Monday, January 9, 2017

15th Sakyadhita International Conference Panel: Carla Gionotti on Identity and Religous Status

The Lives of the Twenty-four Jo mos of the Tibetan Tradition: Identity and Religious Status

Machig Labdron (Ma gcig Lab sgron)
As a tibetologist and a Buddhist practitioner, I deal with those peculiar feminine figures – earthly, divine, or archetypical – of the Buddhist Indo-Tibetan tradition that are recognized, according to a vision of equilibrium of genres and of a conciliation of genres, as a source of inspiration in the spiritual Buddhist path of contemporary women (and men). In my work, I came across an interesting Tibetan text that contains the hagiographies of twenty-four Tibetan ascetic women of the twelfth century. All except one of these twenty-four jo mos (venerable women or nuns), who were disciples of the great Pha Dam pa Sangs rgyas (died in 1117) are all supposed to have reached final enlightenment. Their life-stories are particularly inspiring and should be regarded, as reported in the Tibetan text, as a “message for future generations.”

In researching the identities of women ascetics and Dharma teachers in Tibetan Buddhism during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, we meet with two main difficulties: the undervaluation of their roles and the uncertainty of their designations. The undervaluation or understatement of the roles of women Dharma teachers in the Buddhism of Tibet (“Land of Snow”) applies both their numbers and to their religious status. An emblematic case is the identification in one person of two authoritative master yoginīs who lived more and less during the same chronological period but belong to two different schools, i.e., Ma gcig Lab sgron (1055-1154 or 1055-1149) and Ma gcig Zha ma (1062-1149).

Machik Zhama (Ma gcig Zha ma)
The second problem, the uncertain designations of women Dharma teachers during this period, is the difficulty of translating the religious or spiritual terminology used to identify them, such as ma jo, jo mo, btsun ma, nya ma, ma jo smyon ma, and other terms. In the English translation of the Blue Annals, for example, the Tibetan names of ma jo, jo mo and btsun ma are often translated using the generic term “nun.” In Tibetan Buddhism, women teachers of Dharma seem to present religious identities that are much more fluid, unsettled, and less codified than those of their counterparts who are male Dharma masters. What is more relevant is the absence of terminology to verify the spiritual progress or religious status of women adepts on the path. An analogous situation is the problematic categorization of ascetic women in Hinduism and Indian Buddhism, for example, the terms pravrajitā and parivrājikā. This paper will explore these issues.

 Carla Gionotti

Carla Gianotti graduated with a degree in Indology at the University of Turin, specializing in Tibetan Studies in Rome and New Delhi. She has taught courses on Buddhism, including Buddhism and Gender, and workshops on maternal philosophy. Since 2010, she has been a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism at the Superior School Of Oriental and Comparative Philosophy in Rimini, Italy. Her books include Cenerentola nel Paese delle Nevi; Donne di illuminazione. Çākinī e demonesse, Madri divine e Maestre di Dharma; Il respiro della fiducia. Pratica di consapevolezza e visione materna. Her other publications include, “The srin mo Demoness and her Submission to the Buddhist Tibetan Dharma: Some Different Modes of her Transformation” in Buddhist Asia 2.

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Learn More About the 15th Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women

The theme for the 2017 conference to be held at The University of Hong Kong is “Contemporary Buddhist Women: Contemplation, Cultural Exchange & Social Action.” This theme highlights the diversity of contemporary Buddhist women throughout the world.

For more information on the conference please visit the Sakyadhita International website and download a brochure.

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