A couple months ago, I started seeing a lot of articles on Gyalwang Karmapa that talked about how his teachings were becoming increasingly popular with the youth in America because his ideas were modern but rooted in Buddhism. The thing that struck me most in many of these articles was that they all referred to him as a “feminist.” I had my doubts – I wondered, did he really say all these things or were his words misinterpreted in translation?
The perfect opportunity presented itself when I got an email from Gyalwang Karmapa’s Kunkyong Charitable Trust inviting me to apply for nearly three weeks of “Interactions with His Holiness the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa.” After submitting my application, I was selected to join 12 other students as participants in the program. We spent five days discussing and preparing presentations on a range of social issues to address with Gyalwang Karmapa: Identity; discrimination; gender equality, women’s empowerment; global leadership; education; consumerism; poverty; unemployment; and suicide. After each presentation, we asked Gyalwang Karmapa 12-15 questions on the topic of the day. My understanding of the answers to the questions on the topic of gender equality and women’s empowerment that were discussed in this program — as well as his book, “The Heart is Noble” — are the basis for my understanding of the Karmapa’s views on the subject. I truly felt that no one else could have understood feminism and equality of sexes the way he has.
The Masculine and the Feminine
Buddhist stories tend to highlight how humans were not distinguished as either “male” or “female” through human evolution.
The Karmapa tells us that the dominance of men in society was due to their natural advantage of physical strength. Karmapa also, however, points out that in this age of conflict and global inter-connectivity, “What we need now is not the ability to make assertions, but the ability to listen… it seems clear that we need to sit down to dialogue, and not stand up to fight.”
So, if indeed we are going to divide the world into the “masculine” and “feminine” binary, it is in fact the feminine qualities that our present day society now needs to embrace. Gender ideals are not fixed in such absolutist terms as we’d like to believe, and the changes of this age tell us that women’s leadership is a great contribution to our society.
Violence Against Women
Throughout history, women have always been subject to violence and abuse, outside and even inside their own home. The reality — despite the general notion that Tibetan society is more “peaceful” and “compassionate” than other societies around the world– of the rising public cases of domestic violence, sexual abuse of minors in schools, and rape in our community demands immediate action.
As Buddhists, we need to think about how even a single case of molestation affects our entire society. For the abuser, the act of abuse lasts a matter of minutes; but, for the abused, it is a wound — both physical and spiritual — they carry throughout their lives and that colors all their experiences thereafter. As such, we need to find solutions to such societal problems through our existing religious and spiritual institutions, keeping in mind our unique circumstances and cultural context.
For survivors of sexual violence, it is of course crucial to speak up about any kind of abuse that is experienced; difficulties, however, arise when the victims don’t want to come out publicly for fear of social stigma and victim blaming. We must, therefore, encourage the victims to step forward to prevent countless others from falling prey to the same abuse. In such cases, we cannot change the mentality of everyone, so, unfortunately, there is bound to be some shaming and strained relations as a result; but, the key to triumphing over this is compassion.
There are two types of compassion, as taught by Karmapa: The inward-facing and the outward-facing. The outward-facing compassion is the compassion that one should feel toward others; the inward-facing compassion is the compassion that one has for oneself. Inward-facing compassion is necessary to first free oneself from suffering before one can help others. When one has courage, one inspires courage in others as well. When one is free of suffering, one is able to help free others of suffering.
What our society needs at present is to create an environment and opportunities to bring these difficult issues into the public sphere and find concrete solutions to our shared problems, in accordance with our unique Tibetan culture. It is not enough to simply establish systems to punish offenders because, as Karmapa says, “…As long as the harmful attitudes remain, women’s well-being will continue to be in danger… When a problem is rooted in a society’s habitual outlook and habitual thinking, then legislation will have limited effect.”
Women’s Rights and the Roles of Men and Women
Gyalwang Karmapa states in his book that he was not very moved when he first heard about feminism and women’s rights because the Tibetan word for “rights” (ཐོབས་ཐང་) immediately conjured up images of a struggle for one to be better than others, or for one to win and for others to lose.
It is important to keep in mind, however, that women’s rights are, in fact, human rights. Karmapa illuminates this key point when he says, ‘Those who work for women’s rights are seeking to secure for women what all human beings need and deserve.” Gender equality is not a zero-sum issue; women’s rights is an issue of “respecting human life and freedom” and of “acknowledging our shared humanity and the basic human bonds that bind us.” Simply put, it has nothing to do with taking away anything from men.
Tibetan men in our society are typically religious and, thus, believe in Buddhist principles; but, often, when it comes to the women in their lives, they fail to put such principles into practice. As Karmapa teaches us, what men in our society need to always bear in mind is that women are equally desirous of happiness and are indeed more sensitive and feel emotions more acutely (citing “sherab ki rangshin”), and, as such, they need to be respectful and considerate of that.
Men need to be better educated about the importance of working towards gender equality and put these convictions into action. If men truly do not believe in this basic tenet of Buddhism, they will only create further obstacles for the empowerment of women.
Women, on the other hand, need to truly believe in their own worth as women. Engaging in abusive acts towards their fellow women is also a major barrier for the women’s rights movement. Tibetan women need to themselves recognize and believe in their own worth as women and develop their innate compassionate qualities. From this recognition must come the elimination of jealousy towards each other. Rather, they should be supportive of each other and be united in their efforts to empower all women. To bring about a transformative change in the current social conditions for women, we, as a society, must take collective responsibility and action to make this initiative our own rather than simply waiting for conditions to be created for us through external means.
Most importantly, men and women need to unite to make equality of the sexes a reality. Men need to educate themselves about women’s rights and take personal responsibility to create meaningful opportunities for women to contribute to the community at large.
At present, Tibetan men and women do not have the same kinds of freedoms and opportunities in our patriarchal exile society. This inequality exists due to a deeply-ingrained belief that men are superior to women (ཕོ་ཆོགས་མོ་དམན་). Even though working to rebalance this inequality — as feminists are actively engaged in — is the morally right thing to do, it is somehow considered wrong by many men and as an effort by women to dominate men.
Tibetan feminism needs to be something that can cater to and is suitable for the unique reality of Tibetan culture and society. We need to study the complex history of feminism, and incorporate our own sacred ancestral knowledge and core Buddhist values to create a feminism based on the principles of compassion and the interdependence of men and women, recognizing that one is no more or less important than the other.
Author’s Note: The quoted portions of this essay are direct statements from His Holiness the Gyalwang Karmapa’s book, The Heart Is Noble: Changing the World from the Inside Out. All other sentiments attributed to the Karmapa in the essay are English translations of the discussions that took place throughout the duration of the Karmapa’s Tibetan youth dialogue.