I Hear Her Words: An Introduction to Women in Buddhism

Alice Collett

709 pages, 2021, Rs. 1517 (Paperback)

Windhorse Publications

Reviewed by Priyanka Chakraborty

Unveiling the Unsung Ones: Forgotten Buddhist Women Across Time and Space

I Hear Her Words: An Introduction to Women in Buddhism is a comprehensive survey on the subject of women in Buddhism. With this broad-sweeping title, Alice Collett developed a welcoming text in the genre of Buddhist studies. The title metaphorically echoes the idea that the author could hear those voices, which were silent for many centuries. She is capable of unearthing and attending the stories otherwise ignored by history. Alice Collett is a professor of Buddhist Studies at Nalanda University, who has earlier published many books and articles on the similar subjects of the lives and position of women in Buddhism. Her books, such as Women in Early Indian Buddhism (2013), Lives of Early Buddhist Nuns: Biographies as History (2016) are both scholarly and critically acclaimed texts. Her recent publication is an ambitious attempt to bring together women from diverse places, times, and Buddhist schools of thought under a single banner. The diversity of the work is further reflected in the course of her documenting women of various classes, countries, and artistic backgrounds. The book is coherently organized and has a central agenda. Therefore, in spite of the diversity of themes, it maintains structural integrity till the end. The author questions the validity of various restrictions imposed on women through the ages by contrasting them with the doctrines of Buddha. The book lays equal importance on ancient, medieval, and modern events, incidents, and characters. It rummages through the entire Buddhist canon in search of unacknowledged and forgotten women who played crucial roles in the promotion and transmission of Buddhism.

The text has a potent introduction, divided into three parts, that sets the tone of the analysis. The “Introduction” begins with the forgotten Haiku poet Chiyo-ni, who, the author argues, was as talented as Basho, yet, because of a lack of acknowledgement, does not enjoy an international reputation. This argument leads on to the subject of nuns and laywomen who have been part of Buddhism since its initiation, yet remain unsung because their contemporary societies did not celebrate them. In this section, Alice Collett explains her motivation behind writing the book, which is, to study and demonstrate that the Buddhist doctrines do not justify the view that women are inferior, nor do these doctrines provide any example or incident to assert such views of inferiority.  In her opinion, this articulation of inequality is a later addition. The socio-cultural aspects of ancient and medieval societies influenced the appropriation of Buddhist doctrines; thus, the meanings were manipulated according to the prevailing norms of the society. This probably led to the incorporation of such misinterpreted views of gender inequality, in Buddhism. The next section presents a historical narrative of Gautama Buddha’s life by focusing on the three important women associated with his life- his wife, Yasodhara, his mother, Maya and his aunt and stepmother Mahapajapati Gotami. While the legendary story of Buddha’s renouncement popularizes Yashodhara, the significance of Maya and Gotami rests in relative obscurity. Interestingly, Gotami was the main force behind Buddha’s enlightenment and was the first female to accept disciplinary vows.  The “Introduction” concludes with the description of four fundamentally recurring themes in Buddhist texts: the inferiority of women, karma and rebirth as women, women becoming buddhas, and the ordination of women.

The rest of the book is divided into two parts, with seven chapters and an epilogue. The first part, “Asking Questions About Buddhism,” largely comprises an evaluation of the formulation of Buddhist ethics, Buddhist texts, and basic doctrines. The second part, “Voices Through the Centuries,” is entirely devoted to the lives of Buddhist women. Chapter One, “Buddhism and Gender Equality,” poses the fundamental question of gender equality in Buddhism- teachings, scriptures, and the like. It explores the intersection of various 20th century “-isms,” like colonialism, racism, and feminism, with regards to the interpretation of Buddhist doctrines. Though the discussion starts with the context of the Indian subcontinent, Alice Collett swiftly introduces instances of Buddhist interactions with other Asian and non-Asian countries. Thereby, she evaluates the interpretation and dissemination of Buddhism outside the subcontinent.

After questioning the basis and, changing meanings of fundamental ethics of Buddhism, like, ahimsa (non-violence), equality impartiality, truth, etc. she focuses on the women in Buddhist texts. The evolution of fundamental ethics with time is correlated with the textual depiction of women. So, Chapter two, “Women in Buddhist Texts,” is about the abundance of women in the Buddhist canon, portrayed either as ennobling or demeaning in nature. Alice Collett, particularly, addresses the Buddhist aspect of desire and how it becomes problematic. She writes “When women are sidelined rather than included, they are recast as a problem” (Collett, 142) In the case of desire, initial doctrines focus on both men and women, and their need to resist the desire. However, with time the preaching for women disappears and desire focuses only on male attraction to women. Thus, women dispose of desire and itself becomes the problem. The third chapter, titled “Gender and Buddhist Doctrine,” investigates these negative portrayals, i.e., the faults of women discussed in chapter two, with respect to Buddhist doctrines, to question their validity.

Chapter four starts the second part of the book, which predominantly discusses important figures in various countries. This chapter offers portraits of Buddhist women such as Dhammadinnā, Bhaddā Kuṇḍalakesā, Zhu Jingjian, Chiyo-ni, Qiyuan Xinggang, Mae Chi Kaew Sianglam, et al. from ancient India and China, and modern East Asia and Thailand. It includes characters mentioned in various texts, like Therīgāthā verses, Confucian texts, Baojuan, etc., i.e., characters from various stages in history. Chapter five is “Recovering a Lost Past: South and Southeast Asia.” It is concerned with the history of women in South and Southeast Asian countries, which mainly follow the Theravada school of Buddhism. The focus is mostly on Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand. It provides an account of history in the form of ‘her-story.” Next, in chapter six, “Deities, Teachers, Lineages: Central and East Asia,” the author investigates the contribution of women in the history of Mahayana and Tantric Buddhism with special reference to Central and East Asia, China, Korea, Taiwan, and Tibet.

Finally, in chapter seven, “Unconventional Women and Truth-Tellers: The West,” the book looks toward Western societies. It talks about the numerous women instrumental in introducing Buddhism to the West. First, it addresses the popular Theosophists and their role in popularizing Buddhist terms in the West. Then, it proceeds to mention the contributions of scholars like Kujo Takeko and Kazuko, Mabel Bode and Caroline Rhys Davids, Grace Constant Lounsbery, et al., who made Buddhism academically approachable with their translation works. Equally important are the mentions of Alexandra David-Neel, Freda Bedi, Pema Chodron, Ajahn Brahmavamso et al., who helped Buddhism thrive in the West. The book’s concluding epilogue features, the author’s formal acknowledgment of her team of scholars and critics.

The book in its format and approach reflects another seminal work titled, Women Writing in India (I and II) (1991). Susie Tharu and K. Lalitha in this collection place Indian women’s texts selected over a span of 2400years.  Akin to this, Alice Collett for this magnanimous project, meticulously explores 2500 years since Buddha’s birth. She searches for women and their representations in both history and literature. She delineates the presence of unacknowledged women throughout Buddhist institutions in various countries and disciplines and attempts to document them, crediting them for their influence and role. Furthermore, the book also echoes Janet Gyatso and Hanna Havnevik’s Women in Tibet (2005).  However, I Hear Her Words is not limited to any geopolitical location and goes on accessing and revisiting women’s presence across the boundaries of the Asian continent and the West. While the position and existence of women in the early Buddhist system are widely known, the proper documentation of their presence is equally scarce. Thus comes this path-breaking work to fill the void. It includes women from almost ten countries, multiple centuries, and characters. Therefore, this book is a very necessary step in documenting the picture of women from larger perspectives. It provides a plethora of data about Buddhist women across time and space. Through its analytical compare and contrast approach between Buddhist texts and Buddhist doctrines regarding the position of women, the book busts myths about women being inferior and de-stigmatizes Buddhism.

However, the lack of mention of Nepal and women from Nepal creates the only blemish in this otherwise detailed text. Except for the mention of Buddha’s mother, step-mother, and wife, and, later, of Nepalese princess Bhrkuti, wife of Tibetan empire Songsten Gampo, there is no mention of any other Nepalese women. This absence can be attributed to the fact that they were not at all mentioned, or that their brief mentions might have perished with time. Yet, knowing the geopolitical importance of Nepal in the dissemination of Buddhism, this absence is noticeable. In spite of these minute shortcomings, Alice Collett through a steady theoretical investigation and a prominent central goal of inquiry develops a well-knitted document of the history of women in Buddhism.

Works cited

Collett, Alice. I Hear Her Words: An Introduction to Women in Buddhism. Cambridge: Windhorse Publications, 2021.

Gyatso, Janet, and Hanna Havnevik. Women in Tibet. New York: Columbia University Press, 2005.

Tharu, Susie J, and K. Lalita. Women Writing in India: 600 B.C. to the Present. New York: Feminist Press at the City University of New York, 1991

Priyanka Chakraborty has submitted her doctoral thesis on Tibetan-Anglophone literature at Banaras Hindu University and is working as a guest faculty member there. She is a recipient of Fulbright Fellowship 2022-2023 and will be joining a university in the USA in August.