Mothering: Moral Cultivation in Buddhist and Feminist Ethics

Powers and Deane Curtin
Philosophy East and West
Volume 44, Number 1
January 1994
page 1-18.
Copyright 1994, by University of Hawaii Press.
Reprinted with permission of the publisher and both authors.



I. Introduction. This paper encourages a conversation between Buddhist and feminist philosophers by drawing out a previously unrecognized point of contact between them: both traditions highlight the practice of mothering as a model for the cultivation of an ethic of compassion or care. One form of Buddhist meditation - notably expressed in Tsong kha pa's Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path (Lam rim chen mo) - cultivates compassion for all sentient beings through meditation on the practice of mothering. The goal of this process is to cultivate the same kind of compassion for all sentient beings that a mother exhibits toward her children. In Maternal Thinking: Toward a Politics of Peace, Sara Ruddick's goal is to give voice to, and consequently to learn how to value, the practice of mothering as a model for other moral relationships, including what she calls a "politics of peace." We do not suggest that Maternal Thinking ought to be adopted for the Buddhist canon, or that the Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path should become a feminist classic. Nor by focusing on these two texts do we mean to imply that they represent all voices in their respective traditions. Tsong kha pa's text represents only one of the four major schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and there are other Tibetan scholars who would disagree with his exposition of the practice of viewing all sentient beings as being like one's own mother. Similarly, the issue of mothering in feminist philosophy is relatively new; there are feminist philosophers who would strongly dispute Ruddick's orientation. However, a limited comparison of these two texts reveals several provocative connections that could potentially inform each tradition. In the two sections that immediately follow, we describe a Buddhist ethicof compassion and a feminist ethic of care. We then draw out some of the connections between these traditions. In the final section we anticipate a possible objection to the comparison. ˇ@ II. Ideas of Mothering in Tibetan Buddhism ˇ@ In the tantra system of Buddhism as practiced in Tibet, ideas of mothering are central to spiritual practice, and in order to progress in meditation one must gain a direct, intuitive understanding of the practices of mothering on both personal and universal levels. An important text for this practice is Tsong kha pa's Great Exposition of the Stages of the Path, an extensive work that lays out the stages of the path to enlightenment from a Mahaayaana perspective.(1) In order for one to be considered a Mahaayaanist, according to Tsong kha pa, one must have generated the mind of enlightenment (byang chub gyi sems, bodhicitta), the existential transformation that marks the beginning of thepath of the Bodhisattva, a compassionate being who seeks the state of Buddhahood in order to benefit others.2 The mind of enlightenment is a resolution personally to undertake to free all sentient beings from suffering through one's own efforts, and its generation marks the beginning of the Bodhisattva path. The Bodhisattva is distinguished from "ordinary beings" (so so'i skye bo, p.rthagjana), those who are primarily concerned with their own welfare and happiness. Ordinary beings are those whose actions are motivated by self-interest and self-cherishing and who, although they may occasionally perform altruistic actions, mainly seek their own happiness. Bodhisattvas, by contrast, are mainly concerned with others, and their religious practice is motivated by an intense desire to help them overcome the suffering to which all living beings are subject. The initial problem is that self-centered attitudes are deeply ingrained in each of us, and in order to break them we must cultivate unfamiliar attitudes and practices. According to Buddhism, all beings who are caught up in the continuous round of birth, death, and rebirth are subject to suffering, and this suffering is rooted in primordial ignorance, an ignorance that causes beings to value things that lead to suffering and to devalue things that can help one to overcome suffering. Due to misperceiving reality, beings come to view things like material possessions, fame, power, etc. as being conducive to happiness, and as a result they generate desire for them. This desire in turn leads them to commit actions that harm and oppress others and which inevitably rebound on those who commit them. According to Tsong kha pa, beings harm and oppress others in this way because of misperceptions that cause them to see others as less valuable than themselves. In order to end the vicious cycle of desire, oppression, and suffering, it is necessary to reorient one's mind through developing an understanding of the value of the other. The primary meditative practice through which one brings about the necessary reorientation is referred to as the "seven-point cause and effect method." This constitutes a training program through which one learns to value others as much as oneself. The main focus of this practice is the kindness of one's own mother: one considers the various ways in which one's mother cared for and protected one and develops a profound sense of love and gratitude toward her. The next phase of the meditation involves extending these feelings to include all other beings. The seven stages are: 1. Understanding that all sentient beings have been one's mothers; 2. Remembering their kindness; 3. Wishing to repay their kindness; 4. Love: wishing that all beings have happiness and the causes of happiness; 5. Compassion: wishing that all beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering; 6.The unusual attitude (lhag pa'i bsam pa, adhyaa`saya): vowing to work to free all beings from suffering and establish them in Buddhahood; 7. The mind of enlightenment: resolving to attain enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings.3 The practice is based on the Buddhist understanding of karma and rebirth, according to which each person has been reborn an infinite number of times, and each lifetime has been determined and conditioned by past actions. Because past rebirths are numberless, and because future rebirths are also numberless, a Buddhist can conclude that she has been in every possible relationship with every other sentient being, and that every sentient being has been her motheˇFfather, best friend, etc.4 The meditator first contemplates the many types of relationships she has had with every other sentient being, and then realizes that she has done great harm to many other beings in the past: she has been an executioner, murderer, torturer, etc., and so there is a great debt owed to every other sentient being. In addition, she also realizes that every other being has been her own mother and that just as her own mother was almost unimaginably kind, so every other being has been just as kind and has given birth, cared for and nurtured her, loved her selflessly and without qualification, and has forgone her own happiness for that of her children.5 At this point the meditator focuses on the specific kindnesses of her own mother: Imagine your mother very clearly in front of you. Consider several times how she has been your mother numberless times, not only now, but from beginningless cyclic existence. When she was your mother, she protected you from all danger and brought about your benefit and happiness. In particular, in this life she held you for a long time in her womb. Once you were born, while you still had new hair, she held you to the warmth of her flesh and rocked you on the tips of her ten fingers. She nursed you at her breast, gave you food with her mouth, cleaned your snot with her mouth, and wiped away your filth with her hand.6 In various ways she nourished you tirelessly. When you were hungry and thirsty, she gave you drink, and when you were cold, clothes, and when poor, money. She gave you those things that were precious to her. Moreover, she did not find these easily? When you suffered with a fever she would rather have died herself than have her child die; and if her child became sick, from the depths of her heart she would rather have suffered herself than have her child suffer.7 The love of a mother for her child and the child's gratitude and love are the primary paradigms for cultivating an attitude of cherishing all other beings. Tsong kha pa assumes that the meditator has a close bond with her mother and that when she contemplates her mother's kindness she will wish to repay it. The seven-point cause and effect method is based on an assumption that a mother's love for her child is the strongest love of ordinary beings, and this becomes the model for Buddhist practitioners. The purpose of this practice is to make the meditator aware of the specific ways in which her mother cared for and protected her. The passage above graphically describes the various types of kindness that mothers show to their children, and the meditator is supposed to understand this in terms of specific acts of extreme kindness. In other words, it is not enough merely to grasp on an abstract level that mothers care for and nurture their children: one must also understand the depths of a mother's love and the lengths to which she will go to help her children. After becoming aware of the kindness of one's own mother, one then extends to all other sentient beings the feelings of love and gratitude that this awareness generates. Then one considers the fact that one's present life is contingent on various causes and conditions and that one's present relationships are merely accidental: in the past, the person who is now one's worst enemy was one's mother or dearest friend, and one's friends and relatives were one's most bitter enemies. Moreover, there is no certainty even with respect to present relationships: one's enemy can become a friend, and one's friends can become enemies. From one's own viewpoint, since one has cycled beginninglessly, there are no sentient beings who have not been one's friends hundreds of times. Therefore, one should think, 'Whom should I value?' 'Whom should I hate?(8) Contemplating in this way, one comes to understand that there is no necessity for a particular person's being either cherished or despised. Our relationships are accidental, and there is no compelling reason to value some more than others. This is a crucial point, since Tsong kha pa contends that most of the problems of human society result from mistakenly valuing some people more than others and viewing some as worthy of either neglect or hatred. When one sees an enemy suffering, not only is it not unbearable, but one also likes it. When one sees the suffering of someone who has neither helped nor harmed one, one usually just forsakes that person. This is because the person is not attractive to oneself. When one sees the suffering of a relative [however], one cannot bear it. To the extent that another is attractive [to oneself], one experiences the force of not being able to bear his/her suffering. One must generate a sense of the attractive qualities [of others] and greatly cherish and hold them dear. This is very important.(9) As he elaborates on this idea, the reason why it is important is that we create and reify ideas about others: some are beloved, some are hated, and some are neutral, and these latter we view with indifference. We all see such neutral people every day: these are people toward whom we feel no particular obligation and whose sufferings are not percieved as having any connection to us. We pass them by and quickly forget their sufferings. When our enemies suffer, however, a typical reaction is pleasure, and we wish to see them suffer more. Tsong kha pa suggests that such attitudes are mistaken on several counts: firstly, one's present relationships are merely the result of causes and conditions, and there is no necessary reason for them to be as they are. In the past we have been in every possible relationship with every other person, and in the future best friends will become bitter enemies and enemies will be our mothers who will care for and protect us, with their livesif need be. Secondly, the attitudes that are generated by indifference and hatred lead to further conflict, fighting, and oppression. We tend to oppress and devalue people toward whom we feel no particular attachment, and rather than valuing them we treat them as means to be used for our own purposes. When one fully understands the kindness of one's own mother and understands that all other sentient beings have been equally kind, however, then one comes to feel a pervasive love that extends to all other living beings, even those toward whom one previously felt animosity. The next step is to realize that one owes each sentient being a great debt of gratitude for past kindnesses and, thinking in this way, one resolves to repay each one. After considering how best to accomplish this, it becomes clear that at present one's resources are limited. Since Tsong kha pa is a Buddhist thinker, it is not surprising that he concludes that the person best able to help others is a Buddha, and so he suggests that at this point one should decide to become a Buddha in order to benefit others most effectively. A Buddha, according to Mahaayaana understandings prevalent in Tibet, is a fully enlightened being who has perfected wisdom and compassion to the highest degree and who then uses his/her wisdom and supernatural powers to help others. But what relevance do Tsong kha pa's ideas have for people who do not accept Buddhist ideas about karma and rebirth? Does this text have anything to say to non-Buddhists? We would like to suggest that these questions can be answered positively, and that Tsong kha pa's analysis pinpoints some of the root causes of current problems in interpersonal, interracial, intrasexual, and international relationships. As he suggests, it seems increasingly clear that large and small battles are fought between people who have come to view each other as objects and as merely members of a particular group of "others." Each person constructs a reality in which his/her own friends, relatives, and companions are valued, while others are viewed with indifference or even hatred because of fixed conceptions. Such conceptions in turn lead to acts of callousness, cruelty, oppression, murder, and war, but if we could learn to cultivate a sense of the value of other people and the precariousness of present relationships, perhaps this could form the basis for a greater appreciation of others. Every other person is potentially lovable, and everyone has the potential to love, care, and nurture, although in many these potentials may be deeply submerged. Tsong kha pa's model provides a way to envision others as loving and lovable, even if at the present time it may be difficult to see this. These ideas will be more fully developed in Section Five. ˇ@ III. Feminist Moral Theory and the Practice of Mothering ˇ@ As feminists seek ways to express what is distinctive in women's moral experience, there has been a tendency to move away from traditional teleological and deontological theories toward contextualist accounts in terms of friendship, appropriate trust, and caring.10 One way to approach feminist ideas about mothering is through the feminist literature on an ethic of care. Much of this literature begins with Carol Gilligan's psychological research on gender differences in moral development.11 Her work, in turn, was a response to the work of Lawrence Kohlberg. Kohlberg had argued for a theory of moral development in several stages, moving from stages of interdependence - where moral judgments are made in response to a particular context - to a final stage in which moral personhood becomes autonomous. A mature moral person for Kohlberg makes moral judgments that issue from universal rules. Echoing Kant's distinction between properly moral universal imperatives and non-moral, prudential maxims or customs, the distinction for Kohlberg between the moral and the prudential is that the properly moral is universalizable . Such judgments require autonomous agents, agents who judge by reference to rules, not by reference to personal relationships. Generally, this rights-based approach to moral thinking tends to emphasize formalistic decision procedures and an adversarial understanding of moral discourse. Moral deliberation is detached from the body and the emotions. Gilligan's research indicates that Kohlberg's hierarchy distorts patterns of moral development that are characteristic of women. Whereas Kohlberg's hierarchy is represented as depicting the ascending stages of moral development per se, they are, in fact, the stages of a typical man's moral development. Those stages that are characteristic of women are placed at the bottom of Kohlberg's hierarchy. Women's experiences are more sympathetically understood in terms of the recognition of a plurality of moral interests, contextual decision making, and nonadversarial accommodation of diverse interests. Women tend to understand moral personhood as relational and contextual, not as autonomous. The body is understood as moral agent, and emotions are not cut out of the moral domain. Gilligan summarizes, " the morality of rights differs from the morality of responsibility in its emphasis on separation rather than connection, in its consideration of the individual rather than the relationship as primary.? "(12) In turn, the literature on an alternative ethic of care itself derives from feminist standpoint theory: feminism questions the "universality imperative" of traditional philosophy.13 Sara Ruddick quotes Catherine MacKinnon, saying, Feminism not only challenges masculine partiality but questions the universality imperative itself. Aperspectivity is revealed as a strategy of male hegemony.? Nor is feminism objective, abstract, or universal. Eminsm does not begin with the premise that it is unpremised. It does not desire to persuade an unpremised audience because there is no such audience.(14) A strategy of masculinized philosophy is to disguise itself as impartial, "objective," and nonpolitical. It does this through the appeal to a universal, abstract, impartial domain of "truths" as foundational for "truth." Yet, this disguises the fact that this very ploy to depict traditional philosophy as neutral and unbiased is itself political. It attempts to seize the domain of discourse, making it impossible to say within that domain, "This framework is political! " All philosophies represent a standpoint, including those philosophies that have most vigorously claimed not to be political. Feminist philosophy does not respond to these strategies of depoliticization by claiming a privileged, unbiased foundation for itself. It seeks, rather, to expose the biases of "unbiased" philosophy so that they can become matters for debate. Western noral philosophy has traditionally begun from just such universalistic aspirations.15 The standard positions, such as Kant's deontological formalism and Mill's utilitarianism, have been presented in the canonical writings as the alternative moral theories. Either duties are to be judged by reference to categorical imperatives, or by reference to a utilitarian calculus. But, in fact, both alternatives represent typically universalizing masculine patterns of moral thinking; they marginalize women's patterns of moral thinking by defining them as non-moral, as matters of mere custom rather than morality. The universality imperative underlies the tendency of traditional philosophy to dismiss typically women's moral thinking as merely personal. The difference in women's patterns of moral thinking is evident in the fact that women often tend to have trouble responding to the philosopher's favorite examples of moral dilemmas, for example, "What should one do if stranded at sea in a lifeboat with two other people and there is only enough food for two?" Such bloodless philosopher's favorites, which assume scarcity and conflict,16 are designed to be as noncontextual as possible. It is not permitted to ask, for example, "Who am I, and what are my interests?" or "Who are the other people, and what is my relationship to them?" The fact that one of the others may be a daughter or son is irrelevant to the just decision. These issues are outside the boundaries of the strictly moral. John Rawls' theory of justice is a contemporary example of just such a decontextualized theory: he assumes that only if we operate from behind a veil of ignorance which shrouds us from knowledge of life histories and context are we operating morally. The transcendentalizing character of traditional philosophy has made it difficult to grant that concrete and embodied practices might be morally instructive. This especially includes the category "mother." Joyce Trebilcot, in the introduction to her anthology, Mothering: Essays in Feminist Theory, neatly spells out some of the distortions that have resulted from the patriarchal demands placed on mothering: The mothering typical of patriarchies helps to perpetuate hierarchical societal arrangements in a variety of ways: women are required to give birth only to children of their own race; mothers are required to make children conform to gender roles according to biological sex; mothers are expected to transmit the values of the dominant culture, whatever they may be, to their children, and more generally, to teach their children to be obedient participants in hierarchy; and women are expected not only to reproduce patriarchy in children but also to care for the men who create and maintain it. No wonder some women refuse to mother, and urge us all to withdraw from mothering!(17) There are also issues of patriarchal control of women's bodies through enforcement of policies concerning birth control and abortion. It is indeed not surprising, then, that some feminists reject mothering altogether as a practice that inevitably reproduces patriarchy. Jeffner Allen, a radical lesbian feminist, has said, "I would like to affirm the rejection of motherhood on the grounds that motherhood is dangerous to women."(18) Among those feminist philosophers who do choose to focus on mothering as a moral practice, therefore, this must be understood as a feminist project. It begins from the recognition that mothering as practiced in patriarchal societies has been oppressive. While it seeks to recognize and affirm the practice of mothering (and those who have been mothers), it also seeks to transform the practice. Furthermore, the focus on mothering among feminist moral philosophers must be understood as an attempt to reformulate what counts as an adequate moral theory at a most basic level. Taking the neglected practice of mothering as a model makes it inevitable that aspects of morality that have been marginalized - the body, the emotions, context-will be transfigured and given their proper places in moral theory. Sara Ruddick assumes a "practicalist" conception of "truth." By this she means that there is no foundation by which all truths can be judged and that "distinctive ways of knowing and criteria of truth arise out of practices." Mothering is one such practice. "To be a 'mother' is to take upon oneself the responsibility of child care," she says, "making its work a regular and substantial part of one's working life."19 Ruddick grants that men can develop the practice of mothering if they are willing to engage in such work as a primary commitment, but she contends that this is comparatively rare.20 Three kinds of demands are placed on the mother: for preservation, growth, and social acceptability. Mothers seek to meet these demands by works of preservative love, nurturance, and training.21 The mother seeks to preserve and protect, to nurture the child physically, emotionally, and intellectually, and to balance the demands of society to be acceptable against the desire for authenticity and self-control. These demands are obviously complex, but one aspect that deserves to be singled out is the bodily dimension of motherly care. As Ruddick reminds the reader, "[e]arly mothering is done amid feces, urine, vomit, and milk."22 Commitment to the work of mothering does not end with taking the kids to the movies on Saturday. Critical to Ruddick's argument is the claim that mothering is inherently as ocial practice that is committed to making the world into the kind of place where children can be preserved, nurtured, and trained. Thus, she says that despite the travail that mothers sometimes experience from unsympathetic societies or uncaring family or friends, at its best the practice of mothering is "a struggle toward nonviolence."23 Certainly not all mothers are nonviolent, nor do all women support social structures that are peaceful and nonoppressive. But if one takes the demands of mothering seriously, there is a moral direction inherent in the practice of mothering toward making the world a place in which growth can be sustained. This movement has its own set of virtues that are generated by the work of mothering: "Mothers develop the mental attitudes of scrutiny and humility. We cannot dominate the world"24 The work of mothering is inherently collaborative. In contrast to conceptions of morality that are abstract and rule-bound, "It is the nonviolence of daily life that is itself the goal to which longer-range aims must be adapted." Paraphrasing Gandhi, Ruddick says " preservation and growth of children is truth, then a criterion of its realization is that it be achieved nonviolently.?" "The way is the truth." "The process is the project."25 There is, as well, an epistemic stance that develops out of mothering. It is the practice itself which generates other categories. Ruddick remarks, "The concrete reality of the child's life is what generates other categories." Mothering is a concrete activity; as such it generates an appropriate kind of thinking, a "reflectiveness of concreteness [that] must be developed.?"26 "Caring labor" is regarded with disdain by intellectuals just because it is inevitably contextual and concerned with the body. Yet, its very standpoint as "subjugated knowledge," as knowledge that is shaped by a process that is oppressive, means that it produces a "superior" version of experience. "Caretakers are immersed in the materials of the world," Ruddick says.27 Without claiming an epistemically privileged standpoint based on the claim to have grounded knowledge in an unbiased epistemic bedrock, feminism tends also to reject relativism. Like Buddhism, there is a claim to superior understanding in feminism. It claims to have a superior version of experience just because of the experiences through which it was shaped. ˇ@ IV . Buddhist-Feminist Connections We do not overlook the fact that Buddhist and feminist conceptions of mothering are, to some extent, culturally specific. Tibetan society holds mothers and their typical practices in extremely high regard. Thus, Tsong kha pa assumes that his readers do have the sort of relationship with their mothers that makes mothering possible as a meditative focus. The contexts in which feminist theories of mothering are being developed, by contrast, vary widely, but are typically understood as oppressive. Mothering may be idealized in Western societies, but its actual practices are not sufficiently appreciated. Tibetans would be shocked, for example, by the feminization of poverty that makes mothering a ferociously difficult process. While these are important considerations, they should not prevent us from recognizing points of contact. Specifically, both the Buddhist and feminist traditions begin with the contention that ordinary human life is pervaded by suffering due to delusive and therefore oppressive conceptual schemes. These conceptual schemes tend to be normatively hierarchical and dualistic. They define the eternal as higher, more fully real, than the temporal. In both traditions, these hierarchies are regarded as abstractions that falsify the concrete reality of thinking, acting, and being. We can begin to eradicate these oppressive conceptual schemes by coming to distrust the tendency to think of epistemic and ontological categories as absolute. For example, both traditions have criticized the metaphysics of stasis, whether the Hindu idea of aatman or the Western philosophical idea of substance. Buddhist and feminist traditions bothcan fairly be termed, in David Kalupahana's words, "adventure[s] in non-substantialism."28 Both criticize the distinction between theory and practice when theory is understood as being prior to, and more important than, practice. Thinking is understood in both traditions as being intimately connected to practice: theory informs practice, and practice shapes what counts as an adequate theory. In each tradition, moreover, release from oppression is not a matter of committing to a new, more accurate, representation of reality, to "another philosophy." It is not simply a way of thinking, but a new way of being. It is the commitment to a new "way" or form of life, a path that can be cultivated through attending to precisely those practices that are marginalized and therefore neglected by hierarchical modes of thinking. For both the Buddhist and feminist traditions, moral values are context-specific. They grow out of a sense of antecedent connection to specific others such as one finds in the practice of mothering. Both oppose a conception of morality as universal and rule-bound. Both emphasize that compassion or care can be cultivated. One must become a certain sort of person, one must experience the world in a certain sort of way, to be moral. Compassion and caring are cultivated as mental and bodily responses to the world. They are not just ways of thinking, but ways of being in physical touch with the world. Both result in a kind of knowledge, but it knowledge that demands to be called "bodily knowledge." Bodily knowledge is not the kind of knowing that is usually characterized as theorizing about a Cartesian "external world." Rather, it is the kind that results from an embodied practice of cultivation. As such, it is validated by the experience of a cultivated person. We contend that it is not simply a cross-cultural accident that Buddhist and feminist philosophy focus on mothering. Mothering can only become an example of a moral practice when the ethical domain is defined as concrete and embodied, when theory and practice mutually inform one another, and when change and growth are fundamental categories, not stasis. It can only become an example, furthermore, in contexts that value typically women's practices. The focus on mothering is, therefore, deeply reflective of each tradition, revealing deep assumptions. By focusing on precisely those concrete, embodied practices, such as mothering, that are marginalized, left unspoken, regarded as "sub-philosophical" by dominant traditions - traditions that teach us to value the transcendental and the unchanging - Buddhist and feminist philosophy seek to give voice to unacknowledged aspects of experience as models for the transformation of experience from within. While neither tradition would claim privileged epistemic or metaphysical status based on access to an absolute, unchanging source, both would claim a kind of superior understanding distinguished by the fact that it is indelibly marked by the process through which it overcame oppression. As Sandy Boucher writes: Buddhism presumes that most of us are blinded by a veil of ignorance of our true nature. Feminism presumes that we exist within a hoary power structure of lies and misconceptions about the nature of human beings. Both systems allow us to tear aside the veil, dismantling the forms that hide from us the true beauty and potential of human beings. And the goal of both is liberation from limiting ideas and conditions. These correspondences explain the attraction of Buddhist practice for women and its potential usefulness. Many women see this practice as a way to augment or continue their own process of self-discovery and activism, for it offers techniques designed to awaken us and bring us fully present to life.29 ˇ@ V. Concluding Remarks: A Possible Objection It may appear that there is an insurmountable counterexample to the comparison we have been drawing. Buddhist philosophy has traditionally regarded itself as gender-neutral and apolitical, whereas feminist philosophy is often regarded as inherently political and seeks, above all, a gender-based understanding of oppression. However, we would argue that this stark contrast at least needs modification, even if it cannot be entirely eliminated. Many feminist philosophers have been working to critique and undermine the traditional understanding of the political which distinguishes categorically between the public and private spheres of life. This distinction has helped to construct women as private and domestic, and it has excluded them from participation in business, government, and higher education. Feminist philosophers often object to claims that public life can be defined by a set of "neutral" rules for equitable treatment of all (gender-neutral) "agents." The neutral public sphere is an abstraction; it ignores the fact that "the personal is the political." Out of this feminist critique of the public/private dualism emerges the possibility of a new understanding of the interplay between personal cultivation and social action. It is possible to see Buddhism as moving in a similar direction. The mythical mother of the Buddha, Taaraa, says that she revealed herself as a Buddha specifically to assist women who seek enlightenment. This implies that there is a gender distinction recognized by Buddhist philosophy at least among those who seek enlightenment, if not among those who have reached it.30 Buddhism has always been dynamic in the ways in which it has been adapted to local conditions. As Buddhism has found its way into Western societies it has been marked by an increased awareness of the condition of women, including the oppressive ways in which women have been treated in Buddhism. It has also been marked by an increased social awareness that has blurred the traditional distinction between personal cultivation and social action. Recent books such as The Path of Compassion: Writings on Socially Engaged Buddhism and Dharma Gaia: A Harvest of Essays in Buddhism and Ecology, and activist organizations like the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, are examples of this merger. There have been important Buddhist community development projects, such as the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement in Sri Lanka.31 In addition, some distinguished contemporary Buddhists who were not trained in the Western tradition (such as the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh) have successfully blended messages of personal cultivation and social awareness. Despite a tendency to devalue political activity, throughout Buddhist history there have been notable examples of people whose Buddhist values prompted them to engage in political and social activism. Thus, we contend that there is no inherent discrepancy between spiritual cultivation and social/political activism. We suggest that a Buddhist/feminist conversation could engender fruitful new directions for a woman-oriented ethos of compassion, love, and caring in spiritual and social development. From its earliest beginnings, Buddhism has warned against the categories society forces on us. We are taught to label ourselves and others, to reify these labels, and to treat them as absolutes. As a result, we learn to dismiss the suffering of others, like the "homeless" (they brought it on themselves, and they chose that life anyway), "AIDS patients" (they're mostly gay, and so they deserve it), "drug addicts" (no one forced them to take drugs). Through this process of objectification by labelling, we create the "other." Buddhism suggests that this is an inveterate tendency of people who are swept up into oppressive categories. It is particularly dangerous when this program of objectif- ication becomes utopian and political. Placing one's hopes in political activities as if they offered the promise of eternal happiness, when, in fact, the world is transitory, is inevitably followed by suffering, and so Buddhism counsels against it (although, as we have seen, it is still acceptable for a Buddhist to work for social change if he/she does so with the proper attitude of selfless concern for others). In comparison to this, the Buddhist meditative practice we haveconsidered presents an alternative mode of being, one based on an ethic of care and compassion, which refuses to objectify the other. Through seeing oneself in relation to other beings, it trains the mind and body to value the other as much as oneself. Moral cultivation requires development of a profound respect for and valuation of virtues that are defined by practices that are typically engaged in by women: mothering, caring, nurturing, and love.32 Thus, Buddhism suggests avenues for the development of an explicitly feminist spirituality, one that values feminine qualities and modes of being and uses them as a basis for personal and social development. We can see why both feminists and Buddhists develop a healthy skepticism for traditional politics. Historical understanding may lead one to conclude that the prospects for fundamentally changing the world through "political" activity are limited at best. Human history has been full of wars and oppression, pogroms and genocides, cruelty, racism, and sexism. Despite the appearance of innumerable people with utopian models for human development, human history has tended to fall into predictable and destructive patterns. There is little reason to hope that the present age will be any different, and so any political activity without deep, personal understanding of the ways in which we project oppressive categories onto others is unlikely to bring about a major positive change. Buddhist meditative practices combined with feminist awareness suggest some promising avenues for exploration. They suggest that one's present problems are mainly the result of negative, disabling constructions of reality and that if one is being oppressed, this is partially a result of agreeing to a construction of reality in which one is a victim. Thus, the key to individual freedom lies within each individual. Each of us continually creates and hypostatizes a perception of "reality," and this constitutes the world in which we live. To the extent that this reality is oppressing or oppressed, dysfunctional or self-destructive, one will bring harm to oneself and others. Through cultivating and extending the practice of mothering, however, one can transform one's "world," whether this is understood narrowly or broadly. Those who force their visions of reality on others, who coerce and and seek to control others, generally create negative effects, no matter how noble their goals might be. Conversely, those who seek their ends through love and compassion, who emphasize the virtues of nurturing and care, tend to produce positive reactions in the people they meet. Both Sara Ruddick's discussion of mothering and the meditative practice outlined by Tsong kha pa provide compelling and thought-provoking paradigms through which human beings can transform themselves on an individual level and, through self-development, have positive effects on those around them and on society at large. Our goal in presenting these preliminary thoughts and observations is to initiate a conversation between the two sides which could prove mutually beneficial. 1 The version of the Lam rim chen mo to which we will refer in this study is entitled Lam rim mchan bzhi sbrags ma, which contains Tsong kha pa's root text and interlineal commentaries by Ba so chos kyi rgyal mtshan, Sde drug mkhan chen Ngag dbang rab brtan, 'Jam dbyangs bzhad pa'i rdo rje, and Bra sti dge bshes Rin chen don grub (New Delhi: Chos 'phel legs ldan, 1972). These interlineal commentaries are extremely helpful in ascertaining Tsong kha pa's thought. 2 See Lam rim chen mo, p. 560.3 and Guy Newland, Compassion: A Tibetan Analysis (London: Wisdom, 1984), pp. 93-102. 3 Lam rim chen mo, p. 559.3. See also: Jeffrey Hopkins, Compassion in Tibetan Buddhism (London: Rider, 1980), pp. 23-56 and Geshe Lhundup Sopa and Jeffrey Hopkins, Cutting Through Appearances (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1989, pp. 81-94. 4 Throughout this section, we use feminine pronouns, not to make a political statement or to suggest that this is a spiritual practice that is only for women; we adopted this convention because in this article we are suggesting that there are points of congruency between this practice and some concerns of contemporary feminism. Part of our reason in presenting this paper is that we feel that Tibetan Buddhist meditations on mothering suggest fruitful avenues for the development of a feminist spirituality, and so it seemed appropriate to use feminine pronouns when describing the meditations, which are thought by Buddhists to be appropriate to both men and women. 5 At this point someone could object that the logic of the practice could just as easily lead one to hate others, since they also have been murderers, torturers, etc., and that there is just as much reason to feel emnity toward them as love. This objection misses the point of the exercise, which is to give powerful reasons for love and to show that in the past one has loved and cared for every other sentient being, and so there is no particular reason to value some and not others, since the relationships with others whom one currently loves and cares for are merely the result of accidental circumstances. Thus, there are equally good reasons for valuing all other beings. 6 As explained in the commentaries, the last three things refer to common practices in pre-industrial societies where pre-packaged baby food, Kleenex, and Pampers are not available. One commentary explains that mothers will chew a baby's food first in order to make it easier for the baby to digest. They will use their tongues to wipe away snot from a baby's face in order to avoid irritating its skin, and will even use their own hands to clean the baby's filth. The main import of the passage is to make the meditator aware of the depth of her mother's kindness. 7 Lam rim chen mo, p. 575.1. See also Newland, pp. 35-49. 8 Lam rim chen mo, p. 572.5; see also H.H. the Dalai Lama, Path to Bliss (Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1991), pp. 150- 160. 9 Dgongs pa rab gsal (Dbu ma la 'jug pa'i rgya cher bshad pa dgongs pa rab gsal; Peking #6143, vol. 154), p. 7.2.6. 10. Two recent anthologies provide an overview of feminist moral theory: Women and Moral Theory, ed. Eva Feder Kittay and Diana T. Meyers (Savage, MD., Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc, 1987), and Feminist Ethics ed. Claudia Card (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1991). The latter is not generally sympathetic to the care perspective. On friendship see Janice G. Raymond, A Passion for Friends: Toward a Philosophy of Female Affection (Boston: Beacon Press, 1986). On appropriate trust see Annette Baier's "Trust and Antitrust," Ethics 96 (1986) and "What Do Women Want in a Moral Theory?" Nous 19 (March 1985):53-64. The feminist journal Hypatia often runs articles on these issues. 11. But see also Dorothy Dinnerstein's The Mermaid and the Minotaur (New York: Harper & Row, 1976) and Nancy Chodorow's The Reproduction of Mothering (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978) for important earlier statements. 12 Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women's Development (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982), p. 19. This literature is, by now, enormous. For more recent developments see Women and Moral Theory, ed. Eva Feder Kittay and Diana T. Meyers (Savage, MD.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1987), Feminism and Political Theory, ed. Cass R. Sunstein (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990), and Women's Ways of Knowing: The Development of Self, Voice, and Mind (New York: Basic Books, 1986). Owen Flanagan and Kathryn Jackson ("Justice, Care, and Gender: The Kohlberg-Gilligan Debate Revisited", in Feminist Political Theory) give a helpful overview of the subject. They point out several changes that might be helpful to Gilligan's theory. For example, whereas she depicts the alternative between a rights perspective and a care perspective in terms of a gestalt shift, Flanagan and Jackson argue that this does not accurately represent the shift that occurs between the two perspectives. A gestalt shift, such as the duck-rabbit, only allows the image to be seen as either a duck or arabbit. But research suggests that most people can see a particular moral situation from the perspective of either rights or care but that one of these perspectives is regarded as more important. The distinction in importance tends to be gender based, with women emphasizing care and men emphasizing rights (Flanagan and Jackson, 38-40) . This suggests that the two perspectives are psychologically, not logically, mutually exclusive. 13 Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking: Toward A Politics of Peace (New York: Ballantine Books, 1989), pp. 128ff. 14 Ibid., p. 128. Quoted from Catherine MacKinnon, "Feminism, Marxism, Method, and the State: An Agenda for Theory," Signs 7 (3 1982), p. 534. 15 There have, of course, been exceptions, such as Hume. But it is precisely these exceptions that have been the most interesting to feminists. See Annette C. Baier, "Hume, the Women's Moral Theorist?" in Women and Moral Theory, pp. 37-55. 16 For an analysis of the ways in which the myth of scarcity has made competition seem necessary and unavoidable in masculinized philosophy, see Mary Beth Averill and Michael Gross, "Evolution and Patriarchal Myths of Scarcity and Competition." See also Janice Moulton, "A Paradigm of Philosophy: The Adversary Method" for an analysis of Western philosophy as inherently adversarial rather than relational. Both are in Discovering Reality, ed. Sandra Harding and Merrill B. Hintikka (Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel, 1983). 17 Mothering: Essays in Feminist Theory, Joyce Trebilcot, ed. (Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1984), p. 1. 18 In "Motherhood: The Annihilation of Women," Mothering: Essays in Feminist Theory, p. 315. 19 Sara Ruddick, Maternal Thinking, pp. 13 and 17. 20 If men can be mothers, it may be argued, the word "parenting" is preferable to "mothering." But many feminists, including Ruddick, believe that this fails to honor the fact that mothers are, in fact, overwhelmingly women. It posits an ideal that is far from being realized as if it were real, and thereby falsifies the realities of patriarchy. 21 Maternal Thinking, chapters 3, 4 and 5. 22 Ibid., p. 206. 23 Ibid., p. 57. 24 Ibid., 71-2. 25 Ibid., pp. 170 and 171. 26 Ibid., pp. 78 and 98. 27 Ibid., p. 130. 28 David J. Kalupahana, The Principles of Buddhist Psychology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), p. 144. Kalupahana was referring to Buddhist psychology, but in the same context he also discusses the philosophy of William James, which bears a strong resemblance to Buddhist philosophy, according to Kalupahana. 29 Sandy Boucher, Turning the Wheel (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988), pp. 2-3. 30 As reported by Taaranaatha (The Origin of the Taaraa Tantra, tr. David Templemen; Dharamsala, Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, 1981, pp. 11-12), in a past life Taaraa was a young girl named J~naanacandra, who Heard the teachings of a Buddha and generated the mind of enlightenment. Some monks who knew that she had done so advised her to seek a male body in her next life, contending that this would be more appropriate to an enlightened being, but she replied: There is no such distinction as 'male' and 'female' and therefore attachment to ideas of 'male' and 'female' is quite worthless. Weak-minded worldlings are always deluded by this. And so she vowed, 'There are many who wish to gain enlightenment in a man's form, and there are but few who wish to work for the welfare of sentient beings in a female form. Therefore, may I, in a female body, work for the welfare of beings right until sa.msaara has been emptied.' The story and her response indicate that although from the point of view of enlightened beings there is no inherently existent difference between "male" and "female", still worldly beings conceive in these ways due to their delusions, and so Taaraa, although she had personally transcended such delusions, still perceived a need to continue in a female form for those who had not attained her level. She indicates that this is necessary to provide women with a role model, a woman who has attained Buddhahood, and to show men who are mired in misogynist conceptions that women are able to attain Buddhahood. See also Stephan Beyer, The Cult of Taaraa (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973), pp. 64-5. For an extensive discussion of the discrepancies between Buddhist theory and the Actual practices of Buddhists regarding gender differences, see Diana Paul, Women in Buddhism (Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press, 1979). 31 See The Path of Comp assion: Writings on Socially Engaged Buddhism, ed. Fred Eppsteiner (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1985) and Dharma Gaia, ed Allan Hunt Badiner (Berkeley: Parallax Press, 1990). For information on Sarvodaya Shramadana, see Joanna Macy, Dharma and Development: Religion as Resource in the Sarvodaya Self-Help Movement (West Hartford, CT.: Kumarian Press, 1983; revised 1985). 32 The tantra system in particular explicitly esteems women, as is evidenced by the fact that the fourteenth vow required of all tantric practitioners is "not to slander women, who are the source of wisdom." See Beyer, p. 405.