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Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (2000) 278-282

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Book Review

Buddhist Women Across Cultures: Realizations

Buddhist Women Across Cultures: Realizations. Edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999. Pp. viii + 326.

This collection of essays on women in Buddhism largely succeeds in fulfilling Tsomo's goal of documenting "Buddhist women's actual involvement" in the Buddhist tradition (p. 1). Her introduction provides a very informative and well-supported description of the history and current status of Buddhist women around the world, focusing on Asia but including the West as well. In the introduction and in her essays on women in the Tibetan and Himalayan region and in Buddhist and Christian traditions, she provides a feminist critique of gender discrimination in the Buddhist tradition as well as prescriptions for transforming the existing tradition in ways that would make it more egalitarian. These include "consciously validating women's accomplishments," reinterpreting religious texts with gender sensitive lenses, and the ordination of women (pp. 256-257). The essays in the volume as a whole carry forward Tsomo's examination of both sides of the equation of women and Buddhism--that is, how the Buddhist tradition has treated women overall as well as how women have responded to and are working to alter Buddhism, what Tsomo characterizes as "the ongoing process of women transforming and being transformed by, the tradition" (p. 1). The essays highlight a number of dichotomies in the experiences of Buddhist women, the primary one being that of gender disparities in the status and experience of women. Several essays in the collection detail the hardships that Buddhist women encounter because of gender inequalities that persist to the present day, even in Western cultures. Tsomo's essay comparing the experiences of Buddhist and Christian women in particular illustrates that in most areas, gender-based inequalities are more pronounced in Buddhist contexts than in Christian ones. Tsomo observes that [End Page 278] both traditions have fallen short of their egalitarian ideals, expressed within Christianity as the imago dei (creation in the image of God) and in Buddhism as tathagathagarbha (the seed or essence of Enlightenment present in all sentient beings). While noting that both traditions in general permit women to participate in religious practices on an equal basis with men, that neither legally mandates an inferior status for women, and that the highest stage of religious attainment is the same for both genders, Tsomo finds gender discrimination still functioning in both religions: both Buddhism and Christianity traditionally have assigned subordinate roles to women (especially with respect to monastic life), depict females negatively in scriptures, and generally ignore women's contributions to religious life.

Despite these similarities, Tsomo thinks that in most respects Christian women have made more progress in securing equal rights to participate in the religious life of their faith than have Buddhist women. The only reason she provides for the greater extent of change in Christianity is that "Christian women have been far more active than Buddhists" (p. 253). Yet she fails to probe the possible reasons for this disparity in respect to the broader cultural, social, and economic differences in Christian and Buddhist contexts that have fostered a more activist and socially acceptable feminism in the former. The greater gender discrimination in Buddhist cultures has less to do with differences between Christianity and Buddhism per se than it does with other aspects of culture. Unfortunately, Tsomo does not develop the thesis she presents in the introduction to this essay that "Christian women have much to learn from the Buddhist tradition with respect to meditation and that Buddhist women have much to learn from Christian women with respect to service to society" (p. 241). Indeed, it is difficult to understand the basis for the latter claim, given Buddhist women's primary roles as service providers in most Buddhist cultures, unless she is speaking of the so-called socially engaged religious movement. If so, then as other scholars have noted, there are impediments to social action within certain interpretations of the Buddhist teachings themselves that would need to be resolved first. A...