Sensing Disability in Buddhism

Dear friends,

Please see below the upcoming forum regarding Buddhism and disabilities. If you are in Sydney, take the chance to go along and learn something about the relation between Buddhism and disability.

Sensing Disability in Buddhism: A Reading Against the Grain

Australasian Association of Buddhist Studies Seminar Series
Tuesday, 27 August 2013
5.30pm – 7.00pm
N208, Woolley Building, University of Sydney.

Popular Buddhist narratives and iconography abounds with images of bad physicians who become blind or disfigured monks, lepers who put the Buddha in trouble, menstruating nuns who shame the Sangha and a perfect Tathāgatha who embodies the 32 marks of moral perfection. “Dwarf” Arahants, overworked doctors, Vedic notions of pollution and Buddha’s chronic illnesses are often left out of the picture. This presentation will explore themes surrounding constitutional, legal and normative paradigms of inclusion and exclusion embodied in and enforced by Buddhist hermeneutics of the body, karmic multi-life commentaries and hegemonic readings of the Vinaya.

In the first section of my presentation, I will discuss the ideal of moral or virtuous bodies in Buddhism, including the Buddha’s body. It will present contradictions and disruptions in selected Karmic multi-life narratives in the Dhammapada Atthakatha and Thera Apadana. These inter-textual inconsistencies will be contrasted with Buddhist concepts of inter-subjectivity and multi-conditional embodiment in Suttas like Sukkamala Sutta, Upajjhatthana Sutta, Sivaka Sutta and Girimananda Sutta. This section also explores how resorting to explanatory frameworks of multi-life karmic causality to understand exceptional bodies and events can lead to karmic social hierarchies and marginality. This has significant implications for Buddhist ethics in contemporary society.

In the second half of my presentation, I will examine codes relating to bodies “out of order” in the Vinaya; particularly Mahavagga 1.39 – Mahavagga 1.71 and its attendant commentaries and sub-commentaries. I will shed light on how textual modalities of differentiation, notification, prioritization and ranking are adopted to create an elusive monastic ideal of embodied virtue in relation to exterior embodiments (‘deformed’, criminal, female, intersex etc.) which are negated or granted provisional subjectivity. Drawing on narratives of a “dwarf” Arahant, a serial killer and celebrity monks on youtube, this presentation will highlight how such provisional subjectivity both affirms and disrupts karmic and monastic normative ideals.


Niuka Gunawardena is a Doctoral candidate at the Law School at Griffith University. She has a long standing commitment to Disability rights and Dhamma practice. She has been working on a campaign to make all major Buddhist religious sites of worship in Sri Lanka accessible for all. The recent pledge to provide ramp access to Ruvanveliseya in Anuradhapura was a major collective achievement in this regard. She is also a passionate educator and has worked in secondary schools in USA and Sri Lanka. She is dedicated to helping children understand disability, diversity and marginality in a framework of compassionate, inter-subjective Buddhist Ethics.


6 thoughts on “Sensing Disability in Buddhism

  1. A little bit of a trip for me, but this is a compelling abstract. Is there any chance it will be recorded? I can send a video camera, if necessary 😉

  2. Simply teaching the experts how to care (only ever met one or two people who can achieve this rare quality ) and accept and not judge would be good too.

  3. Wonderful news! I met Niluka in Hamburg in June. Wonderful insights and such an important contribution to a much neglected field! Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu!

  4. From all accounts apparently, while the those with disabilities I am told are like like pussy cats, the area in general, having been neglected as you say, may have other included other interests and be more like a sleeping tiger than a pussy cat; ie an area that should be approached with caution if woken, at least in the West.

    Congratualions on you work in this area

  5. Okay, I’m a little behind on the blog, but can’t not comment on this abstract. I heard once that at Spirit Rock, in all their efforts to address prejudice and all the -isms with sensitivity training and non-gendered bathrooms, by far, by far the most difficult issue to address was people’s bias around disability. Why would that be? Now that I’m a caregiver for a partner in a wheelchair, I’ve begun to understand how deeply problematic the issue is in society generally. Virtuous and unvirtuous bodies, indeed. It’s phenomenal how perfectly intelligent and educated people can say the most irrational, stupid, and insensitive things–as far as I can guess because of an inability to put themselves in the shoes of someone with a disability or an extreme discomfort with acknowledging their own privilege. And apart from disability, I’ve experienced that people with illness or injury don’t necessarily fare better in Buddhist milieus than elsewhere, thanks to the “karmic social hierarchies and marginality” the author mentions. The inconsistencies in Buddhism are not just inter-textual, they are deeply cultural.

    • Hi Jackie,

      Thanks for this. It is an area we should be looking into more carefully; like all questions of prejudice and discrimination, it raises issues about what it really means to be fully human.

      There is some good news in Australia. A the Human Rights conference I attended aearlier in the year, most people seemed happy with the launching of DisabilityCare Australia. So that’s something!

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