Is Buddha a Couple? Gender-Unitary Perspectives from the Lahu of Southwest China (1)

By Du, Shanshan | Ethnology, Summer 2003 | Go to article overview

Is Buddha a Couple? Gender-Unitary Perspectives from the Lahu of Southwest China (1)


Du, Shanshan, Ethnology


This article explores the dynamic processes by which the Lahu people negotiate Buddhist gender ideologies according to their cosmology of gender unity. It focuses on the contesting gender symbolism embedded in the local images of Buddha as a pair of indigenous supreme gods, a non-Lahu missionary who founded Lahu Buddhism, and three charismatic Lahu monks in history. This study contributes to scholarly inquiries into the complexities and diversity of women's religious status across cultures. (Buddhism, gender, ethnicity, religion, China)

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In recent years, feminism has created a virtual paradigm shift in religious studies (Christ 1987; King 1995:2; Sharma 2000). Yet the issue of women's religious statuses and roles remains more ambiguous and controversial in Buddhism than it is for other world religions (e.g., Joy 1995; Mann and Cheng 2001; Saliba, Allen, and Howard 2002). While some suggest that the core of Buddhist tenets contains egalitarian (Tsomo 1999:35; Ueki 2001) and feminist (Gross 1993) tendencies, others point out the perpetuation of male dominance and patriarchy in Buddhist thought (Cabezon 1985) or even criticize the religion for playing a critical role in women's oppression (Hantrakul 1988; Thitsa 1980). Meanwhile, many scholars recognize the ambiguous and conflicting representations of women and femininity in Buddhist canons and monastic institutions alike, a phenomenon described by a variety of terms, including "androgyny," "institutional androcentrism," "ascetic misogyny," and "soteriological inclusiveness" (Sponberg 1985; van Esterik 2000).

Beyond general assessments of Buddhist gender ideologies, research also demonstrates the great diversity of women's positions in different traditions within the religion. Elaborating on the association of women with immorality, defilement, seduction, falsehood, and desire in early Buddhist texts (Paul 1985 [1979]:308; Ueki 2001:4), Theravada tradition reserves the right to pursue enlightenment in monastic institutions exclusively for males (Keyes 1984; van Esterik 2000:75). In contrast, the Mahayana tradition (especially the Chan tradition) highlights the general Buddhist wisdom of nondiscrimination through the concept of emptiness, which perceives the state of perfection as transcending any distinctions, including the distinction between the sexes (Paul 1985 [1979]; Ueki 2001:112). Despite the relatively egalitarian gender ideology of Mahayana Buddhism and its institutional manifestation in female ordination, femaleness is still commonly considered an undesirable state, and transformation into men is often believed necessary for women to achieve ultimate enlightenment (Crane 2001; Paul 1985 [1979]:171; Sunim 1999). Departing from mainstream Buddhism, the marginal Tantric tradition is characterized by both positive feminine symbolism in texts (Simmer-Brown 2001) and balanced gender roles in practice, manifested dramatically by the emphasis on the blissful and contemplative yoga of sexual union in achieving enlightenment (Shaw 1994:142).

Situating particular Buddhist traditions in specific sociocultural contexts, scholars have also explored the dynamics and complexity of gender ideologies and institutions resulting from the interactions between Buddhism and society, particularly in state-based societies marked by gender hierarchy (Kirsch 1985; Ueki 2001; Tsomo 1999:7). Mainstream Mahayana Buddhism as practiced in the dominant societies of East Asia serves as an example. On the one hand, while the male-dominant ideologies and institutions of these societies are noted for distorting the gender-egalitarian core of Gautama Buddha's teachings (Harris 1999:62; Ueki 2001), Buddhist practice is also considered to perpetuate local patriarchal traditions in different forms to varying degrees (Cabezon 1985; Lancaster 1984). For instance, reconciling the Confucian focus on the patrilineal family and the monastic requirement for celibacy, Han Chinese monks declared the superiority of their supernatural contributions to ancestors over the social responsibility of producing sons, while the Japanese drastically transformed Buddhist monasteries into patrilineal family enterprises run by married male priests (Lancaster 1984).

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