The Power of Denial: Buddhism, Purity, and Gender

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Innumerable studies have appeared in recent decades about practically every aspect of women's lives in Western societies. The few such works on Buddhism have been quite limited in scope. In The Power of Denial, Bernard Faure takes an important step toward redressing this situation by boldly asking: does Buddhism offer women liberation or limitation? Continuing the innovative exploration of sexuality in Buddhism he began in The Red Thread, here he moves from his earlier focus on male monastic sexuality to Buddhist conceptions of women and constructions of gender. Faure argues that Buddhism is neither as sexist nor as egalitarian as is usually thought. Above all, he asserts, the study of Buddhism through the gender lens leads us to question what we uncritically call Buddhism, in the singular.

Faure challenges the conventional view that the history of women in Buddhism is a linear narrative of progress from oppression to liberation. Examining Buddhist discourse on gender in traditions such as that of Japan, he shows that patriarchy—indeed, misogyny—has long been central to Buddhism. But women were not always silent, passive victims. Faure points to the central role not only of nuns and mothers (and wives) of monks but of female mediums and courtesans, whose colorful relations with Buddhist monks he considers in particular.

Ultimately, Faure concludes that while Buddhism is, in practice, relentlessly misogynist, as far as misogynist discourses go it is one of the most flexible and open to contradiction. And, he suggests, unyielding in-depth examination can help revitalize Buddhism's deeper, more ancient egalitarianism and thus subvert its existing gender hierarchy. This groundbreaking book offers a fresh, comprehensive understanding of what Buddhism has to say about gender, and of what this really says about Buddhism, singular or plural.

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Editorial Reviews

Tricycle - Martine Batchelor
The questions Faure raises are important ones: Is Buddhism a tool of liberation or oppression for women? What might a more egalitarian Buddhist practice consist of? Faure approaches his subject in his usual thorough manner. The wealth of historical, sociological, and cultural references may be daunting to some readers, but those who persevere will be rewarded.
From the Publisher
"The questions Faure raises are important ones: Is Buddhism a tool of liberation or oppression for women? What might a more egalitarian Buddhist practice consist of? Faure approaches his subject in his usual thorough manner. The wealth of historical, sociological, and cultural references may be daunting to some readers, but those who persevere will be rewarded."—Martine Batchelor, Tricycle
The questions Faure raises are important ones: Is Buddhism a tool of liberation or oppression for women? What might a more egalitarian Buddhist practice consist of? Faure approaches his subject in his usual thorough manner. The wealth of historical, sociological, and cultural references may be daunting to some readers, but those who persevere will be rewarded.
— Martine Batchelor
The questions Faure raises are important ones: Is Buddhism a tool of liberation or oppression for women? What might a more egalitarian Buddhist practice consist of? Faure approaches his subject in his usual thorough manner. The wealth of historical, sociological, and cultural references may be daunting to some readers, but those who persevere will be rewarded.
— Martine Batchelor
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691091716
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 2/10/2003
  • Series: Buddhisms: A Princeton University Press Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 480
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.20 (d)

Read an Excerpt

The Power of Denial

Buddhism, Purity, and Gender
By Bernard Faure

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2003 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-09171-6


THIS BOOK is the second part of a project on the place of sexuality and gender in Buddhism. The first part, published under the title The Red Thread, dealt with the question of monastic discipline, especially the rule against illicit sex and its transgression. It also addressed the question of the so-called degeneration of the monastic order in Japan, in particular with the widespread practice of monks marrying or having concubines, and the equally prevalent monastic homosexuality (or rather pedophilia). Sexuality, denied in principle, became crucial, and Buddhism attempted to coopt or transform local cults (in which women played a large role), being in turn transformed by them. In the case of Japan, for instance, Buddhism tried to specialize in imperial rituals dealing with the prolificity of the imperial body and the prosperity of the imperial lineage.

Whereas The Red Thread focused on male monastic sexuality, this work centers on Buddhist conceptions of women and constructions of gender. Although this artificial dichotomy between sexuality and gender is somewhat unfortunate, and potentially misleading, it is used heuristically, as a tool for sorting out the staggering complexity of the issues.

Thepresent volume deals more specifically with the status and agency of women in a typically androcentric tradition like Japanese Buddhism. My general argument is that Buddhism is paradoxically neither as sexist nor as egalitarian as is usually thought. Women played an important role in Buddhism, not only as nuns and female mystics, but also as mothers (and wives) of the monks; in addition, in such capacity, they were the representatives of local cults, actively resisting what was at times perceived as a Buddhist take-over. Among these women, we also find courtesans and prostitutes, who often were the privileged interlocutors of the monks.

Women were divided, not only due to their own separate agenda, but also as a result of male domination, and some were clearly more oppressed than others. Preaching nuns, for instance, seemed to side with the male institution in threatening other women with eternal exclusion from deliverance. Thus, we are faced with a broad spectrum of situations: from exclusion to inclusion (or the other way around, depending on one's viewpoint, with discrimination as a case of "inclusive exclusion"); from agency or passivity within the patriarchal system to "life on the borderline"; to passivity or agency in the "ténèbres extérieures," rejection or voluntary departure from the patriarchal Eden or Pure Land.

Until now, the story or history of women in Buddhism has been represented in a relatively linear fashion: as a shift from oppression to freedom, a teleological narrative of progress and liberation (from so-called Hinayana to Mahayana, or again, from an elitist ideology to a more open and democratic one). While some scholars see Buddhism as part of a movement of emancipation, others see it as a source of oppression. Perhaps this is only a distinction between optimists and pessimists, if not between idealists and realists. In both cases, the identity of Buddhism (and of women) is seen as rather unproblematic. Things, however, are unfortunately (or fortunately) more complicated. As we begin to realize, the term "Buddhism" does not designate a monolithic entity, but covers a number of doctrines, ideologies, and practices-some of which seem to invite, tolerate, and even cultivate "otherness" on their margins; it also refers to various levels of discourse (ideological, institutional) that, although globally related at a given period, have relative autonomy and distinct dynamics. Thus, even the most reactionary ideology, while operating according to its own repressive dynamic, can be put to very different uses (some of them ironic, subversive) when it is articulated to specific cultural and institutional contexts, and manipulated by antagonistic historical agents. These tactics and strategies of inclusion, exclusion, and/or discrimination were permitted (yet constrained) by a certain number of models, whose combinations are, if not endless, at least more numerous than usually recognized by partisans on both sides of the gender divide. Among them, we can mention:

1. male power (androcentrism, misogyny, patriarchy)

2. female power (biological, religious, political)

3. equality through conjunction of sexes (yin/yang)

4. complementarity through conjunction of sexes (Tantric or Daoist ritual)

5. rhetorical equality through denial of sex/gender (Mahayana doctrine)


Many studies have been produced over the past twenty years about practically every aspect of women's lives in Western societies. Reacting against what she perceived as a certain female parochialism in gender studies, Nathalie Zemon Davis insisted that the focus should be on the relations between sexes rather than on women only. In the case of Buddhism, however, there is no need yet to worry about having too many studies focusing only on women. We are still at the first stage, where we may need to listen carefully in order to hear the voices of women, in the interstices, or through the "italics" (the specific slant) of men's discourse.

Studies on Buddhism and gender have begun to appear, but they are usually limited to one tradition (in general Tantric or Tibetan Buddhism), or in pushing a specific agenda. I will not give here a survey of previous scholarship, but will simply point out some of the advances and remaining problems. Most recent studies tend to adopt one of two approaches: the first discusses the Buddhist bias against women, or the more or less successful Buddhist attempts to overcome this bias, while the second consists mainly in attempts to reveal the active role of Buddhist women, to emphasize female agency and thus counter the stereotype of women as passive cultural subjects. The latter is still a Western-centered approach, since a major Buddhist criticism revolves around the notion of woman as seductress; that is, precisely her active (and damning) influence. The present work combines these two types of approach, while keeping their limitations in mind.

It is worth bearing in mind Susan Sered's remark that "the writings of most feminist anthropologists carry either an implicit or explicit message that the blurring of gender categories is what will lead to the demise of patriarchy." Sered's findings suggest a different scenario: according to her, "women's religions" stress rather than play down gender differences-even if "they tend to choose the less sexist ideology available." In these religions, Sered argues, "the women's sphere is considered as good (if not better) than the male sphere, and women fully control the female sphere." Going one step further, Sered argues that it is ironic that few scholars interpret women's religiosity in terms of motherhood. She wants in particular to emphasize motherhood over sexual intercourse, which she sees as a "lurking phallocentric obsession in Western scholarship."

Historically, Buddhism has monopolized the afterlife and the major rites of passage-birth, death, and rebirth-while leaving the sacraments of life (adulthood, marriage) to Confucianism or Shinto . This is why we have Confucian "precepts for women," whereas Buddhist attempts-for instance Muju Ichien's Mirror for Women (Tsuma Kagami)-remain general descriptions of Buddhist morality and practice, common to both sexes. Thus, women could find little in the Buddhist teaching that they could apply to normal life. Outside of monastic life, Buddhism was a teaching for times of crisis (childbirth, illness, death). Its impact on women was, on the whole, negative, inasmuch as it asserted the sinfulness of female sexuality and gender. What, then, would it mean for Buddhism to truly become a "woman's religion" in the sense emphasized by Sered?

Many feminist scholars have emphasized the misogynistic (or at least androcentric) nature of Buddhism. The point is almost trivial. By presenting Buddhism as a monolithic ideology, however, there is a danger of repeating the same gesture by which Buddhist ideologues attempted to construct a seamless orthodoxy. This alleged unity is what we must undermine, in order to find-within Buddhism itself, and not only outside-the many voices that have been covered, to let them contribute to the deconstruction, both internal and external, of Buddhist orthodoxy. Buddhism cannot simply be ignored, or suppressed; this would be to fall in to the same scapegoating mechanism one criticizes. Rather, we must live with it, and provide a more in-depth critique that would attempt to nip its sexism in the bud. At the same time, we need to recognize that the egalitarian ideology of Buddhism, even if it has until now mostly been ignored in practice, can indeed be used to subvert the existing gender hierarchy-unless, taking the hard-core feminist approach, one considers that the genealogical flaw of this unequal egalitarianism makes all dialectical overcoming impossible?

Not surprisingly, feminist interpretations of Buddhism vary considerably, and are even sometimes at odds with one another. I have to defer to others in discussion of specific points, but I will simply emphasize the methodological problems in this type of work. First among these is a certain hermeneutical naïveté or wishful thinking that insists on taking texts at face-value and on reading them through one single code; second, a certain ideological problem, the danger of ventriloquism when speaking in the name of a silent other; third, a problem due to the lack of sociohistorical context.

The search for the women "hidden from history" cannot, as such, justify an egalitarian reading of the tradition. As John Winkler remarked, sentences of the type "Men and women enter this visionary world together" must be taken with a grain of salt. Or again, to quote feminist authorities, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar: "Since creativity is defined as male, it follows that the dominant literary images of femininity are male fantasies too." Furthermore, as Toril Moi points out, "it is not an unproblematic project to try to speak for the other woman, since this is precisely what the ventriloquism of patriarchy has always done: men have constantly spoken for women, in the name of women. Joan Kelly notes that "we could probably maintain of any ideology that tolerates sexual parity that: 1) it can threaten no major institution of the patriarchal society from which it emerges; and 2) men, the rulers within the ruling order, must benefit from it." There are, as we will see, various examples of egalitarian discourse in Western and Asian cultures, but they usually have failed to translate into social realities. The Buddhist "rhetoric of equality," in particular, remained general and abstract, never becoming a collective, social and political equality.

It might be difficult to retrieve the social context in the Indian/Tibetan case(s), and thus to prove or disprove the egalitarian rhetoric. To make sense of the active role of woman (in the form of sakti) in Indian Tantrism, scholars like Agehananda Bharati have argued that in certain parts of India women were actually known to take the active role in sexual matters. This, however, does not mean that women had a higher status. Furthermore, a comparison with the Chinese and Japanese contexts, where a similar rhetoric clearly conceals male power, inclines us to think that the same, mutatis mutandis, was taking place in India and Tibet. Some have also argued that Tibet constitutes an exception, as admittedly Tibetan culture was much less misogynistic than Chinese and Japanese cultures. But in Tibetan Tantrism at least, women were not represented as active energy (sakti), but as passive wisdom (prajñã). Susan Sered has documented the existence of religious traditions in which women played a major role (for instance Okinawan religion). These traditions are few and far between, however, and Tantrism does not seem to be one of them, despite what a superficial glance at its egalitarian rhetoric may suggest.

There has been a tendency to exaggerate female submission, without recognizing women's capacity to play and subvert the (male) game well and to laugh off "small men." Is it not, in last analysis, to interiorize in a subtle way the male contempt toward women, these women who are said, a little hastily, to be utterly passive? This, however, does not allow us to deny, or excuse, the relentless sexism of the Buddhist tradition.

Attempts at retrieving female agency or women's voices, when not checked by interpretive vigilance, may end up in presenting just another biased image (or hearing voices). As Joan Scott points out, it "also runs the risk of conflating valuation of women's experience and positive assessment of everything they did." The question then may boil down to this: do two biased images counterbalance each other, and are they the same thing as a "neutral" account (assuming that such an account would be possible)? From a political standpoint, a feminist counterargument to patriarchy, even biased, may be seen as legitimate. From a scholarly standpoint, things are a little different, even though we now know that all accounts are gendered, and no "neutral" account is possible. But the supposed "differend" comes from the fact that we are not dealing simply with a debate opposing the male position to its female counterpart. In both camps, we also find wolves in sheep's clothing and sheep in wolves' clothing.

In their search for role models and a "usable history," feminist scholars tend to project current normative conceptions and ideologies onto past cultures, and to thus perpetrate anachronisms. In order to avoid cultural fallacies, it is therefore important to look closely at the historical and anthropological records. This close scrutiny should, however, itself be informed by feminists insights, and question its documents in terms of gender. It ought to be an ideological critique, or lead toward it. Such critique must be a genuine critique of ideology (in the text as well as in its own discourse), not merely an "ideological" critique denouncing one ideology (Buddhism) in the name of another (feminism).

Retrieving the female voice, what feminist scholars have dubbed as "her/story," is a legitimate approach, but not exclusive of others. There are more women in the Buddhist tradition, and they have been more active and influential, than is usually assumed. Yet it is precisely the need to retrieve these voices that suggests the tradition, at least from a certain point onward, has tended to cover them-and it is this cover-up that we must examine. A mere denial of the sexist nature of the scholarly tradition (leaving intact the Buddhist tradition) seems misleading, even if it has some tactical and political usefulness. In the black-and-white world of gender ideology, one-sided arguments will always be more attractive than nuanced analysis.

Much feminist work on Buddhism has been concerned with "singing the praises of exceptional women" or chronicling the indignities suffered by women. This approach, however, is increasingly criticized as being blind to cultural and historical contexts and inequalities other than those related to gender, and so as being complicit in perpetuating the image of women as passive victims. A more nuanced reading would acknowledge that, while some women were passive victims, others were not. The responsible historian needs to attend to both sides. All models, whatever their initial validity, become counterproductive when they are determined by an ideological or political agenda, and are flawed from an historian's viewpoint.


Excerpted from The Power of Denial by Bernard Faure Copyright © 2003 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: "Soaring and Settling"—Too Soon? 2
The Cultural Approach 6
Gender Revisited 8
Gendering Buddhism 15
The Second Order 23
The Evolution of the Female Sanngha 24
The Female Order in Japan 28
The Issue of Ordination 36
Sociological Context(s)38
Sorely Missed 47
Nunhood and Feminism 51
The Rhetoric of Subordination 55
A Theodicy of Disprivilege 57
The Five Obstacles and the Three Dependences 62
A Case of Blood Poisoning 66
Drinking from the Blood Bowl 73
The "Facts" of Life 79
The Red and the White 81
The Rhetoric of Salvation 91
The Legend of the Naga-Girl 91
Becoming Male 99
Interpretative Divergences 103
Amida's Vow and Its Implications 106
A Feminine Topos 116
The Rhetoric of Equality 119
Gender Equality in Mahayana 120
Gender Equality in Vajrayana 122
Chan/Zen Egalitarianism 127
Monks, Mothers, and Motherhood 145
Bad Mothers 146
The Ambivalent Mother 148Mater Dolorosa 148
The Forsaken Mother 152
The Changing Image of Motherhood 160
Varieties of Motherly Experience 163
Mad Mothers 167
The Law of Alliance 168
Conflicting Images 181
Women in the Life of the Buddha 182
Queens, Empresses, and Other Impressive Ladies 188
Eminent Nuns 198
Femmes Fatales 204
Of Women and Jewels 205
Crossing the Line 219
The Utopian Topos 222
Stopped in Their Tracks 224
Kukai's Mother 228
The Kekkai Stone 233
Conflicting Interpretations 235
The Symbolic Reading of Transgression 238
The Kekkai and the Logic of Muen 243
Women on the Move 250
The "Nuns of Kumano" 250
What's in a Name 254
Down by the River 261
The Monk and the Bayadère 262
The Discourteous Courtesan 267
Paradigms 269
The Power of Women 287
The Myth of Tamayorihime 290
The Miko and the Monk 304
Women on the Edge 310
Women, Dragons, and Snakes 316

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