On the Map: Feminism, Essentialism, and the Dalai Lama
In 2007, I was given the opportunity to attend a teaching in New York City given by His Holiness the Dalai Lama at Radio City Music Hall due to a string of events that were both unfortunate and fortuitous. A Tibetan Buddhist friend had bought the expensive second-row seat, but was unable to attend when his father suddenly fell ill, and passed his ticket to this three-day event on to my partner. On the first day of the teaching, my partner befriended the woman seated next to him, who was unable to attend the final day of the teaching and at the end of the second day gifted him her remaining ticket. This is how I found myself just feet away from the man considered by millions worldwide to be the fourteenth incarnation of an enlightened deity speaking about Nagarjuna's "Seventy Verses on Emptiness." The experience was humbling to say the least.
Though not a particularly religious person myself, I do give deference to those with spiritual clout. I give particular deference to those whose political sentiments align, though perhaps not perfectly, with my own, and the Dalai Lama fits the bill. An exile from his own occupied and colonized country at the age of fifteen, the Dalai Lama has spent his entire life as both the religious and political leader of the Tibetan people, a complex and powerful position to be in. His words hold an enormous amount of influence, and so they are chosen with the utmost care. This past week, the Dalai Lama called himself a feminist.
During his closing remarks at the International Freedom Award ceremony in the Peabody Grand Ballroom today, His Holiness the Dalai Lama called upon women to help create a more compassionate world.
“I call myself a feminist,” said the Dalai Lama. “Isn’t that what you call someone who fights for women’s rights?”
The audience erupted in laughter and applause. The Dalai Lama went to on say that women are more prone to compassion, since they have the responsibility of bearing children.
I see this statement of solidarity as an important one for feminism. The Dalai Lama has certainly made his feminist sympathies known in the past and has even speculated that his successor could be a woman. This is an important achievement.
That being said, the gender essentialism the Dalai Lama expressed alongside his proclamation is problematic and should not be overlooked or dismissed. I have no doubt this is a conundrum that His Holiness has considered in great length, and such a pithy statement should not be read too far into with unevidenced speculation, which is why this post is necessarily brief. I am not an expert on the teachings of the Dalai Lama, nor am I a devotee. I am simply a critical learner trying to make sense of this life.
What do you think this self-identification on the part of the Dalai Lama means for feminism?
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