Over at Profbanks.com Jessica Banks has talked about how she got into the field of Religious Studies, so that seemed like a good excuse for me to do the same thing.
I was raised Catholic. And was relatively knowledgable about it (albiet from a confessional point of view) in the best intellectual traditions of that faith. Through a combination of instinct and my high school involvement in theatre I had drifted pretty far into the liberal side of Catholicism, but when I went to college still considered myself faithful (I was confirmed with the Confirmation name of Genesius; patron of actors).
I was in those distant days of the early 2000s still commited to the idea that I would pursue a career in the theatre, and then I took my first philosophy class “CHINESE PHILOSOPHY” with Dr. Stephen Eskildsen. I had read the odd book on popularized Zen or what claimed to be Daoism, and it sounded like it would be interesting. I deeply enjoyed the perspectives I was exposed to, and so, since I needed a minor, and Dr. Eskildsen was much more a scholar of Chinese religion than philosophy I took up Religious Studies as a minor. When I realized that I did not want to pursue theatre it became my major.
My deconversion from Catholicism to unaffiliated happened sometime after my third year of undergraduate study. I remember that I switched my “Religious Views” from the pure joke of “Yes, I can see Religion from here,” to “It’s like math.” This was actually a coyly expressed theoretical position on religion. That each religion, like mathematics, was a world of internal logic that supported itself and given features of the system may or may not map to anything in the real world. This isn’t how I view religion now, but it was an important perspective for me as I spent a year in China, and then moved back to the US, and then started grad school.
Graduate School was a big shock. It was, for me, about assaulting my preconcieved notions of the conceptual boundaries, and busting the historicity of Western historical myths about Asian religions. Now that I have a masters in Religion, unlike in undergrad, I don’t know what religion is. But I know that social phenomena are worth studying, including those that fall under the religion label.
I worry about how Western scholarship of foreign cultures can be performed without being a form of Orientalism where the Other is really a construction of scholar that exists to justify Western perspectives. Nevertheless I feel that it is worthwhile to attempt to do so. I think the various “religious” cultures of Chinese history are worth study. Especially study that puts perscribed doctrines in the periphery in order to center on institutional history and ritual culture.
At another, more basic level, I will always be the geek who loves stories about supernormal beings like nagas, Transcendents, Bodhisattvas, ghosts, and so on. That was always a big part of the draw of “religion” for me, that it was where the “magic” stuff is. And even today that’s true. I spent some time at a highly modernized Buddhist Temple in Taipei, Dharma Drum Mountain, and they still chant the Heart Sutra, which tells of how Guanyin awakened to the emptiness of all Dharmas, and spoke the great Perfection of Wisdom Spell. The merit from this virtuous chant is dedicated to the liberation of beings in the six realms of existence.
So that’s it for right now. I definitely want to get into more of the stuff touched on in here, in addition to comic and game stuff.
The awesome Anarchist Reverend has put out a call for today to be a “Queer Theology Synchroblog” focusing on the topic of “Queer God.” Specifically he opened it up to people not identifying as queer, and to non-Christian religion. Here is my attempt at a few quick notes towards a queer perspective on a Buddhist topic.
I hope you enjoy these notes, and I hope you check out the rest of the Synchroblog at the link above.
Avalokitesvara is quite possibly the most revered bodhisattva. A bodhisattva, for those unfamiliar with Buddhist thought is a being on the path to full Buddhahood. According to most forms of Buddhism Bodhisattvas like Buddhas have immense supernormal powers.
In fact the Lotus Sutra, a major text for info on Avalokitesvara the Buddha encourages his followers to invoke the name of Avalokitesvara to ward against danger, and to help one attain favorable rebirth.
In the Tibetan tradition Avalokitesvara is very important as well with the most popular of all mantras in Tibetan Buddhism OM MANI PADME HUM being a form of invocation of Avalokitesvara. Additionally The Dalai Lama, one of many positions that are considered to be held by a series of reborn beings, is a rebirth of Avalokitesvara.
If you don’t know Sanskrit you might not know that Avalokitesvara is a male name, but it is. In fact, according to many traditional voices, all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas are male. Buddhism’s conception of women is complicated, but being a man is often considered a pre-requisite for the highest forms of attainment. Women will have to wait for another rebirth where they are male. Some Buddhist texts promise that the practices they advocate will prevent the practitioner from ever being reborn as a woman ever again. Avalokitesvara in particular is often depicted as dwelling in the Western Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha, where women do not exist. The reason this is, is that being written from a male-centric and heteronormative perspective it eliminates the danger of sexual desire.
At this point you may be wondering where the queer reading is. To be honest, up until now I’ve just been setting up the bonafides on the “god” part. I’m not assuming a lot of knowledge about Buddhism!
Where then is the queerness? Well if you go to East Asia particularly Taiwan and Japan, you will find images of the deity Guanyin. A female Buddhist deity representing the Buddhist virtue of compassion. But Guanyin is Avalokitesvara! In Chinese Buddhism for centuries Avalokitesvara has been primarily understood as a female Bodhisattva.
As a bodhisattva and as a resident of the Pure Land, Avalokitesvara is categorically excluded from womanhood, and yet to most East Asian devotees she is a woman. This is Buddhism being queered, yes?
But there is still more! Even in the Indian source of the Lotus Sūtra Guanyin, is explicitly said to take on both male and female forms based on the needs of sentient beings. I think that this sort of story (and this is far from the only story about ambiguous gender in Buddhism) is how Buddhist thought can start speaking in a comlex and rich way towards ideas of gender and sexuality.
And I’m not the only person along these lines. Behind a paywall Cathryn Bailey has in the journal Hypatia written an article on how Guanyin (Romanized as Kuan Yin) as a transgendered Bodhisattva is a representation of feminist conceptions. I haven’t had time to review the article in depth, so I have no idea if it is good, but the point is that this is a deity who is readily brought into a queered reading.
From a doctrinal perspective there’s quite a bit going on with Avalokitesvara here. A bodhisattva is able to take on diverse forms or do other sorts of “supernatural” feats because they possess vast amounts of spiritual power from countless lives taking on all sorts of identities. While the tradition as I said normally talks about Buddhas and bodhisattvas in male terms, they have taken on every sort of identity possible as part of their path and they continue to do so as part of their vow to aid all sentient beings in reaching Buddhahood. When we bring that idea into conversation with our understanding of the possibilities of human life, we see Guanyin using all identities as vehicles for compassion, because no particular sort of identity is what all sentient beings need, but any identity may be a source of the wisdom and compassion a particular sentient being needs.
1 What exactly a mantra is, is at least a post in itself. Suffice it to say this is a way of calling on the Bodhisattva.
2 A subject worth a huge amount of space itself. The classic starting point is Sponberg’s “Attitudes Towards Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism.”
3 technically no gender exists there, but it’s written very much like it means all men.
Liked this? Hated it? either way go to The Anarchist Reverend for the Whole Synchroblog
or check out the other pieces. I haven’t read them all yet, but I surely will:
More may show up later! I may not immediately edit them into this post! Go to the Anarchist Reverend for the up to date list!
Sanctity and Self-Inflicted Violence in Chinese Religions 1500-1700 by Jimmy Yu.
Sanctity and Self-Inflicted Violence in Chinese Religions, 1500-1700. Jimmy Yu [diacritics omitted due to technical limitations.]
Warning! the following is some quick academic thoughts I had. I make no promises they hold together at all.
So I’m reading Foucault’s The Order of Things and it is really expanding some of my theoretical horizons. I’m not even done with the book and it is really causing me to look back into things i’ve previously read.
So far, Foucault’s account of the “archaeology” of the pre-Classical western Episteme is really leading me to re-contexualize much of the scholarship I’ve read on “magic”*. I especially want to jump back into Glucklich’s The End of Magic to see if he deals with Foucault directly.