Review: I Hear Her Words: An Introduction to Women in Buddhism by Alice CollettOn Fri, 9 July, 2021 - 17:27
The last two decades have seen a growth in Western scholarship about women in Buddhism. The Therīgāthā, a selection of 73 poems by enlightened Buddhist nuns over a 300-year period from the sixth century BCE, has had multiple recent translations and commentaries. Scholars including Rita Gross and Anne C. Klein have conducted feminist re-evaluations of Buddhism, while others have explored the experiences of women practising in specific cultures (for example, Martine Batchelor on her experience as a Jogye Zen nun in Korea; Shenpen Hookham’s recent memoir in which she describes her introduction to Tibet Buddhism in India; Martin Seeger on Thai renunciates). Common threads are the inferior place assigned to women in Buddhism and their negative portrayal in classic texts – highlighting a need for reclamation and celebration of women’s contribution and achievements. With this new book, I Hear Her Words: An Introduction to Women in Buddhism, Alice Collett draws on such resources, and her own extensive scholarship, to present an accessible survey of women within Buddhist texts, doctrine and movements.
Written with a general reader in mind, the first part of the book considers ethical formulations, texts and basic doctrine asking if Buddhism supports gender equality, while the second part looks at the lives of individual women and groups of women from Buddhism’s earliest history to the present day. Context is key to Collett’s textual analysis. Contrasting the work of Eastern and Western women scholars on Buddhism, she questions the usefulness of the Western ‘rights-based’ feminist analytical lens and advocates a broader socio-historical approach to texts, steering the reader away from generalised assumptions about the place and treatment of women in Buddhism based on certain texts or indeed schools of Buddhism. For example, in her investigation of the ‘eight special rules’ that the Buddha is said to have given to the first Buddhist nuns, Collett posits that while the eight rules have been used to cast women as inferior throughout the history of Buddhism, it is possible that they were conceived in the spirit of protection – to safeguard nuns. These women would have been an oddity in the India of the Buddha’s time (and in the centuries following), and their acts of renunciation were radical and potentially dangerous in a way that men’s were not. Their vows of celibacy meant nothing in a culture where women lived their lives wholly under the guardianship of men, and those who didn’t were considered sexually available. Therefore, Collett argues, the guardianship of monks may have been for the nuns’ protection. If they ‘belonged’ to the monks, they are unavailable to other men.
Encouraging readers to approach texts with a critical mind, Collett is at pains to point out that they can be edited or altered to suit the predilections of an individual or school of Buddhism; that sources of texts are often difficult if not impossible to confirm (the legitimacy of the eight rules as a direct teaching of the Buddha, for example, has been validly called into question); that the shared narratives about women in given societies will have inevitably made their way into Buddhist texts; and that some texts may reflect only the views of their authors, small groups or specific movements.
With that critical framework in place, Collett presents a range of Buddhist texts to show the divergence in how women have been characterised. These include various examples of women and men being portrayed as equal in the challenges they overcame to attain enlightenment. She also presents examples of the harshest vilification of women, including that ascribed to the Buddha in the story of King Udaya, Śāntideva’s vehement tirades in his ‘Discourse on the Application of Mindfulness to the Holy Teachings’, and a particularly hard-to-stomach, stand-alone exposition on the ‘subhuman’ nature of women found in an anonymous commentary on the teachings of Phadampa Sangye.
Acknowledging the difficulty in dating them with certainty, she suggests that the earliest texts in the Pali canon depict men and women on a more equal footing, while more negative portrayals of women are to be found in later Buddhist texts. The tropes found in those texts will be familiar to modern readers: women have limited minds, are better suited to domestic life, are over-emotional, cruel, manipulative, seductresses, etc.
Turning from texts to doctrine Collett considers dependent arising, the doctrine of no-self, and the Mahāyāna notion of emptiness, which “whilst not consistently and continuously central in every Buddhist tradition, certainly underpin many basic facets of what constitutes a Buddhist worldview.” Taking each in turn she illustrates their universality using accessible language and examples: all humans are subject to the twelve nidanas (links), composed of the five aggregates, conditioned by their experiences, and are ever-changing with no fixed self. To characterise women as other than this, as having fixed tendencies of cruelty or being over-emotional, for example, is therefore non-doctrinal.
The second part of the book provides a useful history of women in Buddhism, starting with an interesting selection of short biographies of Buddhist women including three early nuns whose stories feature in the Therīgāthā (Dhammadinna, Bhaddā Kundalakesā, Patācārā); Zhu Jingjian, thought to be the first woman ordained in China (in 317 CE); Qiyuan Xinggang (1597–1654) a seventeenth-century female Chan master; Chiyo-ni (1703–75), a Japanese haiku master as well known in her time as Bashō, who produced some 1,700 poems; and Mae Chi Kaew Sianglam (1901–91), a Thai female ‘renunciate’.
Collett then surveys the history of women in Buddhist traditions more generally, demonstrating the real-life consequences of negative textual portrayals, as well as the huge influence of women (and deities and bodhisattvas in female form) in South and Southeast Asia (Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand) where Theravāda Buddhism predominates but there is no formal status for women to live as nuns; East Asian countries (China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan) where access to ordination has not necessarily meant better treatment; and Tibet, where a nuns’ order has never been established.
Collett concludes her survey by looking at women involved in Buddhism in the West. Important early figures discussed include Caroline Rhys Davids who published a pioneering translation of the Therīgāthā in 1909; I. B. Horner, author of the first English language book on women in Women Under Primitive Buddhism (1930); and Helena Blavatsky founder of the Theosophical Society which drew on Buddhism in developing its rather esoteric world view. She touches briefly on the role other Western women played in the spread of Buddhism in the twentieth century, before turning to the issues around gender that inevitably came with it and concludes with an exploration of specific contemporary problems encountered within the Theravāda, Tibetan and Triratna Buddhist communities.
Ambitious in scope and accessible in language and length, this is a useful primer and reference work for those interested in expanding their knowledge of the roles played by (and treatment of) women in Buddhism since its beginnings; and gives readers the opportunity to meet some extraordinary, resilient, and pioneering teachers and practitioners along the way.
Alice Collett is an academic specialising in women in Indian Buddhism. Her previous books include the edited volume Women in Early Indian Buddhism: Comparative Textual Studies (2013) and the monograph Lives of Early Buddhist Nuns: Biographies as History (2016). She has worked at several universities around the world – in North America, Europe, and Asia, and is currently Director of the South Asia History Project, United Kingdom.
Liz Evers is a member of the Buddhist Centre Online team. She is the author of a number of non-fiction reference books, and currently specialises in biographical research.
Purchase I Hear Her Words: An Introduction to Women in Buddhism (2021) from Windhorse Publications.
Join us for a live book launch event on Tuesday 13 July, where Alice Collett will be in conversation with Danasamudra, co-founder of the Triratna Women Project and Librarian of the Sangharakshita Library at Adhisthana.