I awoke to his hand between my thighs. I had finally fallen asleep, minutes ago. The yellow blanket he had thrown over my lap was crumpled. We were on a thirty hour bus from Kathmandu to Bodhgaya, where His Holiness the 14th Dalaï Lama would be giving the Kalachakra empowerment. When I first boarded the bus in Kathmandu, he noticed there was no one sitting next to me. He gathered his things and moved to the seat beside mine. I was annoyed, but ignored him and tried to read. As I fell asleep, he put his blanket over my lap. I thought he was trying to be nice. I thanked him and passed out.
As his fingers inched towards my waistband, a debate unfolded behind my closed eyes. Should I smack him and make a scene? And endure the humiliation of having been a victim of sexual assault? I couldn’t, somehow, so I firmly took his wrist and put his hand back in his lap. Minutes later, I woke to his hand on my breast.
The strangest part of the encounter was how non-offended I was. I felt I was an observer, watching the foreign girl on the Indian bus get molested and waiting to see how she would respond. The observer felt offended on behalf of women, though not on behalf of herself. The observer wasn’t interested in reacting, but in responding to the assault in a way that would benefit both victim and aggressor.
How does one respond compassionately to the negative confusion that drives men to assault women — meaning, how can victims of assault respond in a way that mitigates negativity rather than perpetuates it? Given that the issue is systemic, it seems that angry, irritated, traumatized, or violent reactions are the only avenue available to us in face to face encounter. As a woman, I have not been taught how to effectively respond to unwanted sexual advances, and he as a man has been taught that women’s bodies are territories available for the claiming if only one is strong enough, sexy enough or, in his case, sneaky enough. By the time he is molesting me on the bus, it seems to be too late for thoughtful solutions.
As the internal debate continued, I returned again and again to teachings I had received in the last months about mindfulness and compassion. We were, after all, enduring this horrendous bus ride for the sake of receiving the Kalachakra empowerment. I deeply wanted to respond to this man in a way that was beneficial for both of us. But the teachings I had thus far received, perhaps on account of my ignorance, left me at a loss.
In the works of Buddhist scholars I’ve met with in my modest exposure to the Buddhist canon, there is plenty of advice given for how to mindfully dispense with desire for women’s bodies. Women do, after all, shit and piss and drool in their sleep and wake up with crusty yellow eye boogers. They secretly pick their noses, and even fart when they think no one is listening. To conquer desire for the female body, a man enthralled by a hard nipple beneath a loose shirt or the curve of a perky ass under a tight dress has only to contemplate and meditate upon the impure corporeality of his desired object. (I have yet to encounter instructions for how to dispense with desire for the male form). However, for one who just can’t resist trying to jam his fingers between the legs of a stranger sleeping beside him on the bus, there are no instructions for how she might respond to the resulting negative emotions and confusion in a way that helps her along the path to awakening. At least, not that I’ve encountered.
When I raise this issue to my Buddhist friends, they kindly direct me to the works and teachings in Jetsunma Khandro Rinpoche, Jetsunma Tenzin Palma, or Pema Choedron. These strong female practitioners have no doubt answered these questions in their own practice, and might very well be able to address them for me. But why, I wonder, are the antidotes for the issues male practitioners face so readily available, but for obstacles unique to the female experience, one must be deferred elsewhere?
The female body is host to her own portfolio of suffering. The physical discomfort, social shaming and emotional volatility associated with menstruation and menopause and the suffering of pregnancy and giving birth to children are among the first that come to mind. When I ask my Buddhist friends about how the female practitioner can mindfully embrace these obstacles, the usual answer is a kind reminder that, in Buddhism, motherhood is considered the supreme example for selfless compassion. But what about the mother herself, as she vomits in the wee hours of the morning during her pregnancy, experiences unheard of cravings, or struggles with the searing pain of contractions before giving birth? Even if her sons can deploy her example in their quest to regard all sentient beings with great compassion and equanimity, that practice does not have a corresponding method for how the mother-practitioner is to mindfully endure the pain that accomplishes her kindness.
I’m writing this by hand, in a tent where myself and hundreds of others are listening to His Holiness perform preliminary purification rituals for the Kalachakra empowerment. It seems that only women surround me. I’m sandwiched between a crowd of ladies from Taiwan and a group of devoted Française. These ladies and others are the product of a rich lineage of female practitioners, from Yeshe Tsogyal and Princess Mandharava to Machig Lobdron. And then there are those that history conveniently glosses over — one particularly brilliant friend of mine, who studies the role of courtesans in classical Indian society, told me these empowered women often became fabulously wealthy. They patronized monasteries and practitioners, and were themselves often accomplished practitioners. These fearless women no doubt dealt skillfully with the questions I’m asking today. But why is their lineage so opaque? Why is it that I have none of their teachings to bring to mind when made subject to the aggressive grip of a stranger?
My own ignorance and incompetence no doubt figure large in this quandary. Though, having spent two years studying in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, I feel my personal ignorance is not the only factor at work. Perhaps ignorance of a more widespread variety plays a role as well.
I have no desire to publicly share this humiliating experience. I don’t want you, dear reader, or, frankly, anyone to know about this. I can’t, however, deny my plea the salience of personal experience. To do so would undermine its urgency, and cheapen the plight shared by women who have undergone far worse than I have in the way of sexual assault. This encounter on the bus elucidated the absence of a public lineage of practitioners, male and female, able to give pith instructions for female obstacles. I believe this teacher will come, but we — women, men, and otherwise — must be willing to work for her.Photo by József Kincse.
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