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In Session: Engendering Buddhism: Non-Theravādin Buddhist Women in Southeast Asia
1: Sisters in Dharma: Parwati Soepangat and the Indonesian Buddhist Women's Movement
Thursday, March 25, 2021
8:30am – 10:00am EDT
Jack Meng-Tat Chia
National University of Singapore, Singapore
Buddhism is one of the six officially recognized religions in the world’s largest Muslim nation. According to the 2010 national census, Buddhists made up approximately 0.72% (or 1.7 million) of the total Indonesian population. While the majority of Buddhists in Indonesia are ethnic Chinese, there are a small number of native Indonesians (pribumi) adhering to the Buddhist faith. Parwati Soepangat (1932-2016), was often considered by Indonesian Buddhists as the “Buddhist heroine” (Srikandi Buddhis) of her time. Born and raised in an elite Javanese Buddhist family, Soepangat was educated in Indonesia and the United States. When Soepangat was in college, she joined the Theosophical Society, where she met and later became a lay disciple of Ashin Jinarakkhita (1923-2002), whom Indonesians regard as the first Indonesian-born Buddhist monk. She became a founding member of Ashin Jinarakkhita’s Buddhayāna movement and played an active role in Dharma propagation during the postcolonial period. In 1973, Soepangat helped establish and subsequently served as chairwoman of the Indonesian Buddhist Women (Wanita Buddhis Indonesia) organization. This paper draws upon Parwati Soepangat’s career to reconsider the issues surrounding Buddhism and gender in Southeast Asia. I argue that unlike in mainland Southeast Asia, the absence of a patriarchal Theravāda authority provided the space for Buddhist women like Soepangat to rise to prominence in postcolonial Indonesia. Despite her position as a double minority—a Buddhist and a woman—in the Muslim-majority nation, Soepangat effectively promoted gender equality as a discourse and strategy to spread Buddhism in Islamic Indonesia.