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Hsiao-Lan Hu
A Feminist Exegesis of Non-Self: On Classical Buddhist Understanding of Personhood and Identity


One of the most widely known and perplexing teachings of Buddhism is Non-Self (Pâli: anattâ; Sanskrit: anâtman), which seems to categorically negate the existence of individuals. Coincidentally, one of the contemporary feminist theories that draws the most critical attention is the social constructedness of gender and subjectivity. With this and other similarities, Buddhism and feminism can very well provide an exegetical framework, as well as serve as a basis of critique, for one another. This paper uses the analysis of gender formation both as an interpretive tool and as a corrective to the gender-blindness in the understanding of the Buddhist Dhamma. Non-Self may be easier to comprehend with the feminist analysis of the constructedness of gender identity, which has been ironically overlooked in the discourses of Buddhism, a tradition dedicated to reflecting on habitual patterns of conventional ego.

Non-Self, at least in its classical sense, does not negate the day-to-day existence of persons. The nihilist interpretation, in fact, was explicitly rejected by the Buddha. In classical Buddhism, a person is a socio-psycho-physical compound of rûpa, sensations, perceptions, saòkhâra (Sanskrit: samskâra), and consciousness. The term rûpa refers to both of the six sense organs and their respective sense-objects. With mind being one of the senses, virtually all phenomena in the world can be considered mind-objects. Thus, included in the term rûpa are all of the cultural scripts that systematically inculcate people with, and discipline them to perform, certain behaviors and roles that are supposedly appropriate for their anatomical characteristics, such as gendered colors, toys, chores, career ambitions, postures, and uses of languages. These cultural rûpa, if repeatedly presented, sensed, and perceived, will be “put together” (saòkhâra) and become one’s “disposition” (also saòkhâra), which further shapes the ways things are put together and feeds into one’s consciousness. The repeated bodily performances of gender scripts, being inscribed on the body and fed into one’s consciousness, will result in the illusion of an abiding gender core, becoming part of the person’s identity.

Nevertheless, many Buddhists’ attitudes and actions indicate an unreflective acceptance of binary gender attributes, despite their acceptance of the Buddhist teaching of Non-Self. When the issue of gender is raised in Buddhist communities, as Rita Gross observes, people often appeal to the idea that the Buddhist Dhamma transcends gender, thereby either dismissing gender justice as a petty samsâric concern or defensively denying and willfully ignoring the persistent gender discrimination, gender stereotypes, and rigid assignment of gender roles. If the scope of “rûpa” and the centrality of Non-Self are properly grasped, however, there is no ground for gender discrimination or for the imposition of rigid gender roles in Buddhism. A person and a person’s identity are constituted through the surrounding material and symbolic forms, including gendered ones. As such, they lack inherent nature and are neither permanent nor unchanging; they are without a “Self.”

Hsiao-Lan Hu is a PhD candidate and an adjunct instructor at the Religion Department of Temple University.  She has two degrees of Bachelor of Arts from National Taiwan University, one in philosophy and the other in English.

Hu is a native of Taiwan.  Growing up in the midst of the “Three Teachings” of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism, she was rigorously trained to read classical religious-philosophical texts and has been intrigued with how religious-philosophical traditions influence one another and affect the ways people live together and treat each other.  The East Asian syncretism has further inspired her to engage broadly in inter-traditional, cross-cultural, and trans-disciplinary studies, and her publications and conference presentations reflect the breadth of her training.  Besides doing research and presenting conference papers on feminist Buddhist social ethics, the functions of Sangha, and the Buddhist approaches to texts and traditions, she has also authored a chapter on folk religions in late-imperial China in Considering Evil and Human Wickedness (2004), an introductory book on Taoism (2005), and a chapter on women in East Asian cultures in Religious Roots of Violence Against Women (2007).


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