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.
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.
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
This inherently maternal character given to the female is manifest in images of the
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
, an earlyBuddhist sutra said to be written by nuns, tells of a female disciple named Soma who, upon being told