On the Map: Feminism, Essentialism, and the Dalai Lama

Mandy Van Deven
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In 2007, I was given the opportunity to attend a teaching in New York City given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama at Radio City Music Hall due to a string of events that were both unfortunate and fortuitous. A Tibetan Buddhist friend had bought the expensive second-row seat, but was unable to attend when his father suddenly fell ill, and passed his ticket to this three-day event on to my partner. On the first day of the teaching, my partner befriended the woman seated next to him, who was unable to attend the final day of the teaching and at the end of the second day gifted him her remaining ticket. This is how I found myself just feet away from the man considered by millions worldwide to be the fourteenth incarnation of an enlightened deity speaking about Nagarjuna's "Seventy Verses on Emptiness." The experience was humbling to say the least.

Though not a particularly religious person myself, I do give deference to those with spiritual clout. I give particular deference to those whose political sentiments align, though perhaps not perfectly, with my own, and the Dalai Lama fits the bill. An exile from his own occupied and colonized country at the age of fifteen, the Dalai Lama has spent his entire life as both the religious and political leader of the Tibetan people, a complex and powerful position to be in. His words hold an enormous amount of influence, and so they are chosen with the utmost care. This past week, the Dalai Lama called himself a feminist.

During his closing remarks at the International Freedom Award ceremony in the Peabody Grand Ballroom today, His Holiness the Dalai Lama called upon women to help create a more compassionate world.

"I call myself a feminist," said the Dalai Lama. "Isn't that what you call someone who fights for women's rights?"

The audience erupted in laughter and applause. The Dalai Lama went to on say that women are more prone to compassion, since they have the responsibility of bearing children.

I see this statement of solidarity as an important one for feminism. The Dalai Lama has certainly made his feminist sympathies known in the past and has even speculated that his successor could be a woman. This is an important achievement.

That being said, the gender essentialism the Dalai Lama expressed alongside his proclamation is problematic and should not be overlooked or dismissed. I have no doubt this is a conundrum that His Holiness has considered in great length, and such a pithy statement should not be read too far into with unevidenced speculation, which is why this post is necessarily brief. I am not an expert on the teachings of the Dalai Lama, nor am I a devotee. I am simply a critical learner trying to make sense of this life.

What do you think this self-identification on the part of the Dalai Lama means for feminism?

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9 Comments Have Been Posted


Just a modicum of research (hell even looking at his wikipedia page), would show that this animal-abusing, theocratic, authoritarian C.I.A shill, views, are not compatable with feminism.

I agree. I also find it

I agree. I also find it skeptical that he has used his religious beliefs and made profit off it in the Western world. Whether he was trying to or not ... it's a little sketchy. Feminism is beyond whether womyn have equal rights to men (also what about trans people, gender queers, etc?). I do not like how it always gets qualified as that. That is the VERY basic underlying approach of feminism. He is also qualifying his view of feminism with gender essentialism and biology. Womyn ought to be equal because they are humyns not because they bear children. Not every womyn wants to bear children. I have a child and am a single mother but I do not think that is the number one determining factor of my equality or anyone else's. The responsibility to bear children? Really? That is certainly not to be overlooked at all. And if someone wants to "look up" to him as a feminist ... and he is saying that stuff? That is completely perpetuating womyn's "appropriate" patriarchal gendered roles in our society. So as long as womyn are in these roles, then it is okay? What if they went outside that? What if they are queer? Or trans? It's just the same ol' bullshit I think.

Responsibility to bear children

I am almost positive he did not mean responsibility as in "duty". I think he meant when children are born, the are born from a woman. Thus making childbirth our responsibility in the sense that "men are not the child-bearers", NOT "women are all required to bear children".

The Dalai Lama has addressed sexual identity, but one thing to remember is that celibacy is the path he has chosen. Most Buddhist monks are celibate, so the variety of sexualities you listed above would be transcended on the path to enlightenment that Buddhist monks follow. According to their teachings, to be enlightened is to be free from desire. Having read many of the DL's books I am of the impression that eschewing sexuality, at least for Buddhist monks, isn't related to perpetuating gender intolerance, but to move beyond gender to the plane of wisdom where gender and its issues no longer hamper the ability to find truth and inner peace.

Just my interpretation. I'm cynical as the next person but I think when it comes to the Dalai Lama and Buddhism, I've yet to see a reason not to be an idealist. It's kind of like feminism that way. Neither have let me down yet.

power corrupts?

I guess this is just me, but I feel like political and religious leaders may give of this persona that they are all perfection. However, they are humans just like the rest of us...so they have to have their faults. So I guess I'm just a skeptic, as much as I am appreaciative to see prominent leaders as feminist.

i'm glad that he identifies

i'm glad that he identifies as a feminist. he's obviously going to identify as a buddhist first, which, considering some precepts of the faith, is going to be problematic from a feminist viewpoint (i mean, it very basically kind of precludes you living life however you see fit, since the pinnacle of existence -- enlightenment -- is thought to be reached thorough the ascetic lifestyle of a monk). but to identify with feminists explicitly means that he is listening and he is actively thinking about things with the idea that women and their experiences matter. and from his views on queers, which for a major religious leader of any sort are pretty progressive, i think he's trying there, too.

i think that he *would* be very conflicted about any of these things; i've read a few of his books and the thing that struck me most is how he seems to simply exude a sense of compassion and empathy. he's got a very firm set of behaviors he believes he needs to carry out to live a proper buddhist life, but part of that is to have compassion for all living things. so he may not think certain things are good on the path to enlightenment or whatever, but he's certainly not ignoring the feelings of the other side.

to me being a feminist means that you are trying to look at things through a perspective that considers the experiences and needs of women as important as those of men, which, insofar as i have heard his thoughts on things, he seems to try to do. i don't think he takes these monolithic, claiming-to-be-infallible sort of positions either, so if he's effed up in some of his stances on women, perhaps by continuing to apply some amount of feminist perspective to his ruminations, he will become more supportive of women over time.

Typical (comment on the penultimate paragraph)

A plausible claim (that women have some slightly different, but not necessarily inferior, behavioral characteristics from men) is conveyed, and rather than dealing with the claim on its own merits, it is immediately dismissed because it's a little "essentialist." In other words, the principal way to tell whether a view is acceptable or not over at Bitch Magazine is apparently not to see whether it's empirically conceivable, but rather to consider whether it's ideologically acceptable. In that way the author of this article is kind of like a creationist dismissing natural selection out of hand because it doesn't conform to her religious sentiments.

Sorry to report that the world doesn't revolve around you.

Oh, QQ more. This is feminism 101 stuff, and we don't re-explain it every time someone says something stupid just because you can't use Google. This is a site for feminists, and from the sounds of things, you're not one, so obviously the articles won't be personally tailored to your knowledge level.

Anon, you might have a point...

if I had actually done what you're describing--but I didn't. In fact, I did pretty much the opposite of what you're claiming by refused to dismiss the claim while also pointing out that there are problems within it from an anti-essentialist standpoint. I then opened the comments with a question that serves as a means to begin a dialogue about (as the title of the post suggests) feminism, essentialism, and the Dalai Lama.

So, if you've got commentary on the issues themselves, I'd be glad to hear your thoughts. However, if you're just here to personally attack in order to mask your inability or unwillingness to engage in this kind of discussion, I can't say I'm interested in that type of conversation.

On the Map: Feminism, Essentialism, and the Dalai Lama | Bitch

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