Women in Buddhism
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Women in Buddhism is a topic that can be approached from varied perspectives including those of theology, history, anthropology and feminism. Topical interests include the theological status of women, the treatment of women in Buddhist societies at home and in public, the history of women in Buddhism, and a comparison of the experiences of women across different forms of Buddhism. As in other religions, the experiences of Buddhist women have varied considerably.
In the case of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism some progress has been made in the areas of women in early Buddhism, monasticism and Mahayana Buddhism. Two articles have seriously broached the subject of women in Indian tantric Buddhism, while somewhat more attention has been paid to Tibetan nuns and lay yoginis.
When there is a talk about women and Buddhism, I have noticed that people often regard the topic as something new and different. They believe that women in Buddhism has become an important topic because we live in modern times and so many women are practicing the Dharma now. However, this is not the case. The female sangha has been here for centuries. We are not bringing something new into a 2,500-year-old tradition. The roots are there, and we are simply re-energizing them.
As a present evaluation of women (and equality) in Buddhism, Masatoshi Ueki gave a diachronic textual interpretation of Buddhist texts from Early Buddhism to the Lotus Sutra. Ueki examined the terms 'male' and 'female' as not solely on the physical characteristics of each sex biologically but focusing on their functional roles in the respective society, namely 'male principle' and 'female principle,' and concluded that no difference is preached in the Shakyamuni's teachings regarding the enlightenment of woman.
The establishment of the male principle in equal measure with the female principle is the natural order of things. They should never exist in a mutually exclusive relationship. They should not be an emphasis on one at the expense of the other, for both are indispensable. ... will the establishment of the true self be a fact of reality for both men and women.
- 1 Women in Early Buddhism
- 2 Women's Spiritual Attainment
- 3 Buddhist Ordination of Women
- 4 Family Life in Buddhism
- 5 Views of Religious Leaders
- 6 Buddhist feminism
- 7 Influential Female Buddhist figures
- 8 See also
- 9 References
- 10 Bibliography
- 11 External links
Women in Early Buddhism
The founder of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha, permitted women to join his monastic community and fully participate in it, although there were certain provisos or garudhammas. As Susan Murcott comments, "The nun's sangha was a radical experiment for its time."
According to Diana Paul, the traditional view of women in Early Buddhism is that they are inferior. Rita Gross agrees that "a misogynist strain is found in early Indian Buddhism. But the presence of some clearly misogynist doctrines does not mean that the whole of ancient Indian Buddhism was misogynist." Although, there are statements in Buddhist scripture that appear to be misogynist, such as the presentation of women as obstructers of men's spiritual progress or the notion that a woman's birth is an inferior one with less opportunity for spiritual progress. However, in societies where men have always retained access to authority and wider choices, a negative judgement on women's fate might be seen as simply reflecting the empirical political reality. Furthermore, the religious literature is more likely to address men, and hence we find the Buddhist emphasis on renunciation of sensual desires expressed in terms of the male attachment to women more frequently than we find the reverse. The mix of positive attitudes to femininity with blatantly negative sentiment has led many writers to characterise early Buddhism's attitude to women as deeply ambivalent.
Women's Spiritual Attainment
The various schools and traditions within Buddhism hold different views as to the possibilities of women's spiritual attainments. One significant strand emphasizes that in terms of spiritual attainment, women and men have equal spiritual capabilities and that women not only can, but also in many cases have, attained spiritual liberation. Such a perspective is found in a number of sources of different periods, including early Buddhist literature in the Theravāda tradition, Mahāyāna sūtras, and tantric writings. There are stories of women and even children who attained enlightenment during the time of the Buddha. Furthermore, Buddhist doctrines do not differentiate between men and women since everyone, regardless of gender, status, or age, is subject to old age, illness, and mortality, thus the suffering and impermanence that mark conditioned existence apply to all.
Feminist scholars have also noted than even when a woman's potential for spiritual attainment is acknowledged, records of such achievements may not be kept—or may be obscured by gender-neutral language or mis-translation of original sources by Western scholars.
Limitations on Women's Attainments in Buddhism
According to Bernard Faure, "Like most clerical discourses, Buddhism is indeed relentlessly misogynist, but as far as misogynist discourses go, it is one of the most flexible and open to multiplicity and contradiction."
In the Buddhist tradition, positions of apparently worldly power are often a reflection of the spiritual achievements of the individual. For example, any gods are living in higher realms than a human being and therefore have a certain level of spiritual attainment. Cakravartins and Buddhas are also more spiritually advanced than an ordinary human being. However, as the Taiwanese nun Heng-Ching Shih states, women in Buddhism are said to have five obstacles, namely being incapable of becoming a Brahma King, Sakra, King Mara, Cakravartin or Buddha. This is based on the statement of Gautama Buddha in the Bahudhātuka-sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya in the Pali Canon that it is impossible that a woman should be "the perfectly rightfully Enlightened One", "the Universal Monarch", "the King of Gods", "the King of Death" or "Brahmaa". Earlier limitations on attainment of Buddhahood by women were abolished in the Lotus Sutra which opened the direct path to enlightenment for women equally to men. According to Nichiren" "Only in the Lotus Sutra do we read that a woman who embraces this sutra not only excels all other women but surpasses all men".
Women and Buddhahood
Although early Buddhist texts such as the Cullavagga section of the Vinaya Pitaka of the Pali Canon contain statements from Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, speaking to the fact that a woman can attain enlightenment, it is also clearly stated in the Bahudhātuka-sutta that there could never be a female Buddha.
In Theravada Buddhism, the modern school based on the Buddhist philosophy of the earliest dated texts, Buddhahood is a rare event. The focus of practice is primarily on attaining Arhatship and the Pali Canon has examples of both male and female Arhats who attained nirvana. Yasodharā, the former wife of Buddha Shakyamuni, mother of his son Rahula, is said to have become an arhat after having joined the Bhikkhuni order of Buddhist nuns. In Mahayana schools, Buddhahood is the universal goal for Mahayana practitioners. The Mahayana sutras maintains that a woman can become enlightened, only not in female form. For example, the Bodhisattvabhūmi, dated to the 4th Century, states that a woman about to attain enlightenment will be reborn in the male form. According to Miranda Shaw, "this belief had negative implications for women insofar as it communicated the insufficiency of the female body as a locus of enlightenment".
Some Theravada suttas state that it is impossible for a woman to be a bodhisattva, which is someone on their way to Buddhahood. A bodhisattva can be a human, animal, serpent, or a god, but never a woman. These suttas do not deny women to become awakened, but they are unable to lead a Buddhist community. If the aspiration to Buddhahood has been made and a Buddha of the time confirms it, it is impossible to be reborn as a woman. An appropriate aim is for women to aspire to be reborn as male. They can become a male by moral actions and sincere aspiration to maleness. Being born a female is a result of bad karma.
However, the Jataka tales (stories of the Buddha's past lives as a bodhisattva within the Theravada cannon) mention that the Buddha spent one of his past lives as a princess. This is directly contradictory to the assertion that a bodhisattva cannot be born a female.
The appearance of female Buddhas can be found in the tantric iconography of the Vajrayana practice path of Buddhism. Sometimes they are the consorts of the main yidam of a meditation mandala but Buddhas such as Vajrayogini, Tara and Simhamukha appear as the central figures of tantric sadhana in their own right. Vajrayana Buddhism also recognizes many female yogini practitioners as achieving the full enlightenment of a Buddha, Miranda Shaw as an example cites sources referring to "Among the students of the adept Naropa, reportedly two hundred men and one thousand women attained complete enlightenment". Yeshe Tsogyal, one of the five tantric consorts of Padmasambhava is an example of a woman (Yogini) recognized as a female Buddha in the Vajrayana tradition. According to Karmapa lineage however Tsogyel has attained Buddhahood in that very life. On the website of the Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, it is stated that Yeshe Tsogyal—some thirty years before transcending worldly existence—finally emerged from an isolated meditation retreat, (c.796-805 AD), as "a fully enlightened Buddha" (samyak-saṃbuddha).
In the 20th Century Tenzin Palmo, a Tibetan Buddhist nun in the Drukpa Lineage of the Kagyu school, stated "I have made a vow to attain Enlightenment in the female form—no matter how many lifetimes it takes".
Female Tulku Lineages
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In the fifteenth century CE, Princess Chokyi-dronme (Wylie: Chos-kyi sgron-me) was recognized as the embodiment of the meditation deity and female Buddha in the Vajrayana tradition, Vajravarahi. Chokyi-dronme became known as Samding Dorje Phagmo (Wylie: bSam-lding rDo-rje phag-mo) and began a line of female tulkus, reincarnate lamas. At present, the twelfth of this line lives in Tibet.
Another female tulku lineage, that of Shugseb Jetsun Rinpoche (Wylie: Shug-gseb rJe-btsun Rin-po-che) (c. 1865 – 1951), began in the late nineteenth century CE. While she received teachings of all the Tibetan schools, Shugseb Jetsun Rinpoche was particularly known for holding a lineage of Chöd, the meditation practice of offering one's own body for the benefit of others. At the start of the twentieth century, Shugsheb Jetsun Rinpoche—also called Ani Lochen Chönyi Zangmo—founded the Shuksep or Shugsep (Wylie: shug gseb) nunnery located thirty miles from Lhasa on the slopes of Mount Gangri Thökar. It became one of the largest and most famous nunneries in Tibet. Shugsep Nunnery, part of the Nyingma school, has been re-established in exile in Gambhir Ganj, India. The nuns of Shugsep continue their practices, including Longchen Nyingtig and Chöd.
Buddhist Ordination of Women
Gautama Buddha first ordained women as nuns five years after his enlightenment and five years after first ordaining men into the sangha. The first Buddhist nun was his aunt and foster mother Mahapajapati Gotami. Bhikkhunis have to follow the eight rules of respect, which are vows called The Eight Garudhammas. According to Peter Harvey "The Buddha's apparent hesitation on this matter is reminiscent of his hesitation on whether to teach at all," something he only does after persuasion from various devas. The ordination of women in Buddhism is and has always been practiced in some Buddhist regions, such as East Asia, is being revived in some countries such as Sri Lanka, and is newly beginning in some Western countries to which Buddhism has recently spread, such as the United States.
Family Life in Buddhism
In the Anguttara Nikaya (5:33), Buddha tells future wives that they should be obedient to their husbands, please them, and not make them angry through their own desires. Furthermore, the Buddha offers advice to married women in the Anguttara Nikaya (7:59; IV 91-94), from the Pali (Theravada) canon, where he tells of seven types of wives—the first three types are destined for unhappiness, while the last four, as they are imbued with long term self-control, are destined to be happy. These latter wives are characterised as caretakers (motherly-wife), companions (friend-wife) and submissives (sister-wife and slave-wife)—the Buddha thus endorsed a variety of types of wives within marriage.
According to Diana Paul, Buddhism inherited a view of women whereby if they are not represented as mothers then they are portrayed as either lustful temptresses or as evil incarnate.
The status of motherhood in Buddhism has also traditionally reflected the Buddhist perspective that dukkha, or suffering, is a major characteristic of human existence. In her book on the Therigatha collection of stories of women arhats from the Pali Canon, Susan Murcott states: "Though this chapter is about motherhood, all of the stories and poems share another theme—grief. The mothers of this chapter were motivated to become Buddhist nuns by grief over the death of their children."
However, motherhood in Early Buddhism could also be a valued activity in its own right. Queen Maya, the mother of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, had a certain following, especially in Lumbini, where she gave birth to him. Since Maya died some days after his birth, Gautama Buddha was brought up by a fostermother, his mother's sister Mahapajapati, who also had two children of her own. She became the first Buddhist nun. Both of her children, her son Nanda and her daughter Sundari Nanda joined the Buddhist sangha of monastics. The wife of Gautama Buddha, Yasodhara, was the mother of one son named Rahula, meaning "fetter", who became a Buddhist monk at the age of seven and Yasodhara also eventually became a nun.
One of the attractions for women in Vajrayana Buddhism of following the path of a yogini rather than that of a bhikkhuni nun was the opportunity to practice amidst family life with a husband or spiritual consort and possibly have children. Also Yoginis -unlike nuns- were not obliged to shave their hair. Machig Labdrön followed such a path, living in a monastery for a while but later leaving to unite with Topabhadra as her consort. According to Machig's namthar he cared for the children while she practiced and taught. Some of Machig's children followed her on the spiritual path, becoming accomplished yogins themselves. Tsultrim Allione, a recognised emanation of Machig Labdron, herself was a nun for four years but left to marry and have children. She has spoken of the contribution motherhood has made to her practice:
...in Buddhism the image of the mother as the embodiment of compassion is used a lot. She'll do anything for the children. As a mother I felt that depth of love and commitment and having somebody who I really would give my own life for—it was very powerful to have that kind of relationship. I also felt that I didn't really grow up until I had my children. There were ways that maturity was demanded of me and having children brought forth that maturity. So I wouldn't say my children were an inspiration in the sense of what I thought would have been a spiritual inspiration before I had children. More so I think meeting the challenges of motherhood with what I had learned made my practice very rich.
Romantic Love, Sexual Conduct and Marriage
In general, "While Buddhism regards the celibate monastic life as the higher ideal, it also recognizes the importance of marriage as a social institution." Some guidelines for marriage are offered. Although Buddhist practice varies considerably among its various schools, marriage is one of the few concepts specifically mentioned in the context of Śīla, the Buddhist formulation of core facets of spiritual discipline. The fundamental code of Buddhist ethics, The Five Precepts contains an admonishment against sexual misconduct, although what constitutes misconduct from the perspective of a particular school of Buddhism varies widely depending on the local culture.
In Early Buddhism, the Sigalovada Sutta of the Digha Nikaya in the Pali Canon describes the respect that one is expected to give to one's spouse. However, since the ideal of Early Buddhism is renunciation, it can be seen from examples such as the story of the monk Nanda and his wife Janapada Kalyāni that striving for the bliss of Nirvana is valued above romantic love and marriage. Despite having married her just that day, encouraged by his cousin Gautama Buddha, Nanda left his wife to become a bhikkhu in the Buddhist Sangha. In stories like this from the Pali Canon, romantic love is generally perceived as part of attachment to samsara, the endless cycle of rebirth. Susan Murcott has pointed out that Early Buddhist attitudes to romantic love and marriage generally reflect the Brahmanic ideals of India at the time... including the recent rise of the renunciate ideal and the associated decline in the status of romantic love and marriage.
In Vajrayana Buddhism, a sexual relationship with a consort is seen in a technical way as being a spiritual practice in anuttarayoga tantra intended to allow the practitioners to attain realizations and attain enlightenment. The union of tantric consorts is depicted in the yab-yum iconography of meditation deities.
Views of Religious Leaders
Warfare has traditionally been carried out primarily by men, since they seem better physically equipped for aggressive behavior. Women, on the other hand, tend to be more caring and more sensitive to others' discomfort and pain. Although men and women have the same potentials for aggression and warm-heartedness, they differ in which of the two more easily manifests. Thus, if the majority of world leaders were women, perhaps there would be less danger of war and more cooperation on the basis of global concern – although, of course, some women can be difficult! I sympathize with feminists, but they must not merely shout. They must exert efforts to make positive contributions to society.
He also said that by nature, women are more compassionate "based on their biology and ability to nurture and birth children." He called on women to "lead and create a more compassionate world," citing the good works of nurses and mothers.
In 2007 he said that the next Dalai Lama could possibly be a woman, remarking "If a woman reveals herself as more useful the lama could very well be reincarnated in this form".
In 2010 he stated that "twenty or thirty years ago", when discussing whether a woman could be a Dalai Lama in the future, he said yes but "I also said half-jokingly that if the Dalai Lama's reincarnation is female, she must be very attractive. The reason is so that she will have more influence on others. If she is an ugly female, she won't be very effective, will she?"
During a 2014 interview with Larry King when asked if he thought we will ever see a female Dalai Lama he stated "Yes! That's very possible." he recalled telling a reporter in Paris many years ago that it is possible mentioning that there are some female Lama's in history dating "...six or seven centuries ago, so it is nothing new." He then recalled joking with the reporter, "If female Dalai Lama come, that female must be very, very attractive. [It's] More useful"
In 2015 he repeated this anecdote during an interview with the BBC on refugees. When asked if the Dalai Lama could be a woman he answers "Yes". Recalling again an interview in Paris of the possibility "I mentioned, Why not? The female biologically [has] more potential to show affection and compassion...therefore I think female[s] should take more important role and then - I told the reporter - if a female does come her face should be very, very attractive." The interviewer Clive Myrie then asked if a female Dalai Lama must be attractive, he followed up, "I mean. If female Dalai Lama come, then that female must be attractive. Otherwise not much use." Myrie replied "You're joking, I'm assuming. Or you're not joking?" to which The Dalai Lama insisted "No. True!". The Dalai Lama then pointed to his own face, stating that some people think he is very attractive and continued to laugh.
Buddhist feminism is a movement that seeks to improve the religious, legal, and social status of women within Buddhism. It is an aspect of feminist theology which seeks to advance and understand the equality of men and women morally, socially, spiritually, and in leadership from a Buddhist perspective. The Buddhist feminist Rita Gross describes Buddhist feminism as "the radical practice of the co-humanity of women and men."
Influential Female Buddhist figures
This section is in a list format that may be better presented using prose. (November 2017)
- Mahapajapati Gotami, step-mother of the Buddha, first to seek ordination.
- Yasodharā, Buddha's wife, became a nun and an Arhat.
- Sanghamitta, daughter of emperor Ashoka, said to have brought Buddhism to Sri Lanka.
- Buddhamitrā was a Buddhist nun living in India during the 1st century who is remembered for images of the Buddha that she erected in three cities near the Ganges river.
- Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, the first modern Thai woman to receive full ordination as a Theravada bhikkhuni and Abbess of Songdhammakalyani Monastery, the only temple in Thailand where there are bhikkhunis.
- Ayya Khema was a German American Buddhist teacher and the first Western woman to become a Theravadin Buddhist nun. She was very active in providing opportunities for women to practice Buddhism founding several Buddhist centers around the world and coordinating the first ever Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women. Over two dozen books of her transcribed dhamma talks have been published in several languages, and she also published her autobiography I Give You My Life in 1997.
- Dipa Ma
- Upasika Kee Nanayon
- Chandra Khonnokyoong
- Sharon Salzberg
- Mya Thwin
- Ajahn Sundara and Ajahn Candasiri are nuns in the Thai Forest Tradition
- Sylvia Boorstein
East Asian Traditions
- Wu Zetian (Chinese empress who supported Buddhism in China)
- Zongchi, a disciple of Bodhidharma.
- Cheng Yen is a Taiwanese Buddhist nun (bhikkhuni) who founded the Buddhist Compassion Relief Tzu Chi Foundation.
- Houn Jiyu-Kennett was a British roshi most famous for having been the first female to be sanctioned by the Soto School of Japan to teach in the West. She founded Shasta Abbey in Mt. Shasta, California.
- Enkyo Pat O'Hara
- Ruth Fuller Sasaki
- Joko Beck
- angel Kyodo Williams
- Samding Dorje Phagmo, a lineage of female tulkus
- Sera Khandro Kunzang Dekyong Wangmo
- Ayu Khandro
- Tare Lhamo, a female Nyingma terton or treasure revealer
- Kushok Chimey Luding
- Khandro Rinpoche
- Karma Lekshe Tsomo is an American Nun, Professor of Buddhist Studies at University of San Diego, author of many books on Women in Buddhism, founder of Jamyang Foundation and founding member of Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women.
- Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo is a Tibetan Buddhist nun, author, teacher and founder of the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Nunnery in Himachal Pradesh, India. She spent twelve years living in a remote cave in the Himalayas, three of those years in strict meditation retreat.
- Pema Chödrön is an ordained Tibetan Buddhist nun, author, and teacher. She has conducted workshops, seminars, and meditation retreats in Europe, Australia, and throughout North America. She is resident and teacher of Gampo Abbey, a monastery in rural Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Canada.
- Thubten Chodron is an American Tibetan Buddhist nun and a central figure in reinstating the Tibetan Bhikshuni (Gelongma) ordination of women. She is a student of H. H. XIVth Dalai Lama, Tsenzhap Serkong Rinpoche, Thubten Zopa Rinpoche and other Tibetan masters.
- Robina Courtin is an Australian Buddhist nun in the Tibetan Buddhist Gelugpa tradition and lineage of Lama Thubten Yeshe and Lama Zopa Rinpoche. In 1996 she founded Liberation Prison Project, which she ran until 2009.
- Ani Choying Drolma is a Nepalese Buddhist nun and musician from the Nagi Gompa nunnery in Nepal. She is known in Nepal and throughout the world for bringing many Tibetan Buddhist chants and feast songs to mainstream audiences. She has been recently appointed as the UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador to Nepal.
- Ven. Yeshe Khadro has worked in management and teaching roles for many FPMT centres around the world. For the past 15 years she has been the director of Karuna Hospice in Brisbane, Australia. In 2012, Yeshe Khadro was named a Paul Harris Fellow by Rotary International "in appreciation of the furtherance of better understanding and friendly relations among peoples of the world".
- Tsultrim Allione
- Jetsunma Ahkon Lhamo
- Sarah Harding (lama)
- Judith Simmer-Brown
- Jan Willis
- Vicki Mackenzie
- Jetsunma, Tibetan title meaning "venerable" or "reverend"
- Women in Christianity
- Women in Daoism
- Women in Islam
- Women in Hinduism
- Women in Judaism
- Women in Sikhism
- International Congress on Buddhist Women's Role in the Sangha
- Ordination of women in Buddhism
- Criticism of Buddhism#Women in Buddhism
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- Masatoshi, Ueki (2001). Gender Equality in Buddhism. New York: Peter Lang. p. 191. ISBN 978-0-8204-5133-6.
- Murcott, Susan (1991). The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha. Parallax Press. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-938077-42-8.
- Diana Y. Paul; Frances Wilson (1985). "Traditional Views of Women". Women in Buddhism: Images of the Feminine in Mahāyāna Tradition. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-05428-8.
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- Bernard Faure (2003). "Introduction". The Power of Denial: Buddhism, Purity, and Gender. Princeton University Press. p. 3. ISBN 978-0-691-09171-6.
- Majjhima Nikaya III III. 2. 5. Bahudhaatukasutta.m-(115) The Discourse on Many Elements
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