By Schuyler Clemente '07
Jill Ker Conway Professor of Religion and East Asian Studies,
has spent the past few months organizing a national conference
to explore an engaging topic: "Women Practicing Buddhism: American
Experiences." The conference, which will take place at Smith,
April 7–10, will bring together scholars, students and local
practitioners to discuss women's experiences of Buddhism.
"It's a celebration of how women are changing Buddhism…as
well as a kind of exploration of issues that women as Buddhists face," says
The idea for this conference began in spring 2002, when Gregory organized a
lecture series in conjunction with his Buddhism in America course. One of the
speakers was Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a professor at the University of San Diego
and founder and president of Sakyadhita, the International Association of Buddhist
Women, who has worked to address inequity in Buddhist communities in Asia.
During her brief stay on campus, Tsomo and Gregory discussed the possibility
of a conference at Smith about women and Buddhism. When Tsomo returned to campus
last spring for a Kahn Institute project, she and Gregory solidified their
plans. A committee of scholars and local practitioners was formed, and they
generated the vision for the conference.
Gregory believes Smith is an excellent host for this conference, not only because
of its tradition of supporting women but also because of its location in the
Pioneer Valley of western Massachusetts. "There's a surprising
number of Buddhist groups in this area," he notes. "Roughly, within
a 20-mile radius of Smith, there are over 40 different Buddhist groups."
Similar conferences have been occurring in Asia, and Gregory is excited to
bring such an event to Smith. "These conferences have been huge consciousness-raising
events for Buddhist women across Asia," he notes.
The issue of women in Buddhism is a complex one, since the living ordination
tradition of Buddhist nuns in Asia has all but died. Without nuns, women's
status in the Buddhist world is diminished; they don't have the same
educational opportunities as men, they endure situations of incredible poverty
and they are forced to be subservient to monks. Tsomo has been trying to combat
this inequality by raising money and establishing nunneries in the Himalayas.
Elizabeth Tonti '07J got a chance to witness this inequity firsthand.
After meeting Tsomo at Smith in spring 2004 and hearing about the desperate
need for teachers, Tonti spent the summer at a nunnery in Spiti, India, teaching
math and English. The nunnery was small and humble, but when Tonti visited
a nearby monastery, she was struck by its immense grandeur, which was made
possible by the substantial funding the monks received, while the nuns must
survive on donations.
"Nuns cannot become fully ordained in the Tibetan tradition, which is really
problematic," says Tonti. "You just see the inequality of it."
Of course, many women were eager to become nuns so that they could escape the
terrible poverty that plagues the area and receive an education. "It's
the brightest future they have," Tonti adds.
Tonti is looking forward to the conference, which will tackle such topics as "Buddhism
and Creativity," "Buddhism and Sexuality" and "American
Women Buddhist Teachers." In celebration of women artists and intellectuals
inspired by Buddhism, Gregory has invited poet Jane Hirshfield, author bell
hooks and composer/singer Meredith Monk to participate in the conference.
Jennifer Walters, dean of religious life, believes the conference will attract
a lot of attention outside of Smith as well as spark an interest in students. "They
discover that Buddhism is more complex than they thought…they discover
themselves," she says. "Buddhism is not about retreating from the
world, but engaging with it in a different way."
For more information, visit the Web site at www.smith.edu/buddhism.