Women in Buddhist Traditions
A conversation with author Karma Lekshe Tsomo
Sponsored by WATER (Women’s Alliance for Theology, Ethics, and Ritual)
March 8, 2023
Video is located at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l1YNjLdjHKg
We all wish everyone a wonderful International Women’s Day. Here at WATER, every day is International Women’s Day as we appreciate the countless contributions of women around the globe. Let today be simply a time to spread that respect worldwide and turn it into actions for equality and well-being for all.
A special welcome to Karma Lekshe Tsomo whom we will meet in a moment, and a warm welcome for any for whom this is your first time at a WATER program. We delight in your presence and hope you find it worthwhile.
Let us begin with a land acknowledgement: We at WATER are on indigenous land in Silver Spring, Maryland. This is on the traditional and contemporary land of the Piscataway and Anacostan peoples. We acknowledge the trauma and injustice toward indigenous people and other people of color that is deep in U.S. culture and history. We join in efforts to eradicate it and make reparations for the genocide involved. WATER’s work is aimed to bring about social justice. Consider the native people on whose land you sit.
Karma Lekshe Tsomo has an impressive scholarly background with a BA from the University of California in Berkeley in Oriental Languages, and MAs in both Asian Studies and Asian Religions from University of Hawaii. Her doctorate is in Comparative Philosophy from U of Hawaii where she lives currently.
She is a specialist in Buddhist studies who taught at the University of San Diego for more than two decades. She retired from there and is now teaching at the University of Hawaii.
Lekshe is particularly interested in issues related to women in Buddhism, questions of death and dying, Buddhist feminist ethics, Buddhism and bioethics, religion and politics, Buddhist social ethics, and Buddhist transnationalism.
As a scholar activist, Professor Tsomo has promoted the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women and Jamyang Foundation, an innovative education project for women in developing countries, with 15 schools in the Indian Himalayas, Bangladesh, and Laos.
She is a prolific writer. Among her books are Women in Buddhist Traditions which we will explore today; Sisters in Solitude: Two Traditions of Monastic Ethics for Women, and Into the Jaws of Yama, Lord of Death: Buddhism, Bioethics, and Death.
Her esteemed colleague, Professor Jose Cabezon, commented on her book on women in Buddhism saying, “…this book is destined to become the standard introduction to the topic of women in Buddhism.” I think he was right and it is that already.
See the video for slides and commentary on a broad sweep of Buddhist history and practice. Note the background noise is from a raging tropical storm with lots of wind and rain around the place where Lekshe lives which is quite open to the weather.
Professor Tsomo began with the basic story of the birth and life of the Buddha, his miraculous conception, his mother’s unique birthing technique. She described his life in the forest until finally he sat down under a tree until on the 7th day he achieved awakening. His mother died when he was but 7 days old, so he was raised by his aunt who later led a pilgrimage of women across northern India and eventually sought admission to an order.
Buddhism has lay women, lay men, ordained women, and ordained men though full ordination is not recognized in many countries. Professor Tsomo distinguished between northern and southern traditions which differ on whether women can receive full orders: the north saying yes, the south generally not.
She spoke of women as bodhisattvas like Tara in Tibet and Kwan Yin who was represented in male form in India and China until the 12th century then became female for reasons no one is quite sure how to explain.
There was not time to delve into the many expressions of Buddhism in the West, but Chapter 5 of the book details this.
Despite teachings of equality, conditions on the ground, as Professor Tsomo said, do not quite match the ideal. Women’s situations differ by country. So, for example, Sri Lanka has 2000 women fully ordained; China ordains hundreds each year, both women and men. Lekshe was ordained in Korea in 1982. Young women are joining convents in large numbers in the Himalayas as they pursue higher education. The Jamyang group has 12 monasteries for young women.
Professor Tsomo shared many other details too numerous to mention. But the message was clear that Buddhism has had many expressions in many places over 2500 years. Patriarchal social conditions play a large role in how it is shaped and lived out with contemporary women putting their own stamp on it.
Discussion was lively if, as always, too short!
- International Women’s Day is a great time to showcase women’s religious leadership. One trend in Buddhism seems to be away from young people taking on arduous years of study and practice as did many of Lekshe’s generation. On another note, a Sangha in one Canadian city is held in the Convent of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
- Ordination is the sticky wicket for many people, some saying women are not eligible for full ordination, others saying they are. It is not necessary for liberation, but is one path. Likewise, monastic life is not the only route to teaching, and all teachers are not monastics, so variety is a given in Buddhism.
- Celibacy is another issue to consider. It is obligatory for monastics. Some embrace it as a way to fewer constraints, more time for study and meditation. Sexual connection is but one more connection that Buddhists try to move away from over time. But some teachers counsel young people not to make a celibate commitment until they are older. Women often find living in a celibate way easier than do men.
- A New York Ties article entitled ‘Eyes on the Target!’ The Kung Fu Nuns Smash Convention” appeared in print on Feb. 27, 2023 with vivid images of women engaged in martial arts. One nun in Nepal who came from India observed, “Kung Fu helps us to break gender barriers and develop inner confidence.” https://www.nytimes.com/2023/02/26/world/asia/nepal-kung-fu-nuns.html.
- Young women who want to join monasteries get both education and an alternative to other women’s limited life choices. Numbers are increasing in Laos, Cambodia, and Sri Lanka.
This marvelous presentation and conversation were over in a flash. There are so many other issues to be pursued with Professor Tsomo on another occasion, or for our own conversation:
–For example, Buddhism is remarkably complex and yet very simple, deeply grounded in the original texts and yet just as deeply situated in patriarchal cultures. How can it be both?
–How useful is the gender binary going forward for any of our religious efforts to change our traditions?
–Meditation, education, ordination are three key components of a Buddhist person’s embrace of the tradition. Why is it that ordination seems to be the stickiest wicket? Is there a power to it that expertise in meditation, in textual studies, and in Buddhist history, for example, do not confer? Who decides on fitness for ordination?
–Rules for nuns, for example, about not walking alone into the countryside or other rules that seem to restrict women’s options are prevalent. The reason given is so that women would not be raped or otherwise harmed. But it doesn’t make sense: the law ought to be that men not rape and pillage! Do those laws exist as well.
WATER thanks Professor Tsomo for an informative and inspiring hour together. I hope our conversation has just begun and that she finds at WATER another home where her work is valued and she feels a warm welcome.
Let every day be International Women’s Day, and let today be simply a time to spread that respect worldwide and turn it into actions for equality and well-being for all.