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women and religion: buddhism November 12, 2006

Posted by Brad Richert in religion, sexism.

The founder of Buddhism, as in other world religions, did not explicitly condone the subordination of woman from what we understand. On the contrary, Siddhartha Gautama was quite revolutionary for his time in his acceptance of women among his followers. However, by the 2nd century BCE Buddhism became increasingly institutionalized by the Mauryan king, Ashoka the Great, which women within Buddhism found themselves struggling to have any significant roles. By the time that Buddhism had left the Indian subcontinent and spread over the rest of Asia in the 5th century CE, women were completely left out of any historical records.

What hasn’t been left out of the religious records are the 8 additional rules for the bhikṣuṇī (Buddhist nun). Although this has given a genuinely negative value to females within Buddhism, there has been positive (at least relatively) values attributed to the original demand for a female spiritual Buddhist life. The request for the Buddha to accept female followers was met with reluctance, but the steadfastness of women pressuring the Buddha’s foremost monk, Ānanda, to plead for them created a sense of perseverance for many female disciples. The reluctance on the part of the Buddha, it is said, had more to do with cultural considerations combined with the realistic incapability of celibacy and opposite sex followers. The Buddha often emphasized the pragmatism of his teachings and with that came the understanding that he was currently teaching in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society. Coalesce this factor with the impossibility of leading a celibate life while being continuously tempted with the opposite sex, the Buddha could be said to pragmatically chose the most plausible vehicle for delivering his message, the male monk. Despite these measures, women of strong mind and excellent intellectual and spiritual capacities have been recorded as being devout followers in the early Sangha, or Buddhist community. To this day, women that uphold the Theravada tradition continue to be known as great teachers of meditation by observing the precepts of the novice nun or female layperson.

The argument for equality has at times touched into the ontological realm. One could interpret some of Buddha’s teachings that sex and gender are part of this illusory world and thus these distinctions have no inherent qualities. However, I do not believe that by negating both the male and female sexes one will find a cause for true earthly equality. Cosmological arguments have also placed equality and superiority in female deities, yet like other major religions such as Hinduism this does not necessarily translate into the respect of females on this earthly realm. Female movements such as the Dasasila Mata (Mothers of the Ten Precepts) have come to realize the shortcomings of such ontological and cosmological arguments and have proactively sought out to change females within Buddhism in order to change Buddhism for females. Because of the successes of the Dasasila Mata many women are held in higher esteem than many of their male counterparts. Additional awareness for the situation of nuns has led to the formation of Sakyādhītā which monitors and discusses the female condition within Buddhism.

Perhaps the most powerful force of positive identity of females within Buddhism is found within the Vajrayāna, or Tantric, strand of Buddhist thought. Some have dismissed the positive reinforcement of women within Tantric Buddhism by attributing females as nothing more than the handmaidens of men and their male divine counterparts. However, this negative account of females within Vajrayāna Buddhist thought seems to be at odds with the majority of what is written. At least two very significant texts within Vajrayānan thought, the Caṇḍamahāroṣaṇa Tantra and the Caturaśītisiddhapravṛtti, expose a very positive light on female practitioners of the Vajrayāna way. Not only were women essential to tantric activities, but also were spiritual adepts whom were often guides and teachers who were not only equals to their male counterparts but were often in superior positions. In addition to the previously mentioned texts, a great awakening at Nāropa included one thousand women and only two hundred men. This event harkens to the many stories of the Buddha Gautama instructing his female followers how to find awakening and those who achieved it. Thus, even though parts of Buddhist written history has excluded women, the vast spectrum of Buddhist thought and practice has allowed for a strong positive infiltration of women in overwhelmingly patriarchal societies.

Women are heaven, women are the dharma
Women indeed are the highest austerity
Women are the Buddha, women are the Sangha
Women are the Perfection of Wisdom.
– Caṇḍamahāroṣaṇa Tantra viii: 29-30 –



1. Sally Donaldson - September 16, 2008

If you ask Buddhist nuns, generally, they will tell you that inequality within Buddhism doesn’t bother them as focusing on their Dharma and the want to supress their ego is their main aim. Tenzin Palmo has been a driving force for Buddhist nuns in spreading the word about her work with nunneries, and expressing her feelings about the unequal opportunities available for nuns. Tenzin and other common nuns also state that she is not stricken by the inequality, its only if the inequality is dwelled apon, that would distract from the equal opportunities presented, of achieving enlightenment. So, it is not about that women create negative Karma, or that the Buddha rejected women initially, it is about the social structure that does tend to be negative towards women. This therefore, leads to an unequal proportion of learning facities and opportunities available for nuns. Fortunately, Buddhism’s religious sects and awakening to this problem, through the actions of people like Palmo and creating more equal opportunities. The Buddha when initially rejecting women into the Sungha, was only doing so because he cared about women, and as stated above, saw that the practice is very demanding. It just goes to show how strong and opinionated women can be. This story of women withholding the strength to stand up for themselves and express what they really want, and to achieve this, should go down in history as one of the finest achievements for women-kind.

thankyou for a interesting piece of writing 🙂

2. immolapeamb - December 11, 2009

It looks like you are a real pro. Did you study about the matter? lawl

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