belong to any particular Buddhist order, among others. These women almost all have the single goal of living within the Buddhist tradition and engaging proactively with it. To them, patriarchal Buddhist orders have impeded women’s realization of their own religiosity, although they still find within this religious tradition truth that can lead to their freedom.
At the present within Japanese Buddhism there are conservative male priests dominating the Buddhist community. These priests are seen as the primary advocates of the tradition and they often teach that women cannot be potent actors in religious practice. The reason is that their virtue lies in obeying men and committing themselves to secondary, supporting roles considered proper for them. For example, nuns are expected to do chores for male priests while the wives of male temple priests are assigned roles as mothers and little more. The wife is expected to dedicate her entire body and mind to bearing and rearing male children to inherit their fathers’ temples. It also lands to them the responsibility to communicate Buddhist teachings to their children. However, they are almost always under-appreciated despite the functional importance of their role. The temple wife is essential to the administration of temples in all schools of Japanese Buddhism, although she is virtually excluded from the decision-making. Many temple wives have simply resigned themselves to such circumstances in which they cannot take an active role in Buddhist practices and rituals. In some communal religious ceremonies, women find themselves experiencing restrictions due to rankings systems and in seating arrangements (3). The percentage of women priests in 1995 was only 2% (4).
Buddhist women are also not seen as being capable of understanding and verbalizing their own circumstances, hence leading men to adopt the role of speaking for them (5). When Buddhist women do attempt to speak for themselves, they are excluded from the arena of discussion in advance, meaning that there is no occasion, or the acknowledgment, of the need for such an occasion for these women to speak for themselves. Noriko says that “Virtually all of the existing Buddhist orders can be said to have marginalized women in terms of both institutions and teachings.” In the Buddhist community, the opportunity to speak authoritatively belongs to senior men, which leaves the voices of women unheard.
Buddhist feminists also have an interest in engaging some of the problematic and difficult sacred texts of their traditions. Some scriptures and publications propose devalued views of women, including them being more sinful than and subordinate to men. In Japan, this is evident in several Otani-ha scriptures, while Pure Land Buddhism teaches that women are transformed into men when they are born in Amitabha’s Pure Land. The writings of Kaneko Daiei (1898-1976), an influential Otani-ha author of the twentieth century, have been reprinted in Japan after his death and have revitalized the idea of the sinfulness of women being greater than that of men.
For the reformist feminist scholars of religion, there is the challenge of untangling the knotty relationship between culture, religion, and society. Ursula King famously rewrote the slogan “the personal is political” to read “the spiritual is personal and political” in order to communicate the obvious connection between these domains that not only relate to the individual’s inner life but also to society, culture, religion, and other collectivities (6).
1. Noriko, Kawahashi. 2003. “Feminist Buddhism as Praxis: Women in Traditional Buddhism.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 30(3-4): 291-313
2. Noriko, Kawahashi. 2003. Ibid. p. 301-302.
3. Heidegger, Simone. 2015. “Shin Buddhism and Gender: The Discourse on Gender Discrimination and Related Reforms.” Journal of Religion in Japan 4(2-3):133–183.
4. Heidegger, Simone. 2015. Ibid.
5. Noriko, Kawahashi. 2003. Ibid. p. 294
6. King, Ursula. 1993. Women and Spirituality: Voices of Protest and Promise. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press. p. 198-199