Marie-Stella Boussemart: “The Buddha never questioned the intellectual capacity of women. »

- through Henry Oudin

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2500 years ago, the Buddha admitted women among his disciples. Today, the feminist question is on everyone's lips. Until when are we going to have to talk about gender equality and celebrate, every March 8, this International Women's Day? Former president of the Buddhist Union of France, Marie-Stella Boussemart talks about this subject. Men, women, instructions according to Buddhism.

Buddhism and Jainism are the first two religions in the world to have admitted female religious communities. Do we know what prompted the Buddha to take this revolutionary turn in his time?

The Buddha always stressed that the human condition was particularly favorable to evolve, and he taught everyone in a similar way without stopping at the considerations of gender, birth or caste. It is usually pointed out that the first five disciples of the Buddha, his companions in asceticism, were men, but the first female community was founded about three years after that of the monks, which is not a long period of time. From another point of view, the Buddha's first listener would have been his own mother – a woman.

The Buddha never questioned the intellectual or spiritual abilities of women, but then, as even today, the male condition was more propitious. Quite simply for social reasons, because women were and are oppressed or placed under tutelage, and in fact, in this respect, they encounter more obstacles.

Pragmatically, the Buddha listed eight situations facilitating the practice, such as being a man, but also being rich, coming from a powerful family, being endowed with beauty, etc. In our societies, it is still true: it is better to be beautiful, young, rich and in good health... (laugh) And if, even today, there are more male masters than female, it is because Buddhist practitioners are part of society. You cannot separate the two. It is important to note that the master is not appointed by a supervisory authority, but chosen by the disciple. The overrepresentation of men therefore stems from the fact that most people prefer to turn to men.

In Tibetan Buddhism, we often evoke the role of the bodhisattva Tara, who made a wish to obtain enlightenment in a female body. Can we consider her as a feminist figure of Buddhism?

In the Tibetan sphere, Tara has a lot of importance. In the Chinese sphere, we rather evoke Guanyin (Kannon in Japanese) which is a feminine aspect of Avalokeshvara. In Mahayana and Tantrayana there are many female figures.

Be that as it may, beware: there is no social combat in Buddhism! Choosing this type of commitment is entirely honorable, but it is a personal decision. Buddhism is a path to enlightenment, so it offers a broader perspective than cultural and societal issues. For a Buddhist practitioner, the only solution is to get out of samsara, not to transform it! As a citizen, I am a feminist, but as a Buddhist, in my daily practice, these questions do not make sense, in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha, who, I repeat, makes no distinction of gender.

However, the Buddha subjected the nuns to the subordination of the monks…

It is necessary to contextualize: for a female religious community to be able to emancipate itself and integrate into society, it could not completely free itself from the codes of the time at the risk of being ostracized. It is essential to distinguish the practice of Buddhism, personal, and its existence within a society. On the other hand, with regard to the social career, it is obvious that men are privileged. This unfortunately persists in France in the XNUMXst century, in politics, industry, sport and many other areas. It is a cultural problem, not a fact of Buddhism.

According to the Vinaya, monks observe about 217 rules and nuns 311. Why this surplus of rules?

It is as and when experiences in the field and questions asked by religious or third parties that the Buddha enacted rules to follow. In the Vinaya, the history of each rule is in principle mentioned. It seems that the cases submitted to the Buddha have more often involved nuns than monks. For cultural and sometimes anatomical reasons. Some rules do not apply to monks. For example whether or not to wear a bra, menstrual protection, etc. It is not the will of the Buddha to seize these subjects, but it was necessary to decide them, with the concern of not unnecessarily shocking the good society.

“As a citizen, I am a feminist, but as a Buddhist, in my daily practice, these questions do not make sense, in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha, who makes no distinction of gender. »

In my opinion, we must not stop at the numbers, but put them into perspective. And there, I must say that I still don't understand certain valiant knights engaged in a feminist crusade. It is true that Buddhist women, especially nuns, too often come up against macho behavior, which I personally have not experienced. I was lucky ! Still, I regret that some Western Buddhists indulge in taxing the Buddha with misogyny, instead of rationally seeking the reasons for the differences between monks and nuns. In general, yes, it's a good thing that there are social laws and more protection for women, but that's still poultices. Buddhism offers another type of remedy, more radical, and non-gendered.

The question of the ordination of nuns seems to pose a problem in Tibetan Buddhism. In 2007, during the Hamburg Congress, the Dalai Lama declared that “the situation of nuns is sometimes terribly unfair (…) We must introduce the full ordination of nuns in the Tibetan tradition. »

I would like to have the full context of this statement (1). Personally, I especially remember that the Dalai Lama then said that, if it were possible for him to introduce the major ordination into the Tibetan tradition, he would do it with joy and without hesitation, but that he does not have the power to do so. In my humble opinion, this claim is a non-issue. There is no requirement to have received full monastic ordination in order to progress on the path and become a Buddha. Nor to teach Buddhism. On the other hand, it is true that it is necessary to run for titles such as abbot of a monastery. But that seems relatively secondary to me. It obviously depends on what you want to do.

To understand the situation, it is better to have an overview. During the lifetime of the Buddha, there was only one Vinaya, with the different degrees of ordination, both for women and for men. Then, over time, several traditions of Vinaya (Monastic Rule) appeared, all complete and consistent. Most have not been maintained and there are three left today. Of the three, only the Vinaya widespread in the Chinese sphere (which includes Korea, Japan and Vietnam) has retained all degrees of female ordinations. The Vinaya prevalent in the Tibetan sphere (which includes Bhutan, Nepal and Mongolia) has maintained the minor ordination. The Theravada (Southeast Asia) retained lay ordinations, but not nuns.

In other words, today, a Western Buddhist woman who wishes to enter orders and aspires to receive major ordination, has the possibility of doing so in the Chinese, Korean or Vietnamese communities. Not Japanese for historical reasons: persecution of Buddhism in the XNUMXth century. Not in the communities of the Tibetan sphere or Theravada either, also for historical reasons: lineages have been interrupted, and in Buddhism an interrupted lineage cannot, or with great difficulty, be restored. As for mixing the different Vinayas, it's a bit like wanting butter and money for butter, and above all playing sorcerer's apprentice.

Since the sex of the practitioner is not taken into account in the path leading to Awakening, how to explain that this "feminist" theme has become a recurring issue in certain Buddhist communities, like the action of the international association Sakyadhita Buddhist women? (2)

I have a strong sympathy for this movement, but I have the impression that it is wrong in part of combat. Sympathy and support, because, indeed, campaigning for the cause of women deserves to be done. Because giving women, especially in Buddhist countries, access to education and instruction is a priority. On the other hand, suggesting that the Buddha would have sometimes behaved in a misogynistic way, there, I do not agree at all! That Buddhist men behave like machos, no doubt. That Asian countries do not have traditionally feminist cultures is true. But it's not so different in other parts of the world. This is due to the poisons of the mind (ignorance, attachment, aversion) which plague all beings of samsara, including the religious. But this is certainly not due to a discriminatory will on the part of the Buddha

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Henry Oudin

Henry Oudin is a Buddhist scholar, spiritual adventurer and journalist. He is a passionate seeker of the depths of Buddhist wisdom, and travels regularly to learn more about Buddhism and spiritual cultures. By sharing his knowledge and life experiences on Buddhist News, Henry hopes to inspire others to embrace more spiritual and mindful ways of living.

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