Sunday, October 18, 2009

in 350 words or less

since i left for india shortly after the phd defense, my friend sangeeta did the honors (and considerably gnarly administrative chore) of taking the final copy for final review and depositing it in the library in madison, thereby officially ending my time as a grad student. my degree was granted on friday, october 16, and a new life has begun.

i know over the years, a few people have asked and if anyone is interested in actually reading it, let me know now and i can send a pdf copy. for those with some interest but no time to wade through 455 pages, here is the 350-words-or-less version i was required to produce as part of the finalizing of the degree:


This dissertation explores the ethics that Buddha and his monastic followers practiced, as imagined in the narrative world of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya (MSV). The MSV is a multi-volume canonical text that has governed various Indian and Tibetan Buddhist monastic communities for nearly two millennia, and it is also hailed as a masterpiece of Sanskrit literature. Through close readings of the MSV’s many narratives, this dissertation is principally concerned to understand in what ways and to what extent its ethics is gendered.

The MSV regulates historical monastic communities, often addressing those communities through narratives. The text thus demands reading practices that reflect its status as both authoritative and multivocal. Deploying such practices, we note that Buddha’s practice of ethics in the MSV is marked by an intense attentiveness to human particularity and difference. In the ethics of the MSV, many features combine to constitute a person: caste, family, gender and other markers of social location, their relationships with particular others, as well as individual disposition and karma. Within Buddhist monasticism, gender emerges as one of the single most important determinants of social location and personal identity, profoundly impacting what is and is not possible for persons at any given moment. Buddhist monasticism’s interventions in prevailing constructions of female gender benefited women greatly, even though those mainstream constructions repeatedly re-inscribed themselves on monastic women’s lives, bodies and institutions.

With its intense focus on the body as a site for ethical cultivation, Buddhist monasticism offers women an alternate model of female embodiment. When gender is institutionalized within monastic communities, we note moments of parity between the male and female monastic orders, along with the hierarchy that generally prevails between them. The hierarchical relationship between the monks and nuns’ orders is characterized by asymmetrical reciprocity, with each encouraged to offer different forms of care to the other.

Throughout, the dissertation assesses the constructions of gender imagined in the MSV’s narratives, asking to what degree and in what ways Buddhist monasticism succeeds or fails to enable women to engage in the work of self-fashioning that is its overall ethical project.