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“Buddhism Fatigue” and Buddhist Nuns in Filmmaking

“Beautiful, soft, open – but not always interesting.” This is how California-based filmmaker Heather Kessinger describes current trends in American Buddhist filmmaking, which has unwittingly given rise to a form of “fatigue” or disenchantment with the overall package of presentation – and fatigue is always potentially harmful to any creative industry. This “Buddhist” fatigue is inevitable if one believes what she says about “done to death stereotypes” about Buddhism. A general definition of “stereotype” is that of a widely held but fixed and oversimplified image or idea of a particular type of person or thing. While I am not sure exactly what Buddhist stereotypes she refers to (personally, I can never get enough of panoramic shots of scenic Tibet and laughing young monks in comradely embrace), a clue may be found in her new movie: In the Shadow of Buddha, a film about Tibetan Buddhist nuns. While I doubt that the topic of Buddhist nuns has never been handled before (as Kessinger claims), a concerted effort to make a movie dedicated to their expression of themselves as disciples of the Buddha would certainly be a welcome addition to contemporary material about Buddhism.

Given the relative silence of real, living human women compared to their male counterparts in traditional Buddhist culture, Kessinger argues that a “melancholic irony” persists amongst those who have chosen to walk the path of enlightenment in the form of a female. The problem is so complex that anything associated with the topic seems to have something new or refreshing to say. After all, it is hard to stereotype something or someone that hasn’t even left an impression, be it negative or positive, on one’s consciousness.

Will Kessinger’s approach heal “Buddhist fatigue?” It really depends how she breaks those stereotypes she criticizes. Kessinger hopes to give “these women a voice – their own voice and not a Western interpretation of their experience.” That seems an excellent idea: a film addressing nothing more than how the living bhikkhuni traditions see themselves. It sounds especially promising since it is difficult to approach and analyze the issue of equality since there are so many angles to cover: such are the limitations of subjective writing. While I find myself agreeing more often that not with scholars like Rita Gross and Anne Klein (who have led the way in much of feminist Buddhist studies), the concerns of a Western academia-educated, middle-to-upper-class woman cannot help but be tinged with a subjective cultural concern. Is the charge of Buddhist institutions’ neglect to address women’s issues a stereotype in itself? I neither deny nor affirm this. I am just postulating a possibility (no matter how remote) and pointing out that the statements we make stake their own claim on reality. And reality is always more complex than words can express.

Having noted this necessity to advance with care (which can only help the cause of both genders), I also believe there is cause for optimism and a degree of faith in the contentions put forward by these Buddhist scholars, through mere virtue of the fact that their arguments are hardly complex at all; they are in fact quite commonsense and it is hard to dispute their validity if one takes Buddhist doctrines seriously. All sentient beings have the potentiality of Buddhahood within them, and the bodhisattva vows to lead all beings (who are empty of self-nature) to enlightenment. Surely such a universal ideal would not lead to “fatigue.” Yet there are many (even the great Asanga) who insisted that a woman can never attain Buddhahood, or must change into the form of a man to do so. Despite the tug-of-war that has occurred between the two ideas, the former doctrine sounds much more convincing, and is by no means a stereotype or caricature of Buddhist teaching.

An introductory article about “In the Shadow of Buddha” is available here.

A more complete overview can be accessed here.

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