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Joan Chittister:  From Where I Stand
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March 11, 2004
Vol. 1, No. 47

  Religions have some repenting to do
"The spirit we have, not the work we do, is what makes us important to the people around us."

A Benedictine Sister of Erie, Sister Joan is a best-selling author and well-known international lecturer.  She is founder and executive director of Benetvision: A Resource and Research Center for Contemporary Spirituality, and past president of the Conference of American Benedictine Prioresses and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.  Sister Joan has been recognized by universities and national organizations for her work for justice, peace and equality for women in the Church and society.  She is an active member of the International Peace Council.

By Joan Chittister, OSB

It seems that every day the Bangkok Post is full of grisly stories about the indiscriminate massacre of women: women raped at random by roving gangs of men; women trafficked from one country to another under the guise of "educational opportunities"; women picked up and thrown into crocodile-infested rivers by one man to humiliate another. In fact, the major papers of the United States are full of the same things. Too many to report, in fact. Too many to name. Clearly, a veritable war against women rages in this world.

But no presidents I know, few priests anywhere, no major institutions seem to understand this kind of terrorism. Nor to be the least bit concerned about it.

They don't bomb anybody to stop it. They don't warn against its "imminent danger" to the quality of civilization. They don't post the number of women killed daily worldwide by the men who pledge to protect them. They don't even worry about the lack of integrity such behavior reflects on their vaunted religious traditions.

But all women do. And some few men whose moral and spiritual sensitivities have begun to transcend the level of the cultures -- and religions -- around them. In them may lie the hope of the world. "Of all acts of man, repentance is most divine," Thomas Carlyle says, "The greatest of all faults is to be conscious of none."

In Chiang Mai, Thailand, over 50 women and men religious leaders from the five major continents and the five major religions of the world, came together recently to consider what part religion plays in this global assault on women. Even the title of the conference, "Religion and Women: Religion, Gender Equity and Economics," came into question. But no one argued the basic point: religion and economics both squeeze women.

Every woman at the conference had a story from her own religious tradition to prove the point that all of the world's major religions diminish the spiritual aspirations of women.

"I don't do this for myself," one woman said. "I don't even do this for women," she went on. "I do this for Buddhism."

The woman was the Venerable Bhikkhuni Dhammananda, a Thai woman and ordained Buddhist monk.

Or at least she says she is a monk. Thai Buddhist men refuse to accept the fact that there can be any such thing as an authentic female Buddhist monk.

She sat there in her saffron robes, her head shaved, her black eyes darting around the group, looking for understanding. "We are luckier than Catholic women, at least," she said. "The Buddha did ordain women, after all." She looked at me with a bit of pity. "It's all right, Dhammananda," I said to her. "After all, Jesus didn't ordain anybody at all. So we start out even."

Around the room women all began to nod. Orthodox Jewish women have a history of judges and prophetesses and matriarchs; Hindu women a history of goddesses; Muslim women have A'isha, the Prophet's wife, as a model as well as a history of the most economic equity for women of all the world's religions, and Christian women the image of Jesus and the women disciples who supported his ministry and began its first churches. The women around the room all knew what they were not permitted to know: they had been deprived of a birthright. And it had been done in the name of God.

Bhikkhuni Dhammananda, known in an earlier stage of life as Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, a Buddhist scholar and lecturer, faced the usual religious double standard. Buddhist monasteries depend on "lineage" for legitimacy. Monasteries do not come into existence by spontaneous generation. One monastery can only be founded from another one. Once a lineage ends, the hope of a new foundation ends with it. The whole line dies out.

Editor's Note
NCR's online Web column, Global Perspective reported on the Venerable Bhikkhuni Dhammananda earlier. Her monastery is Wat Songdhammakalyani or simply Wat Kalyani.
But female monasteries were never founded in Thai Buddhism. Therefore, since there have never been any, Thai monks and the Thai government say -- where have you ever heard this one before -- there can never be any. It's the old theologically irrefutable argument: "We've never done it before, therefore, we can't." Whatever else they can do once they decide to do it -- like determine, for instance, that engagement in the world is just as Buddhist as withdrawal -- can be.

So Dhammananda went to Sri Lanka to become a monk and then returned to Thailand to open her own monastery and establish a woman's lineage there. But the male monks simply refuse to recognize them. "When a mango tree dies," one male monk explained to Dhammananda, "you can plant a seed from it and it will grow again. But," he went on, "in the case of your monastery, that is not possible here. There is no seed."

To explain the resistance, Dhammananda draws a comparison between the two main branches of Buddhism -- Theravada and Mahayana -- that is equivalent to the spirit and distinctions between Catholic and Protestant Christians. Theravadans, in other words, see maintaining the tradition itself as more important than adapting it to present circumstances.

As a result, though there are 330,000 Theravadan male monks in Thailand today, but only three women, Dhammananda and her novices, despite the fact that Mahayana Buddhism has long ordained women and Theravadan female monasteries have even been established in Sri Lanka, Korea and Taiwan recently.

Both monks and politicians have railed against Dhammananda's monastery. "If they really understood the spirit of Buddhism," she says, "they would not be making so much noise. They would be so grateful for what I'm doing."

But gratitude for what women are doing to make any and all of their religious teachings authentic seems to be the last thing on the male religious mind.

The Chiang Mai document, "Religion and Women: An Agenda for Change," therefore, calls on religions -- on all religions -- to realize that they themselves are part of the problem of oppression that plagues women, makes them invisible, justifies their inferiority, and diminishes their value.

Religions not only tell women who they are but they tell men who women are, as well, and what men can do with them and why wife beating and religious exclusion and economic dependence is all right. Most of all, they tell men that a male God wants it that way.

A man in the conference waited until Dhammananda's story was finished before he proffered his own insight into what it was to be a Buddhist woman in Thailand. He told the story of going with his wife to visit a temple. Inside the deepest area of the temple, where the relics were kept, a sign said, "Ladies keep out."

Then he added quietly, "So my wife, Mary, stayed outside and I went in alone. There was a monk there keeping the shrine. Knowing about Dhammananda and her group, I asked him, "How many women monastics are there in Thailand?"

I was shocked at the answer. "None," the monk told me.

"I began to realize," the man went on, "that both Mary and Dhammananda were completely ignored there." Then he put his eyes down for a moment. "What really made me understand what was really going on for women," he said, "is that I noticed that though women were forbidden in the temple, dogs and cats were not."

The Chiang Mai declaration reads: "Women should be full participants in the life and institutions of their religious communities. Women are prepared to be decision makers and their gifts should be recognized and used to the fullest extent."

From where I stand, Thomas Carlyle's insight needs to be recalled, and quickly, if religion is to be real in our own time. All the world's major religions have some repenting to do.

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