Buddhism, gender & feminism


The changing roles of men and women including feminist approaches within Buddhism

Different views in Buddhism about whether women can be nuns

The Buddha on female ordination

The Buddha at first refused to ordain women but eventually agreed to allow the ordination of women after persuasion by his aunt (Maha-Pajapati Gotami). After his first refusal, she came to see him again with a group of women. She had cut off her hair and put on orange robes as monks do, and requested again. The Buddha’s cousin Ananda also tries to persuade the Buddha but keeps being refused. Ananda then asks whether if women renounced their homes and entered the disciplined life whether they could become fully enlightened arhats. The Buddha said yes. Ananda then remoinds the Buddha that his aunt was of great help to him after the death of his mother and concludes that it would be good for women to be able to be ordained.

The Buddha replies that if his aunt takes on the 8 Garudhammas then she ‘will become a bhikkhuni’ (female monk).

The Buddha said women could be ordained but only if they followed additional rules: A bhikkuni has more rules than a bhikku, the most important of which are called the eight garudhammas (heavy rules). These include:

A bhikkuni, even if ordained for 100 years must respect a bhikku, even if they’d been ordained for only one day.
A bhikkuni must live 6 hours journey from a monastery where bhikkus who can give them advice are.
On observance days a bhikkuni should consult the bhikkus.
A bhikkuni must spend rainy season retreats under the orders of both bhikku and bhikkunis.
A bhikkuni must live her life by both the orders.
A bhikkuni must on two years obtain the higher ordination (Upasampatha) by both orders (of bhukkus and bhukkunis?)
A bhikkuni cannot scold a bhikku.
A bhikkuni cannot advise a bhikku.

Ananda tells the Buddha’s aunt the 8 rules and she accepts them.

The Buddha also claimed that it would limit the survival of his teachings by a duration of half – the Buddha did not say why.

In total the Pali Vinaya-pitaka lists around 250 rules for bhikkus but 348 rules for bhikkunis.

Female ordination today

The difficulty of ordaining women in the Theravadin tradition 

The ordination rules. The Buddha made the rule that both ordained bhikkus and bhikkunis be present at the ordination of a bhikkuni. After most orders of bhikkunis died out there were none available to ordain new bhikkunis. This further catalysed the already declining numbers of ordination of women in Theravada orders of southeast Asia, where women were stuck at the novice level. Buddhist leaders in Tibetan and Theravada traditions have been unwilling to change this rule as they claim they lack the authority to alter the Buddha’s rules on ordination of women.

Arguably the Buddha’s rules were historically contingent. He clearly intended for women to be ordained so

Additionally, what is the purpose of a bhikkuni being present at the ordination of a bhikkuni? What job is the female doing there that a man cannot? Unless we admit that women add something to the ordination that men cannot, an admission not likely to be made by any opposer of female ordination, then the Buddha’s rule seems purposeless. We might then abandon it as obsolete, or even speculate that sexism motivated his creation of it in the first place.

Dhammananda claims that the traditional interpretation of the ordination rules as requiring ordination by both monks and nuns was based on a poor understanding of the Pali language. She claims that in the event of there being no Bhikkunis to ordain a new one, ordination by Bhikkus is enough.

In 2003 Dhammananda became the first Thai Bhikkuni to be ordained in the Theravada tradition by traveling to Sri Lanka. Upon returning to Thailand much of the Theravada Sangha rejected her. 

In Sri Lanka, an important home to Theravada Buddhism, there were invasions and purges of Buddhists and only a few Bhikkus survived. Siamese Bhukkus were requested to come and restore the sangha, but not Bhukkunis. After 1000 years an order of Bhukkunis was re-established, however neither the government nor Theravada bhikku sanga have formally recognized it.

Some argue that the Cullavaga is not the authentic teaching of the Buddha but was written by male monks who wanted to increase their power. The words are patriarchial and should not be considered valid. However, it is part of the Vinaya which is the oldest text and cannot be inauthentic.

Some scholars argue there is inconsistency between the Pali Bhikkuni Vinaya and other versions of the texts and claim that some of the rules were added after the Buddha’s death. The Tipitaka was written 500 years after the Buddha’s death and adulterations would have been easy to introduce.

This raises the question of the appropriate method of interpretation of Buddhist texts. Literalism seems to be discouraged by this observation, as does overly focusing on one particular part of it. Perhaps instead we should argue for an interpretation that captures the spirit of the Buddha’s teachings, rather than one which strictly conforms to the letter of the law. The strict adherence to the ordination rules might be thus criticised from this interpretative method.

However arguably the story of the dragon king’s daughter might be undermined by focusing on the general theme and spirit of the texts, since it is just one passage and arguably quite unique.

Mahayana female monastic traditions and lineage

There is an order of Mahayana bhikkunis in China and Taiwan whose lineage traces back to the first ordinations of bhikkunis.

Some Theravada bhikkunis have been ordained in the presence of Mahayana bhikkunis which seems to satisfy the ordination rule, though this is controversial in Theravada Buddhism.

Thailand is 95% Theravada Buddhist and typically do not think woman can be ordained due to the ordination rules. Bhikkunis are tolerated but technically illegal and risk being charged with the crime of impersonating a monk, though that is rare. Bhikkunis are not allowed to participate in state or public rituals not receive any state subsidy.

Tonsakulrungruang claims that the loss of Bhukkunis was ‘natural and unfortunate’, not the result of intentional sabotage. 

In Thailand women can become lower-level nuns called mae chi. They shave their heads but wear a white robe, do not live inside a temple and are under the authority of a monk. Now there are a couple hundred Bhikkuni and around a hundred mae chi in Thailand. They are typically welcomed by villagers. However, they do not receive government subsidies for medical treatment or education. One Mae chi claimed that ‘In Thailand, feminism and demands for women’s human rights are typically regarded as egotistical and aggressive, and are consequently viewed with suspicion’.

Different views about whether women can attain awakening

The Lotus Sutra

presents a range of teachings: all equally possess the potential to attain Buddhahood; the Dragon King’s daughter (Lotus Sutra – Chapter 12) transforms into a man before attaining awakening. 

Devadatta is the Buddha’s cousin and an evil person who tried to kill the Buddha and disrupt the Sangha. He was cast into the hell realm as a result. Nonetheless, in the Lotus Sutra the Buddha says that Devadatta will become a Buddha and help people attain awakening.

The dragon king’s daughter. Manjushri claims that sentient beings which follow the Lotus Sutra will become Buddhas. Even an 8 year old girl, the dragon king’s daughter, instantly attained enlightenment. Other Bodhisattvas expressed scepticism because the Buddha required years of practice to become enlightened. They argue that women’s body is inferior. The dragon King’s daughter then transformed into a male and instantly perfects the bodhisattva practice and atains Buddhahood.

Buddha nature. These stories illustrate Buddha nature, the Mahayana belief that all sentient beings have Buddha nature inside them and therefore all sentient beings have the potential to attain awakening. Even evil people and women have Buddha nature in them and can become enlightened.

R. Gross says that it is uncomfortable for a feminist that the dragon king’s daughter transformed into a male. It gives the impression that only men can be enlightened. The story has been used by men to challenge female equality in Buddhism.

Harvey argues that the story actually shows that when attaining Buddhahood through sudden insight, she then decided to manifest a male form. It doesn’t suggest that women must become men to become enlightened.

However, why would she manifest a male form? There seems to be no obvious purpose to it, aside from its implication that men must become women to become enlightened.

Arguably the transformation from female to male highlights the attitude towards gender that an enlightened person would have – viewing it as a superficial thing to be trasended like all identity (Anataman). She chained into a male to highlight that she had no attachment to her female form because she had become enlightened.

Rita Gross: Buddhism’s commitment to the end of suffering as inherently feminist

Rita Gross is a modern feminist professor of Buddhism, argued that Buddhism as a religion often fails to live up to the Buddha’s teaching on equality of the sexes. She thought Buddhism as it is often practiced therefore required a feminist critique. Gross believed in propagating androgynous Buddhism, where adherents would actively pursue freedom from gender roles.

She identifies four levels of androcentrism in Buddhism:

  1. First level androcentricism: the texts and stories are about men and involve statements by men far more than they do women.
  2. Second level: The texts and stories there are about women are considered less important.
  3. Third level: The western study of Buddhism follows and accepts, rather than challenging, these biases in the Buddhist texts & stories.
  4. Fourth level: The result is that contemporary Buddhism is androcentric.

The result is that in Buddhist instutions, women are excluded from leadership, whereas in lay Buddhism women are more prevalant.

Gross argues that male scholars interpret certain texts in ways which diminish the role of female disciples. She claims the male commentary on the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya minimised the arhatship and parinirvana of Yashodhara (Siddartha’s wife) for political reasons to discourage bhikkuni ordination.

This androcentrism creates the conditions for patriarchy.

However, Gross thinks that Buddhism is not misogynistic because there is not much textual evidence of hatred of women/femininity.

Gender stereotypes are created due to women becoming limited to the home whereas men were empowered to be active in the world.

Gross hopes that since patriarchy has declined in the west just as it has discovered Buddhism, this provides an opportunity for feminism to transform Buddhism.

First, the negative sterotypes must be recognised. Women are regarded as less likely than men to make progress on the Buddhist path.

Secondly, the tradition must be repaired – we should recognise that being female does not present a barrier to enlightenment. The Dhamma is neither male nor female and gender is irrelevant in Buddhist teachings.

However, cultural stereotypes about gender are still predominent in Asia.

Western Buddhism has the most equality in terms of the representation of women in the priesthood. This may be because of greater education and financial independence, which women in Asia have less of.

In the 2009 UN report on gender equality, only one Buddhist majority country made it into the top 50; Singapore.

Gross states that obstacles can aid a practitioner in their awakening as learning to work with them skilfully can lead to wisdom and compassion. However, Gross claims that throughout Buddhism’s history, female birth has been viewed as an obstacle that makes awakening difficult rather than a potential aid. Buddhist women have been taught not to seek awakening but to acquire enough good karma to be reborn as a man. Gross acknowledges there have been exceptions to this but nonetheless claims the tendency in Buddhist practice overall is towards the view that female birth makes awakening difficult, perhaps to the point where realistically it should not be aimed at.

Gross believes that clinging to gender makes enlightenment more difficult. Since gender is conditioned into people’s identity and falsely thought to be linked to natural biological sex, it becomes a way for us to cling to our ego. Gross references the Zen master Dogen that ‘to study the buddha way is to study the self, and that to study the self is to forget the self’.

Gross does not mean that we should just forget about gender. Globally there is an imbalance of harm based on gender. Even though gender is illusory, the harm based on the illusion is real. Gross thinks we have to gain a deep understanding of gender in order to stop clinging to it. The more difficult someone’s life circumstances make it to understand their gender, the most difficult it might be for them to stop clinging to it.

Gross argues that men have issues clinging to gender as well, however their clinging is more difficult to detect because one of the hallmarks of privilege is not seeing yourself as having it. Men rarely give much thought to their privileged status, they just accept it as the way the world is on a conditioned instinctual level of their mind. Since Gross thinks we must understand our gender in order to let go of it, men might find it difficult since their gender is not brought to their attention as there are not injustices caused by it which might bring it into consciousness. In fact, it is a feature of privilege that it is disguised from the attention of those who have it.

The extent to which Buddhism aligns with feminism

Not: because Buddhism cannot align itself with a conventional truth. Gender is imperminant and so Buddhism cannot align itself to something imperminant.

However, Gross would argue that it’s because gender is imperminant and conventional that Buddhist should aim to transcend it and not cling to it. So Buddhism can and should align with feminism.

Not: priority is to remove dukkha from all people equally – without reference to their gender. So Buddhism cannot focus particularly on alieviating the suffering of one gender.

Nonetheless, if our goal is to reduce suffering then we need to combat the social causes of suffering which are often patriarchial. There is no way to address the suffering that comes from patriarchy without combating patriarchy.

Not: aligning with feminism implies craving – tanha – attachment to feminist ideology. Buddhism must be against attachment of all forms.

However, this is like suggesting that the dasa sila implies attachment. Feminism is just about expanding our moral views to include treating women equally. Moral guidance is an important part of Buddhism and it’s not craving to follow morality.

The Buddha said that ordaining women would shorten the duration of his teachings by half. That seems sexist.

There might be practical (non-sexist) reasons for the Buddha thinking female priests would be half as effective at perpetuating his teachings, such as most cultures being sexist and therefore not listening to women. So, he might not have been criticising the priestly capabilities of women.

Furthermore, Dr. H. Nakamura claims that the ordination of women in Buddhism ‘was an astonishing development in world religious history. No such female order existed in Europe, North Africa, West Asia or East Asia at the time. Buddhism was the first tradition to produce one.’

The Buddha required more rules for ordained women – that seems sexist and unfair.

The Buddha might merely have been protective of women who faced dangers when not protected by a father or husband. If living in a monastery without family, they wouldn’t have that protection.

The Buddha’s stated concern was for the duration of his teachings,  however.

The Buddha eventually said he will not achieve final Nirvana until he has bhukkunis and female desciples who are ‘accomplished’ and will teach the Dhamma. So arguably he became even more pro-equality over time.

The potential for women to become enlightened

The Buddha said that women could become enlightened and allowed the ordination of women. The Venerable Dhammananda claims that what made the Buddha ‘the first feminist’ was that he stated clearly that women could achieve enlightenment as ‘no other religion said something like that’

Although the Buddha said that women could attain enlightenment, that doesn’t mean he thought men and women were equal in their ability to become enlightened. Many Buddhists believe there are difficulties or impediments to female awakening. 

The Buddha recommended against thinking yourself superior to others, which could suggest men are not superior to females regarding potential for enlightenment.

However, that might just be because the Buddha recommended against pride and arrogance as it is a form of clinging. It doesn’t mean that men aren’t superior to women in some respect, only that they shouldn’t fixate on or identify with that superiority.