The Venerable Dr. Dhammananda Bhikkhuni (the first Thai woman to be ordained as a monk (rather than as a nun) in the Theravada Buddhist tradition), and the Rev. Marjorie Thompson (Presbyterian, American author, retreat leader and specialist on Christian spirituality) delivered three nights of inspiring and informative Buddhist-Christian dialog, February 20-22 at Payap University, Chiang Mai, Thailand. The topic of the final night was “The Role of Women in Buddhism and Christianity”. The following is an open letter to these two remarkable lecturers:
First and most prominently I want to join the several voices who thanked you for preparing and delivering these lectures, demonstrating once again, how valuable sincere, intelligent discourse can be.
Second, I want to congratulate you both for your contributions to the improvement of gender status in our two religious faiths, including your hardy endorsement on the last night of the role of women and your encouragement to believe progress is being made.
Third, I want to say that those of us who represent and champion the rights of diverse genders were also encouraged and inspired. When women make progress against male hegemony, we do too.
Fourth, I would than like to draw your attention to what I believe will increasingly be understood as a flaw in the final topic and in both of your discussions of it. You and the lectureship organizers declined to depart from the assumption that all sexuality is binary, and thereby you implied that that is how genders legitimately function in religious organizations. What is to be done and is being done, you said, in effect, is to allow women to participate equally and to include the feminine perspective which is unique and valuable.
Fifth, it is my belief that the binary theory of gender is false and it is collapsing. The Lord Buddha was clear, “Women can be enlightened.” Jesus and even Paul were ahead of their time, “There is neither male nor female….” The strategy of advocating female status in Buddhism and Christianity is therefore both helpful and flawed. It is helpful to have the male advocates of heterosexual masculine dominance deprived of their exclusive fealty, but it would be more progressive and scientifically valid to recognize that the basic problem is that there are more than two gender orientations. Indeed, the more carefully it is looked at, the more diverse are the genders. The binary assumption is unhelpful, obstructive and unsustainable.
Finally, just as the scientific and medical communities’ acceptance of the givenness and immutability of one’s sexual orientation mandates a change in theological stances, so will the eradication of the rigid binary theory. As this happens the notion will seem insufficient that righteousness can be fully satisfied when such things as bhikkhuni are ratified and a feminine perspective in spirituality is accepted. The need is more radical than that. Feminists who cling to the heterosexual theory are allies with the intellectual bias that led to masculine misogynists. To oppose male supremacy is to attack the effect rather than the cause. Although it has been an effective strategy producing remarkable results, it is now time to raise consciousness about the more basic issue. Ultimately the thing to be opposed is not male dominance and exclusion of females, but the very idea that dividing reality into male and female is valid.
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Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.