Q&A with Caroline Starkey about her new book, Women in British Buddhism

Dr Caroline Starkey is Associate Professor of Religion and Society at the University of Leeds, and a member of the Centre for Religion and Public Life. Her new book, Women in British Buddhism: Commitment, Connection, Community, has just been published by  Routledge, in the series Critical Studies in Buddhism. For the readers of Religion in Public, she answers some questions to introduce her book.

 How has this book come about?

The initial idea for the book (which has its origins in my doctoral work) came about in a coffee shop queue in Germany in 2007. At the time, my research interests lay in Buddhism and community development in contemporary South East Asia (where I spent much of my childhood), and I was in Hamburg attending a global conference on Buddhist women. In the long coffee queue, I got talking to a Scottish Buddhist nun about her experiences of living out Buddhist monastic vows in the British context and this inspired me to investigate whether there were other women in similar situations, in different Buddhist groups in the UK.

It turned out that there were more women than I had originally anticipated, and this was a surprise given that I had been involved with several British Buddhist groups on a personal level for some years and had heard little talk about issues around female ordination. This growing curiosity, and my desire to talk about experiences that are sometimes overlooked in our histories and sociologies of minority religious communities, led me to spend the next four years with twenty-five convert ordained Buddhist women in Britain, talking with them about their lives, experiences, aims and concerns. This book is the product of that. I hope it will provide a unique insight into the experiences of a growing group of women who have yet to receive much in the way of academic attention but who’s experiences tell us very interesting things about the dynamism of contemporary British religion and the various ways in which Buddhism is lived by women across the globe.

What is the key argument that your book develops?

Rooted in detailed ethnographic research, my book explores how convert women initially engage with Buddhist groups and teachings, their paths to deeper commitment, their perspectives on religious discipline (particularly on changes to dress), and how they talk about gender equality and feminism. Underpinning each of the eight chapters, I emphasise the importance of women’s narratives in shedding light on the processes of growth and development of Buddhism in Britain – a rapidly growing faith tradition in this context, and one with more female than male adherents. Throughout the book, I build a picture of the life stories of individual women, allowing space for their words, experiences, and ideas to emerge. The book stands as an ethnographic challenge to assumptions about ‘Western’ women who convert to Buddhism and in particular, their relationships with ideas of gender inequality, discipline and religious hierarchy.

A recent trend in scholarship on contemporary Buddhism (particularly Buddhism and gender) has been to emphasise the importance of transnational connections and global flows of people, ideas and things. I de-centre this concept, and instead focus on women’s localised micro practices of belonging, giving priority to the intimate, immediate and geographically close relationships and bonds they develop in specific places and with specific people. Through this, I offer a new framing of Buddhist ordination around the ideas of commitment, connection and community.

What insight does the book provide into the relationship between religion and public life?

Buddhism in Britain is shaped by complex and controversial gender politics, often made highly public online. In some Buddhist traditions, women are not permitted equal ordination to men, and many of the women I interviewed had weathered tense public storms within their respective Buddhist groups that related to gender equality, and some had taken dramatic steps to leave communities because they did not offer parity of ordination. Whether women stay within traditions that do not offer equality or choose to leave them, their decisions are highly public and deeply charged. Whilst I challenge the idea that all Buddhist women in Britain think uniformly about gender equality and inequality, they are living private religious lives under a public spotlight and this has an impact that I explore in the book.

Beyond these public trials, throughout the book I am mostly concerned with how women navigate identities – British, convert, Buddhist, woman, monastic, ordained, sister, wife, partner, mother, and in particular how these identities are played out and shaped in public. I remain fascinated by the experiences my participants shared with me about what it feels like to be a Buddhist female monastic, fully robed and with a shaved head, having to engage beyond the boundaries of closed religious communities, and having a Buddhist name your own mother can’t pronounce. Going to the dentist, or Tesco, or queuing up at the village Post Office, representing Buddhism in locations where it is highly exotic and culturally unfamiliar. How do these seemingly mundane private activities shape public religious practice and experience? As a scholar, I remain so thrilled by the micro details of life – the smells, the tastes, the descriptions of how individual people, who may well make no grand mark on public history, live out their religious lives in public and private ways. What I offer to a discussion of religion and public life is an investigation of how the private shapes the public and vice versa, and a blurring of the boundaries between them in women’s narratives and experiences.

Give us one quote from the book that you believe will make us go and read it?

Instead of a quote, I would like to offer a photograph that features in the final chapter of my book (my favourite chapter, entitled Pioneers and Volunteers: Women building British Buddhism).

JizoI took this photograph on a trip to Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey in Northumberland when I was 11 weeks pregnant and feeling very unwell. I was being shown round the monastery buildings by one of my participants who had been involved in their construction. Her stories (and those of others) who had laid bricks, done plumbing, set down under-floor heating, and (quite literally) built British Buddhist centres from the ground up, have become a central concern in the book. If you have ever been to Throssel (and I recommend it), you will know it is wild, beautiful, remote and inspiring, but I was not feeling good, and had to stop to catch my breath. When I did so, I noticed this small statue of Jizo (the bodhisattva protector of children) in a pet cemetery in the monastery grounds. I had been to Throssel before, but he had never caught my attention. Finally seeing this tiny stone statue set me off on a train of thought about which stories of the establishment of contemporary religious groups are told, and which are forgotten. I like to see my book is an offering to this Jizo, of some of the stories of women’s practices in British Buddhism. Although they are not always well known or publicly acknowledged, they have been fundamental to the foundation of now thriving Buddhist communities in Britain.

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