Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self

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  • Book Name Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self
  • Author Anne Carolyn Klein
  • Language, Pages English
  • Last Updated 2022 / 08 / 08
  • ISBN 9788120834071, 8120834070
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Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self
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Despite the daunting barriers of geography and language that separate them, Buddhism and contemporary feminism have much to say to each other. Buddhist practices such as mindfulness (in which calm centring and a keen awareness of change coexist) and compassion (in which the self is recognized as both powerful in itself and interdependently connected with all others) can be important resources for contemporary women, while feminism can expand the traditional horizons of Buddhist concerns to include social, historical, and psychological issues. The image and ritual of the Great Bliss Queen, an important Buddhist figure of enlightenment, from the unifying theme of the book, model the practices and theory that can assist each of us in being at one with ourselves and fully engaged with others.


This book is a conversation between the profoundly different voices of Tibetan Buddhism and Western feminism. In some ways their worlds are incommensurable. Feminism is a modern, largely secular quest for political power and psychological well-being; Buddhism is an ancient religious quest for spiritual insight and inner discipline. Yet Buddhists and feminists share important common ground in that questions of selfhood are central to both my engagement with the unexpectedly fruitful interaction of specific Buddhist and feminist perspectives on questions about the self gave rise to this book.

In the fall of 1969, I enrolled at the University of Wisconsin as an M.A. student in Buddhist Studies. Founded by Richard Robinson, this was the first academic program in the United States to focus on Buddhism. For someone interested in a living Buddhist tradition, the timing of the program was perfect. During its early years, some of the most highly regarded Tibetan scholars and practitioners of their generation, exiled in India since the Chinese takeover in 1959, had begun to receive invitations to visit the West, including Wisconsin. Thus, when I began my work in Madison, it was possible to meet and talk with persons who still carried the speech, world view, and textual training that had characterized Tibetan Buddhism for 600 years and more. Seven years later, after a year and a half among Tibetans in India and three years of informal study of Buddhist thought in the United States, I entered the graduate program at the University of Virginia, where, much to my satisfaction at the time, the terms of discussion were set almost entirely by Indo-Tibetan philosophical agendas from the sixth through fourteenth centuries.' The modern West was a distant planet.

I spent the decade of the 197os, as well as the early 198os, between Asia and graduate school, studying a variety of texts and practices with refugee Tibetan lamas in India, Nepal, and the United States. During my time in India and Nepal, I studied in much the same way Tibetans themselves did, but always with the significant difference that I got special attention, time, and even food and lodging from the leading figures of the communities I visited, owing to my "importance" as a Westerner and the irrelevance in that context of my being a woman.2 I eventually formed especially close ties with several Tibetan teachers from the newest (fourteenth century) and oldest (eighth century) orders of Tibetan Buddhism. These are the Geluk (rhymes with "hey look"), sometimes known as the "Yellow Hat," order and the Nyingma (rhymes with "sing Ma"), or "Ancient," order. For me this enterprise completely eclipsed the more contemporary forms of "consciousness-raising" then engaging Western women. I knew virtually nothing of feminism or the women's movement until I emerged from Charlottesville and entered an outstanding community of women scholars at Harvard Divinity School in 1982.

The Women's Studies in Religion Program at Harvard, where I was a research associate and then a visiting scholar, was a revelation to me: many of the issues that had initially drawn me toward the study of Buddhism-questions of personhood and identity, the epistemology of intellectual and personal development, as well as a certain metaphysical joie de vivre-were being addressed by women scholars informed by an entirely different context. Their camaraderie, interest, and intellectual expansiveness made possible my first ventures across the boundaries of feminist and Buddhist thought and practice. My interest in continuing the dialogue stems from that initial recognition that such discussions were both possible and enriching. Sub-sequent encounters helped shape the way this conversation would develop.

In 1987 I was invited to speak on the topic of women and Buddhism at the Conference on World Buddhism in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Although I accepted, I felt a gnawing dissatisfaction at having been assigned this topic, a surprising reaction given that the proposed talk dovetailed so well with my interests. My antipathy passed only when I saw my unease as symptomatic of previously unacknowledged tensions between these two subjects. The detailed discussions in Buddhist texts about the nature of reality, or descriptions of exalted mental states, can make concern for women's special qualities, stories, or needs seem trivial. Since most of the attendees would be male Buddhist scholars or monks, did this mean my paper would not, in the conference's scheme of values, be "important"? At the same time, I recognized that a grounded interest in how real people, women and men, behave in the everyday world can make Buddhist philosophical nuance seem abstract and irrelevant. From that point on, the tensions between Buddhist and feminist orientations became for me a crucial element in the conversation between them. Each one, too narrowly understood, is in a position to trivialize the other.

But I do not mean to say that these tensions preclude meaningful connections. Buddhist theorizing is in principle aimed at practical benefits for real people, and feminist practicality is sometimes associated with a rhetoric whose abstractness matches that of the most rarefied Buddhist metaphysics. More to the point, Buddhist and feminist perspectives, however diverse, are dedicated to the fruitful inter-action of theory and experience; they both focus on questions of self and identity and, equally significant, have appeared on the Western intellectual landscape at approximately the same time. They also share a radically critical view of the status quo in which they find themselves. For feminists, everyday assumptions about gender and identity are marred by age-old male-based models and agendas. For Buddhists, ordinary (mis)understanding causes us to believe our-selves and others to be enduring in ways that Buddhist analyses find absurd. The usefulness of Buddhist material for feminist concerns re-quires a consideration of how Buddhist theories and practices resonate with twentieth-century North American women, and this resonance has everything to do with the cultural context of their encounter. In 1988 I was at an American Academy of Religion session attended by Buddhist and Christian women from the United States, Korea, and Japan.

A Christian woman from Japan rose and ad-dressed a Buddhist woman from the United States, saying, "From our point of view, it is incredible that you should take up Buddhism, because in our history, Buddhism's coming to Japan was the beginning of the end of powerful positions for women." Hearing this, I saw that the Asian Christian and North American Buddhist women were mirror images of one another. Each had chosen a religious path on the margins of her culture at least partly because she found there the greatest freedom and creativity. Indeed, women throughout the United States are today playing formative leadership roles in developing Buddhist communities, both as scholars and as meditation teachers.3 These budding Buddhist centres do not carry, as do Christian institutions, a long and vexed history with respect to Western women, and they are not in the same way beholden to a worldwide infrastructure dominated by male authority. Buddhist perspectives can be a resource for Western feminist theory partly because they are for feminists a completely fresh perspective. The benefits that Buddhism and feminism bring to each other spring from this widening of perspectives, not from the intrinsic superiority of either side. As Buddhist traditions come to North America from countries such as Burma, Cambodia, China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Tibet, and Vietnam, they raise tantalizing questions about how their views and practices might relate to Western cultural experience. Fruitful responses to these questions require recognizing that Western feminists and Asian Buddhists are starting from very different cultural and philosophical understandings of personhood.

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