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Buddhistdoor View: Experiencing the Phase Shift – Women in Buddhism Today

Thailand’s Ven. Dhammananda (seated, center). From kyotoreview org

I believe that we are experiencing a powerful phase shift in the world religions today, where gender parity is being deeply acknowledged and valued. The empowerment of women, the protection of children, the cultivation of ethics-based organizations, and the rights of all species is a vision whose time has come. And it is women who are contributing significantly to this vision and actualizing it in our world today, as their role in religious communities is acknowledged and strengthened. – Roshi Joan Halifax

(The Washington Post)

These words by the great American Zen teacher and author Roshi Joan Halifax bring an important air of optimism to Buddhist women today. And there are many other sources of optimism, including the continued flourishing of the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women, which just held its 18th international conference in Korea in June.*

However, the United Nations describes gender equality as “the unfinished business of our time, and the greatest human rights challenge in our world.” (United Nations) In the West and throughout the world, several waves of feminism have helped women and girls collectively break centuries-old shackles and limiting traditions. Women have risen to the top of many business positions, military ranks, and political roles.  

Nonetheless, gender disparities remain. Globally, women earn 20 per cent less than men. While women can be found in positions of power throughout society, there are still far fewer than men in key decision-making roles. Only 25 per cent of national parliamentarians around the world were women in 2021, a rise—albeit a slow one—from 11.3 per cent in 1995.

As BDG contributor Sónia Gomez wrote in 2018: we need to look at “the system of patriarchy as the real obstacle.”** As systems go, it is a difficult one to change. Patriarchy in one form or another is tied deeply into countless traditions that we all hold dear.

Yet, as many over the years have argued, Buddhism in its purest form is deeply egalitarian. Prof. Alice Collett, who teaches at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, has written extensively about the place of women in Buddhism, arguing convincingly that central components of Buddhist doctrine widely and clearly repudiate discrimination against women. Nonetheless, some small and scattered texts do relegate women to inferior roles and denigrate women generally. These ideas of female inferiority, she suggests in her chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Buddhist Ethics (2018), “came into Buddhism through ingestion of norms and mores of traditional societies rather than as an integral part of Buddhist ontological or ideological principles.” (552)

Anam Thubten Rinpoche makes the point more strongly in the context of Vajrayana Buddhism:

There is not even the slightest hint of misogyny in the pure doctrine of the Vajrayana; it is one of the most advanced and timeless wisdom traditions humanity has created.

Religion and culture can influence and even overpower each other. It requires keen discernment to perceive the purity of a religion out of its cultural context. Many feel that there is gender inequity in Buddhism, especially in Asian societies that favor the male. Here we must understand that Buddhism favors neither male nor female, it is an intrinsically egalitarian tradition that teaches that everyone is equal in our fundamental nature and endowed with universal innate divinity. Those unsettling issues are problems of culture rather than Buddhism. Buddhism is therefore not just a religion of the past, but it is the religion of the future.***

With these and many other voices, we see both scholars and practitioners directing us not away from the Buddhist tradition for solutions to the ongoing problem of gender inequality, but rather more deeply into that very tradition, into its texts and ideas, and into practices that connect us both with an identity that transcends gender dualisms and with the the very real suffering inflicted upon women and girls by the norms and mores that relegate them to second-class citizens so much of the time.

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo. From asiasociety.org
Roshi Joan Halifax. From asiasociety.org

Women have played significant roles throughout Buddhist history, from the Buddha’s own mother, Maya, who died shortly after giving birth to him, and his step-mother, Mahapajapati, the first woman to enter into monastic life under his guidance to the long—and growing—list of remarkable Buddhist women in our world today. The teachings of the Buddha emphasize the capacity for awakening in all individuals, regardless of gender.

However, the teachings that denigrate women cannot simply be removed or ignored. It is for us, generation after generation, to toil with them. We can, as Dr. Collett suggests, take them as byproducts of the misogynistic societies in which Buddhism has flourished. We can also see them as pointing to the very human and often conflicted nature of the authors of those teachings. We might even see the Buddha as flawed in this respect—while nonetheless being fully awakened to the truths of suffering, impermanence, and not-self.

Or we might see the Buddha as having been wise beyond his time, while future generations of Buddhist masters were the ones to introduce flaws. Either way, it should be clear to Buddhists from all traditions that discrimination is a form of violence against women, be they our mothers, sisters, daughters, or strangers. As Buddhists, we vow to abstain from violence, and—to the best of our abilities—to stop it when others are committing it.

We live in a world awash in an at-times invisible violence: every woman expected to do unpaid labor, every woman working hard and yet earning less than her male peers, every rule and law in our society that makes the lives of women and girls more difficult. We know we cannot fix all of this. And yet the bodhisattva vow is to try, nonetheless. This understanding, this seeing inequality as it truly is, and this vow to work to end it, that is our unfinished work and our phase shift for the world unfolding before us, for our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, and ourselves.

* Living in a Precarious World: 18th Sakyadhita Conference Commences in Seoul (BDG) and Daughters of the Buddha: 18th Sakyadhita Conference in Seoul Celebrates the Sacred Feminine (BDG)

** Women in Contemporary Buddhism: A Challenge for the 21st Century (BDG)

*** The Past and the Future of Women in Buddhism (BDG)

References

Collett, Alice. 2018. “Buddhism and Women” in The Oxford Handbook of Buddhist Ethics. 552-566. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

See more

How women are remaking Buddhism (The Washington Post)
Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women
Gender Equality (United Nations)
Interview: Michaela Haas Showcases Women Pioneers of Tibetan Buddhism (Asia Society)
Buddhist Women As Agents of Change: Case Studies from Thailand and Indonesia (Kyoto Review)

Related features from BDG

Sakyadhita Spain Symposium 2020: Roshi Joan Halifax
Sakyadhita Spain Symposium 2020: Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo
Women in Buddhism: Breaking Gender Stereotypes
Interview with Montse Castellà Olivé, President of Sakyadhita Spain
For the Times They Are a-Changin’: Sakyadhita and the Radicalism We Need to Save the World
An Interview with Venerable Dr. Kimle Kalsang—Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award Winner, 2014
Buddhism for Women, Women for Buddhism: Change is coming

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International Women’s Meditation Center Foundation Presents 16 Outstanding Women in Buddhism Awards
Sakyadhita Spain to Host 2nd International Symposium of Spanish-Speaking Buddhist Women
International Women’s Meditation Center Foundation offers 2022 Outstanding Women in Buddhism Awards
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International Women’s Day: Celebrating the Women of Buddhism

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