The Power of Denial
Buddhism, Purity and Gender
Author: Bernard Faure
Princeton University Press 2003, $27.50/£17 p/b
Some time ago I was contacted by a female artist and practising Buddhist who sought my advice about making contact with similar female artists in Japan. Apparently a government scheme in Britain seeks to develop women's participation in the arts by enabling Britons to 'swap' their lives with artists in other countries for a month. She asked if I knew any specifically Buddhist women. artists in Japan who might be interested in taking part. This caused me to think about what westerners understand by both 'artists' and 'Buddhism' and how these terms do not map onto Japan.
In Japan traditional arts, such as calligraphy, ink painting, pottery and flower-arranging are organised into schools that are very patriarchal in nature. Although many women practise these arts with accomplishment, the most senior teachers are male, and the manner of the teaching is extremely hierarchical and formalistic - quite unlike the notions of spontaneity and self-expression that westerners associate with art. While these art forms have had a long association with Buddhism and many famous practitioners have been Buddhist priests, it would be unusual for a woman to pursue them as a form of Buddhist practice. Calligraphy and flower-arranging in particular are viewed as 'feminine' accomplishments undertaken as part of bridal training in the wifely virtues of self-discipline, attention to detail and meticulousness.
Japan also has a vibrant avant-garde tradition that includes many female artists. Yet such artists are unlikely to identify with Buddhism since it is so associated with the patriarchal institutions and belief systems against which their art is reacting. So, despite being a nominally Buddhist country, it would be unusual to find a female Japanese artist who drew upon Buddhism for inspiration, as opposed to an object for critique. Bernard Faure's new book offers us an explanation of why Japanese women, particularly those of a more radical disposition, are unlikely to turn to Buddhism for inspiration in either life or art.
The Power of Denial, the second volume in Faure's exploration of sexuality and gender in Japanese Buddhism, takes as its theme the place of women in medieval Buddhist society, institutions and the arts. He claims the issues involved in understanding the feminine in Japanese Buddhism are of 'staggering complexity'. In addition to a wealth of information, Faure offers a 'heuristic' approach to this material - one that opens up diverse interpretations as opposed to searching for fixed answers. So, although Faure asserts that Japanese Buddhism (like other clerical productions) has been 'relentlessly misogynistic', he also argues that it is 'open to multiplicity and contradiction'.
Faure finds fault with much previous scholarship on the topic, mostly by Buddhist women, which he believes is characterised by methodological naïveté. For example, he suggests feminist readings of Buddhist texts that attempt to reread them in terms of a characteristically modern discourse of 'gender equality' fall foul of three errors. Firstly, they are symptomatic of 'wishful thinking' since the texts are read through 'one single code'. Secondly, they risk falling into ventriloquism since modern women are speaking for their largely silent historical sisters. And thirdly, they are frequently lacking in socio-historical context. To counter these tendencies, Faure offers a wealth of detail and a complexity of analysis that make this book difficult for the general reader to approach - and even harder to sum up in a short review.
Faure argues that the reticence of the historical Buddha when faced with women's request for ordination, and the additional 'Eight Strict Rules' he imposed upon them, 'requir[ing] the nuns' subordination to monks in all matters', suggests that 'the Buddhist sangha has been suspicious about nuns, and women in general'. By making even the senior-most nun socially subordinate to the most junior monk, Faure sees the Eight Rules as having struck a debilitating blow to the status and prestige of the women's order from which it has never recovered. Although the Buddha was progressive in his day - even radical in his critique of family life and attack on the caste system - why, asks Faure, did he follow social mores more closely than necessary as regards the status of women?
While accepting that even very early Buddhism was sexist might seem 'sacrilegious' to many, Faure argues that scholars who view Buddhism as gender-equal are 'promoting an idealised and normative vision of Buddhism'. Faure argues that sexist discourse in Buddhism is a systemic fault-line running throughout the tradition - liable to cause precipitous slides in the status of women in different Buddhist societies at different times. For instance, he looks at the prominence of the 'Five Obstacles' in Japanese Buddhist thought. Dating back to the Vinaya (the monastic code) the Five Obstacles state that five types of rebirth are beyond the scope of women: rebirth as the god Brahma, as the god Sakra, as Mara, as a universal monarch and, most significantly, as a Buddha. He sees the origin of this list as a 'technical or juridical restriction' arising from the rules subordinating women to men within the sangha, but points out how within Japanese Buddhism they were interpreted as having a 'moral and ontological inferiority' deriving from women's impurity - since rebirth as a woman resulted from bad karma.
For Faure, one of the most troubling aspects of this teaching was its use to support native notions of women's innate defilement due to blood contamination (both menstrual and at childbirth), which meant that even within the Soto school of Zen women 'cannot ascend the ordination platform without committing an offence'. Not only did the Five Obstacles provide monks with canonical backing for the subjugation of women, but women who had 'little leisure for skepticism', through interiorising this teaching, came to regard themselves as at best spiritually disadvantaged and at worst innately impure.
Women's karmic defilement meant that they could not enter Buddhism's most sacred sites (referred to as nyonin kekkai or 'exclusion of women'). Faure notes a conspicuous lack of opposition to these notions from within the Buddhist establishment 'despite the availability of [other] symbolism that could have been used to [women's] advantage', and concludes, perhaps rather bleakly, that in this instance 'Buddhist soteriology is based on male superiority, exploiting female fears, more than on compassion'. His reasons for making this claim are too detailed to recapitulate, but the texts he analyses are so numerous, their misogyny so relentless and the worldview they espouse so alien to current sensibilities that a modern, particularly western, Buddhist is faced with a similar dilemma to that of Albert Schweitzer, the pioneering Biblical scholar, who was unable to find in early Christianity anything approximating his own 19th-century faith.
Faure argues that the most conspicuous failing of traditional Buddhism from a modern point of view, and consequently the issue that is most likely to alienate westerners, is its failure adequately to theorise gender. Faure points out how the Buddhist male establishment was 'unable or unwilling to distinguish between biological constraints and the arbitrary constraints imposed by society', arguing that in Buddhist thought there really is only one gender - femaleness - since maleness is not considered problematic and not subject to interrogation. While we have numerous examples of male clerics discoursing on the disadvantages of female rebirth, there is no balancing voice from women themselves where maleness is held up to scrutiny or regarded as problematic or 'other'.
Men are viewed within Buddhism as somehow less 'gendered' than women: already, by virtue of their male anatomy, closer to an ideal of androgyny. Unfortunately this notion is not just a relic from Buddhism's past, but has survived into modern times and is expressed even in the context of western Buddhism - as in the developmental progress suggested in the title of a recent book on gender in Buddhism by Subhuti: Women, Men and Angels.
Yet, as Faure also insists, there are fissures in Buddhist misogyny that make it amenable to 'multiplicity and contradiction', particularly the 'subversive' Mahayana notion of 'innate Enlightenment', which 'often offsets androcentric or misogynistic tendencies'. Faure concludes that there is hope for women in Buddhism because the tradition's sexism is always circumscribed. While the male establishment may too seldom have questioned its own privileged perspective, strategies are available within Buddhist discourse for women to challenge male attitudes and speak for themselves. Faure intriguingly suggests such a method. Rather than looking back in an attempt to reform the patriarchal institutions of Buddhism's past and make them more hospitable to women, contemporary female Buddhists might do better to launch an all-out attack on male monasticism and its hierarchical privileging of the mode of Buddhist practice implicit in its worldview.
While Faure's reading of the place of women in Japanese Buddhism may seem bleak, the fact that Buddhism has not so far adequately thought through the implications of gender difference does not mean that this project cannot now be undertaken.
Jnanavira (Mark McLelland) is the author of Male Homosexuality in Modern Japan: Cultural Myths and Social Realities, and co-editor of Japanese Cybercultures, and Genders, Transgenders and Sexualities in Modern Japan.