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?