Buddhismus, Geschlechterverhältnis und Diskriminierung: Die gegenwärtige Diskussion im Shin-Buddhismus Japans. By Simone Heidegger. Studies in Modern Asian Religions, vol. 4. General Editors: Michael Pye and Monika Schrimpf. Berlin: LIT Verlag, 2006.
This lucid, comprehensive, and quietly impassioined book deals first with discussions of canonical texts on the relation of men and women, and then with the status of women in Shin Buddhism today. In her survey of Buddhist tradition about the need for a woman to transform into a man before she can attain buddhahood, Heidegger notes that even in Mahâyâna texts that radically undercut the distinction of male and female the exalted and enlightened feminine figures – the Goddess in the Vimalakîrti Sutra, Vaidehî in the Meditation Sutra, Queen Srimâla – are never explicitly called buddhas; meanwhile some commentaries on these texts asks if these figures are really women or have really attained a high grade of enlightenment; women continue to be associated with sexuality, whereas men are associated with asexuality and with the overcoming of sexuality and sexual differentiation (pp. 58-9).
Shinran cannot be disengaged from these sexist currents in Buddhist tradition. His marriage is vaunted as an emblem of the full integration of women in Shin Buddhism (p. 239), but in confiding his denomination to priests and their wives (bômori or temple-keepers) he actually set up a strong hierarchy of male and female (p. 452). Some see the dream in which Kannon assured him of her presence in his sexual life as still presupposing that women are sinful and unclean (p. 246), and as urging them to perverse self-sacrifice (p. 250). One apologetic strategy is to claim that his ‘problematic statements’ are corrected by the essential core of his teaching – much as people play off the spirit against the letter of Pauline texts, citing Galatians 3:28 (‘there is neither male nor female’) as a feminist charter. Heidegger does not contest the centrality of such texts as Kôsô wasan (高僧和讃) 94: “Man and woman, high and low, all are included when Amida’s name is uttered” (quoted, p. 89). But she does ask, at the end of the first half of her work, how Shinran’s spiritual egalitarianism concretely bears on social distinctions, hierarchies and discriminations (p. 281).
Her discussion of the laws, institutions, mentality, and everyday life of Jôdo Shinshû today takes its start from the impact of the Buraku liberation movement in raising consciousness of the issue of discrimination. In 1932, 85% of buraku-min were Shinshû believers (p. 287). In their critique of the denomination, the Suiheisha (水平者), founded in 1922, appealed to Shinran. Initial reactions from both Honganji and the Ôtani branch of Shinshû were judged insufficient (p. 289) and Suiheisha became more generally critical of religion. Only in the late sixties did the formal Buraku complaints begin to make a substantial impact. The word dôbô (同朋), meaning comradeship in Buddhist practice, became the slogan of a movement for a return to the authentic faith of Shinran and for democratic reform of Shinshû. It was inspired on the Ôtani side by the ideas of Kiyozawa Manshi (1863-1903), which had been kept alive by his disciples. It met strong resistance from the Ôtani family, whose role was reduced in a new constitution in 1982 (p. 297). In Honganji things proceeded more peacefully, and the notion of dôbô was referred less to Buddhist community than to society at large (p. 303).
The author follows separately the discussion on women’s role in the two branches of Shinshû. In the Ôtani branch the requests of women’s groups were met with some changes in the two complex ranking systems and a 1991 ruling that women could be temple leaders when a suitable male successor could not be found; there were twelve female temple leaders at the end of 1994. Objections to the limits of this recognition of women were countered with the assurance that it could be a first step to further developments, and indeed gradual progress is afoot.
The Honganji branch has accepted female temple leaders since 1946, yet they are only 2% of the total, lower than in most denominations (p. 359); moreover, they are poorly received by laity and clergy (pp. 374-7). Their role in practice, as in the Ôtani branch, is to fill the gap when no suitable male is found. Feminist concern has focused on the hierarchical relationship between the male temple-leader and his wife, whose duties as bômori are both domestic and religious. Despite formal equality, women have little voice in decision making (p. 381). The women’s critique in Honganji turns more on awareness and attitudes than on reform of law, so while reception of the critique is not always satisfactory, no group has emerged as defenders of the status quo (p. 395). Some of the criticisms target ordinary sexism – the use of stereotyping language, for example (p. 383) – rather than anything specific to Shinshû. Indeed, this book might benefit from comparison between the relation of the sexes in Shinshû and that prevailing in secular Japanese organizations. The bibliography is buddhocentric, opening few perspectives on the wider society.
The author deplores the way basic Buddhist doctrine is taken for granted in much of the debate, rather than newly explored (p. 390). To dispel the suspicion of shallow worldliness, women have pointed, rather routinely, to statements of Shinran and the dôbô ideal. When an idea like the following is put forward: ‘The responsibility for the reality of discrimination has been shoved onto the discriminated side and the discrimination has been sustained, whereas the consciousness of the discriminating side has not been put in question” (quoted, p. 389), or when it is maintained that Buddha, Shinran, Amida all stand for the equality of man and women, but that earliest Buddhism contradicted its basic principles here because of the influence of social custom, should these ideas not prompt a critical retrieval of the entire tradition? The present work points in that direction.
High philosophy is hardly encouraged by the barrage of patriarchal pseudo-arguments the critics faced: “We would be in difficulties if some crazy old woman became temple leader and settled into that role forever” ; “Can women talk about faith?’”; “Is this not the language of the earthly world (shaba no hanashi)? On TV, which I rarely watch, they sometimes show the rows of spectators on entertainment programs, and when you look, they are all women. The men are working at their company and there are only women there” (p. 321-2). With reference to the last statement, from Kurube Nobuo, former President of the Dôbôkai movement, one woman was told by a male coreligionist: “We men might not wish to say it so directly, but really we all think so. Men and women are not equal… Rennyo writes that women are more deeply sinful than men” (p. 353) – an indication that the classic texts continue to shape attitudes in real life.
The author reverts several times to Kurube’s 1987 lectures and pegs on them a discussion of “traditional Buddhist ways of seeing equality and differentiation” (pp. 400-09), as well as a Buddhist critique of the same (pp. 409-25). Kurube said that he was less interested in social integration and the Yasukuni Shrine controversy than in the basic question, “What is the true self?” Heidegger takes him to task for subscribing to convenient views: that men may have the say but women are equally powerful due to their indirect influence; or that men are powerful in society, women in the family (p. 402). It seems unnecessary to perpetuate the fuss about Kurabe. Heidegger is reporting late on a battle that loomed large when she began her studies but surely does not have the epochal significance that would justify poring over Kurabe’s ill-considered words as if they were scripture. (Her bibliography has few titles after 1996, the time of her second stay in Japan.) Given that Kurabe wrote three self-critiques, confessing that he had used discriminatory language of women and the mentally ill (by saying that feminist critics were mentally ill), one might find the tenacity of his critics unpleasant. Yamauchi Sayoko finds that in his self-critique Kurabe only apologized for his unwise use of words (p. 415) – even though he said that the words revealed a discriminatory consciousness that he’d been impregnated with for long years (p. 414). There is perhaps a touch of the doctrinaire in another critic’s insistence that “if I neglect society, do I not then equally neglect the self?” (p. 418), though one may agree that the question of the true self cannot be put on a different, separate level from social questions.
The book’s deepest plunge into Buddhist doctrine comes when Heidegger points out the dangerous use often made of the idea that all dharmas are empty, and therefore “equal.” This is often invoked to make social inequalities seem inessential – they can in any case be attributed to karma. Accusations of discrimination are then dismissed as showing a poor grasp of the depths of Buddhism. Heidegger notes this suspect recourse to the transcendental in Kiyozawa Manshi, Kajiyama Yûichi and others. What victims of discrimination point out, she reminds us, is that discrimination is a suffering often created and imposed on them by Buddhists themselves, the very ones who blithely proclaim the universality of Amida’s vow (p. 410).
The reader may have a sense of déjà vu, for in Christian churches there are plenty of examples of such double-think and such use of religious argument to shore up blindness to social inequality. Just as critical Christians appeal against these attitudes by referring to the social praxis of Jesus, so the liberative voices in Shinshû recall how Hônen and Shinran were persecuted, defrocked and banished because of their identification with lowly people (p. 411). Heidegger herself points out parallels with the arguments of Critical Buddhism directed at the Sôtô-shû (p. 421), and notes that groups such as the “Kantô Women and Buddhism Network” have recently opened a transdenominational debate (p. 452). Indeed, she ends by urging comparative study of the issues as they arise in Buddhism and in Christianity, boldly suggesting that the concrete social attitudes of Shinran and even of Jesus are not beyond the reach of criticism (pp. 453-9).
This book is a Marburg University dissertation, written in German, so its strictures are hardly as likely to shake up Buddhists in Japan as the broadsides against Zen militarism delivered with such brio by Brian Victoria. It will however serve as useful documentation for anyone concerned with these issues, and also as a resource for Westerners seeing to understand the fabric of Japanese Buddhism today. The book regrettably lacks an index.
Monumenta Nipponica 63 (2008):178-181.