- Freedom on My Mind:Buddhist-Womanist Dialogue
As a religious ethicist, I am interested in exploring how Buddhist and Womanist texts speak to each other. Prior to being a part of the Womanist-Buddhist consultation that Melanie Harris and Charlie Hallisey facilitated, I have always possessed a personal interest in Buddhism through the black feminist works of bell hooks and Alice Walker. These two black feminists certainly affirm how Buddhism has contributed to their own sense of peace, calm, and purpose, as they engage the social realities of the world. In particular, Alice Walker has written at length about the impact Buddhist practices have had on her personal and scholarly life. Walker speaks about the ways in which Buddhist practices have allowed her to experience joy and human transcendence within the absurdities and sufferings of life. I infer that Walker’s black feminist-womanist thought has intentionally engaged Buddhist texts and practices in order to demonstrate the contribution that both discourses make to each other. In this brief essay, I will specifically put Walker’s discussion of black suffering in the book We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For in conversation with a particular Buddhist poem titled “Dhammadinna,” found in the Therigatha, which is a women’s anthology of Buddhist poetry written by the first Buddhist nuns.
emerging conversational partners
Womanist thought and the Therigatha are needed conversational partners, as they both privilege the experiences of marginalized women. According to Charles Hallisey, the Therigatha is the first anthology of women’s literature in the world. Recited by elder nuns as early as 600 bce, these poems were understood as “inspired utterances” of early Buddhist women who described their religious experiences on the joy of being free and unattached from the world.1 More importantly, these religious poems sought to interpret the problems of human suffering from women’s perspectives. Hallisey asserts that the Therigatha “does not seem to have been included in the canons of great poetry for later Buddhist literary cultures until those of the 20th century.”2 Scholars infer that this is due to the gender and sexual inequality that was present in early and later Buddhism, in which Buddhist nuns were derided [End Page 9] for seeking and attaining religious knowledge. The repression of these poems (and women’s voices) certainly makes Womanist religious discourse a fertile dialogue partner for the literature of the Therigatha, as Womanist thought primarily centers its attention on the suffering and repression among women of color within religious spaces.
Black Womanism, in particular, has centered its attention on the multiple ways in which black women’s voices have been repressed, muted, or excluded within black religious spaces such as black churches. Womanist theologians and ethicists such as Delores Williams, Katie Canon, and Kelly Brown Douglass have written at length about the exclusion of black women’s voices and perspectives from religious and broader social life. For instance, Williams exposes how Christian sacred texts have often been interpreted in patriarchal ways, silencing the marginalized experiences of women in scriptures. In Sisters in the Wilderness: The Challenge of Womanist God-Talk, Williams centers the Hagar narrative in Genesis 16 as an important sacred text that discloses the forms of gender injustice oppressed women of color experienced in the ancient Near East. She also shows the similarities between the Hagar narrative and the marginalization of poor black women within religious, socioeconomic, and political spheres of American society. She demonstrates that Hagar’s narrative of sexual exploitation and abuse not only opens up conversations about ostracized women’s voices in scripture but also shows how religious patriarchy inhibits human flourishing for poor black women today.3 The Therigatha and Womanist religious discourse have similar goals in exposing and deconstructing forms of gender oppression in order to explore the conditions under which women can thrive.
One important theme that Womanist religious thought and the Therigatha explore is the subject of freedom. Freedom or the right to self-actualize in social, political, and religious communities is a constitutive element of flourishing within Womanism and Buddhism. For these discourses, freedom is not just about possessing certain rights within liberal democratic orders. More deeply, freedom is...