Beginner’s Mind is a special project from BDG collecting insightful essays written by US college students who have attended experiential-learning-based courses related to Buddhism. Some of the authors identify as Buddhists, for others it is their first encounter with the Buddhadharma. All are sharing reflections and impressions on what they’ve learned, how it has impacted their lives, and how they might continue to engage with the teaching.
Tiffany Wu wrote this essay as a reflection for her Gender and Sexuality in Buddhism (fall 2020) course at Williams College, Massachusetts. She will graduate in 2024 and intends to major in Art History or English. Tiffany lives in Shanghai, where she enjoys cycling and frequenting museums.
Where I Am Now
In a week-six reading, author Hu Hsiao-Lan’s mention of Taiwanese bhikshuni, Venerable Shih Chao-Hwei, summoned up a distant memory. Four years ago, when Taiwan was in the midst of a same-sex marriage debate, I watched a video of a Taiwanese nun advocating for gay and lesbian rights. At a time when the opposing side viewed LGBT advocacy as a Western concept that threatened traditional Chinese culture, that Taiwanese nun, Bhikshuni Chao-Hwei, used the Buddhist teachings to argue that we not only should, but we must support same-sex marriages.
I was traveling on a subway when I revisited the video after reading Hu’s essay, and surprised myself by shedding some tears. Maybe it had to do with the fact that I knew that Taiwan had finally passed the same-sex marriage bill three years after her speech; or perhaps because during the summer of 2020, Shanghai’s annual LGBT celebration event—the only one in mainland China—had just been terminated amid political pressure; or possibly because I don’t often hear advocacy for queer rights in my own language. I guess it was also because wearing a mask made crying in public less embarrassing. At that moment, I was suddenly and overwhelmingly grateful to be learning about Buddhism where I was, and still am now—in China, attending an American university, spending an increasing amount of time grappling with my own identity and culture, in the middle of a global pandemic. This course has helped me to understand and contend with where I am now physically, academically, and personally.
Despite the inconveniences of remote learning, I am thankful to have taken this course while physically remaining in China. When I signed up, I thought that Buddhism would merely be a lens through which I’d learn about gender and sexuality issues. But I became increasingly interested in the religion itself, particularly because I began to see traces of Buddhism everywhere around me. For example, my best friend’s housekeeper, a devout Buddhist laywoman, would share her belief in Pure Land Buddhism, and I could understand why she recited the Amitabha mantra when she cooked meat for my friend’s non-vegetarian family. I recognized Guanyin paintings in homes and shops, and prayer beads around many people’s wrists.
It has also been interesting to see Buddhist concepts in Chinese pop culture. For example, the widely used Chinese internet slang term “fo xi (佛系),” which I’d translate as “Buddha-style,” means to remain calm and content in the face of unexpected change or uncertainty, to resist cravings, and to recognize the impermanence of life. When US embassies in China remained closed during COVID-19 lockdowns and none of us could apply for visas, for instance, we reminded one another to stay fo xi. Although it’s just internet slang, it struck me that in a year of change and anxiety, the Buddhist teachings hold a particular resonance for Chinese people. I was excited to be able to see and apply the things I had learned in class to my surroundings. My friends have started sending me Buddhism-related memes just so I can have a chance to “show off” my newly gained Buddhist knowledge.
Academically, I am—and have been for a while—contending with my Western education and Eastern roots. This course has helped me to step back from my largely Western and contemporary perspectives on feminism. Between weeks nine and ten, the readings of Balkwill, Tsomo, and Yang prompted me to broaden and reconsider my understanding of feminism and gender equality. For example, I’ve never considered how revolutionary and empowering female friendships and bonds could be for women whose social and religious lives were largely dictated by patriarchal structures. Protests, marches, and advocacy campaigns are the forms of “feminism” that I am most often exposed to in Western media, but I live in an environment where women facing inequality usually cannot resist in direct ways. Hence, our discussion on broadening the definition of women’s agency to include forms other than rebellion or resistance allowed me to reconsider and observe what feminism can look like in my country.
I’ve also learned to strike a balance between criticizing historical narratives and contextualizing them. For example, it was easy to see the sexist implications of a woman being able to achieve buddhahood only through rebirth in a male body. However, throughout my learning I was reminded of the male-dominant context of the time, and the fact that a female buddha would have been concerned more with Buddhist soteriological goals than with maintaining her own body. Hence, it should be acknowledged that a woman being able to access spiritual enlightenment back then was empowering in itself. Like Prof. Jessica Zu said: it is necessary to remember that what we might consider to be “misogyny” now had more to do with historical contexts than the individual intentions of monks. Seeking to understand instead of merely criticizing history allowed me to contend with these historical narratives, and remember that Buddhism is capable of adapting to changing and improving societies. Reconsidering gender issues from Eastern and historical perspectives has inspired me to accept more nuance in any larger conversations on feminism that I will take part in from now on.
Lastly, being in my own room all semester instead of on campus means I’ve spent more time than ever with my own thoughts. Learning about the Buddhist teachings and participating in experiential exercises have turned this period into one of personal growth and reflection. Meditating and abstaining from social media taught me to be more aware of my everyday actions, and to realize which of them stemmed from wholesome intentions, and which were actually mindless habits or attachments. Likewise, I’ve been pondering over the concept of karma as a way to encourage myself to not just do good, but to also think good thoughts. The second EEA revealed to me my own attachment to makeup and my physical appearance, something I will continue to try to improve.
Hence, I think it’s appropriate to borrow a core concept of my final paper to summarize my learning experience in this course—alobha (Skt. non-greed and non-attachment). This course has initiated a process of detachment from my previous limited perspectives on gender and feminism, and from my own personal unwholesome habits. I hope this process will continue to open up more possibilities of understanding myself, and the world I live in.
Hu, Hsiao-Lan. 2017. “Buddhism and Sexual Orientation” in The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Buddhism, edited by Michael Jerryson.
Balkwill, Stephanie. 2018. “Why does a women need to become a man in order to become a Buddha?: Past investigations, new leads,” Religion Compass. 12:e12270.
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. 2004. “Is the Bhikṣuṇī Vinaya Sexist?” In Buddhist Women and Social Justice: Ideals, Challenges, and Achievements. SUNY Press, 2004: 45-72.
Yang, Mayfair Mei-hui. 2020. “Of Mothers, Goddesses, and Bodhisattvas: Patriarchal Structures and Women’s Religious Agency.” In Re-enchanting Modernity: Ritual Economy and Society in Wenzhou, China. Duke UP: 224–56.