Doctrine vs. Practice

In the first chapter of her book, Being A Buddhist Nun: The Struggle for Enlightenment in the Himalayas, Kim Gutschow exposes the unseen inequalities that women face through the monastic practices and traditions of Buddhism. She hones in on first-hand experiences that she had with Buddhist monks and nuns in Zangskar in order to exemplify the differences of treatment that take place between the two groups and how undervalued nuns are in the Buddhist religion.

Throughout the chapter, Gutschow stresses the idea that the distinctions made between male and female monastics are not created by Buddhist enlightenment doctrine but by Buddhist practices themselves. Though “doctrinally, gender is a relative truth which must be ultimately abandoned as an illusion on the path to enlightenment,” Gutschow recalls an instance in which the highest, seniormost nun “jumped off her pillow to offer her seat” to a junior monk simply because he was male and monastic seating order instructs that, above all, male monastics sit above female monastics (4, 5). Not only must the women of these nunneries serve the men of the monasteries, but women are also told that, by nature, their bodies signify “defilement and constraint” while male bodies suggest “purity and potential” (13). In terms of merit, women are thought to be “seven lifetimes behind men” and must accumulate enough merit to cover those seven years in order to be reborn as men. Though the question regarding women and enlightenment has troubled many since the beginnings of Buddhism, the way in which this chapter is written makes it seem that being a woman is “a hurdle” one must overcome in order to become one step closer to enlightenment.

I thought that one of the most interesting concepts brought up in the chapter was the idea that economic inequality emerges between monasteries and nunneries due to the importance of gaining merit. One way in which people outside of the monastery can gain merit is by donating to monks; however, the amount of merit that one gets as a result of their donation depends on the virtuousness of the monk. Because nuns are thought to lag behind in merit accumulation, donations are much more likely to go to monasteries, and as the wealth of monks continue to grow, “nuns struggle to subsist” (17). I found it interesting how wealth seems to play such an integral part in the lives of the monks and their position in the monastery. I always connected monastic lifestyle with minimalism, so to see that the most virtuous monks “are given palaces which they will never inhabit” makes me wonder how the merit system may have affected a monk’s intentions/ if it has it corrupted the purity that I associate with monasteries (17).

This is definitely one of my favorite readings up to this point. Before this, I had no clue that these sorts of injustices towards women explicitly took place in the Buddhist religion. Granted, I do not have much background knowledge on Buddhism; however, what I did hear about it gave me the impression that it is a religion devoted to eliminating the plights of our material world from our consciousness and creating peace. It is difficult for me to disagree with her argument since I do not have any previous knowledge on Buddhist monasteries, but I did think that the way in which she organized the information made it very easy to retain and the fact that she provides the information from first-hand encounters in nunneries makes her more trustworthy as an author.

As I read, I also wondered if it is reasonable to expect nuns to speak out against this system when, in their eyes, they could be threatening their chances to advance closer to enlightenment. This brought me back to the idea that we have brought up in class many times before: who is responsible for deciding what religious practices are acceptable? When I think of progression in social issues and religion, I usually think of re-interpreting the meaning of old, religious texts, which tend to be more traditional, in the context of today’s societal needs (e.g. finding verses in the Bible that would support marriage equality), so I thought it was interesting that in the case of Buddhism, in order for societal progress to occur, they would only have to follow enlightened thought doctrine just as it is written – “in enlightened thought there is no male and female” (5). It brings up the idea: when should religious texts be followed verbatim vs. interpreted to mean something different or larger than what is being stated? Can religious texts be interpreted incorrectly? How important is the intention of the writer/speaker when interpreting religious texts?

 

Will it Change?

I really enjoyed reading this section of Being a Buddhist Nun: The Struggle for Enlightenment in the Himalayas by Kim Gutschow. In general, the topic of the role of females in priestly positions is always up for debate and a controversial subject. I really appreciate Gutschow addressing this topic especially for this reason. In the first chapter of her book, Gutschow presents the relationship of monasticism and women specifically in Buddhism that is practiced in the “Zangskar region of the Indian Himalaya” (Gutschow 1). In terms of research methods, I really appreciate that Gustchow writes from a first-hand experience. Actually living through these nuns’ lifestyles allows for an authentic analysis. This also makes her able to touch her audience on a more personal scale.

Gutschow explains the “paradox of merit and hierarchy” (Gutschow 18) that takes place. The irony she describes is the analysis of how although these female Buddhist monks follow, practice, and preach Buddhist beliefs, they cannot escape prejudice towards their gender. The women “shorn heads and androgynous robes signal a lofty intent to renounce sexuality and maternity. Yet their ascetic discipline cannot absolve them from the dangers and defilement of the female body” (Gustchow 7). The women who choose to follow this lifestyle are faced with “obstacles and constraints from the start” (Gustchow 7). Even though they are “accepted into the monastic order by the Buddha…their subordination within the monastic order prevents them from reaching the highest status or attainments” (Gutschow 7).

This chapter was extremely eye opening, for I had no idea that these kinds of injustices took place. Prior to reading, I was thrilled to see the title of the book, and assumed I would be learning about the topic of females as religious figures in a positive manner. However, reading about the discrimination women face was quite displeasing. Finishing the reading left me with many questions and queries.

Gutschow mentions how there is little resistance from the nuns who face these discriminations. Additionally, she concludes with the fact that “the ratio of nuns to monks continues to rise” (Gutschow 19). Why is there such little battle between the nuns and the monastic order? Gutschow describes the issues with the setup of the social hierarchy, and theoretically, how this must be redefined before true progress can take place. However, can change take place in the current setup? The numbers of nuns are continuously rising, but does that imply reform will take place? I am curious to find out what the nuns make of and think towards this gender bias. I hope that later on in her book, she includes viewpoints of specific nuns.

Another point of inquiry I have is how important is the factor of location? How extreme or different are these views towards women and nuns in other major locations that have a high population of people who practice Buddhism? This also makes me recall our discussion about the “Western scope” in class on Monday. What would the “Western culture” have to say about this kind of treatment of nuns and females attempting at entering the monastic order? Is this a “Western” type of practice of Buddhism? Another related area I thought about was how other religions view female roles in the Himalayas. Is it similar to the way the women are treated in this society, or is it very different? This reading made me think about a lot of related areas and other topics we have discussed in class, and I hope we can address some through our discussions.

 

Misogyny and Buddhism

In Being a Buddhist Nun: The Struggle for Enlightenment in the Himalayas, author Kim Gutschow intends to unveil the largely hidden world of misogyny in Buddhist monastic traditions by using first-hand experience, research, and texts to show a lesser-known side of Buddhism.

At the beginning of the excerpt of Being a Buddhist Nun, Gutschow describes her first encounter with sexism in Buddhist traditions. Gutschow was at a remote village in the Zangskar region in the Himalayas, where a traditional springtime ritual was occurring. At some point, the author expressed her interest in being reborn as a woman, particularly a Buddhist nun, to which others responded with disbelief: why would anyone want to be reborn as a woman when they could be reborn as a man? Gutschow proceeds to discuss that even the most senior nun would give up her spot and go out of her way to show that she was inferior to any monk—despite age and experience differences, not to mention their status in their respective orders. Gutschow uses this as a pedestal to explain the long holding tradition of inferiority and impurity of women in the Buddhist tradition, a practice that is thought to have been implemented since the time of the Buddha. This bias towards male monks manifests in many ways, from donations to different orders, to different qualifications to preform rituals between monks and nuns. In general, the community prefers monks to nuns, and therefore monks are more respected, honored, and requested, while nuns struggle to get by. As Gutschow said, “Doctrine may view duality [between men and women] as conventional and ultimately illusory; practice knows it to be real and necessary” (13). The author also adds that while there have been feminist nuns and groups that discuss breaking the tradition of sexism in Buddhist practices, no one has taken any noticeable steps to break the centuries-old glass ceiling that remains to this day.

I find this topic absolutely fascinating. When the average American thinks of Buddhism, he or she probably doesn’t think about the complex tradition of misogyny that remains a noticeable part of Buddhist practice. This piece opened my eyes to some of the flaws imbedded in Buddhist tradition. With the information Gutschow provided, I am forced to agree that Buddhism does have a major issue regarding gender equality. Though I am hesitant to pass judgment on a religion I highly respect, this piece opened my eyes to its impermissible aspects.

A question I found myself asking throughout the text was: is it right for us to judge a religion’s practices if we are not part of that religion? And if so, is it right for an outsider to take action to change this religion?

The Importance of Classification

Ravina Aggarwal gives the readers a thorough analysis of how regional and political boundaries in the Himalayas lead to such differences in rituals and practices of weddings and funerals. Through her case studies, she argues “the sections of my article portray various facets of marginality in Archinathang to illustrate how ritual boundaries transform and are transformed by those borders constituted by regional politics and anthropological fieldwork” (Aggarwal 551). She organizes her paper into three main sections including looking specifically the metaphor of marginality, how the marginality of rituals actually play a role in the power struggles of bordering regions, and how ethnography and the construction of borders relate.

My favorite characteristic of the paper was how Aggarwal makes it slightly personal. She describes her experience of cultural immersion and how her research evolved around the way she came to understand these cultures through her interactions with people. Her description of how individuals urgently found the need to classify her as she entered the different regions really resonated with me. “My double agency confounded nations of foreign and national and, initially, I was subjected to occasional inquisitions and permit checks” (Aggarwal 565). The importance given to her classification proved just how significant these barriers are in the Himalayan area. Why did those people so desperately find the need to classify Aggarwal? Why are the classifications and the barriers so vital?

However, even though there is this need for classification, in Aggarwal’s case study of the different sections in Achinathang, she describes how “cooperation was a necessary part of living together. When differences arose in lifestyles and rituals, people explain these differences on the basis of factors such as kinship, history, and customs of residence and place, not just the canonical dictate of religion” (Aggarwal 553). She also includes that “years of living in close proximity had paved the way for friendships and alliances between the residents” (Aggarwal 553). Aggarwal investigates how the barriers are not constructed on any single factor. This “identification” is determined through “divergent and intersecting” (Aggarwal 553) elements. This analysis of the dynamic was noteworthy and important to understand. By no means does solely religion create the barriers, but more of the compilation of a multitude of factors.

Overall, I think Aggarwal did a really fantastic job in analyzing how the rituals and borders relate and influence the creation of the other. Aggarwal even includes that “because death marks a symbolic and literal border, death rituals are particularly productive junctures of the study of indeterminacy and multimarginality” (Aggarwal 550). Although I appreciate Aggarwal’s case studies and fieldwork which include the sense of a personal touch and immense detail, I do wish to know more about other major rituals and how these posed barriers and borders define other practices. How are the barriers then divided? Do they change or alter in any way? Additionally, I wish Aggarwal included a better conclusion with a longer personal statement relating to what she really took away from her research. Lastly, I wanted Aggarwal to put more emphasis and address the major question: in the end, which group or governing body should be in charge of determining and managing these borders and how would they go about doing so?

Are Barriers a Necessity?

Ravina Aggarwal uses her piece “At the Margins of Death: Ritual Space and the Politics of location in an Indo-Himilayan Border Village” to point out the various ways in which barriers are dictated, crossed, and blurred in Buddhist and Muslim traditions and rituals. While she admits that being donned “an outsider” in many instances both aided and hindered her research, the continuous examples in which outsiders impose themselves in the lives and culture of the people bring up the question of who should be in charge of the history and future of the traditions and rituals.

As Aggarwal lays the foundation of what her investigation sought to answer, she described my major criticism with research, as well as why she was labeled as an outsider from the start. When she stated that if she were “to witness the event…it would help [her] make sense of the funeral” (549), I had the same reaction that Nawang had: she had no right to make it seem like the ritual was “on display,” (564) and by doing so, she was “on outsider who could not be trusted” (550). The colonization of indigenous people and their cultures has not only been validated by passing their language, rituals, and traditions as weird, a spectacle, and ultimately unorthodox, but has been used to give the colonizers’ own culture validation. Throughout the piece, Aggarwal brings to light instances where the word of elders and community members were questioned and even sometimes denounced by historians, the federal government, and religious associations. This made me question who should be able to dictate not only what constitutes a religion (which is what we have discussed in class), but more specifically, in this case, who should dictate barriers and under which circumstances (if at all) are they necessary.

In what I took to be the introduction of her paper, she outlines the three points she will discuss, which are symbolic barriers, barriers under power struggles, and barriers in ethnography. I found it helpful that she laid this out for the reader because it gave me a framework to look for, but I found that they were all very interconnected. For example, while the doorway was a literal barrier of entry for her into the household and funeral, it was also a barrier that she had to cross as an ethnographer, and a barrier for the soul of the dead person who was attempting to flee. While she explained the various barriers, I found it interesting that the barriers I thought were logical to have were in fact the ones that the people enforced the least. The two that stuck me the most were the boundaries between physical locations, and the boundaries of privacy when it came to the funerals.

The description of how the people of Achinathang send their kids to school, can trace their ancestry to, and often inter-marry with people from Skyurbuchan was interesting because I was under the impression that different regions were separated primarily due to differences that did not allow for such alliance. Not only do the people of these two regions intertwine very often without any distinct borders, but also the area itself is not bound: “The village itself has expanded over the years and continues to do so in a descending movement along the mountains” (552). The fact that not even nature is a boundary for this area is astonishing because it puts it into perspective that many times, people, their beliefs, and unwillingness to accept others’ beliefs can be the biggest barrier.

I do not know if it is because I am a Catholic, but I was always under the impression that in most cultures, a funeral is a very personal matter in which only close family and friends are invited to, and partake in. In the Buddhist tradition though, the entire village is involved to “accomplish the ideal of detachment from a habitus that is familiar” (555). It is important for everyone to play a part in helping the soul exit the body, home, and village because “the migration of the itinerant soul…unsettles quotidian frontiers between persons and nonpersons, insiders and outsiders” (555). The involvement even reaches the point of having a specific amount of time to mourn before “sorrow must be contained, dancing resumed, drab apparel put away, and celebrations of joy attended once again” (556). Having every part of the funeral dictated and controlled would seem to me an area in which barriers should be drawn in order to maintain privacy, but it is instead seen as a realm in which everyone has input in because it affects everyone.

Ravina Aggarwal exploration of the various barriers present when attempting to understand another religion or culture’s traditions and rituals made me question, like I mentioned earlier, who has or should have the right to dictate barriers, the people themselves, the government, or other associations, and when, if at all, they are necessary.