- Buddhist Nuns and Gendered Practice: In Search of the Female Renouncer by Nirmala S. Salgado, and: Women in Pali Buddhism: Walking the Spiritual Paths in Mutual Dependence by Pascale Engelmajer, and: Women in Early Indian Buddhism: Comparative Textual Studies ed. by Alice Collett
Recently, three books on gender and Buddhism, one on contemporary conditions and the other two mainly on classical Buddhists texts, have been released. They are being reviewed in order, from the least useful of the three to the most useful.
Salgado’s book is by far the most difficult of the three to evaluate. Mainly, I find [End Page 226] it disappointing, but I wonder what I am missing. The book is about a topic in Buddhist studies and gender studies in religion that is definitely not reported and studied sufficiently—the lives and attitudes of Sri Lankan nuns, sometimes called dasa sila matas or ten precept “nuns,” who do not have and often do not want “higher ordination.” The same comment can be made about “nuns” in other forms of Buddhism that similarly lack “higher ordination” who, nevertheless, practice a lifestyle of monasticlike renunciation. The book is also very critical of the ways these women have been represented in scholarly literature. Thus, it should and could add significantly to our knowledge about Buddhist women.
So what engenders the disappointment? First of all, this book is not elegantly or clearly written. Salgudo frequently criticizes other authors for using “globalatinized” speech, but her own book is replete with postcolonial and social scientific jargon to the point of being difficult to decipher in places. The book’s organization also presents difficulties. It is something of a patchwork of pieces that seem to have been written separately and not fully integrated into a through-composed book. The book is stridently ideological, especially when dealing with “secular, liberal feminists,” as she invariably characterizes Buddhist-feminist scholar-practitioners who write about Buddhist women or Buddhism and gender.
If this book has a thesis or central theme, it is that much writing about Buddhist nuns does not accurately represent contemporary Asian nuns who lack “higher ordination,” their motivations for being nuns, or what matters to them about being nuns. It is claimed that this happens because those who write about Buddhist nuns are liberal feminists grounded in secular ideologies who have a colonialist agenda, regarding Asian nuns as in need of rescue by Western solutions. The first sentence of this paragraph may well be accurate for scholarly writings in English, but the second sentence paraphrases the ideology that mars this book. “Feminism” has become almost a swear word in some discourses. Because it is left undefined, the reader has no idea what Salgado means by the term.
Let us analyze separately these two aspects of her book. Salgudo is correct that Western writers about Buddhist nuns tend to regard full ordination, the so-called higher ordination, very favorably, not because they are Westerners but because the “fourfold sangha,” consisting of fully ordained monks, fully ordained nuns, laymen, and laywomen, is the normative Buddhist sangha. This is not a controversial or a contested claim, despite the fact that “higher ordination” for women is either no longer available or available only with difficulty in two of three schools of Vinaya (monastic rules) in practice today. It is also correct that Western women who write about Buddhist nuns tend to wish Asian women were more favorably disposed to “higher ordination” than they currently are. They think that Buddhist nuns would be better off if full ordination were available to them, often noting that East Asian nuns, who have “higher ordination,” seem to be better educated and better supported economically than Theravada or Tibetan nuns, who do not have “higher ordination.” It is also the case that English language authors tend to...