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.