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Buddhism and Gender Identity

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I am pleased to report that I have never experienced discrimination based on my gender while studying at Rangjung Yeshe Institute.  Sexual harassment and discrimination are very real, and in the United States women of all ages confront discrimination on a daily basis.  Perhaps it is better in Australia, Canada, or Europe?  I can’t speak to that.  It’s worth mentioning the other organizations I have either worked for, or are affiliated with, who also have a stellar record of promoting gender equality.  Huliau Green Events is a non-profit group run in Maui county which organizes and hosts zero waste events.  Their focus is sustainability and environmental literacy.  The other notable organization is Earthship biotecture.  Mike Reynolds isn’t a perfect person, but he has created probably the most equitable construction company the world over where anyone of any gender or sexual orientation can learn the basics of architectural design, carpentry, and sustainable construction techniques without fear of harassment.  Add the other academic institutions of higher learning I attended in the United States and the list more or less stops there. 

Gender equality is important.  Students should be able to pursue their education goals without fear of discrimination and prejudice based on their gender, or sexual orientation.  As obvious as that may seem to some of you, it is guaranteed someone reading this has faced life-long profiling and harassment.  I’m pleased to say that RYI is a safe place for women.  There are female professors, as well as female administration faculty, and I have personally never witnessed an incident involving any kind of discrimination based on gender or sexual orientation.  The question I’d like to explore is whether this is inherent to Buddhism or merely circumstantial.  Take for example Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, the abbot of Ka- Nying Shedrub Ling; he is certainly known for his equitable treatment of women.  But again, is this inherent in Buddhist study and practice, or a peripheral effect of someone who’s spent a life-time cultivating compassion? 

In Julia Stenzel’s Buddhist History and Traditions II class, we spent a good portion of the semester investigating women in Buddhism and other topics related to Buddhist modernism.   This is an excellent (albeit extremely dense) class.  Mz. Stenzel does not shy away from discussing controversial topics such as self-immolation and  bhikkhunī ordination.  What I would like to see in the future is Rangjung Yeshe Institute create a class (or classes) devoted entirely to the study of Buddhism and Gender Identity.  On the one hand we have textual sources such as the Vimalakīrti Sūtra wherein Śāriputra is changed from a man into a woman and back by a goddess, revealing the emptiness of gender.  On the other hand we have textual sources like the Madhyāntavibhāgakārikā, which states explicitly one cannot become enlightened with the physical support of a woman’s body. 

So what does it all mean?  The only response I can provide comes in the form of another question – why isn’t the study of Buddhism and Gender Identity already a class at RYI???  Another observation – on campus we do not have an LGBTQ student organization.  I’m curious as to why that is.  Perhaps it is because no student has felt it necessary up until this point to start such an organization.  My main aim with this brief blog post is to stimulate interest and support in the student body to explore these topics further fall semester 2022 (hopefully by that time we will have resumed on-campus classes).  If other students are interested in sharing their perspective, RYI Student Society should address this.

~ By Rachel See 

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