WGSS 07.18 The Struggle for Liberation: Women, Monasticism, and Buddhism
Within the context of ancient India, where women’s religious roles were defined solely in terms of marriage and motherhood, the Buddhist tradition was revolutionary in allowing women to “go forth from the home to the homeless life”—that is, renounce both marriage and motherhood, shave their heads, take a vow of lifelong celibacy, don androgynous-looking monastic robes, and become fully ordained nuns, following the Buddhist monastic path and living within a community of like-minded women. Yet in spite of this revolutionary move, Buddhism in India was a profoundly patriarchal religious tradition that remained deeply ambivalent about its Order of Nuns—consistently subordinating the nuns to the monks and eventually allowing the nuns’ order to die out, while the Order of Monks continued to flourish. As Buddhism spread to other parts of the world, the legacy of this ambivalence toward women leading a monastic life has resulted in Buddhist nuns occupying a wide variety of different statuses—both official and unofficial—throughout different parts of the Buddhist world.
This First-Year Seminar will examine the relationship between women, monasticism, and Buddhism through an interdisciplinary and transnational perspective. We will begin in ancient India by examining the founding of the Order of Nuns; the monastic lives, spiritual poetry, and struggles of early Buddhist nuns; and the decline and death of the nuns’ order in India. Then we’ll move on to explore a wide range of topics from throughout the Buddhist world—such as the economic and political power of the nuns’ order in parts of East Asia; the death of the nuns’ order and the phenomenon of low-status “unofficial” nuns throughout much of Southeast Asia; the difficult lives of novice nuns in Tibet and the Himalayan region; the increasing phenomenon of Western nuns; and the feminist possibilities (or impossibilities) inherent in Buddhist doctrine. The term will conclude with a sustained look at the contemporary global movement to re-establish the valid ordination lineage for nuns throughout the world—a movement in which the voices arguing “for” and “against” are not always what one might presume them to be. Dist: INT or SOC; WCult: NW.