From 22-28 June, The University of Hong Kong hosted the largest ever event to do with Buddhist women in the city. This could only have been done through Sakyadhita, whose tireless volunteers worked in tandem with our friends at the Centre of Buddhist Studies to bring an impressively diverse and intellectually enriching symposium about Buddhist women’s interests in this busy metropolis, which despite its prosperity and fast-paced life cries out for spiritual ideas and possibilities. It was, of course, also a delight for attendees to reunite with academics, meditators, and Venerables who have been regulars at previous biannual conferences over the decades.
Throughout its history, Sakyadhita’s conferences have been held mostly in Asia, and most of these Asian countries, save for some pockets of liberal or progressive thought, are “traditional” – very strictly patriarchal, non-egalitarian, and socially conservative. The Buddhist establishment in some of these countries might be indifferent or even antagonistic to the idea of women assuming higher positions of authority in the Buddhist religion, and this includes bhikkhuni ordination.
Hong Kong presents a different case. Hong Kong is not a gender-unequal society, at least not in the field of work. Women want to work and succeed and are not stopped from doing so. Women hold board positions in large companies and C-suite managerial positions, our current chief executive, the top political appointment in the SAR, is a woman, and we are fortunate to have several female leaders in various religions, from Buddhism to Baha’i to Anglicanism. There is nothing in Hong Kong stopping women from assuming positions of authority – including clerical or ecclesiastical authority. If anything, powerful (or at least empowered) women here are celebrated.
So the challenge is therefore to discern what Hong Kong can offer a gathering of Buddhist scholars, practitioners, and teachers. I would point to some very important seminars and lectures that were given throughout the conference, in which the speakers offered powerful material that challenge assumptions about gender dynamics and feminine contexts. Such material is valuable reading and reference material for Hong Kong Buddhists, many of whom are not conditioned by patriarchal restrictions. On 25 June, the seminar “Gender Equality: Only a Dream? Or, Are Buddhists Really Equal?” Brianna Kathryn Morseth presented a paper called, “Buddhist Feminism and Cross-cultural Cognitive Dissonance,” while Reena Tuladhar offered a study on: “Gender Equality in the Buddha’s Sangha: A Diversion of Practice from Theory.” Close to my heart also, as a former student of theology, was Bee Scherer’s paper on the feminist theology of Tara, who is attested to in the tantric scriptures as the one and only female Buddha so far revealed to humanity.
In a city that too often measures success only by social prestige and material wealth, it is important to understand that female empowerment does not simply mean a large portfolio of capital assets or high-powered job. Authority is not enough. Stereotypes and subtle constraints must also be challenged and shattered.
This was precisely one of the panel sessions on the 27th, which was titled, “Stereotypes, Regulations, and Obstacles.” Two excellent papers presented by scholars from China were: “The Gurudharma Rules for Buddhist Nuns in Contemporary Mainland China” by Melody Chiu and “The Next Obstacles for Buddhist-Feminist Scholar Practitioners: Rita Gross’ Self-Identities and Legacies” by Hsiao Lan Hu. Rita Gross made invaluable contributions to the theoretical, philosophical, and practical contours of Buddhist feminism so it’s a delight to know that her work is becoming more well-known in Sinophone circles.
Is the work of Sakyadhita done? No. There is still a long way to go until true harmony between the genders is reached. But there have been few better ways for Buddhist women to share information, exchange stories, and learn paths forward for action than to come to a Sakyadhita conference. This year in Hong Kong was no exception.