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I was recently invited to a recent Buddhist-ethics conference featuring a workshop discussion on gender. I decided to attend the workshop en femme – as Sandhya – because I thought it might be relevant, though I wasn’t sure how. It turned out it was.

The workshop, hosted by Amy Langenberg and Antoinette DeNapoli, showcased the pair’s work on the welcome South Asian phenomenon of female renouncers. DeNapoli studied Mataji, a guru in Uttar Pradesh who declared herself a Shankaracharya (a monastic leader in Śaṅkara’s lineage). Langenberg studied the Peace Grove Institute, a community of female Theravāda Buddhist renouncers in Nepal. Having introduced Mataji and the Peace Grove, the two asked some discussion questions relating to the two, and broke us into small groups to discuss them. I forget the exact wording of the question that proved most fruitful, but it was something along the lines of “What do these female renouncers teach us about gender ethics?” And one of my group’s participants asked a most insightful question: “What do we mean by gender ethics?”

Female renouncers at the Peace Grove Institute

That question led me to the thoughts that I shared with the group then and which I’ll share with you here. I said: gender ethics seems to mean the role (or lack thereof) that we think gender should play in a good life. Once I said that, I was immediately struck by the difference in gender ethics between Mataji and Peace Grove. And my previous reflections on my own gender journey helped me think that difference through.

Mataji proclaims the essential sacredness of biological femaleness, in a Śākta way that would at times suggest female superiority. In DeNapoli’s words from her article:

Mataji understands that her biological female sex “naturally” connects her to the transformative divinity of the Goddess…. She stresses that women more so than men embody the great goddess Shakti, who creates, sustains, and destroys the universe. But Shakti is more than a divine feminine life-force to Mataji. She is also a divine female who menstruates like human women. Without Shakti’s menstruation, Mataji says that the world could not exist. She emphasizes that “Blood comes out of our bodies because it came out of Mother’s body first.”

A student associated with Peace Grove, on the other hand, says something very different: “We girls just want to live our lives as freely and as happily as boys. Girls and boys are creatures of the same nature and we all have the same desires, but only boys are allowed to fulfill those desires. It is time for us to create a world where girls can enjoy their lives too.” For this Peace Grove student, boys and girls are the same in the relevant respects, even having the same desires; everyone should just be treated equally. Whereas for Mataji, female biological features like menstruation are essential to the divine functioning of the universe.

I don’t see how there could be room for transgender in Mataji’s biologically essentialist ideas. I don’t menstruate, never have, and never will; I’m not going to count as a woman by her standards. (And it’s important to remember that such essentialist ideas of gender, disagree with them as we might, are still considerably more widespread around the world than are views of gender as self-expression like mine.) For the Peace Grove student, on the other hand, people are people; biology should not be destiny, not even in a way that elevates female biology.

Mataji’s views derive deeply from her non-Buddhist Indian Śākta context, informed by Assamese tantra. By contrast, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to me if the Peace Grove student’s non-normative view of gender is tied to her Buddhism! This is where my previous thoughts on the matter came in: in Confucianism or the Abrahamic traditions, as in Mataji’s Śāktism, there’s a normativity or even sacredness attached to biological nature, including the nature of the reproductive system. In Buddhism there is no such thing! Reproduction just puts more beings on the wheel of saṃsāra; there’s nothing sacred about it. And so there is nothing sacred about biological maleness or femaleness either. (Tantric Buddhism could be an exception here, especially given its close connection to the Śākta tradition that Mataji draws from – but then it tends to be an exception in a lot of ways.)

Now premodern Buddhism was both sexist and cissexist (a term I prefer to “transphobic”) – not surprisingly given the patriarchal society it belonged to. The thing is, I don’t think that either of those flaws go deep into Buddhism’s theory. If you get rid of the suttas’ disparaging views of women and the Vinaya’s prohibitions on paṇḍakas entering the monkhood, not that much else has to change; gender doesn’t play a strong part in the path to liberation from suffering. (Since the rationale for monastic rules in the Vinaya often has to do with public perceptions of the monkhood, I think there’s a good case that the sexist and cissexist rules should be dropped today by the Vinaya’s own reasoning.)

All of that is very different from Confucianism, where husband and wife are one of the Five Relationships with their own teleology. It’s also very different from a view where the masculine and feminine principles of Śiva and Śākti are fundamental to the universe. In those systems, if you want to deemphasize biological sex, a lot more has to go out with it. With a Confucian or Śaivite cosmology, it’s a lot harder to get rid of biological essentialism in ethics, and so feminism is more likely to take an essentialist form like Mataji’s. I respect Mataji’s approach, but all the same it makes me glad I’m a Buddhist.

EDIT 24 Oct: Mataji is in Uttar Pradesh; the post originally said Madhya Pradesh. Thanks to Antoinette DeNapoli for the correction.

Cross-posted at the Indian Philosophy Blog.