- Social Responsibility, Sex Change, and Salvation:Gender Justice in the Lotus Sutra
What does the Lotus Sūtra have to teach us about social responsibility? The immense influence and popularity of this Buddhist scripture throughout many parts of Asia (e.g., Watson 1993, p. ix) is reason enough to investigate its relation to social responsibility. In addition, the text of the Lotus Sūtra itself suggests a reason for examining its teachings on social responsibility by proclaiming itself to be the "one vehicle," the unifying law or truth, what Tamura Yoshiro describes as "the great unifying law of the universe that animates everyone and everything equally" (Tamura 1989, p. 41). More specifically, if we think of social responsibility in the contemporary world as encompassing "gender justice"—that is, fairness and equitable treatment for all persons, regardless of their gender—what is the Lotus Sūtra's message?
Does the Lotus Sūtra promote or deny gender justice, or is it simply indifferent on this issue? The continuing popularity and influence of the Lotus Sūtra throughout many parts of Asia, including China, Korea, and Japan, during a period in which traditional understandings of patriarchal and male-dominated social relations are being challenged as unjust, provides a motivation for examining the Lotus' relationship to gender justice. In particular, as Buddhism seeks "to justify itself as a religion suitable for modern Japan" (Tanabe 1989, p. 191), a nation currently struggling with changing gender roles and relationships between men and women, what role do or could the Lotus Sūtra's teachings about gender play in relation to gender justice?
Gender is an important category of analysis in the Lotus Sūtra. It provides a means for differentiating and hierarchalizing the status of males and females, both human and nonhuman. It symbolizes differences in temperament, capabilities, and virtues. Perhaps most importantly, it provides a basis for evaluating people's capacity for realizing the Mahāyāna ideal of full Buddhahood—anuttara-samyaksaṃ bodhi— as opposed to the "lesser" Hīnayāna Buddhist goal of arhatship.
Before embarking on an analysis of the Lotus' teachings about gender, some qualifications are in order. First, although it has unquestionably had a significant influence in shaping attitudes about gender (e.g., Schuster 1985b, p. 91),1 the specific influence of the Lotus Sūtra in shaping understandings of gender among its hearers and readers has varied significantly. The way its statements have been received, especially concerning normative gender roles, has undoubtedly been varied in different places and times, given the multivocal and multivalent character of Buddhist scriptures, as well as the diverse social locations of its hearers and readers.
Second, the influence of gender images does not necessarily correlate in any [End Page 50] direct way to the actual status of women in a particular social location (Sangren 1983, p. 4). For example, simply because negative images of females and views about women may abound in Buddhist texts widely disseminated in popular religious discourse does not necessarily mean that women will be subordinated in that society as a result. Conversely, positive textual images and valuations of females and the feminine do not necessitate that "real" women will be respected or esteemed. Indeed, the status of religious images of females and the feminine and the actual social status of women may even be negatively correlated. Thus, there is no one single or predictable way that gender images will influence those who encounter them.
In this article, I will examine the gendered imagery in the Lotus Sūtra in order to assess its messages regarding normative gender relations and the implications of these messages for gender justice in the contemporary world. The first part explores gender imagery in the Lotus Sūtra. The second compares these images with those found elsewhere in the Buddhist tradition in order to provide a clearer assessment of how representative the Lotus' messages are regarding gender in Buddhism more generally.
Gender Imagery in the Lotus Sūtra
At the outset of this investigation, it should be noted that the Lotus Sūtra contains a wide variety of gender images, not all of them consistent with one another. One...