The Dalai Lama is in trouble again. This time, in an interview from his home in India, commenting on the controversy over whether he will reincarnate or not, he sparked another controversy by saying if he does come back it might be as a “mischievous blonde woman.” But, he added, “then her face must be very attractive” or “nobody pay much attention”.
Some folks have jumped on this and now he being labeled a sexist.
Two things people should know about the Dalai Lama: A) his command of the English language is not that great, and B) he has a sense of humor.
B is good, he doesn’t take himself too seriously and he tries to inject some lightheartedness into what can often be a dry subject, namely Buddhism. However, because of A, his words sometimes come out wrong and he is misunderstood.
Here is what I think happened: A) he was trying to make a joke and he muddled it up, or B) he was trying to make a sly commentary on the sad fact that women are still judged by their appearance and he muddled it up.
But this is what almost everyone is missing: for the Dalai Lama to suggest that he could reincarnate as a woman period is a very radical statement. That’s because the traditional teachings of Buddhism say a woman can never be enlightened. So, if the next Dalai Lama were a woman that would more or less tear that idea to sheds.
Gender inequality is still a problem in Buddhism and instead of nitpicking perhaps we should be commending the Dalai Lama for striking a blow against sexism.
Some of the things written about women in Buddhist literature are rather ugly. They are objects of scorn, their bodies are unclean, they are evil and to be avoided, etc. There are positive things said about women, too; however, the negative remarks stand out as rather large blemishes. The Dalai Lama addressed this issue in 1997 during his teachings on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland at UCLA. He was discussing a section of the text known as the “Twenty Verses” and here is an excerpt from my transcript of the teachings:
In the 20 verses [from The Precious Garland] I would like to warn you about a passage that reads “may all women be reborn as males.” [Laugher.] When you read that passage it is important to bear in mind the culture and the context that those kind of sentiments are being expressed. If we are to take that literally and that aspiration comes into realization, then it’s going to be rather silly, because if the entire world is going to be populated by men then that means the human species is going to end at some point. [Laugher.] There’s going to be no possibility of procreation. [Laugher.] So, the point is that if one feels that in the form of a female existence one can make a great contribution, be more effective and be of greater service, then reverse the thought and pray that all men be born as females! [Laugher and applause.]
In the Buddhist scriptures, there is another type of sentiment that I have reflected on: when you read the Buddhist scriptures that deal with altruism and compassion, there is always a reference to sentient beings as mother sentient beings, never as father sentient beings. This suggests that within the Buddhist tradition, women are seen as the symbol of compassion and affectionate perfection. It is very rare that a man is the symbol of affection. Women, in the form of mothers, are also the embodiment of kindness.”