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  • Buddhist Resources for Womanist Reflection
  • Melanie L. Harris

A Buddhist understanding of unconditional love in dialogue with Christian social ethics addresses the utter disappointment in humanity when racism is exposed. This focus offers us yet another way into the dialogue of engaged Buddhism and Christian liberation theologies, and directly points to Buddhism as a resource for thinking about and healing from racism and other forms of oppression. My presentation today is descriptive in nature, and as a Womanist scholar, I will lean toward the constructive—but I will leave room for our collective and communal discussion to help show us the signs of what a new vision of justice might look like as we learn to live together on planet Earth.

womanist theology and the hard work of love

Much of my work as a Womanist scholar and much of the field grounds itself inside of the nitty-gritty wrestling moments with Christian norms and concepts that disregard analysis that honors the complex subjectivities of women, including issues of race, class, gender, and sexual justice. Taking the call for social justice and the everyday lives and experiences of African and African American women seriously, Womanist theology and ethics are in fact forms of liberation theology. What makes Womanist perspectives unique is that they challenge Christian thought and all religious thinking to more fully engage the principles of love and justice. In the case of Christianity, Womanist scholars demand that those walking in the faith “practice what they preach” and respond to some of the following questions:

  • • How are women of color treated in your religious tradition? Is gender equity normative in your tradition?

  • • What is life-affirming in your religious tradition that honors the unique theological perspectives and voices of women of color?

  • • How are women’s bodies honored, their sexualities spoken about, and their bodily choices and reproductive rights discussed?

  • • How are women of color’s racial and ethnic identities and complex subjectivities honored by or embody the “touch of Jesus” or the “healing gaze of the Buddha” or the “prayers of Muhammad” or “the breath of Krishna”?

  • • What are women of color’s unique perspectives on Earth justice? [End Page 107]

  • • Finally, how are the stories of women of color whose bodies have been historically ravaged by rape and violence finding solidarity with stories of environmental degradation in which the sister/mother body of Earth suffers similar disembodiment and oppression?

Looking into the hearts of Christian, Buddhist, and other religious perspectives and traditions Womanism offers a lens through which to examine understandings of God and the divine differently. It honors the perspectives of women of color, whose voices have been historically marginalized in normative religious thought and who have often experienced being dehumanized in society. In spite of this, many women who identify with the term “Womanist” have found faith, religious value, and restoration through an emphasis on divine embodiment, self-worth, and self-love.

Over the course of the first and second waves of Womanism, scholars have raised important questions of how communal love points toward a moral imperative for Earth justice. However, more recently, third-wave Womanist activists and scholars are focusing on Earth justice and other social justice issues from a religiously pluralistic perspective. Third-wave Womanist scholars like myself have taken the term beyond the halls of Union “into the streets” as activists, have witnessed Womanist ideas transformed into political activism, and have experienced Womanist solidarity with women across various global contexts. Many of us are returning “home” to the conversation wiser and are more courageous than ever before and expanding the discourse by engaging religious pluralism, interfaith dialogue, and interreligious realities in hopes of finding new ways to confront multilayered oppressions.1

buddhist resources for womanist reflection

In 2009, Charles Hallisey of Harvard Divinity School and I received a grant from the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard to do something imaginative and creative. We invited several renowned Womanist and Buddhist scholars to Harvard to read Buddhist texts together in community and discuss whether there was anything inherent in both traditions that would expand Buddhist studies and broaden inter-religious dialogue in Womanist thought.

There were some theoretical challenges and...