- "It Not the Only One":Womanist Resources for Reflection in Buddhist Studies
Good writers teach me that there is a world in our eye, but it not the only one.—Emily Townes1
In this paper, I wish to consider some of the resources Womanism offers to those of us in Buddhist Studies that we can profitably take up for reflection as we look to the futures that our academic community can have.2 At the outset of this essay, however, I am aware that some scholars of Buddhisms—whether their work is grounded in philology or historiography, or they also consider themselves engaged in Buddhist critical and constructive reflection—may, upon hearing my intent to explore this topic, react with their own versions of Tertullian's expletive, "What has Athens to do with Jerusalem?"3 It is with the possibility, indeed likelihood, of that expletive in mind that I want to make the case that Womanist analysis invites Buddhist Studies on a productive journey and suggests new interpretive possibilities. Womanism opens up a critically self-conscious space that helps us to reflect upon what we want to know and how we do know. What I have in mind is the lesson offered by Emily Townes, a Womanist ethicist, when she says, "Good writers teach me that there is a world in our eye, but it not the only one."4
Over the years, I have had numerous occasions when speaking to students about their plans to pursue graduate work in the study of Buddhism to remember a question put to me by my own teacher, John Ross Carter. It happened when I was still an undergraduate and I was considering going to graduate school to continue studying Buddhism. He listened carefully to what I had to say, and when I was finished he said, "It all sounds good, quite good, but I only have one question. What good is it for anyone else?" Now, perhaps more than then, I see just how important that question is, both personally and institutionally; it is one that we should ask ourselves over and over. The institutional force of the question—what good is Buddhist Studies for anyone else besides those who engage in it?—is perhaps felt especially acutely today, [End Page 73] as the finances of higher education shift around us, and especially as the finances of international education shift around us, as with recent cuts in funding for the Title VI Language and Area Studies Programs and other federal programs that for decades have sustained American higher education in fields like Buddhist Studies.5
Those of us in Buddhist Studies have many talents, both ones that we are born with and others that we learn and cultivate, but how are we servants, faithful servants, to others, in the sense that we nurture our professional talents for the benefit of others? In a personally significant way, my participation in the gatherings of Womanists to read Buddhist texts together was a small, ad hoc answer to my teacher John Ross Carter's question. Maybe what I had learned in getting my "union card" in Buddhist Studies and after, and in developing my abilities to be what Carolyn Medine calls a professional reader, could be good for these Womanists.
From reading Buddhist texts with Womanists, I had come to a renewed sense of what the humanities are good for in our contemporary universities. I also had come to know that there is no single reason individual Womanists come to be interested in Buddhism, although their varied motives can be gathered together in Womanist self-reflection upon a present and particular moment in Womanism's evolving trajectories, a present moment that Melanie Harris and others have called "a third wave" in Womanism.6 But even in my limited experience, I could see that some Womanists had become involved in Buddhist practice personally, seeing in Buddhism a religion that is, as Alice Walker once put it, "mature enough for us"; other Womanists had begun to explore Buddhism because they saw possibilities in Buddhist meditation for the sort of "self-care" they felt was one of the talents Womanists need to cultivate among themselves...