The International Association of Sakyadhita Buddhist Women held its 17th conference in late December for the first time since the global pandemic began in 2019. Although originally planned in the state of Sarawak in Malaysia, the conference organizers had to switch to an online format for the first time due to security concerns related to the COVID-19 pandemic In progress. More than 1,000 monks, lay people, scholars and practitioners gathered online to explore the conference theme “Buddhist Women Beyond Boundaries: Interfaith, Interdependence, Environment” through a series of panels, lectures and d workshops.
“The transition to the online format has gone remarkably well,” commented Sakyadhita President Sharon Suh. “We managed to maintain intimacy between the participants and respect much of the traditional opening and closing ceremonies, songs and performances.”
Sakyadhita, meaning “Daughters of the Buddha”, is a pioneering organization recognized for advocating for the welfare of women in Buddhist institutions around the world. For over thirty years, the Sakyadhita Conference has met every two years to address issues of gender equality in Buddhism and confront other social injustices that impact the lives of Buddhist women. The first conference, held in 1987 in Bodhgaya, India, brought together more than 1,500 people to discuss the gender discrimination of Buddhist nuns who, overall, had less status, education and access to leadership positions than monks.
The Sakyadhita Association continues to support groundbreaking research and center leaders who advocate for the welfare of Buddhist women. Her lectures encourage women to see beyond cultural and national identities in order to share both mutual values and unique experiences as Buddhist women. The 16th Sakyadhita Conference, “New horizons in Buddhismtook place in Australia in June 2019 at the height of the #MeToo movement. Presentations at the conference demonstrated an unprecedented willingness to confront sexual misconduct in Buddhist communities. This new level of honesty and openness about sexual abuse within the Buddhist sangha has encouraged more Buddhist women to join the global conversation on sexual abuse and challenge the ethics around total devotion to teachers who are fallible human beings.
This year’s conference themes spoke to the urgency of the intersecting social injustices that fuel the cascading effects of the current global crisis. Lectures and panel discussions focused on gender bias in Buddhism, the importance of recognizing our interdependence, interreligious collaboration, bioethics and environmental justice. Participants could also attend a “talking circle for female Buddhist leaders” as well as workshops in sacred spiritual dances, origami, and interdisciplinary explorations of movement and architecture.
In this year’s conference keynote, Suh recalled an experience in graduate school where she shared her interest in research on women, gender, and Buddhism with her advisor. His adviser replied:Genre? What genre in Buddhism?
There is a tendency in the West to view Buddhism as gender neutral. However, in many Asian countries with large Buddhist populations, men tend to dominate sanghas, leaving women to play secondary roles.
For example, Amnuaypond Kidpromma, a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Chiang Mai University in Thailand, presented his research on the relationship between sex workers and Theravada Buddhism as practiced in northern Thailand. Kidpromma argued that Buddhism and religious piety play a complex role in the lives of sex workers in a country where 96% of the population is Buddhist.
Through interviews with sex workers, Kidpromma found that many women enter the sex trade because of limited employment opportunities and so that they can fulfill their spiritual duties to their parents. She explained how Theraveda Buddhist women in Thailand cannot be ordained and that the Buddhist belief system requires women “to give thanks to their parents”. On the other hand, men can accumulate power and status through ordination and are generally not expected to contribute to the financial well-being of their parents to the same extent.
Kidpromma argued that Theravada Buddhism as practiced in Thailand has put women in a bind. Although a job as a sex worker allows women to accrue spiritual merit by providing a means of support for their parents, the job also carries a sense of stigma in Thai culture, as sex work is illegal in Thailand. and generally considered immoral. Women join the sex trade with the goal of being a ‘good Buddhist’, only to feel like a ‘bad Buddhist’ for having practiced a profession considered dirty or unethical.
To alleviate feelings of shame and accumulate merit for the next incarnation, many Thai women interviewed by Kidpromma said they regularly offer donations, or dana, to their Buddhist temples. In this way, Kidpromma asserts that Buddhism and the sex industry can be seen as mutually supportive in Thailand, as many Buddhist women fulfill their spiritual duties by entering the sex trade and Buddhist institutions benefit financially from donations from women’s income from sex work. For these reasons, Kidpromma suggests that the stigma and marginalization of sex workers in Buddhist communities in Thailand is unfair and unfair.
In another insightful talk, Sonam Choden Sherpa, who has formal training in women-centered practices from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, India, presented research that highlighted the need for greater advocacy and access to health education and health services for monastic women in the Tibetan tradition living in Sikkim, India. Choden’s research revealed that nuns living in Sikkim have very limited knowledge of menstrual health and hygiene compared to other women in the region, and they do not have access to community education programs. health on this subject. “Nuns are often brought up with the traditional view that menstrual blood is a polluting substance and female biological processes are filthy,” Choden said.
Choden also discovered that Indian health workers were biased when it came to providing health care to female Buddhist monks. For example, nuns in Sikkim do not get the HPV vaccine even though it is known to prevent ovarian cancer. “The health care workers thought the Buddhist nuns didn’t need the vaccine because they had no intention of getting married,” Choden explained. “Their individual health is not taken into consideration.”
During another conference on environment and bioethics, Gurmeet Kaur, senior researcher at the Department Cum Center for Women’s Studies and Development, University of the Panjab, presented her research on the relationship between traditional Buddhist teachings and bioethical issues directly related to gender.
Her lecture examined the bioethics of abortion from a Buddhist perspective. “The Western debate centers on a woman’s right to choose what happens to her body,” Kaur said. “But Buddhism does not traditionally offer ownership rights of the fetus to the mother.” While many feminists recognize women’s bodily autonomy in matters of abortion, Buddhism on the whole opposes abortion. In this case, Kaur suggested that feminism and Buddhism are not aligned.
“In Buddhism, incarnation is not seen as an easy thing, and therefore every life is an opportunity. The mother has nothing to do with it. Kaur said the scriptures state that the Buddha believed that life began at conception and many Buddhist scholars consider abortion a form of murder that violates the first of the five precepts.In addition, convincing a woman to have an abortion is named as one of the four transgressions or offenses of undressing.
Kaur points out that in Buddhist-majority countries, national policies are decided by committees of religious scholars and scientific experts. “The work of Buddhist ethicists and Buddhist scholars shows a remarkable lack of urgency to include women’s voices in the decision-making process,” Kaur observed. Yet many of the bioethical issues of our time, such as abortion, fertility, cosmetic surgery, adoption and surrogacy, are directly linked to gender and sexuality. Kaur’s speech introduces a dilemma for Buddhist feminists who believe that patriarchy or male dominance of society is morally wrong and that women have the right to make their own choices regarding their bodies and well-being.
Still, the conference ended on an ambitious note. Kaur concludes that Buddhism, with its emphasis on moral conduct (or If the), has ample room for the growth of an explicitly feminist spirituality, which values women’s lived experiences equally and uses them as the foundation for individual and societal development.
The efforts and advocacy of the Sakyadhita Association have helped advance the conversation and research on gender and Buddhism. Topics for the 17th Sakyadhita Conference continued to move forward, addressing the reality of gender bias and inequality in Buddhist institutions, as well as celebrating and elevating the work and contributions of many Buddhist scholars, activists, artists, and teachers.
The 18th Sakyadhita Conference is scheduled to take place in South Korea in 2023.