Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Interfaith Blog Event #7: Gender in Divinity

Welcome to the seventh Interfaith Blog Event! In each installment of this series, which we're hoping to do on a regular basis, we'll explore a single topic across five different religious traditions. I am writing from the Mahayana Buddhist tradition. Jon, from Jesusfollowers Journal, will be writing from a Protestant Christian perspective, and Sojourner from A Pagan Sojourn, will be writing from a Pagan/UU perspective. Jeff joins us from Druid Journal, and Matt joins us from Journeys In Between as an Evangelical Christian who borrows from esoteric movements like Wicca, Neo-Gnosticism, Yoga and Zen.

The topic we'll be discussing today is the following:
What does gender have to do with divinity?
(Links will be provided as they become available)
[Jon's Essay] [Sojourner's Essay] [Jeff's Essay] [Matt's Essay]

Before we dive into the role of gender in divinity, we need to understand divinity itself in Buddhism -- a religion without a creator god. When this life ends, our Karma conditions our next rebirth in one of six realms. The middle realm is the human realm, considered to be the most fortunate rebirth because it is especially suited for spiritual practice due to (1) human life is wonderful and happy, (2) we have the awareness and capacity to practice, and (3) we suffer, which motivates us to practice, giving us an experiential reason to practice.

The three lower levels (realms of animals, hungry ghosts, and hell beings) are less conducive to spiritual practice due to reduced mental capacity to practice and the constant bombardment of suffering. The two fortunate levels above the human realm, while realms of beauty, bliss, happiness, and long life, are also less conducive to practice because there is little motivation without suffering. These two realms are called the realm of the gods and the realm of the demigods (or devas).

These gods, goddesses, and devas -- what one might consider divinity -- deserve respect and love, just as do all other beings in all the realms of existence. In this context, gender is meaningless. Men and women can both achieve rebirth in a heavenly realm, and such rebirth can result in male or female manifestation. Gender does not convey any greater or lesser importance in the heavenly realms, just as it does not convey any greater or lesser importance here on earth, where we're all equal.

Closer to the Western mind's understanding of divinity are the numerous buddhas and bodhisattvas. Buddhas are people -- just like the historical Shakyamuni Buddha -- who attained enlightenment. There are countless such buddhas and bodhisattvas who continue to take rebirth to fulfill their vow to liberate all beings. Just like the innumerable gods and devas who, despite their fortunate lives, are still subject to the wheel of rebirth, the countless buddhas and bodhisattvas deserve our respect, compassion, and honor too. However, these buddhas, having attained the ineffable ultimate, also act as models for us to follow on our spiritual path, and we offer to them our humble thankfulness for their generosity, compassion, and wisdom.

While all buddhas have attained complete enlightenment in that they have perfected the wondrous qualities of generosity, compassion, wisdom, and love, there are several buddhas to whom we give special significance as manifestations of particular qualities of buddhahood. Of these manifestations, some are male, some are female. In that sense, gender is again meaningless in divinity in Buddhism.

In Buddhism, gender is simply a result of Karmic propensity toward a rebirth subject to the differences in gender that have evolved over the billions of years this universe has been in existence. There is no spiritual difference between man and woman. Both have, in their heart, perfect Buddha-nature, and both sexes can attain enlightenment using the gifts inherent in the evolved male and female gender dispositions.

I'd like to end this essay with a story. In an earlier universe, many billions of years ago, there lived a princess named Yeshe Dawa. Through her own personal experience, she became a devoted practitioner who took complete refuge in the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. Through her practice, Yeshe Dawa developed perfect love and compassion for every single being in existence, without bias. Rather than being consumed by the luxuries of her royal family, she vowed to devote every single minute of her current and future lives toward a single goal -- the liberation of all beings. It is said that she vowed to liberate millions of beings each day before breakfast, millions more before lunch, and an additional million before going to sleep at night. Because of this life mission and the devotion with which she pursued her mission, she was called Arya Tara, which means “noble liberator.” When several religious authorities suggested to Yeshe Dawa that she work toward a male rebirth in the future, she refused. She noted that many Buddhas had already manifested as males, so she vowed to attain Buddhahood in a woman's body, and then to continuously return as a female in her quest to liberate all beings.

Through her exalted practice, Princess Yeshe Dawa became Tara, the Buddha who symbolizes enlightened activity. May we all follow in Tara's footsteps and vow to help everyone see the untainted, unsullied perfection that lies at the heart of their very being.

Thubten Chodron. How to Free Your Mind: Tara the Liberator. Snow Lion Publications. Ithaca, New York. 2005.