AAR Day 1 (and a half)

Some thoughts on the first day of the AAR. Before that, though, just to note that I’m writing these posts from my Blackberry. I’ve been reading the comments, but have some difficulty replying to them. I’ve written two long replies on the topic of slavery, but they don’t seem to have appeared. Others have gone thru okay, so I’ll keep trying…

The first panel I went to was, fittingly enough, a panel in honor of Rita Gross, a pioneer in feminist Buddhism. Her book “Buddhism after Patriarchy” is a must read, and some of her concepts are central to my thinking on the topic; particularly her distinction that Buddhism is normally androcentric but only occasionally misogynist. If you want to see what I mean by these terms, check out the post on this blog where I discuss them.

My own presentation was on Saturday morning, part of a panel on issues in Buddhism in Oz/NZ. I was asked to talk about the bhikkhuni ordination, and chose to focus on bhikkhunis and “reproductive rights”. As I have argued in detail in “Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies”, the earliest oral literature of the bhikkhunis says nothing about monks doing ordination for nuns, and depicts the nuns as performing ordination for themselves. With the advent of the garudhammas, perhaps 100 years after the Buddha, the monks made themselves an essential part of the new dual ordination procedure. This means that the monks have control of women’s ordination, which for a celibate community is the only way of “reproducing” and maintaining the community in the future. A similar process occurred with the “5 points” in the Amaravati Sangha, where the siladhara ordination, which on the analogy of samanera ordination should be performed by bhikkhunis, becomes the province of the monks alone. This was specifically used as a threat to cut off future ordinations and throttle the nuns community. Ironically enough, the 5 points themselves have proven to be destructive for the siladhara community.

Another presentation I went to was on depictions of Mary in various cultures. She has been used as a figure of hope and comfort for women. In several places, visions of Mary have been received by people at the lowest class of society – in one case a poor, illiterate black girl. The visions then prompt the development of a vigorous pilgrimage phenomenon, which generates a lot of money. The visionary experience, for example of La Negrita in Costa Rica, eventually is adopted by the State as a nationalist symbol.

A fascinating case was reported from Zimbabwe. A group of women in a rustic, remote hills shrine had simultaneous visions of Mary while at their devotions. The local Bishop honored their visions by commissioning a new shrine, with a Mary carved by a local artist from local black granite. When it was unveiled, however, the women were outraged: “That’s not our Mary!” They insisted that the statue be replaced with a white Mary and child, in a conventional style.

I went to another panel, this time on various aspects of Buddhist iconography and ritual in India and Nepal. The papers were reasonable, although I felt that there were a number of questionable assumptions; most of these were picked up by Ute Husken in her comments on the papers. For example, one of the panelists spoke of the whether Siddhattha was said to have undergone the traditional Vedic rites of passage (upanayana, etc.). Most Buddha biographies do not mention these, the exceptions noted being the Buddhacarita and one passage from the Milindapanha. Are these omitted because they were not done, or because the Buddhist hagiographers wanted to avoid brahmanizing the Buddha? Perhaps they were just taken for granted. The presenter tried to argue that since these rituals constitute a spiritual rebirth under a Vedic guru, they would contradict the Buddha’s claim that he had no prior teacher. This is not all that persuasive, I think, because such rituals, while regarded as solemnly spiritual from the brahmanical theology, are seen as worldly from the Buddhist perspective; and for most people who actually do them they would be seen as just a normal part of life.

I’ll leave it at that for now: day 2 is starting.

7 thoughts on “AAR Day 1 (and a half)

  1. Bhante, does AAR stands for “Ask A REVEREND”? Sounds very nice and applicable for the Westerners in the Western Land. What’s in a name?

  2. Thanks for this…

    “the earliest oral literature of the bhikkhunis says nothing about monks doing ordination for nuns, and depicts the nuns as performing ordination for themselves. With the advent of the garudhammas, perhaps 100 years after the Buddha, the monks made themselves an essential part of the new dual ordination procedure.

    This means that the monks have control of women’s ordination, which for a celibate community is the only way of “reproducing” and maintaining the community in the future.

    A similar process occurred with the “5 points” in the Amaravati Sangha, where the siladhara ordination, which on the analogy of samanera ordination should be performed by bhikkhunis, becomes the province of the the monks alone. This was specifically used as a threat to cut off future ordinations and throttle the nuns community. Ironically enough, the 5 points themselves have proven to be destructive for the siladhara community.

  3. Hi Bhante,
    I was fortunate enough to attend your panel on bhikkuni ordination and enjoyed it very much. It’s interesting to me that so many of the staunch opponents in the West are non-Asian monastics–here in the Bay Area, most of the Asian and Asian American monks I’m in contact with support ordination, but then they also seem to take a less legalistic view of the Vinaya than many non-Asian Western monks. Interesting.
    Something that came up in my mind during your presentation was how easy it is to vilify our opponents. It was really the acrimony of the current elections that helped clarify this to me. I wonder if it might not be helpful to try to really understand, in as deep a way possible, why these five rules for siladharas were perceived as necessary according to the perspectives of those in favor of them. I don’t say this because I sympathize with their actions–rather, quite the opposite. But it seems like until I am able to listen deeply to those with whom I disagree, including understanding their own reasoning, I’m in danger of treating them as objects or enemies, of stereotyping and caricaturing them, much like I see the candidates doing in their political ads.
    I really do want to understand why these bhikkus found these rules necessary and important from their own perspectives. It’s too easy to dismiss them as “sexists,” “misogynists,” etc.
    Anyway, thank you again for an excellent presentation. I hope you enjoy your travels.

  4. Hi Natalie,

    So glad to hear you enjoyed the talk!

    Re stereotyping: yes, very much in agreement. Words like “sexism” and “misogyny” are emotionally laden. They should not be avoided for that reason, but we need to be careful to use them to describe and illuminate, not to dismiss.

  5. On issues of the siladhara community, I just want to point to some interesting links over at the Women & FS page.

    1) Reflections from Ajahn Candasiri: http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=153235999615&topic=15690
    This is the first public statement from Aj. Candasiri of which I’m aware.

    2) Nuns ordaining nuns:

    http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=153235999615&topic=15679

    Following on from Bh. Sujato’s comments above.

    3) Norman Fischer, on the history of introducing chanting of the female lineage in Soto Zen.

    http://west-wight-sangha.blogspot.com/2010/11/female-lineage-in-zen.html

    Most interesting to me was this sentence in par 2: “But never before had it occurred to me that the chanting of this all-male lineage could cause someone actual pain.” This is from one of the most pro-feminist male Buddhist teachers we have. To me, it points to the blindness that privilege creates.

    4) Last but not least, “Supporting the Forest Sangha inspite of the 5 points….”

    http://www.facebook.com/topic.php?uid=153235999615&topic=15554

    I would characterize this as a call for the critics of FS leadership to be more understanding, and responses to that call. Most interesting to me is Tony’s comment: “my hope is that for all the undoubted pain and loss the nuns community has suffered, in twenty years time this will be seen as an awful period, but one from which the nuns community has both survived and been strengthened in their practice.” And Thanissara’s forthright response: “I think in 20 years we will see the pattern we are living through now – repeated,” and her explanation why (this is near the end of page one).

    Thanissara, if you’re reading this, thank you once again for your clarity and courage. I should be writing this on facebook, sorry, but haven’t overcome my facebook phobia yet. Shortly before I read your comment, I was wondering how willing monks, nuns, or laity in the FS tradition would be to consider the possibility that there might actually be nothing unique or complex or special about this situation at all. That the appeal to tradition, as you say, is somewhat disingenuous and that this is none other than the standard, customary, and in some ways boring unfolding of the kind of power dynamics that play out everywhere. Endlessly reinvented, maybe, but when unclothed of any pretensions (spiritual, traditional, cultural) looking just like the other power struggles. Just, what if?

  6. Hi Jackie,

    What if, indeed. I couldn’t agree more: despite everything, in the final analysis it’s really just the same old same old. Enough for dispassion, turning away, freedom…

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