Does feminism have a role in Buddhism?

 This is a paper I wrote for my feminist theory class about whether or not Western feminists should judge other cultures. It's long and has big words in it. 

Phantom Imaginings of the Hegemonized: The Problem of Renunciation in the Study of Buddhist Women

We would sleep on the floor on futons laid out side-by-side, so close that if we rolled over in our sleep we would end up touching the nun sleeping next to us. I remember waking up once and seeing Senju-san beside me, her shaved head pressed against her own futon as she prostrated. Before sleeping and getting out of bed we were instructed to do three full bows, starting in standing and then lowering down to touch our foreheads to the floor. 
I remember seeing her and how even in the darkness, some light reflected off her white kimono and onto her bald head.  In the convent, we were all supposed to wear white kimono to sleep, but only Senju-san and a few other nuns did this. The rest of us wore pajamas, because they were easier and more comfortable. Not all of us bowed before bed, either, because there was no one to enforce these rules anymore.
In Sōto Zen Buddhism there is a saying, “As long as bowing lasts, Buddhism will last. When bowing ceases, Buddhism is destroyed.” What this means is that the act of bowing—the symbolic and literal lowering of yourself before another—is at the heart of Buddhist practice. I remember watching Senju-san bowing next to me and thinking it was very beautiful and very sad. She seemed resigned to this fate of bowing, of choicelessness, bowing out of obligation even though no one was enforcing it. But there was some beauty, too— the simplicity of her bow, the generosity of it, how her head shone even in the dark.

In 1987, a group of Buddhist women founded the organization Sakyadhita, which means “Daughters of the Buddha” in Sanskrit. According to their current website, the stated goal of this organization is to “promote world peace through the creation of a network of communications among Buddhist women throughout the world, to work for gender equity in Buddhism, [and] improved well-being of women in developing countries.”[i]
Most sources seem to agree that the creation of Sakyadhita came about at the urging of Sri Lankan, Thai, German, and American nuns, and in fact, their website explicitly lists the identities and nationalities of their founders. The website further states that Sakyadhita “evolved naturally out of the dialogue, forums, and fellowship experienced by the women who attended the first International Conference of Buddhist Women held in Bodhgaya, India, in 1987.” While we have no reason to doubt that the organization was formed through the efforts of both Western and Asian women, it is relevant to note that their main website is written in English, and that the current president of Sakyadhita, Tenzin Palmo, is a white British nun. In other words, while the organization is explicitly an “international” organization with a name indicating a global sisterhood of “daughters of the Buddha,” Western woman are still the most visible, and potentially, the most influential bureaucratically within the organization.
Much of Sakyadhita’s work in the last thirty years has been centered around organizing the revival of full ordination for women in the Theravaden countries of Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Burma; full ordination already occurs for men in these countries, and for women in the mainly Mahayana-practicing countries of Taiwan, China, and South Korea (Japanese nuns are somewhat uninvolved in the debate, since both male and female clergy in the Sōto Zen tradition take only sixteen precepts). For Theravaden as well as Mahayana Buddhists, having access to “full ordination,” roughly speaking, means the ability to receive 311 precepts, rather than eight, or ten, as observed by mai chi Buddhist women in Thailand[ii] or the dasa sil mata in Sri Lanka. In this writing I use the word “nun” to refer to both fully ordained “bhikkhuni” and to ordained women like Japanese 尼僧nisou (nuns) who receive fewer precepts, but still identify as ordained clergy and live celibate lives, at least ideally.
Sakyadhita’s stated intention to revitalize bhikkhuni ordination, or full ordination for women, in countries like Burma and Sri Lanka where the tradition has died out, as well as other highly visible and deliberately confrontational activism on the part of Buddhist nuns, has attracted both international praise and criticism. Due to monastic regulations, an ordination of a new bhikkhuni must include both previously ordained male and female monastics, but since there were no bhikkhuni in South Asia, revitalizing the tradition has only been possible through involving fully ordained bhikkhuni from Korea and Taiwan, i.e nuns who are unequivocally Buddhist, yet from a different lineage and tradition. In other words, the question of “equal rights” for women—and its backlash— has become explicitly and necessarily international.
An easy read of the push for full ordination is that full ordination is important to Buddhist women for both spiritual and material reasons. Karma Lekse Tsomo argues, “To exclude women from full membership in the sangha—regarded as the best channel for realizing the fruits of the Buddhist path—is to deprive women of the optimum circumstances for becoming free from suffering.”[iii]  Here, access to full ordination is linked not only to the “equity” (as in the title of her chapter, “Gender Equity and Human Rights”) but with spiritual transcendence, religious vocation, and “becoming free.” Similarly, Dhammanda Bikkhuni, the first fully ordained woman in Thailand, also links ordination to spiritual freedom and release from suffering: “The Buddha said very clearly that to live the life of the monks and nuns is a shortcut because you lesson your worldly burden.” Before receiving full ordination, she says, “I had to serve the monks all the time. My mind wasn’t free to do my meditation practice-I had to stay in the kitchen and work as a maid. Now that I’m ordained, I feel more free.”[iv] Although Dhammanda speaks of the psycho-spiritual “freedom” that comes from meditation, access to this non-material freedom comes through material—in this particular instance, from having time and space to meditate because she is not serving men.  Spiritual freedom is achieved materially—through physical separation, leisure time, and access to resources.
Thus it is thus more accurate to say that full ordination has both spiritual and material consequences for women—that the two are inextricably linked. Emma Tomlin notes that in Thailand, where ordination for women is not recognized:

Although the Ministry of the Interior defines the mae chi as a “skilled ordinand” (candidate for ordination who has renounced worldly concerns) and does not consider them (as with monks) to be eligible to vote, both the Department of Religion and the Ministry of Communications treat them as lay women. Thus, the Department of Religion underwrites education for monks and novices but not for mae chis, and the Ministry of Communications grants travel subsidies to monks but not to mae chis.[v]

Despite the vocal opposition to reform of traditional Buddhist doctrine and practice, many nuns in Burma, Thailand, and Taiwan are active in or lead bikkhuni ordination reform movements and activist interventions. In 1996, Korean monks and nuns carried out an ordination for 10 Sri Lankan dasa silmatas (ten precept nuns), and several others have occurred since then, spearheaded by Western nuns but also those from Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan. In February 2003, a Burmese nun Ma Thissawady received full ordination in Sri Lanka and then returned home to Burma, where her ordination was not accepted. When the Buremese sangha authorities demanded she change out of her Sri Lankan robes, she infamously started to “undress in front of senior monks.” Consequently, she was imprisoned for three months for desecrating a religious space.[vi] Feminist nun Chao-hwei was the first Buddhist clergy to officiate a same sex marriage, and also gained notoriety for publically tearing up a copy of the Eight Special Rules for Women.[vii]
The proliferation of women’s ordinations and the enthusiastic response from the Western media has prompted several feminist academics to question if framing women’s ordinations in terms of human rights and empowerment is the product of liberal, Western bias, with the implication that further encouragement of women’s ordinations is in service of Western colonial impulses. Hiroko Kawanami notes, “Western Buddhist nuns have promoted their own political agenda for equal rights and empowerment for nuns through their active involvement. However, their enthusiasm, based on liberal values in line with those of the tradition of European Enlightenment, is not shared by many Asian Buddhist nuns, whose priorities lie in fulfilling their religious duties and serving the community.”[viii]
Nirmala Salgado also points to a schism between Western feminist and Asian nuns. Despite Western feminists framing of the bhikkhuni revival as a social movement, Salgado argues that, “That idea is a construct of scholars and some practitioners, not of the Sinhalese-speaking nuns.” Referencing G.C Spivak, she notes, “Despite efforts to understand what those nuns themselves say, what they say is often not heard by those who write about them.” The problem, as Salgado argues it, is not with the ordinations per se as the framing of them in language of “universal” norms like “equality,” which imposes Western values onto South Asian women. By framing ordination in universal terms of human rights, empowerment, equality, and freedom, Sri Lankan nuns’ true words, thoughts, and motivations are erased. She recounts an instance of asking a Sri Lankan bhikkhuni whether or not the new ordinations should be considered feminist “(literally ‘woman-ism’). Her immediate response was, ‘We are not women; we are renunciant[s].’” Since Sri Lankan bhikkhuni do not consider themselves women, Salgado argues, they “remain unavailable for facile comparison.”[ix]

The monk who ordained me once told me, “When you speak English you sound rude, like a child. When you speak Japanese you use beautiful language.” I never knew if this was true but I do know there are some things I cannot translate from Japanese into English. There are some things inaccessible to English speakers—for example, the joke younger nuns make when a senior commands something and the young nun responds with acquiescence so exaggeratedly polite it makes everyone laugh. We don’t have these grammatical cases in the English language; if I were to translate the joke directly into English, it would just be “Yes.” But it is a “Yes” laden with context, hierarchical awareness, and personal inflection.
Then there are things I cannot communicate to lay people or non-Buddhists. There are things I cannot translate into words at all, let alone English ones: for example, the way I can tell who cooked breakfast in the monastery that morning and what mood they are in just by the consistency of the rice porridge, how it feels to share a room with four other women, to bathe with them in a communal bath tub, the relief I feel after being angry for days and then giving it up. Monastery life shapes consciousness through physicality more than through words; in Zen, the practice is in how to sit, stand, and hold objects. Sitting on the floor and shaving your head molds your perception and mind. This is why we say, “Practice is enlightenment itself,” and why the founder of the Sōto School invented the compound 身心, or “Body/mind,” to indicate the unity of body and mind. Without the external forms of head-shaving and wearing robes, without the physicality of practice, there is no enlightenment, there is no Buddha, there is no community of monks and nuns. But how can I use words to convey this physicality? How can I explain to you what it feels like to kneel on tatami everyday until my feet have blisters?
Aichi Senmon Nisodo is a training monastery for Sōto Zen nuns in Nagoya, Japan, where I lived and trained for three years in my twenties; I had ordained as a nun a year earlier in Japan, and went to Nisodo because I wanted to practice with all women. I was one of the few foreigners at the convent.
Living and working in close quarters with the same people every day inevitably brought personality clashes. We woke up at 4am to meditate and worked long hours. Arguments and ego-battles were a constant. The abbess told us to be like water, not holding fast to any idea or feeling. “If two people fight,” she said, “This means one of them is like ice. But if both are like water, there is no conflict.”
Over the years I watched my anger swirl about, only it wasn’t hard like ice, it was hot and vaporous like steam, shooting out at unexpected moments. Nothing overtly horrible happened, but the daily, tiny injustices began to wear on me. Eventually the other foreign nuns left and I was the only one. I watched position after position fall to my Japanese peers, and when I complained, there was always some reasoning: my personality, my accent, my language ability, or just coincidence.
“Practice is not about getting what you want,” one older nun told me. “It is about practicing with what you have in front of you. It is about doing the assigned task.”
This advice—both true and silencing—has stayed with me for years. Again and again, I tried to make my anger at injustice go away. I tried to make my ice melt into water. But is it really possible to let go of our most deeply cherished values? I had given up my name, my hair, and my home, but the other things I can’t shed, no matter how hard I try; my pride and sense of righteousness can’t just be meditated away. But I still try.
I remember my mother sending me an article about a bhikkhuni ordination in Northern California while I was still at Aichi Nisodo. The article was filled with words like “joyous” and “historic,” and the photos showed smiling monks, nuns, and laypeople from around the world. I know my mother sent this to me as a way to reach out and connect, but I read it as if I was sitting on the bottom of the ocean listening to someone call down to me from a boat. It was like an echo, just faint sounds. The significance of it didn’t land for me at all. What did this “historic” ordination have to do with anything related to dharma? How in the world would “full ordination” help end suffering? In Japan, nuns took sixteen precepts, but we were still nuns. There was never a lack of opportunity to practice, never a lack of rules and challenges to grapple with; we didn’t need three hundred precepts because we had each other. In the convent we were at war daily, and we knew the most violent wars were not with the state, not with sexist doctrine, not with monks, but with ourselves.

Feminism is primarily concerned with freedom. Saba Mahmood explains, “Feminism… offers both a diagnosis of women’s status across cultures and a prescription for changing the situation of women… Freedom [whether positive or negative] is normative to feminism, as it is to liberalism, and critical scrutiny is applied to those who want to limit women’s freedom rather than those who want to extend it.”[x] However, under the liberal feminist conceptualization of the self, this conceptualization of freedom is narrow and limited because it subscribes to a view of power/submission and objective/subjective in a binary. Feminism, she argues, far too often “locate[s] agency within those operations that resist the dominating and subjectivating modes of power... the normative political subject of postructuralist feminist theory often remains a liberatory one, whose agency is conceptualized on the binary model of subordination and subversion.” Under postrcuturalist reasoning, “agency” and “freedom” are constituted by relations of power, not independent from them; in more rationalist articulations of feminism, agency is an individual expression of a distinct self, and thus submission is diametrically opposed to liberation.
Mahmood argues that such a conception of agency creates a binary. The problem of this “binary model of subordination” becomes apparent when examining the lives and activities of religious women, especially those in the global south, where women often voluntarily engage in religious activity that appears to constrict women’s agency. How, then, should feminist writing and activism respond to women whose articulation of agency and freedom do not fall within these rationalist binaries? For, “What may appear to be a case of deplorable passivity and docility from a progressivist point of view,” Mahmood suggests, “May actually be a form of agency.”
Social scientists who write of women’s voluntary “submission” to patriarchal norms are quick to attribute external expression of traditionally feminine religious piety (such as wearing the veil) in terms of physical safety and resistance to Western hegemony. While Mahmood agrees that resistance to colonialism is indeed a motivation for the revival of the veil wearing in Egypt, she argues that Western feminist theorists and social scientists are incapable of fully confronting the reality of piety, morality, and religious devotion: “Analysts often explain the motivations of veiled women in terms of standard models of sociological causality (such as social protest, economic necessity, anomie, or utilitarian strategy), while terms like morality, divinity, and virtue are accorded the status of the phantom imaginings of the hegemonized.” To avoid the blindness that the binary view of submission/agency brings to feminist analysis, Mahmood argues for “uncoupling the analytical notion of agency from the politically prescriptive project of feminism.”
Applying Mahmood’s call to “uncoupl[e] the notions of self-realization from that of the autonomous will,” Nirmala Salgado argues that liberal feminist and Buddhist scholarship mischaracterizes Sri Lankan nuns by undervaluing and misinterpreting their religious devotion. Feminist language on the bhikkhuni revival in South Asia thus fails to account for nuns’ devotion and the centrality of renunciation in Buddhist a practice. Furthermore, she argues that their “empowerment” (usually thought to be “the ability or power required for a purpose or task”) is paradoxically constituted in the very act of renouncing power: “Nuns, contrary to waging a struggle to overcome opposition and seeking a victory over those who challenging them… engage in certain activities in order to maintain their existing renunciation practices… Nuns use tactics that lack a panoptic vision and overall strategic planning… their actions, which are congruent with their capacity to lead renunciant lives, constitute a certain mode of authority.”[xi]
Salgado’s observation about the focus and priorities of Sri Lankan nuns’ lives is important and compelling. For, if Mahmood is correct that liberal feminist politics is confined to a binary of submission and power, we have severely limited the ways we can view, hear, and conceptualize resistance and liberation, especially (but not only) in our analysis of religious women. However, Salgado’s arguments suffer from overgeneralization, and, in her attempt to speak for the perceived colonized subject she reduces Sri Lankan nuns to an oddly essentialized and oversimplified idea of nunhood. Is it true that nuns “lack a panoptic vision and overall strategic planning”? Just because they enact non-Western identities of religious devotion, does this necessarily preclude their ability to think critically, plan strategically, and yes, even to desire equality? Why are these things solely the domain and prerogative of Western women and non-Western men? And how shall we conceive of the South Asian nuns who explicitly and vehemently petition for doctrinal reform?
While it does seem that Salgado’s aim is to challenge and reframe primarily the language and a priori assumptions of liberal feminist scholarship on religious women in Asia (rather than explicitly end movements for full ordination or doctrinal reform), her argument is part of a larger, problematic pattern within postcolonial feminist theory. Chandra Mohanty, reflecting on her seminal essay “Under Western Eyes,” notes that current feminist scholarship and pedagogy often cycles through three stages when responding to the problem of globalization and the legacy of colonialism in gender studies. The first stage of the “feminist as tourist” can be characterized as the “white women’s burden or colonial discourse’ model.”[xii] This mode of pedagogy emphasizes the injustices and oppressions experienced by Third World women. The second stage, the “feminist-as-explorer” model, involves a more “international” curriculum in which “local and the global are both defined as non-Euro-American.” In this mode of pedagogy, however:
The story told is usually a cultural relativist one, meaning that differences between cultures are discrete and relative with no real connection or common basis for evaluation. The local and global are here collapsed into the international that by definition excludes the United States. If the dominant discourse is the discourse of cultural relativism, questions of power, agency, justice and common criteria for critique and evaluation are silenced.[xiii]

Mohanty suggests that in the final mode of feminist pedagogy, “students potentially move away from ‘add and stir; and the relativist ‘separate but equal’ (or different) perspective to the co-implication/solidarity one.” She suggests that such solidarity involves “understanding the historical and experiential specificities and differences of women’s lives as well as the historical and experiential connections between women from different national, racial and cultural communities.” It is interesting and important to note here that she stresses both specificity and an understanding of commonality.
            Uma Narayan also speaks of this tendency in postcolonial feminism, in the service of decolonization, to silence discourse on equality and enter a realm in which comparison and evaluation are impossible. She writes, “Refusing to judge issues affecting Third-World communities is often a facile and problematic attempt to compensate for a history of misjudgment. Such refusals can become simply one more Western gesture that confirms the moral inequality of Third-World cultures by shielding them from the moral and political evaluations that ‘Western’ contexts and practices are subject to.”[xiv]  In other words, fear and guilt at historical inequality becomes counterproductive and can in fact contribute to inequality. She continues, “the commitment ‘not to judge’ Other cultures seem in effect to be a commitment ‘not to express one’s judgments’—which only serves to insulate these unexpressed judgments from challenges, corrections, or interrogations they might profit from.” She questions privileging the experience and insights of “insiders” and, in the context of standpoint theory, she argues that “the thesis that oppression may bestow an epistemic advantage should not tempt us in the direction of idealizing or romanticizing oppression and blind us to its real and material psychic deprivations.”[xv]

            In Japan there is a proverb, “When you are young, you should buy a lot of suffering.” This proverb expresses—presumably—a cultural value of the benefit of suffering, a Japanese version of “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” An older nun told me this proverb when I complained about having too much work. Later, I heard a Japanese nun joke about the proverb: “At Aichi Nisodo, we can get suffering for free!”
Japanese nuns certainly romanticize suffering. Or perhaps “romanticize” is the wrong word; they use it. In Zen there is a phrase, “A monk’s mouth is like an oven.” This phrase is used to explain how monks eat everything they are given, but it also implies that all experiences in life, all the anger and confusion, is to be accepted and digested. After years of living in Japan as a nun, this is perhaps the most important thing I have learned: that everything can be used, all suffering (even the suffering of inequality, of being an outsider) can be digested and transformed into energy.
And yet, it is one thing to personally use suffering, and another thing to impose this view of suffering on others, especially when the person is suffering because of racism or structural inequality. It is not fair to say to others, “Your complaints about inequality will not relieve suffering.” Dharma can be a weapon we wield to silence those we do not want to hear. Monastic communities can enable abuse under the guise of spiritual training.
            Political action involves changing the external, material circumstances of the world; Buddhist doctrine teaches us that contentment comes from relinquishing our attachment to the external world. Feminist thinkers warn us against both the extremes of privileged judging, and cultural relativism. There is a contradiction that cannot be reconciled, and this is partly because none of us know how to end suffering. Even those of us who are professional thinkers, academics, meditators, preachers: none of us are free. Whether agency is a produced by the operations of power or independent of it, we are still not free. Not yet.

            “On what basis can (Western) feminists claim that their cross-cultural judgments are not merely the expression of subjective or ethnocentric preferences?” This is the question guiding Linda Zerilli’s essay “Towards a Feminist Theory of Judgment.” She argues that we can and must judge other cultures, but from particular circumstances, not universal concepts, for the “real threat of nihilism” is not an inability to make judgment or the loss of standards, but the “refusal to accept the consequences of that loss.” Drawing on Hannah Arendt’s work, she points out that “the act of mere subsumption that is at stake in a determinative judgment, though far from easy, is not fully reflective and critical, for it mobilizes particulars to confirm the generality of concepts. Lost is the particularity of the particular itself, the “this” that refers to this war and to no other.” Like Narayan, she questions privileging the  “authentic insider” and whether suspending judgment is really in the service of equity or if this is an unwillingness to expose our judgments to scrutiny: “if rationalism is an illusion, it is equally illusory to think that every attempt to understand and judge other cultures must be from a ‘native’ perspective.”[xvi]
Her solution—and Arendt’s—is that we must train ourselves to confront strangeness, rather than instinctually turning away from it. She quotes Arendt’s Past and Future, which says, “This is a question neither of empathy, as though I tried to be or to feel like somebody else, nor of counting noses and joining a majority but of being and thinking in my own identity where actually I am not.” Zerilli suggests that we should judge from the position of outsider which necessarily recognizes the distinctness and separateness of other people and cultures, even as we are aware of our selves: “Judging involves neither becoming identical with you, nor for that matter with myself, but ‘thinking in my own identity where actually I am not.’ One is in this way, then, always situated in relation to the objects of judgment but also outside them in some very important sense, and this puts one in a potentially critical relation to oneself and one’s own criteria of judgment.”[xvii] 
When dealing with the problem of cultural relativism in postcolonial feminist theory, Zerilli, Mahmood, and Mohanty arrive at similar conclusions, albeit expressed in different ways. As seen above, Zerilli encourages us to see that “Outsideness works both ways: just as we raise questions for a foreign culture (or people) that it does not raise for itself, so that foreign culture (or people) raises questions for us—if we allow it to do so” (314). Mohanty suggests that a balanced feminist theory in a transnational perspective would stress both the particular/cultural and our commonality: “differences and commonalities thus exist in relation and tension with each other in all contexts. What is emphasized are relations of mutuality, co-responsibility, and common interests, anchoring the idea of feminist solidarity… it is important to always foreground not just the connections of domination but those of struggle and resistance as well.”[xviii] (458). Interestingly, Mahmood enjoins us to become accustomed to and changed by the “repugnance” of dealing with cultural values dissimilar from our own. She reflects on her experience studying the Islamic piety movement among Egyptian women:
Critique, I believe is most powerful when it leaves open the possibility that we might also be remade in the process of engaging another’s worldview, that we might come to learn things that we did not already know before we undertook the engagement. This requires that we occasionally turn the critical gaze upon ourselves, to leave open the possibility that we may be remade through an encounter with the other. It is in light of this expanded notion of critique that, during the course of my fieldwork, I was forced to question the repugnance that often swelled up inside me against the practices of the mosque movement, especially those that seemed to circumscribe women’s subordinate status within Egyptian society.[xix]

            Like Zerelli, she suggests being “remade” by the encounter with another, and that our own feelings of “repugnance” can be used to further or critical skills, since they shine the light back on ourselves. Where does this leave us, then, in an analysis of Buddhist women in Asia? If we are to be transformed by our separateness and harness this for critical judgment, then this means the capacity to fully confront the legacy of colonialism in international Buddhism while also responding in solidarity to women’s request for equity. It means both entertaining the possibility that the Buddha’s words were literally true, that suffering is caused by desire and attachment to external circumstances, even as we recognize injustice and support doctrinal reform. For it is not enough to simply say we cannot judge Buddhist doctrine because it comes from another country and culture, especially when so many women in South Asia see reason for amending it; we have a responsibility to respond to the demands and complaints of South Asian nuns in the face of structural inequality. We should critically examine the position that South Asian women are so fully foreign to us that we cannot judge, even while allowing for the possibility that some nuns do not view themselves as women or feminists.
            Both Zerilli and Mahmood suggest the importance of being “remade” in our criticism, which implies listening to foreign cultures and being transformed by them (to be precise, Mahmood suggests being “remade” while Zerilli points out that “the encounter with others… raise(s) questions about our own norms.”). The study of Buddhism in both South and East Asia, with its emphasis on humility and interconnectedness, has potential for great contribution to feminist scholarship. As Leela Fernandez notes, “What feminist pedagogy needs most is an ethic of humility—one that teaches students that they in fact cannot find all the answers purely through voice and self-expression, that learning requires suspending self-centered desires and developing an interest in worlds that matter on their own terms."[xx] The words and beliefs of Buddhist nuns can add much to our “ethic of humility.”
And yet, we must be aware that being “remade in the process of engaging another’s worldview” is in fact a great privilege. To travel outside the boundary of our culture and ourselves, to be undone and remade by strangeness is a great privilege.
It is also necessary. 

            There is part of me that could never be a good nun. I like good old American freedom too much—wearing what I want and saying what I want. And yet part of me is still a nun, because I long for silence and devotion, because I shave my head, because I keep coming back to community and Buddhist teachings. I know now that nuns are people—we are filled with devotion, piety, and sacrifice, but also lust, anger, jealousy, and delusion. And while it may be true that culture and place condition and frame the way we respond to anger and express it, we all feel it; in Japan, there is a very specific way people are taught to express anger, but of course they feel anger too. There is a line in a famous Buddhist sutra that says, “The particular and universal fit together like a box and its lid.” There needs to be some middle way.
            After three years at Aichi Nisodo I left to go to study Japanese at Nanzan University in Nagoya, and then applied to graduate school in the United States. The abbess at Nisodo had always encouraged me to study, and it is because of her encouragement that I find myself, oddly enough, dipping my toe into the waters of academia.
            A few months ago I attended a screening of a film called the Politics of Fragility, followed by a Q&A with the screenwriter Lata Mani, the feminist and cultural critic. The film struck me as very spiritual, even as it was ostensibly about “politics.” Afterwards, I shared with her that I found a contradiction between feminism and spirituality—that Buddhism instructs us to accept the present moment, while feminism encourages us to change it. She suggested that the more deeply and more fully we engage in political work, the closer this will bring us to spirituality; at the same time, if we truly engage in spiritual practice, this will necessarily raise political questions about poverty, racism, and inequality.
This is my wish, too—that both projects “remake” each other.

Works Cited

[ii] Tomalin, Emma. "Buddhist Feminist Transnational Networks, Female Ordination and Women's Empowerment." Oxford Development Studies, 2009, 90.
[iii] Tsomo, Karma Lekse, “Gender Equity and Human Rights,” Dignity and Discipline: Reviving Full Ordination for Buddhist Nuns. Wisdom Publications, 2010, 286.
[iv] Barendsen, Kristin. “Ordained at Last,” Lion’s Roar Magazine, 2003.
[v] Tomalin, 84.
[vi] Kawanami, Hiroko, “The Bhikkhuni Ordination Debate: Global Aspirations, Local
Concerns, with special emphasis on the view of the monastic community in Burma.” Buddhist Studies Review, 2007, 227.
[vii] Chen, Chiung Hwang. “Feminist Debate in Taiwan’s Buddhism: the issue of the Eight Garadhummas.” Journal of Feminist Scholarship, 2011.
[viii] Hiroko Kawanami, “The Bhikkhuni Ordination Debate: Global Aspirations, Local
Concerns, with special emphasis on the view of the monastic community in Burma.” Buddhist Studies Review, 2007, 242.
[ix] Salgado, Nirmala, Buddhist Nuns and Gendered Practice. Oxford University Press, 2013.
[x] Mahmood, Saba, The Politics of Piety. Princeton University Press, 2005, 10.
[xi] Salgado, 193
[xii] Mohanty, Chandra. “’Under Western Eyes’ Revisited.” Feminist Theory Reader: Local and Global Perspectives. Routledge, 2010, 455.
[xiii] Mohanty, Chandra, 455.
[xiv] Narayan, Uma. Dislocating Cultures: Identities, Traditions, and Third-World Feminism. New York: Routledge, 1999, 150.
[xv] Narayan, Uma, “The Project of Feminist Epistemology: Perspectives from a Nonwestern Feminist.” Feminist Theory Reader. Routledge, 2010, 340.
[xvi] Zerilli, Linda, “Towards a Feminist Theory of Judgement.” Signs, 2009.
[xvii]Zerilli, 314.
[xviii] Mohanty, 458.
[xix] Mahmood, 36-7.
[xx] Fernandez, Leela. Transnational Feminism in the United States: Knowledge, Ethics, Power. New York University Press, 2013.


  1. Thanks for sharing this, Gesshin. As an American Zen nun who also practiced in Japan, but not at the nisodo, it's fascinating to hear about your experience. For me, the crux of the matter is the motivation each woman has when making choices about how to deal with the social and institutional situations they face. That is, when we engage in observing and critiquing, we can only do so skillfully from the place of having enough intimacy to observe intention and action together. Then we can say, this action is a sign of oppression or of expression or of something else.

    As for the bowing, I remember a German lay woman getting angry with me because I bowed at a place where the custom had fallen away. She felt it was just adding more difficulty to the way of life at the monastery. For me, it was really important to keep bowing to recall my intention to cultivate humility and to express my gratitude for the opportunity to be there, but I saw her point. I risked "raising the bar" for everyone for my personal reasons. That would not be skillful.

    Bowing and bowing, K.

  2. Hi Mrs. Greenwood,

    I'm the admin of the Italian blogzine Lokanātha (, in which I offer Italian translations of essays about Buddhism and other related subjects. I've been reading your blog since almost the beginning and I would be pleased if you let me translate this essay for my site. It would appear starting from September (since I have some schedule before then) and the work would be, of course, at your complete disposal once it's finished.

    Thanks for considering my request and keep up the good work. Have a nice week.


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