Whose voices are present? Whose voices are absent?

Some reflections on what I teach — and what I don’t.

nuns AFB

Contemporary Buddhist nuns.

Looking Back

Last year was my first time back in a Religious Studies classroom after two years away. As I returned to the classroom, I began to think more about the range of voices in a religious tradition, and the ways in which some of them (especially the voices of women) were not featured as prominently as they could have been in my courses.

One reason for this, I now realize, dealt with definition. How do I, as the teacher – and thus, the learning-materials-selector – define the discipline? Take the example of one course I have taught, Asian Religions. What does Asian Religions mean? The way that I define and understand this term will have significant implications for the texts/art/films/etc. that I choose – and by extension, the texts that I leave out.

When I began teaching, I defined Asian Religions as the greatest hits – classical texts that were foundational to religious traditions. This meant the Bhagavad Gita, Buddhist Sutras, and writings by Confucius and Lao Tzu. In one sense, this is a perfectly justifiable way to understand religion and religious traditions: it’s hard to understand Confucianism without reckoning with the Analects to some degree or another. However, this approach also leaves a lot out.

Where are the female voices?

One major absence in Asian Religions has been female voices or perspectives. (I’m not quite certain how to handle the question of racial diversity in this instance: one benefit of this course, I think, is seeing that philosophical and moral investigation are not limited to the Greek and Judeo-Christian world.) By limiting the main focus of the course to a time from which we have basically no writings by women, I have – intentionally or not – written them out of my curriculum. And while I would usually make an effort at the end of a unit to include a day or two on women in Buddhism (to take one example) these efforts to me often seemed like ad hoc add-ons, and my discomfort with them sometimes led me to excluding them altogether.

In addition to the problem of gender, this approach also had the problem of time. Look at the dates of the texts I mentioned above: they were all written before the so-called Common Era (with the possible exception of the Gita, which has potential dates from 200BCE-200CE). This approach thus also unwittingly gives additional mistaken impressions about Asian Religions: they are old, and they are done. In other words, anything worth knowing about them was written 2500 years ago, and nothing since then is of real relevance.

This text-based focus created a falsely static sense of the religions themselves. For one thing, they change over time. Yet a course that focuses solely on major texts cannot really account for the fact that what it means to be Buddhist may, in important ways, mean something very different in 21st Century America compared to 17th Century Tibet or 1st Century India.

Yikes. In my defense (or at least the defense of the me who initially designed these courses 7-8 years ago), I do still think there is some real merit in the greatest hits approach to Religious Studies. But I’ve also come to think that it’s incomplete. More diverse voices are needed, and a range of perspectives within a tradition is also needed: I need to do a better job of helping students understand that there are, for example, Hinduisms and Buddhisms. And a great way to help with this understanding is to show (i.e introduce) students to some of these diverse perspectives – not merely to assert that they exist.

Going Forward

This recognition became clear as the result of some in-house professional development with members of my department last year. (I hope to write more about this process of workshopping our syllabi in a future post.) It also came about through the example of my Chair, whose approach to Religious Studies has become quite influential for me and my developing understanding of how to approach the material.

To give only one example, I’ll turn to my Buddhism unit for next year. In the past, the Buddhism unit contained a telling of the story of Siddhartha Gautama; a two-day discussion of the Four Noble Truths; readings in the Lotus Sutra and the Heart Sutra; discussion of some Buddhist art and iconography; and then a discussion of the Dalai Lama’s Ethics for the New Millennium, in which he expands on Buddhist ideas and themes for a more secular audience.

This approach is actually the closest I was to the ideal I sketched above, but there is still a notable absence of women. This year, I am replacing the Dalai Lama’s text with a one called The Journey of One Buddhist Nun, which is about the life and experiences of a Theravada nun in contemporary Thailand. This text gives voice to the perspective of Maechi Wabi, and tells the story of her encounters with Buddhist teaching in her childhood, her wish to leave home, and the struggles – some of which are brought about by sexism, both personally and institutionally – and joys of the monastic life.

It’s a big trade-off. And it’s not without consequences: the Dalai Lama text is lucid, it’s powerful, and he’s a compelling advocate for peace and nonviolence in the modern world. (His text also presents another way of being Buddhist in the contemporary age: engaging with secularism and science, something he has also done in The Universe in a Single Atom and a range of books that have come out of the Mind-Life Conferences.) I hope to include a shorter selection from it.

But I feel great about including Maechi Wabi. It introduces a substantive Theravada perspective into the course (note the prior preference for Mahayana texts). It allows us to talk at length and in a sustained way about what it means to be a woman and a Buddhist. I do think it’s valuable to ask the question about being human and being Buddhist, but I wonder if some students – and especially some male ones (and their male teacher!) – don’t unwittingly see “human” as male. This shift in focus allows us to make discussions of sex and gender a central and natural part of this course, not a one-day add-on.

To return to the questions asked at the start of this post, I’ve been reflecting on the various courses I’ll be teaching next year (five different ones in total) and asking myself: whose voices are present? Whose voices are absent? As a teacher, I’ll have to make that selection – and to choose one text (or one approach) is to choose to exclude many others – but I’m working toward a greater awareness of those choices, and their implications. And I feel strongly that working to include a range of diverse perspectives about the way human beings in their particularity – be it race, class, gender, sexual orientation – can help my students and me think more carefully about how to be human and humane in our lives today.

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One thought on “Whose voices are present? Whose voices are absent?

  1. Pingback: Choosing a Concrete Image | Teaching (mostly) Asian Religions

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