Book Review: The Female Buddha

Jeffrey Martin

The Female Buddha is an inspirational photo book of statues of female Buddhist deities, Buddhist nuns and female lay practitioners. The layout of the book features a single photo on one page, paired on its facing page with a quotation from female teachers, leaders and poets. The book is intended not to be read so much as imbibed, perhaps kept on a bedside stand for something to sleep and dream upon, or at an office desk for spiritual refreshment. Reading it cover to cover will take no more than 30 minutes, including the introductory essays.

The photographs and the quotation selection are the work of US psychologist Deborah Bowman, whose previous published photography can be found in the similarly designed 2010 release, The Luminous Buddha. Of the approximately 72 photographs in her present volume, 31 feature nuns or lay practitioners, 29 Guanyin, the female Bodhisattva of compassion. The remainder is made up of assorted Buddhist deities or female figures of worship. Most images seem to have been captured at temples, rather than studios or museums, in Taiwan, Japan, Korea, Thailand, Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam and the United States.  The setting is telling of the photographer’s vision, with the subjects presented as devotional objects.   The more memorable images suggest place or activity, such as sculptor’s tools, construction debris, or an altar of offerings.  Even the images of women are reflections of devotion, captured prostrating, holding hands in prayer, or touching sacred objects.  The quotations tend to focus on expressions of love and compassion. Some seem opaque, exhorting the reader to be meticulous in practice, or lecturing on how skillful meditation can empower social action; others are instructive, as in the Thubton Chodron quote reproduced here. As this review is based on an electronic copy, I cannot speak to the production aspects of a physical book.

femal buddha chodron

When our mind is embued [sic] with compassion, we don’t view others as enemies or obstacles to our happiness.  Instead, we see that they do harmful actions because they wish to be happy but don’t know the correct methods of attaining happiness.  They are, in fact, just like us:  imperfect, limited sentient beings who want happiness and not suffering.  Thus, we can accept them as they are and seek to benefit them in the future. 
Thubton Chodron

In her opening essay, Sandy Boucher remarks on the need for women to be able to worship a form that represents their embodied experience – a female Buddhist deity. The visual centerpiece of the book, Guanyin, began life as the Indian god Avalokiteshvara before undergoing a sexual transformation on being imported to China somewhere after the fourth century CE. She functioned, says scholar Barbara Reed, not so much to liberate as to console, to provide comfort to those whose only source of possible leverage within the family or society was producing a male heir. If Guanyin has now arrived in the West, surely she has expanded the scope of her work in line with the expansion of her devotees’ roles, work and needs. Might it not be appropriate to also transform her appearance? Bowman herself notes that for centuries artists have experimented with the image of Guanyin, molding her into something close to a full-fledged Buddha. What might a 21st century Guanyin look like? Bowman’s images are not revealing.  Her work is based on travel documentary and focuses on the traditional. Of the 31 images of nuns and females, all but one are Asian. There is a single image of an African-American Zen priest (taken at a festival in Korea), but in its isolation it feels like an afterthought.

femal buddha bays

Perhaps, if she will permit the compliment, we might imagine Ms Bowman herself as a 21st century Guanyin. Her book is self-published and so not likely to be a huge money-spinner. The effort she put into producing and distributing it is obviously in the nature of devotion and offering, a Guan-yin-esque act of spreading the Buddha’s compassionate message. I imagine those purchasing The Female Buddha will pass the book on as a gift, and thereby further spread Ms Bowman’s expression of spiritual good will.

female buddha punna

Product description:
Hardcover: 128 pages
Publisher: Samadhi Publications; 1st edition (December 10, 2012)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0983305900
ISBN-13: 978-0983305903
Product Dimensions: 9.8 x 9.2 x 0.7 inches

At Amazon
From the publisher

Reed, Barbara. (1992). The Gender Symbolism of Kuan-yin Bodhisattva. In: José Ignacio Cabezón Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender. New York: SUNY Press. 159-180.

See also:
Yü, Chün-fang (2001). Kuan-yin: The Chinese Transformation of Avalokitesvara. New York: Columbia University Press.

Leighton, Taigen Dan (2012). Faces of Compassion Classic Bodhisattva Archetypes and Their Modern Expression — An Introduction to Mahayana Buddhism. Somerville, Massachusetts: Wisdom.

2 responses to “Book Review: The Female Buddha

  1. Reblogged this on Follow the Female Buddha and commented:
    I am very honored to have Jeffrey Martin review my book on Buddhist Art News, a comprehensive site for reflections and information about sacred art around the world.

  2. Pingback: Vietnamese Temple: Male and Female Spiritual Icons | Follow the Female Buddha

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