I’ve been working on a presentation I’m giving this August at a conference in California–it’s on subjectivity and women in Shin Buddhism. The research has been really interesting, in no small part because there are parallels between the way women have been viewed in Buddhism & the way they have been viewed in Christianity. Need I even say the parallels are negative? Probably not.
As you might imagine, the disparagement of women in general, and the contempt for women’s bodies more specifically, has a long history in Buddhism—and, of course, in Christianity, too. In spite of counter-examples, the evidence is impossible to ignore, particularly in sutras that advocate the well-established Indian Buddhist soteriological path of asceticism and physical austerities. This path was particularly popular in male monastic communities; and in texts that were written by and for this audience, the female body often was used as the epitome of corruption and delusion that must be transcended in order to attain awakening.
Again, this is not surprising: in a tradition where “desire” is the overarching human problem, women—women’s bodies & women’s sexuality—very quickly and easily become the physical manifestation of that problem, and are demonized for it. [Think Augustine and his preoccupation with concupiscence.] One example of this is Aśvaghoșa’s Saundarananda, in which he tells the life story of the Buddha’s half-brother Nanda. Throughout, Aśvaghoșa compares women to violent and even poisonous animals who are waiting to trap weak-natured men. In general, women are deceptive, aggressive predators, and men are emasculated and easily ensnared. For example, he writes, “Like creepers poisonous to the touch, like scoured caves still harboring snakes, like unsheathed swords held in the hand, women are ruinous in the end….Women behave ignobly, maliciously spying out the weaknesses of others, such that kinsman is set against kinsman and friend against friend….Women’s speech is honeyed but there is the deadliest poison in their hearts….like hordes of crocodiles in a river, they attack without discrimination.” I couldn’t help but be reminded of the ways in which some of the early desert monastics described women, viewing them as dangerous tempters and the embodiment of sin.
Overall, however, it is the female body itself that comes to stand for all that is evil and decrepit about human existence, the nadir of humanity, in a way; and thus it is the female body, when viewed “rightly,” that becomes the best prompt for awakening. Canto 5, “The Departure,” in Aśhvaghoşa’s Life of the Buddha, is perhaps the paradigmatic example of the experience of awakening generated by meditation on “disgusting” female bodies. In this episode of the Buddha’s life, Gautama has had the experience of the “four sights,” and returns home deeply conflicted. After speaking with his father, he enters his palace, where, in the inner chamber, he is entertained by “splendid girls,” playing musical instruments. Once they go to sleep, Gautama sees them as they really are, with their limbs splayed, their hair disheveled, snoring and drooling. Repulsed by this realization, he leaves his chamber, “in utter contempt of those sleeping girls,” resolved to renounce his life of privilege.
This trope is related to the more general, and well-known Buddhist monastic practice of meditation on corpses—asubhabhāvanā, described in detail in many different sutras. One particularly troubling version of this practice is the ritual of meditating on live female bodies, but envisioning them “dead, oozing and maggot-ridden.” One of the most trenchant examinations of this practice is Liz Wilson’s text Charming Cadavers: Horrific Figuration of the Feminine in Indian Buddhist Hagiographic Literature. There are too many excellent examples in her text to include them all here, but let me mention just two. She describes the story of Cittahattha, who, after several periods of coming and going from the monastery, definitively commits to monastic life after seeing his pregnant wife looking like a “bloated corpse.” According to Wilson, the text emphasizes that it is the “revolting sight of her swollen, cadaverous body” that finally convinces Cittahattha to permanently renounce his home life.
Another example is the story of Sirimā, a beautiful woman who becomes a patron of the sangha. She falls ill and dies, and the Buddha orders that her body be left to decompose publicly. After four days, the Buddha gathers a crowd at her repulsive, decaying corpse, and asks if anyone wants to purchase her, for any price. When there are no takers, he says, “Monks, look at this available woman adored by so many people. In this very city men used to pay a thousand kahāpaņas for the sake of spending one night with this woman. Now there is no one who will take her even for free. Her beauty has perished and decayed…” In story after story, the moral is brought home: “If one can only see through the cosmetics and ornaments a woman wears…one will discern a walking cadaver, a vessel of filth…”
These sutras reinforce a reality that is by no means limited to a Buddhist context, and in fact, continues to be operative in contemporary American society: the phenomenon in which the female body is marked as a “site of sight.” Wilson describes it this way: “Men look at women. Women watch themselves been looked at.” She then goes on to observe: “Consider, for example, the ritual of congregation in bathrooms and striking poses before the mirror that adolescent girls in contemporary America engage in so readily. Through such openly self-reflective activities, young women learn how to evaluate themselves from the perspective of potential admirers, how to accentuate those features that are most likely to turn heads. As long as women are encouraged to capitalize on their looks, such rituals will inevitable continue, making the process of socialization for women one of sexualization.” This was published in 1996. Would anyone try to argue that 20 years later, in the age of the selfie & the Kardashians, that this phenomenon has gotten anything but worse?
Too often, still today, the reality we see in some of the Buddhist sutras from millennia ago is still operational today: women are only the objects of the male gaze; they are unable to “see” in their own right. “…the dead, dying, or unconscious women…are incapable of returning the gaze of their male observers. Since they are never given the capacity to return the gaze that surveys them, they cannot assert their own status as conscious subjects.” In a context where only men have the power to “see,” only their gaze and their perspective have value—only they can create. By contrast, women are superfluous—invisible, even.
Decades ago, Marilyn Frye talked about this in her essay on “Oppression,” as she tried to describe all the ways—both subtle and gross—that women are oppressed in a patriarchal society, the way they are “caged.” This is her metaphor [I’ve described it before]: “Consider a birdcage. If you look very closely at just one wire in the cage, you cannot see the other wires. If your conception of what is before you is determined by this myopic focus, you could look at that one wire, up and down the length of it, and be unable to see why a bird would not just fly around the wire any time it wanted to go somewhere….It is only when you step back, stop looking at the wires one by one, microscopically, and take a macroscopic view of the whole cage, that you can see why the bird does not go anywhere; and then you will see it in a moment…It is perfectly obvious that the bird is surrounded by a network of systematically related barriers, no one of which would be the least hindrance to its flight, but which, by their relations to each other, are as confining as the solid walls of a dungeon.”
The lack of a gaze, the lack of our own subjectivity, is one strong “wire” of that cage—one that all too often women willingly concede to men, content to be viewed as beautiful, desirable, attractive; content to let men define us primarily through their view of our bodies. The challenge for women is to own our own gaze: to see, create and define ourselves, with the categories we choose for ourselves and our own bodies. In this way, we become subjects in the world of our own making, rather than objects in the cages of others.