One of the most important and painful lessons for Buddhists occurred during the early medieval period in India (6th to 12th century), when Buddhist institutions under economic and political duress began to absorb the resurgent values of non-Buddhist sects. Among the values of this revived and diversified Brahminism (which eventually eclipsed Buddhism) were paradigms of militaristic glory and plunder, feudal kingship, and the more or less total exclusion of women from religious activity. The result was one of the most severe self-inflicted wounds in Buddhist history.
The seminal work by Buddhist Studies scholar Ronald Davidson on the social history of tantric Buddhism devotes an entire subsection to the decline of women’s participation in Buddhist activities. While tantric Buddhism should be admired for sustaining Indian Buddhism until the 12th century, the decreasing numbers of female practitioners lead to the gradual reduction of Buddhist communities into minority groups among the diverse and competitive religious landscape of India. The marginalization of women, while influenced by changing political circumstances, was not only an ethically questionable pivot but also had long-term detrimental effects. Davidson highlights the tragic effects in a vivid paragraph quoted here below:
“We must conclude that, overall (and with notable exceptions), medieval Indian women were persuaded to leave Buddhist religious life behind and retreat to the home, as their society (and, increasingly, their religion) exhorted them, and frequently forced them, to do. In this they were neither passive pawns nor independent agents, but, when they could, they made decisions for themselves based on the influences of their time and society. Buddhist authors and institutions—male and female—internalized, articulated, and espoused these Varnashrama Dharma paradigms, since there appeared to be neither another option nor an alternative sense of direction. The ritual focus of surviving literature attributed to women of the period simply reinforces the virtual unanimity of this decision and provides us with little recourse but to assume that they accepted this position as they saw the doors of the Buddhist religion grow narrower before their eyes.” (Davidson 2002, 98)
“Never again,” as countries and governments often declare after times of national tragedy. While the memory of the demise of the women’s sangha in India is extremely distant, the lesson we should learn from this part of Buddhist history is crystal clear: without women’s participation, religious movements stagnate and struggle. Depriving half of the world’s or a half of a country’s population of the chance to participate fully in the religious fruits of the Dharma—which should be open to all and above human limitations such as gender—is not only immoral, but also mathematically unfeasible and suicidal in the long-term.
This is why we support full ordination for women not just in the Mahayana, but also in the Theravada and Vajrayana vehicles. This means discerning a faithful and correct interpretation of the Theravada and Mulasarvastivada Vinayas that allows for women’s ordination, though this is admittedly a controversial and sensitive debate. We also believe that the opportunities for laywomen to assume positions of leadership and influence in Buddhist communities should be broadened. This means that women need to be trained and prepared, over a long period of time under competent mentors—both male and female—to develop their strengths in order to benefit Buddhism and all sentient beings. Women need to be afforded sufficient time, resources, attention, and goodwill so that, like uncovering a precious stone, their potential to serve the Dharma will shine through and institutions will scramble to secure their talents.
The 15th conference of the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women, held at the University of Hong Kong from 22 to 28 June, was an excellent example of sharing, celebrating, and reflecting on how women can flourish to their fullest extent in their Buddhist refuges. The afternoon session of the first day of the conference showcased the history of Hong Kong as a very fertile location for women to practice and spread the Dharma. Speakers paid tribute to the lives and Dharma work of three eminent female Hong Kong Buddhists: among them was Lady Clara Ho Tung (1875-1938), founder of one of Hong Kong’s major Buddhist temples and charitable organizations, Tung Lin Kok Yuen.
It was extremely encouraging to be reminded that Hong Kong was and hopefully will continue to be a bastion for Buddhist women—many of whom were influential in Asia and the world. In addition, Buddhist women are slowly but surely earning recognition in Thailand, while female Western Buddhists are often at the forefront of pioneering new ways of inclusion in the Buddhist community, especially for ethnic minorities, the disabled, and LGBTQIA people.
There is an apparent tension in Buddhism between transcendence and embodied existence. We need to remember, however, that the injustices and inequalities of this world are petty and samsaric, and ultimately there is no distinction between male and female, or lay and monastic, and so on. The argument of the superiority of one gender over the other has been made many times and in many countries, by men and women alike, to justify the status quo, which usually means women accepting positions of inferiority and lesser value.
Yet while our embodied existence is, at an ultimate level, unreal, we are born in samsara in biologically male and female bodies, which influence our social and economic circumstances greatly even if they no longer determine our paths in life unambiguously. Gender injustice (and indeed all kinds of injustice) has a very real impact on our human flourishing and happiness. From unequal pay to domestic violence (which mostly is perpetrated by men against women), the world is rife with conventional problems that have a negative effect on the wellbeing of sentient beings and their ability to practice the Dharma.
With hard work, compassion, and wisdom, we should do our best to uncover the internal harmony between the transcendent and the embodied, and discover true equality between women and men, securing full participation for women in the life of the Dharma for all time to come.
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Davidson, Ronald M. 2002. Indian Esoteric Buddhism: A Social History of the Tantric Movement. New York: Columbia University Press