Women In Buddhism: Lessons On Cultural Bialateral-Transformation

By: David Xi-Ken Astor, Sensei

I have been wanting to explore the role women played in monastic Buddhism over the centuries for a while now, not only to be better informed when asked, but to clear up some of the ambiguities as presented in Buddhist scriptures. The subject is being more actively discussed today in various journals and documentaries, but more importantly, it is also a glaring fact that many of the contemporary Buddhist teachers in the West are women representing all traditions. Yet, almost all of the legacy discourse is from men. I began to ask questions and was confronted with answers that I did not expect.

It seems to me that the Bhikkhunis (nuns) make up a growing number in the monastic community in the East today as the pressures on them to remain in their traditional social/family roles are relaxed. I don’t know the figures, but I would think that the number of women in the West that are also choosing to take their practice into the monastic modality is growing too. So, as I began my research on this important subject, I was struck by the lessons that emerged. These lessons point directly to the basic principles of Buddhism themselves, and highlight an aspect of Siddhartha’s life that is in conflict between his doctrine and the prevailing cultural norms of the day that he subscribed to.

It is against this background that one has to view the impact that Buddhism has had on indigenous cultures especially the social norms of the time, and the pressure these cultures imposed on gender definition. This is true over the centuries as Buddhism moved across the East toward the West, as it was during the life and times of Siddhartha Gotama. We must first understand how individuals 2500 years ago in India viewed the differences between men and women. Especially biologically as well as socially. Discrimination against women is a feature common in all societies. The social attitude towards women in pre-Buddhist days can be traced from the early Vedic literature. Women came to be considered as greatly inferior to men, both physically and mentally. Although the Buddha was enlightened as to how the Universe is, he still held many of the views of his day relative to social norms and class distinction. Yes, the Buddha inaugurated a campaign for the liberation of Indian women, and he also created a stir against Brahman dogma and superstition. Don’t forget Siddhartha was a Hindu reformer. He condemned the caste structure and denied the existence of a Creator, as well as the social structure that valued the supremacy of the male. He spoke often about liberation by one’s own efforts, which would presuppose the spiritual equality of all beings, male and female. But he was also conflicted on how women should obtain their liberation from suffering as reflected in the Four Nobel Truths according to ancient text. Although he had pointed out on many occasions the natural tendencies and weakness of women, he had also given due credit to their abilities and capabilities. He truly paved the way for women to lead a full spiritual life among his disciples.

It was in the midst of such extreme social discrimination and degrading attitudes towards women that Siddhartha made his appearance in India. His teachings on the real nature of life and death associated with suffering, and about the nature of the causal universe, gave rise to considerable changes in the social attitudes towards women during his long life. Despite the fact that the Buddha elevated the status of women, he was pragmatic in his observations and advice given from time to time in that he realized the social and physiological differences that existed between men and women.

In many of the sutras he is reported as saying that women would find liberation upon their rebirth as a male. We must remember that there is no evidence to suggest Siddhartha left for posterity any written documents of his own, and the sutra scriptures were written by disciples recording what they remember the Buddha saying that most likely integrates their own notions of the social norms of their day, and projecting them into their writing. The Nikaya’s, some of the most early Buddhist texts, were most likely written over decades, or even centuries, after the death of the Buddha, for example.

The Buddha permitted women to join his monastic community and fully participate in it, although there were certain provisos that acted to separate them as well. The nun’s Sangha was a radical experiment for its day. And the historical record suggests that these active and educated women early on were teaching on the same level as the monks. However the admission of women into the Sangha was a step too advanced for the period and became short-lived. Whenever an innovation or improvement was in advance of the thinking development of a people during a particular era, the people were unable to adapt themselves to the improved conditions and tended to regress back to the society that they were used to. Hostile propaganda by the Brahmins was also a factor that caused the reversal of advances women enjoyed under the Buddha’s guidance and protection. But over time restrictions were imposed that restricted their community involvement. These restrictions were instituted by the Buddha we are told because of the customs of the time, but modern scholars doubt that these rules can be traced back to him at all.

The Aganna-Sutta from the Pali Canon is often interpreted as showing women being responsible for the downfall of the human race. However, modern scholars studying the original language generally think this interpretation is incorrect, and point out that it was more likely the idea of lust in general rather than women as causing this downfall. However, despite this type of negative description of women in early Buddhist texts, there are also examples in the Pali Canon that are positive which suggest that the very concept of gender differentiation can serve as a hindrance to attaining awakening. It is stated in both the Sagatha-vagga and the Soma Sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya, that gender discrimination is an inhibitor to the spiritual path, and gender neutrality to the Buddhist concept of ‘not-self’ is a strategy the Buddha taught for release from suffering. The Buddha states that when either a man or a woman clings to gender identity, that person is in bondage. He even said that in certain circumstances, women are considered more discerning and wise than men, and women are even considered capable of attaining perfection after walking on the noble Eightfold path.

Just a few hundred years later in Mahayana text, however, it was maintained that a woman can become enlightened, but not in the female form. We can find this conflicting thought and language throughout the scriptures. Even in the Vinaya Pitaka of the Pali Canon another statement by the Buddha suggests that Siddhartha speaks of the fact that a woman can attain enlightenment, but could never become a female Buddha. This is a good example where it does not necessarily follow that social practice conforms to theory. The egalitarian ideals of Buddhism appear to have been impotent against the universal ideology of masculine superiority. This worldview remained strong for centuries, and influenced how women were allowed to practice Buddhism beyond private home devotion.

With the advent of the modern era in the 19th and 20th centuries, a far cry from the days of the Buddha, women’s emancipation and quest for freedom and equality achieved tremendous strides. This was the result of modern trends and modern education offered to women in most places of higher learning. As Buddhism marched into the West and encountered how one views the equality of women in most civilized settings, it is clear that these medieval notions of biological inequality has evolved out of the haze of time, and into the light of an awakened society. The Dalai Lama in speaking at a conference on Women in Buddhism at the University of Hamburg in 2007 stated, “Warfare has traditionally been carried out primarily by men, since they seem better physically equipped for aggressive behavior. Women, on the other hand, tend to be more caring and more sensitive to others’ discomfort and pain. Although men and women have the same potentials for aggression and warm-heartedness, they differ in which of the two more easily manifests. Thus, if the majority of world leaders were women, perhaps there would be less danger of war and more cooperation on the basis of global concern — although, of course, some women can be difficult! I sympathize with feminists, but they must not merely shout. They must exert efforts to make positive contributions to society.” I do not know the context from which the Dalai Lama was speaking, but this is perhaps not the most enlightened statement on the role of women in contemporary society, but yet a definite and clear change of view from the ancient texts he was exposed to as a young man training in Tibet.

When we reflect on how far the image, roles, and worldview about women has changed over the past 2500 years, it is glaringly obvious how causal factors have imposed themselves in real terms on cultural norms and social justice, that teach the importance of the Buddhist principle of impermanence, and the transformative nature of situational ethics and moral values. And perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of Buddhism moving to the West is how Western culture, including how communication technology acts as a conduit that helps to drive this social bilateral transformation, is changing East Asian acceptance of the role of women on a more equal footing providing opportunities that were not available to them even a few decades ago. This is especially evident in the growth of contemporary monastic women’s communities arising from the enriched soil of ancient cultures.

To highlight this bilateral transformation I would like to bring your attention to a feature-length documentary project entitled Daughters of Dolma: the Spiritual Journey of Tibetan Buddhist Nuns in Nepal, by a group of students from the University of St Andrews, UK, about Tibetan Buddhist Nuns in Nepal. It has as its objective to provide an in-depth look at a contemporary group of nuns by highlighting their spiritual vocation as women, the diversity of the community that reflects social and educational differences within the Sangha, as well as shining light on a country in the throws of modernizing. The challenge for the producers is to go beyond their Tibetan Buddhist philosophical training, and capture their interactions with modernity, interaction with world class technology, and the inter-generational differences inherent in any established monastic community. What was clear to me when viewing the trailer is that these women are not just Buddhist nuns locked away behind walls of practice, but modern women who are not cutting themselves off from the world around them. They reflect all that is of value in an engaged Buddhist practice beyond the confines of the monastery, as do their Western counterparts. Alex Co, the Co-Project Leader, reflects on how the project was conceived and points out one of his major aims was for the general public to understand what it really means for someone to take formal vows, and to show the struggles involved in living the monastic life in a modern world, as well as its rewards. Though this encounter it is hoped that the innate spirituality that all of us has the capacity to awaken to, is abundantly evident in each of these nuns lives, and that there should be little difference between monks and nuns today, which function equally toward a practice of awakening.

When ever we engage others at the level that producing a documentary with the scope that this one has, there is bound to be profound changes on both side of the lens. It is a journey of connection, of finding common ground, of challenging stereotypes, and ultimately impacting cultural behavior in ways that may not be clear for decades. This is true for the film makers, as well as the causal nature associated with the viewer’s reaction to it. In watching the trailer for this documentary, it was very evident to me the feminine nature of a group of women dedicating themselves to the well-being of others, while advancing their spiritual knowledge as well. It is the nurturing characteristics of women that add a unique dynamic to how they engage their community. It seems obvious to me that this is as true today as it must have been in Buddha’s Sangha. The difference is that women today are give “almost” equal opportunities to engage the Dharma and a serious Buddhist practice that provides an opportunity for them to move out into their communities as equal partners with their male dharma-brothers. An opportunity a long time coming. When ask what was so special about the culture of these nun’s in Nepal, Nadia Buhova the Communications Manager of the project, said, “Empathy and compassion are their philosophy and way of life. For me, it was overwhelming to see how these values served as grounding principles in the Buddhist communities and the nunneries in particular.” While the nuns reflected their national heritage in many ways, they were also modern and interested in the same aspects, values, and developing worldviews as are women following the spiritual path around the modern world, and do not cut themselves off from the communities they serve. (This documentary was finished in the Spring of 2012 and released in different film festivals as well as available on DVD)

This brings me back to the question of Buddhism’s attitude towards women and the differences between Siddhartha’s time and our contemporary practice today. It is important for us to remember that Buddhism arose into a belief system and eventually practiced as a religion decades after the death of Siddhartha. The Buddha was a reformer within the Hindu Indian culture. His views of the role of women were liberating for his day, and he achieved some success in bringing women into the Sangha of monks. While he showed amazing flexibility in social justice for all beings, he was still constrained in how he considered the limitations women manifested in their gender differences. Nevertheless, under his guidance women flourished in ways that were not allowed in Brahma society. Over time, however, Buddhist monastic practice became limited to monks. Scripture, Buddhist philological study, and ritual practice was generally closed to women, who were encouraged to provide a supporting role that acted to enable men to achieve enlightenment. As Buddhism moved East it encountered even more cultural restraints for women throughout the Tibetan mountain range and into China. And over the centuries the legacy teachings contributed to this notion that women were inferior for receiving the dharma, let alone contributing in any significant way to its transmission. I find it almost unbelievable that learned and enlightened men awakened to the principles of Buddhist thought still could not reason that a serious practice could not include women. There were communities of nuns in ancient times, but they were a very small element of Buddhist practice, and were again relegated to non-learning support roles, or completely isolated from society altogether. History has noted several periods in China where women were allowed to contribute in significant ways to Buddhist practice, but they were few and far between. Women only fared a little better in Japanese culture where women of aristocrat rank could achieve a successful Buddhist monastic practice. But this too depended on dynastic considerations.

As Buddhism moved West and encountered a culture that evolved into a pragmatic and pluralistic worldview, the contributions of women have become recognized as reflecting the valuable lesson of no-distinction. And this change is reverberating across West to East and changing the face of the Buddhist monastic. The Daughters of Dolma reflect this reality. If we allow ourselves to peruse the literature of the Buddhist tradition, even the fraction of that literature found in the Pali scriptures, or Nikayas, we find the metaphor of healing emerging again and again in ways that are creatively applied to many different situations. It is indicative of the fact that healing is an intrinsic paradigm of the entire Buddhist construct. If we study these texts and the extent to which this healing can occur quite independently of any establish doctrine so often associated with classical understanding, we come to realize the importance that culture plays in influencing how we understand the principles we diligently practice. At the same time, the Buddhist Sangha, both ordained and laity, is a society mutually helping each other along the path we all share toward liberation. We come to embrace the non-dualistic reality of Universal nature, and as we are expression of this Universe, there is no room for gender distinction to inhibit an enlightened body-mind.

Real freedom is freedom from all forms of bondage. It can be achieved only through proper spiritual development and clearing of one’s own mind from greed, hatred and delusion. No amount of public debate, demonstrations or creation of universal charters can bring true freedom. Buddhists the world over are working to achieve liberation through their own diligence by walking the path strengthened by meditation and adoption of Siddhartha’s Universal-worldviews. For promoting the cause of women, the Buddha can be considered perhaps the first emancipator of women and promoter of a pragmatic way of living. The causal chain that he put in motion took time to grow and nourish, and is now reflecting back in the positive action he generated 2500 years ago, and can be witnessed, for example, in the lives of the nuns depicted in the work Daughters of Dolma. It is to the eternal credit of this bilateral transformation that women are now given a chance to have equal status with men in their spiritual endeavors to gain wisdom and a chance to become enlightened in our contemporary monastic communities, temples and practice centers. There is still much work to do, but shining light on this progress as this wonderful documentary is in the process of achieving, is one way the causal chain will continue to grow in useful and productive ways.


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