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  • The Suffering of Sexism:Buddhist Perspectives and Experiences
  • Rita M. Gross

Having been assigned the topic of suffering and sexism for this conference and celebration of Paul Knitter’s career and work, I feel qualified to address that topic. I have suffered a lot because of the work I have done on sexism, including a very diminished career. After nearly fifty years of demonstrating the presence of sexism in religious studies and in Buddhism, and taking a lot of flak and criticism for bringing to light many things that many people simply don’t want to know, I would be delighted if such discussions were no longer needed. That, however, is not the case. So bringing together these two s-words—suffering and sexism—is very potent. The only effect of sexism is suffering. Forming identities and organizing society on the basis of male dominance have no redeeming benefits that offset the suffering.

However, it is critical that we understand what is the real issue as we begin these reflections on suffering and sexism. I have long contended that, rather than trying to reform gender roles or discern what an ideal set of gender roles might be, the fundamental problem is the very existence of gender roles—any set of gender roles whatsoever. Does the shape of our genitals really predetermine our hearts, minds, longings, and abilities? Does it have anything to do with one’s ability to think theologically or to excel at spiritual disciplines? Gender roles severely and arbitrarily constrain people. That is the real suffering of sexism, and that, rather than male dominance, is the true problem. Male dominance is only one of the more unfortunate results of the constraint of arbitrary and binding gender roles. Thus, the suffering of sexism needs to give way to freedom from the prison of gender roles.

engaged buddhism (and christianity) and the suffering of sexism

Unfortunately, the engaged Buddhist movement has been very slow to recognize that the suffering of sexism is something engaged Buddhists should care about, or even that is exists. Doubly unfortunately, many engaged Christians are no more likely to take up issues of gender justice very forcefully. It is not uncommon for books on [End Page 69] engaged Buddhism or Christianity to omit the topic altogether. If it is discussed at all, a single issue, such as bhikkshuni ordination in the Buddhist case, is often the only gender issue discussed, rather than the full topic of Buddhist androcentrism and patriarchy.

It is very frustrating and disappointing when those who wax eloquent on economic and political justice are completely silent on sexism and gender justice. How can they possibly imagine there could be economic or political justice when women still lack political and economic equality because they lack both equal access to all culturally valued pursuits and to reproductive freedom? Yet many engaged Buddhists and Christians seem to see no contradiction at all between advocating for economic and political “justice” at that same time as they advocate against women’s religious equality and reproductive freedom. Even if they don’t advocate against things that are essential for women, they are often silent on those issues.

It’s very easy to criticize the IMF, the World Bank, or US foreign policy, things that we Buddhists don’t and can’t control, things that even Christians can’t control. But we do control our own religious institutions, whether Buddhist or Christian. So why don’t engaged Buddhists and Christians even discuss Buddhist and Christian sexism and patriarchy? We could change those institutions in a heartbeat, if we chose to do so. Why don’t we? I challenge engaged Buddhists and Christians to become much more aware of the suffering of sexism and much more serious about ending it in Buddhist and in Christian institutions.

received generalities regarding buddhism and gender

If one looks at the world’s various Buddhisms, especially in Asia, superficially less so in the Western world, it would be impossible to avoid the conclusion that Buddhism is seriously infected with the sexism of male dominance. All the leaders and most of the teachers are men. Male monastics are well supported, while female monastics barely survive. Lack...