Women in British Buddhism

Commitment, Connection, Community

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Caroline Starkey
  • London: 
    , July
     212 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


With Women in British Buddhism, Caroline Starkey presents a multifaceted study on ordained female converts to Buddhism in Britain. Drawing on participant observation and multiple interviews, the author emphasizes women’s contribution to the translation and adaption of Buddhism in a religiously highly diversified field. In eight well-proportioned chapters, Starkey discusses Buddhist women’s practices and experiences with regard to conversion, space, dress, and gender, and argues convincingly for commitment, connection, and community as the three main aspects that define contemporary British Buddhism.

In 2011 Starkey started her anthropological ethnography on twenty-five ordained or formerly ordained female converts to Buddhism in England, Scotland, and Wales. She conducted a multiple-tradition study, including women in Tibetan Buddhist schools, the Thai Forest Sangha, the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives within Japanese Sōtō Zen, and the more recently established Amida Order. In chapter 1, “Buddhism in Britain,” Starkey gives a short presentation of these traditions and groups, highlighting the manifold lifestyles of women within these groups. She thereby already hints at one of the main arguments of her study, that is, the broad variety of meanings of ordination in contemporary Britain. This diversity is further discussed in chapter 3, “Narratives of Conversion,” and especially chapter 4, on the various path to ordination the twenty-five women undertook.

Starkey’s differentiated standpoint surely is the strength of her study. She challenges not only simple assumptions on ordained women’s lifestyle in what is often simplistically considered a Buddhist monastic environment, but also the scholarly debate on women’s Buddhist ordination as a whole. In the introduction she presents different standpoints in the scholarly full-ordination debate and locates a specific paucity of research into Buddhist ordination in a Western context. In her opinion, this shortage contributes to the stark contrast in the scholarly representation of Asian versus Western Buddhist nuns—a representation that Starkey strongly questions. For the Asian context, recent studies in the field have provided a differentiation of the various attitudes of Buddhist nuns toward full ordination.

Starkey claims differentiated perspective also for the British context: “My intention within this book is to reassert the significance of the local and the contextual, pushing against any generalizing tendencies in relation to the experience of Buddhism in ‘the West’” (10). In the subsequent chapters, this plurality and diversity is convincingly carved out regarding the participants’ practices evolving around dress, shaving, and the use of their Buddhist names (ch. 5); their attitudes toward feminism and gender roles (ch. 6); and their mediation of local communities and connections within a global Buddhist context (ch. 7).

In chapter 7, “Loaded Words: Attitudes to Feminism and Gender Equality,” Starkey adapts the perceptual mapping technique established by Kim Knott and Sajda Khokher (“Religious and Ethnic Identity among Young Muslim Women in Bradford,” Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies 19.4 [1993]: 593–610) to chart the participants’ perspectives on Buddhism, power, and gender issues. Through this, she is able to define three different “modes of engagement” with gender equality. As the methodological steps are easy to follow and the findings are well stated and eye-opening, this chapter is especially well suited for an ensuing debate on gender and religion, for example in teaching contexts. However, in this chapter the biggest weakness of Starkey’s study becomes the most apparent—that is, the lack of a resolute feminist framework to classify both her method and her research results.

Concerning her methodological approach, Starkey follows Mary-Jo Neitz (“Gender and Culture: Challenges to the Sociology of Religion,” Sociology of Religion 65.4 [2004]: 391–402) in arguing for narrativity as a way of conceptualizing women’s identities as temporally and culturally specific. Consequently, Starkey gives a “large amount of space to women’s own words, life-histories [sic!], and their interpretation of events” (10). Surprisingly, the author does not elaborate on that as a way of doing herstory, an approach that would have given her study a well-defined place within feminist epistemology.

A similar neglect is at work concerning the discussion and classification of Starkey’s research results. Here it surely would have been helpful to draw one of the various feminist theories of difference to deal with the variety of positions that she finds within her sample. Introducing these stimulating approaches, for example from French and Italian feminism, could have been Starkey’s key to dealing sensibly with the heterogeneity of perspectives. Instead, at the end of chapter 7, she rejects feminism altogether as a “blunt instrument” that “doesn’t get us very far in appreciating the entirety of women’s daily lives” (161). However, as feminism is a category still used as self-description by some of her own participants, and furthermore a theoretical framework that is gaining importance again, it surely should not be cut off from any serious study of religion and gender issues.

Apart from these methodological and theoretical reservations, Starkey’s study surely is a must read for scholars and students interested in Buddhist studies, gender studies, and the study of religion. As each chapter functions as a study of its own, the book does not have to be read from cover to cover. Rather, it may serve as a helpful and accessible handbook for issues such as conversion, space, dress, and gender in contemporary Buddhist contexts.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Dolores Zoé Bertschinger is a PhD candidate in the study of religion at the University of Munich.

Date of Review: 
October 21, 2021
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Caroline Starkey is associate professor of religion and society at the University of Leeds, UK.



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