Buddhism Topics- The Place of Women in Buddhism


The Place of Women in Buddhism

This article is excerpted from a forthcoming book by Master Sheng Yen titled Common Questions in the Practice of Buddhism, which was originally published in Chinese as “學佛群疑” (Xue fu qun yi) in 1988. It was considered by him to be a companion volume to his book Orthodox Chinese Buddhism, which was published in 1965. Chan Magazine thanks Venerable Guo Chan and the Sheng Yen Education Foundation for permission to print this article. The article was translated by Dr. Hueping Chin, with bilingual reviews by Dr. Jerry Wang and Dr. Wei Tan, and English editing by Ernest Heau. The research cited in this article is a bit dated, but Master Sheng Yen’s message is still highly relevant today.

What is the view of women’s place in Buddhism?


The most often discussed issue regarding women’s place in Buddhism is the eight deferential rules (Chinese jingfa; Sanskirt gurudharma). According to the eight deferential rules, nuns cannot be independent, and must rely on the assistance of monks. Nuns cannot reside in the same place as monks, nor can they reside too far from them. Twice a month, nuns must invite elder monks to deliver sermons, to be cautioned and admonished. They are not allowed to be ordained directly by other nuns, and must obtain monks’ approval and certification. By tradition even a nun who has been ordained a 100 years, should still respect and bow to a newly ordained monk.

Therefore, today nuns still lack equal status with monks, especially in places where Theravada Buddhism is predominant like Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Thailand. Women are not even allowed to take the full ordination as nuns in these regions and can only practice as anagarika [a lay person who lives a monastic life]. However, since more Western women have been joining the Buddhist sangha, they have been outspoken about gender equality. They feel that nuns do not have status while in the East, and when they return to the West, their life as a Buddhist nun is even more difficult. This is a very peculiar situation. After all, male teachers are still the main force in introducing Buddhism to the West. Although monks do not necessarily discriminate against nuns, the tradition in Buddhism has posed an obstacle. The key is how to overcome this obstacle.

Since 1979, [Deborah Hopkinson and Susan Murcott] in the United States have been publishing a quarterly journal [of the Diamond Sangha], Kahawai: Journal of Women and Zen. In Sri Lanka, some women Buddhists have also published a monthly newsletter, Parappaduwa: Nuns’ Island. The goal of these publications is to improve women’s status in Buddhism and to attain gender equality. In February, 1987, a historical world bhikshuni conference was held in Bodh Gaya, India.

In March, 1987, Dr. Ku Cheng-mei, in the essay titled “Buddhism and Discrimination against Women,” in Issue 11 of Contemporary Monthly (Dangdai zazhi), wrote that gender discrimination originated from the Mahisasaka, an offshoot of the Sarvastivada School. Teachings such as the Eight Deferential Rules and Women’s Five Obstacles were both emphasized by the Mahisasaka. The so-called Five Obstacles are that a woman cannot become a buddha, the Lord Mara, a deva king, a Brahma king, or a wheelturning king. However, in the later stages of the Mahasanghika School, the Sarvastivada School, as well as the Sunyavadin (Emptiness Sect) of the early Mahayana Buddhism held different views on this.

In the Buddha’s Sermon on the Girl Nagadana Sutra (Chn. Foshuo Longshinu Jing) of the Sarvastivada School, there are statements which essentially question the claims of the five obstacles regarding women. Volume 22 and Volume 50 of the Ekottaragama Sutras, also mentioned exemplary women such as the Buddha’s stepmother and aunt Mahaprajapati, as well as Sumati, both of whom were competent, confident, and proud to be women.

The Sutra on the Prajna Path (Skt. Astasahasrika Prajnaparamita Sutra; Chn. Daohang Bore Jing) associated with the Mahayana Shunyata (Emptiness) Schools touches on the issue of how a woman can become a buddha. Later, many sutras such as Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra (Chn. Weimojie Jing), Sutra on Following Provisional Expedients (Skt. Strivivartavyakarana Sutra; Chn. Shunquanfangbian Jing), Buddhasangiti Sutra (Chn. Zhufoyaoji Jing), Bodhisattva Asokadatta Sutra (Skt. Asokadattavyakarana Sutra; Chn. Asheshiwangnv Ashudapusa Jing), Sutra on the Dharma Gate of Great Purity (Skt. Manjusri­vikridita Sutra; Chn. Dajingfamen Jing), Sutra Requested by Putri Ratna (Skt. Mahayanopadesa Sutra; Chn. Baonusuowen Jing), Buddha’s Sermon on Sumati Bodhisattva Sutra (Skt. Sumatidarikapariprccha Sutra; Chn. Foshuoxumotipusa Jing), and Perfect Virtue Girl Sutra (Skt. Strivivartavyakarana Sutra; Chn. Foshuowugouxiannv Jing), all advocated the view that there is no difference between men and women [regarding their potential to attain buddhahood].

When examining gender issues during the Buddha’s time, we should look at the fundamental aspect of equality in Buddhism. For instance, there was no gender distinction in the status of arhats. In so far as the practice of Buddhadharma is concerned, there was gender equality among Buddhist practitioners. Furthermore, Buddha proclaimed that all sentient beings have the potential to attain buddhahood.

The term “buddha” refers to the totally liberated one, the one with complete wisdom who is the ultimate savior. If men can attain it, so can women. However, from the points of view of physiology and psychology, women were traditionally thought to be more frail, soft, and dependent than men. Hence, to protect the safety of women who live a life of practice and encourage them to become leading practitioners in Buddhism, men should put more effort into helping women. This should not be viewed as domination or discrimination. For instance, regarding the first great Buddhist bhikshuni, the Buddha’s aunt Mahaprajapati, no bhikshu would disrespect her. (Mahaprajapati Art by Chien-Chih Liu)

It is stated in the Vinaya that the presence of women could generate sensual desires among monks. Therefore, to prevent temptation, the idea of women’s bodies being unclean was taught to monks, and women’s bodies were used as the meditation objects of practicing contemplation on the impure (Chn. bujingguan; Skt. asubhabhavana). This is a precautionary and preventive method used during cultivation, not meant to discriminate against women.

Throughout history there have been women leaders and heroines, but unfortunately their numbers have not been as many as men. In modern times, there are movements promoting gender equality to safeguard women’s rights; yet, the results have not always been significant. In the world today, among the great number of nations, there have been only a few women leaders in the last several decades; such as Prime Minister Golda Meir of Israel, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi of India, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom, President Corazon Aquino of the Philippines, and President Chandrika Kumaratunga of Sri Lanka. As of globally renowned religious leaders, there was Mother Theresa, who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979.

In the world of business according to the May, 1987 issue of Forbes Magazine, there were only three female CEOs among more than 800 companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange. Yet we all know that the population ratio of men and women is almost the same. This brings up the question of why there are much fewer well-known women leaders than there are men. Traditionally, the woman’s role has been that of caretaker for the family, thus performing this heroic role out of the public eye. It is also true that in general, men are more dominant than women.

We do not need to emphasize either absolute equality or inequality between the two genders; it is more important to follow the Buddha’s teaching that “all phenomena abide in their respective places,” meaning that each person has his or her place and standpoint, and roles and responsibilities, and we should develop mutual respect and assistance. For example, in a meeting where the four Buddhist assemblies of monks, nuns, male and female lay followers gather, they should be seated depending on the nature and purpose of the meeting. Women who are representatives and hold significant positions should be seated equally as the male counterparts. In ordinary gatherings or a ceremonial ritual, female and male attendees should sit in separate sections.

I have published several articles dealing with gender issues. Interested readers may refer to the following articles for further reading: “Bhikshunis and the Eight Deferential Rules,” “Regarding How to Address Bhikshunis,” and “A Buddhist View on Men and Women,” collected in my book Living in Accordance to the Vinaya, as well as an article “On Women Practitioners in Future Buddhism,” in my book Knowing the Path of Learning Buddhism.

Written by: Master Sheng Yen

Resources: Chan Magazine, Spring, 2017

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