In this ground-breaking contribution, Kristin Johnston Largen explores the paradox that the Buddhist and Christian traditions proclaim paths to liberation while offering contradictory messages regarding women and women’s bodies. Informed by Christian feminist commitments, Largen offers a sweeping overview of the history of Buddhist perspectives on women’s bodies, with particular attention to the Japanese tradition of Shin Buddhism. By juxtaposing and critiquing traditional Christian and Shin Buddhist perspectives, Largen reveals unresolved tensions in each tradition that invite practitioners to a new stage in Buddhist-Christian dialogue.
The invaluable crux here is Largen’s creative and powerful employment of feminist theory to analyze gender issues in Japanese Shin Buddhism in order to shed light on problems within the role of women in Christian theology and life. Largen also offers detailed cultural background for the variety of perspectives toward women found in Japanese religious history, including a rich introduction to Shin Buddhism. She reveals Shin Buddhism’s parallels to Christianity’s soteriological ambivalence regarding women, with theological attitudes ranging from very traditional-conservative to ones that reframe doctrine without acknowledging shortcomings, to direct challenges to gendered cultural practices rooted in scriptural status quo. Largen does not shy away from making constructive theological recommendations that resist “the perpetuation of inherited assumptions,” she highlights the importance of hearing more women’s voices from the past and present, and affirms her own Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s formal calls to action on gender that note the historical “complicity of Christianity” in reinforcing discrimination. It is a vast achievement.
Largen looks at the theology of salvation through the lens of Shin Buddhist thought and practice and its expression in relation to women. She provides a fresh perspective on issues of embodiment, and on the dualism of material and spiritual as code for pollution and purity. Being informed by Largen’s sustained program of research on Buddhist thought and practice, this is a stunningly successful contribution to the project of comparative theology in the tradition of the groundbreaking works of Margaret Miles.
This book makes a much need contribution to the on-going conversations among Christians and Buddhists concerned about the dignity and the contribution of women. Largen’s book has many virtues, including a helpful introduction to Shin Buddhism, a keen insight into the ambiguities of our sacred texts, the ability to retrieve neglected resources in our traditions and a determination to raise questions that must not be allowed to go away.