The topic which I hope to address in this paper is how the experience of Buddhist nuns is constructed, first and foremost, as a product of gendered pressures historically and in the present moment. What I think that we have the potential to reveal, with this inquiry, is whether and to what extent Buddhist practice with respect to nuns devalues or objectifies them on the basis of their gender. Let me give you an example of what I mean. I recall learning of tantric practices that were reserved for the most learned and prominent monks in Mantrayana (Tantrayana) Buddhism. These tantric practices included sexual intercourse. Notably, although they were reserved for monks who had “sufficiently progressed” so that these skillful means could be useful for them and not a hinderance, there was no such requirement on the part of the nuns; in fact, younger nuns were generally preferred.
There are, as I see it, at least three different ways of looking at this seeming incongruity. We may attempt to tackle it from an emic perspective, in which how the monks and nuns understood their conduct is of paramount importance. We may tackle it from an etic perspective, in which what we believe were the actual motives of the monks and nuns is of paramount importance. And we can also (and this is what I believe is new and valuable about this project) undertake to understand these actions from a doctrinal perspective. By this I mean that we can take advantage of a quality that Buddhism has that many other religious traditions do not have: as a textual tradition, it is full of rich narratives and meta-narratives, and poses many opportunities for productive self-reflective discourse.
These opportunities for self-reflective discourse have been, in the past, considered. At this juncture an analogy seems very appropriate: much like philosophers of present examine, through the lens of critical theory or of post-structuralism or what have you, the philosophical and literary undertakings of previous years, Buddhist commentators have examined, through the lens of their best understanding of Buddhist principles, the undertakings of previous years by previous scholars. So what we are left with, in addition to the emic and etic perspectives, is a doctrinal perspective; that is, a perspective that understands a behavior not as its practitioners would understand it, nor as a complete outsider would understand it, but rather as someone participating in the same textual tradition and with the same basic religiously-constitutive beliefs, would understand it in retrospect.
These three perspectives, taken together, have a potential that I believe goes far beyond the isolated case that I presented a moment ago. I believe that those three perspectives could equally well be applied to the present-day status of buddhist nuns in the sangha. We can explore (and I do want to explore) what the combination of the emic, etic, and doctrinal perspectives reveals about a dynamic that has been, to this point, explored primarily through only the former two viewpoints. The doctrinal point is one that I believe is useful because we can approach Buddhism as if we were critiquing any other textual (non-religious) tradition: here are some texts, and here is a coherence which we can identify in those texts, but this coherence faces a challenge in the form of such-and-such other concern which disrupts the narrative created. Critique of academic disciplines in this manner has historically been fruitful and led to deepened understanding of those disciplines; the endeavor is a good one.
The first question that I want to address is, what is the status of Buddhist nuns? This is the question that I expect to devote the least amount of time to. I expect the answer to be if not simple then at least relatively uncontroversial. I do not intend to exhaustively answer the question, but rather provide a good jumping-off point for the future questions which I will address. After this, I want to address the question of whether doctrinally, this is the status that the Buddhist nun ought to have. I realize that making statements of what religious practice ought to or ought not to be is an untenable position for an outsider, but what I mean is not that I will be making normative theological judgments but rather highlighting discrepancies between the conduct that prominent Buddhist theology appears to dictate and the conduct that is actually practiced. On this perspective, saying “women ought to be x” is just saying “the textual tradition indicates that women ought to be x.” After answering these two questions, I will proceed to the final question: what does the discrepancy between the answers to these two questions, taken together with practitioners’ current understandings of why they act as they do, tell us about the gap between theory and practice in contemporary Buddhism?
What I expect is that this analysis will uncover more questions than it will solve, and I think that this is alright. As I said before, it is a difficult thing to say that an outsider or stranger to a religion is the one to resolve theological disputes within that religion, or even bring theological contradictions into the conversation. What I do hope, though, is that by illuminating the role of female agency as an essentially contested element of embodied religious practice, I will discover some worthwhile areas for future study, such as: how did this gulf in theory and practice develop? To what extent were female voices and agencies active in creating and sustaining this gulf? To what extent are female agencies active today in moderating or remediating this gulf?
This topic hinges on questions of intense personal interest for me. The sangha is more than a community of monks, or even the entire Church, in Christianity — the sangha is one of the “refuges” of Buddhism. Buddhist practitioners take refuge in the sangha, because for them the community of buddhist monks is one of the holiest and most indispensable aspects of their religion. I sincerely wish to learn more about the ways in which practitioners personally understand the sangha to be constructed. I believe that one of the best ways to do that is to examine attitudes towards one aspect of the sangha that is, as it were, on the fringes.