- This-Worldly Nibbāna: A Buddhist-Feminist Social Ethic for Peacemaking in the Global Community by Hsiao-Lan Hu
Hsiao-Lan Hu has written a clear and concise analysis of the teachings of Buddhism that is inseparable from her analysis of questions that have rested at the heart of feminist analyses in the last three decades. Unlike many other feminist studies of Buddhism, Hu does not rely on a “glass half full” reading of the remembered actions of the Buddha, nor does she treat feminism solely as the rationale for “adding women and stirring.” This book would be a welcome addition to an undergraduate course on Buddhism and feminism or even in a broader survey course on feminist approaches to the study of religion. It would be equally at home in a discussion and meditation group, serving as the basis for several months’ worth of close reading, study, and practice. It is refreshing and innovative, and draws on a broad range of primary texts, secondary sources, and common sense analogies. What I appreciate most in this work is that Hu’s analysis of Buddhism and feminism is intricately and subtly constructed in such a way that it draws our attention to the crucial role of relationships within Buddhist teachings as well as the contemporary world.
Hu makes no assumptions about prior knowledge of either Buddhism or feminism. She introduces both topics in the introduction (chap. 1), and then deftly moves toward deeper and deeper analysis of the intersections between the two focal points of the book. The introduction provides an overview of the foundational texts and basic teachings of Buddhism, starting with dependent co-arising and the ending of pain (dukkha) and concluding with a chapter outline. She lays out her goal for this social ethic: “Therefore, in the process of constructing or reconstructing an ethic that is in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings, relevant to the contemporary world, appealing and meaningful for people who live in the much Westernized and globalized world today, and excluding neither women nor the non-élite, I will search for insights from both the foundational Buddhist sources and contemporary Western analyses and theories, particularly socio-economic studies and poststructural feminist critiques” (p. 24). In her description of her project, “a non-adversarial engaged feminist Buddhist social ethic,” no single term is more important than another. She is as committed to “non-adversarial” as she is to “engaged,” “feminist,” “Buddhist,” and “social ethic.” [End Page 223]
Chapter 1, the introduction, provides the foundation with a short overview of both the Pāli canon and the basic teachings found in the canon. She does not belabor this section for those familiar with the subject. At the same time, she deftly provides sufficient detail for those unfamiliar with the subject to feel at home offset with ample citations for scholars to understand the hermeneutical choices she has made. For example, she is familiar with the recent arguments regarding the dates of Gautama Buddha but sidesteps a discussion of the subject insofar as it not really relevant to the task she has set for herself (p. 2). Another very welcome observation she makes early in the chapter is the distinction between Theravāda Buddhism and contemporary Theravāda Buddhism: “Citing the Nikāya texts in the Pāli Canon as the foundational teachings of the Buddha is not the same as endorsing the claim made by some Theravādins that Theravāda Buddhism is the ‘authentic’ or ‘pure’ Buddhism that has preserved the Buddha’s original teachings without change” (p. 11). As far as introductions to Buddhism go, this is one of the most refreshing for the uninitiated.
“Socio-Ethical Dimensions of Early Buddhism,” chapter 2, provides her evidence for the “social ethic” of Buddhism by focusing on the ethical impact of the Buddha’s “nonviolent challenge to the social hierarchies,” which Hu writes, “… is particularly significant if the religious, political, social and economic situations of his time are put into consideration...