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DeWitt Perspectives on the Feminization of Buddhist Deities

DeWitt Perspectives on the Feminization of Buddhist Deities

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Published by Lindsey DeWitt

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Published by: Lindsey DeWitt on Nov 24, 2010
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DeWitt 1Perspectives on Gender in Buddhism:
The Feminization of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara
 
By Lindsey E. DeWittUniversity of Washington
In this paper I seek a better understanding of the cultural and visual processes whereby aBuddhist deity came to be depicted with feminine features and in female form in medieval China andJapan. In the Buddhist tradition, the character of deities is often personalized, assuming humanlike traits.This is the result of a locally situated process that is dynamic and ever-changing. A well-illustratedexample of this personalization is the bodhisattva of compassion,
Avalokiteśvara
(Fig. 1, Chn: Guanyin,Jpn: Kannon), who appears first in India in male form yet undergoes a gender transformation in EastAsia and gains widespread popularity as a woman.
Using Avalokiteśvara as a focal point, I intend for 
this endeavor to bring to light the complex relationships between gender, artistic representation, andcontext. This feminization, as it were, extends across both geographical and historical space andalthough there is a scriptural basis for female deities in the Buddhist canon, I suggest here that the shiftfrom masculine (Fig. 2) to feminine (Fig. 3) depiction is primarily determined by social context,localized attitudes towards gender, and the perspective of individual artists.In order to understand the ways in which this deity assumes a female form, I pursue here severallines of inquiry into the connections between representation and context and their mutually constitutingrelationship. Most importantly this venture explores issues of gender, but necessarily extends to includereligious belief, artist, audience, and sociopolitical and economic factors, a contextualized approachintended to bridge the superficial divide so often seen between image and context. In this way, I wish toexplore feminization holistically, taking into account the complex and profound nature of its existence,functions, and symbolism.
1
 
Accordingly, I will first clearly explicate the notion of “gender” and provide
 
DeWitt 2a brief summary of Buddhist attitudes toward gender and women, then move to a more detailed
discussion of Avalokiteśvara, covering textual and literary sources that c
ontribute to female iconographyand exploring the feminine iconography in artistic representations. Visual evidence from the tenth to thefourteenth century provides a most effective medium through which we can document the feminizationof this deity, thus I conclude with an analysis of several paintings of the female
Avalokiteśvara
.There is no clear or definite relationship between the image of a female deity and its raisond'être. Moreover, it is impossible to draw a general theory from the fragmented information availableconcerning image and audience in this space. On the other hand, I hope to make meaningful remarksthat help us understand, in the least identify, the socially embedded symbolic forces that explain thefemale depiction of Buddhist deities by posing the following questions: Does interpretation depend on acertain conception of gender and of the female? What do belief and social context have to do withfemale representation of Buddhist deities? Does visual and other gendering of deities reflect social life?I now turn to a more specific discussion of gender in the Buddhist context.
GENDER: TWO CONTRASTING PERSPECTIVES OF THE FEMALE
Exploring the ways in which gender gives meaning to the organization and perception of historical knowledge and theory is an important aim of this paper. Gender is a root metaphor for thenotion of difference in culture and custom, thus I must first explicate more clearly what I mean by it.Gender is defined here in the words of Joan Wallach Scott as
“an element in social relationships based
on perceived differences between sexes and implying four constituent elements: 1) culturally availablesymbols 2) normative concepts, 3) institutions such as kinship, economy, and politics, 4) a subjective
identity.”
2
 
Gender is thus a way of signifying relations of power and conceptions of what is “male” andwhat is “female” that has especial resonance for female deity representations.
I fi
nd Scott‟s definition
 
 
DeWitt 3particularly applicable because it covers the inherently broad range of factors that contribute to any
given culture‟s notion of gender. What I hope to press on specifically
in what follows is how gender,conceived of thus, influences and is influenced by visual representation.I suggest we consider the feminization of Buddhist deities as part of an ongoing and ever-changing dialogue between history, religion, art, and society. Female representations are indispensibleresources for modern scholars because they offer tangible expressions of social views on gender.Moreover, visual representations are most useful tools to comparatively analyze changes in gender rolesas they are continually modified and recreated throughout history. Paul (1985) supports this notion,noting that depictions of bodhisattvas with sexual transformations offer us perhaps the most conspicuousand unequivocal magnification of the tensions between misogynistic and egalitarian ideals.
3
 In principle, the notion of gender in Buddhism is not fixed but fluctuating, but two general viewsarise concerning definitions and perceptions of the female therein. While not intended to be exhaustive,they do provide useful information that may be applied to the feminization of Buddhist deities.
I.
The first discernable view associates the feminine with wise, maternal, creative, gentle, andcompassionate attributes. Herein, women are linked with affective and emotional characteristics said toembody the transcendent realm. Robert Bellah writes that
“all these figures are conceived of only as
symbols of ultimate reality, relative manifestations of an absolute moving forward, masked, on the
human stage.”
4
This inherently maternal character given to the female is manifest in images of the
“Child
-
giving Guanyin” (Fig. 4)
in particular and is in large part based on religious belief, specificallythe belief in ultimate non-duality that is a hallmark of Buddhism. For example, the
Therigatha
, an earlyBuddhist sutra said to be written by nuns, tells of a female disciple named Soma who, upon being told

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