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Buddhism studies profs say religion affects gender ideals

By Martina Russial, The Brown and White, April 22, 2008

Bethlehem, Pennsylvania (USA) -- Gender and sexuality are two different spheres that are sometimes confused, said Professor Janet Gyatso on Tuesday in Sinclair Auditorium.

Gyatso, Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies, discussed gender ideals in the Tibetan culture.

Gyatso's discussion stressed the difference in male and female image and how that translates to religion and culture.

"Tibetan Buddhism has a wealth of knowledge for wisdom on women, gender and culture," Gyatso said. "There are many studies on how people have both male and female qualities."

This concept of multiple genders is a common theme in many cultures not just Tibetan culture, said Dr. Lloyd Steffen, university chaplain.

He said the Native American religion has a term for people with multiple spirits.

"Anthropologists especially have studied these folks quite extensively," Steffen said. "Berdache are 'two spirit' people - they may actually represent a third gender according to some - and they are looked upon as both male and female, and they are honored in many traditions as having a special spiritual place in the society."

Gyatso said in Tibetan Buddhism gender ideals are very concrete.

"Gender ideals are practiced by real people and are normative, but they may only be partially embodied," Gyatso said.

Steffen said gender cannot be determined by sexuality

"Gender and culture are inseparable, but gender cannot be said to determine sexuality." Steffen said. "Religious ideas about gender reflect broader values and constructions in cultural systems, and although it is commonplace for us to think that sex and gender are somehow equivalent notions, they are not."

Steffen said ideas with less rigid gender ideals allow for a less rigid structure within gender, which makes it easier for people to adapt.

"This is how a society attempts to bridge the spiritual and the temporal world and even see ideas of gender expanded outside our categories as having special spiritual power," he said.

Gyatso said there are many difficulties in studying this subject, but there is also a great deal of excitement because of the political conflicts of gender studies.

"There is a balance on how to be human as a scholar and when looking at other human beings," she said, "It's easier to look at historical female figures and appreciating their endeavors and lives."

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