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Women in Contemporary Buddhism: A Challenge for the 21st Century

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Sónia Gomes with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Image courtesy of the author
Sónia Gomes with His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Image courtesy of the author

In the lore of the early Buddhist canon, the Tipitaka, Sujata is known as the woman who offered sustenance to Siddhartha Gautama. This simple act of kindness on her part saved his life because he was about to faint from the extreme asceticism he had been practising for six years. In this sense we could recognize Sujata as the first lay disciple of Shakyamuni Buddha, even though formally it was the merchants Trapusha and Bhallika who first took refuge under the newly enlightened Buddha. Sujata was already a devotee of Siddhartha Gautama before he was enlightened, as she had heard of him while he was in the area. Their meeting was a turning point for Sujata’s life and for Gautama, who was practicing asceticism at the time. Her offering marked a new approach to realization that led the mendicant to attain enlightenment and become the Blessed One.

Sujata, who effectively saved the Buddha’s life and ensured the transmission of Buddhism into this world, did not receive her due recognition. Were she a man, she might have been revered as a bodhisattva. Many women like her have walked a similar path throughout history, unnoticed.

The presence of women in Buddhism deserves to be reviewed and rescued. From Mahaprajapati, Siddhartha’s aunt (who brought him up and became the first nun) to Yeshe Tsogyal and Magig Labdron; from Alexandra David-Néel (the first Westerner to be ordained) to Khandro Tsering Chödron—along with Jetsum Kushok, Pema Chödrön, Tenzin Palmo, Charlotte Joko Beck, and many other great teachers—we must seriously re-examine the yoginis and practitioners of past and present, in both East and West.

In Tibetan Buddhism there are many personifications of female wisdom. Among the most acclaimed is Arya Tara, the princess who watches over and protects all practitioners. She was advised by a master to pray for a male rebirth, for as a man she could attain Buddhahood, a state thought inaccessible to beings of female bodies. She refused to do this, vowing to manifest and become a Buddha in a female body. As Jennifer Watts wrote: “Throughout history women have strove to fulfill their spiritual goals. Women practicing Buddhism were forced to overcome traditional negative stereotypes of women in order to practice the Dharma and continue on the path to salvation.” (UIdaho)

Sónia Gomes with Dr. Kunsang Dolma, president of Lotus Heart. From lotusheart.org
Sónia Gomes with Dr. Kunsang Dolma, president of Lotus Heart. From lotusheart.org

The system of patriarchy as the real obstacle

Abuse of power has always been a major human problem, and patriarchy is rife with abuse of power. But one of the most violent aspects of patriarchal power is men’s automatic and assumed power over women. Although one wants to guard against and be wary of abuse of power, a totally egalitarian society in which no one has more influence or prestige, or even wealth, than anyone else, seems quite impossible. The issue is not abolishing social hierarchy, which is realistically impossible, but establishing a humane system in which hierarchy is mitigated and the genders relate to each other as equals.

Because the deeply ingrained system of patriarchy already puts men in a place of power in society (before they even step into an institutional position of power, whether in business, government, religion, or the media), this is not an easy call to make. Privileged groups do not relinquish power easily, and indeed may psychologically and instinctively recoil from such a proposition. That being said, if we look closely at many of the abuses in these systems, they happened after a teacher reached a certain level of popularity that made them feel utterly invincible. And the people and structures around them—colleagues, followers, publishers, and now social media channels—help to maintain that illusion.

It is not enough to be born with a woman’s body to realize the power of our feminine wisdom.

Image courtesy of the author
Image courtesy of the author

Bringing back the “Sacred Feminine” aspect to contemporary times

The concept of the “Sacred Feminine” values the feminine principle (along with that of the masculine) as co-equal and fundamental aspects of the transcendent. This paradigm focuses on the woman’s body, her emotional, physical, and psychological cycles, and provides guidance on how women can re-harmonize and integrate with nature and the spiritual plane. The Sacred Feminine seeks to re-discover a natural and ancient wisdom that incorporates into everyday life the values of the archetypal feminine in the social, personal, religious, cultural, and educational fields, among many more.  

The movement of the Sacred Feminine has, in recent years, gained momentum due to a growing sense of urgency for change. For too long our experience of the world has been colored by men-only voices and, because of the exclusion and repression of the feminine, we ended up experiencing a “masculine negative.” This exclusive, dogmatic obsession with unleashing masculinity and repressing femininity has led to the collapse of values related to care, integrated health, education, relationships, community, union, ecology, art, and natural spirituality. An overwhelming priority was accorded to concerns about the economy, external power, war and imperialism, discord, competition, and the exploitation of people and nature. Humanity became focused on the exterior, on the material and physical, while forgetting the interior, the inner life, and most tragically, the spiritual conscience.

I believe that modern society can only move forward when women living in society are seen as truly human—full human beings with a range of desires, hopes, shortcomings, and contributions to offer. Furthermore, women appear in three forms that men cannot: daughter, wife, and mother. Women create and sustain communities, support religions and communities of faith, and are the ones to literally create the family unit by giving birth. It is the woman who keeps an infant in her body for nine months and, after giving birth, becomes the child’s first teacher or mentor. The reality is that despite this being common knowledge, women continue in various degrees to be denied full equality and rights.

Like many other major religions, Buddhism has been quite disadvantageous to women, and yet Buddhism can provide freedom, dignity, and peace to women. It all depends on how Buddhism is practiced and much of that depends on the initiative, courage, and imagination of women practitioners, especially those who pioneer a gender-neutral and gender-free way of understanding and practicing Buddhism.

Sónia Gomes, PhD, is an international advisor for Lotus Heart, an NGO assisting the Nepalese government in improving the health, education, and livelihood of the country’s underprivileged populations. She is the founder and CEO of Spaso Zen wellness centers in Portugal and a Global Goodwill Ambassador (Chair of Portugal). She has spoken at conferences in Asia on women’s empowerment and education in feminine hygiene.

See more

Women in Buddhism (UIdaho)
Lotus Heart

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