Women's Limited Role in Buddhism Essay

| The Limited Role of Women in Buddhism| | | 7/19/2010| | In most modern religions today the roles of women are secondary to the roles of men. Most times women are supposed to be subordinate to men in such religions and this includes women of all classes and influence. But in Buddhism, a religion that tells us there is no self; no real difference between people; race, class and even gender are just titles that we must shed, are women’s roles still limited?

And if so why is this the case? In this paper I will argue that women’s roles in Buddhism are limited, give some clues as to why they are limited, and I will show the difference in the roles of women in American Buddhism versus Modern Eastern Buddhism. The story of how Buddha began the nuns order is a story that has been told and retold throughout the history of Buddhism. Although some little details are different from place to place, the story is pretty much the same. Five years after the Buddha’s attainment of enlightenment and establishment of an order of monks, his aunt and foster mother Mahaprajapati Gautami comes to him and asks that women, too, be allowed to ‘go forth from the home to the homeless life’ and be ordained as Buddhist nuns. The Buddha, however, refuses to grant her request, even after she has repeated it three times, and she and her followers have shaved their heads donned monastic robes, and doggedly followed him for hundreds of miles, distraught and weeping all the way.

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The Buddha’s faithful attendant Ananda then agrees to intercede on the women’s behalf, but he, too, is met with the same refusal. It is only when Ananda changes his tack and succeeds in getting the Buddha to admit that women are fully capable of attaining the goal of nirvana that the Buddha finally relents and agrees to create an order of nuns. However, he also decrees that all nuns henceforth must abide by eight ‘strict rules’ that will clearly subordinate them, socially and institutionally, to the control of the monks’ order.

Nevertheless, Mahprajapati gladly accepts these conditions, and the order of nuns is created” (Ohnuma). Why would Buddha not want an order of nuns in the Buddhist religion? Well Buddha is quoted as saying that the ordination of women would cause Buddhism to die out faster. The rules put in place for the monastic order total more than 200 and the rules for the nuns order, called the Bhikkhuni Pa? imokkha, total more than 300 of which 181 are shared with the monks along with even more that are similar to the rules of the monks order (Bhikkhu).

There are 85 rules of the nun’s order that do not directly correspond to that of the monks order. There are rules that prohibit a nun from falling behind with her companions, from going out alone to the village to teach, and from staying out overnight and these rules are not given to the monks. The Pacittiyas number 94 (a section of the Bhikkhuni Pa? imokkha) prohibits a nun from sitting in the presence of a monk without asking permission. Clearly these rules show the subordination of women in the Buddhist religion.

The rules of the Vinaya limit the role and power of women in the Buddhist religion, but one should know that given the time in which Buddhism is being created, these rules coincide with the social norms of the region. In India during the time of Buddha women are subordinate to men all of their lives. They are to be cared for by men from their birth to their death and their obligation is to bear sons to their husband and to obey and devote themselves to him. Unlike young boys, young girls are not taught the Vedas in the Hindu religion because they are considered unclean.

Buddha would have grown up in this society and it would have been nearly impossible for him not to have these same social views. He would have thought that women needed protection, this maybe why he made the extra rules for the nun’s order; in his mind it would have been for their protection. Some scholars suggest that the reason the nuns were made to be subordinate to the monks was for the harmony of the two orders; that the women would of course need the help of the monks who were formed at least 5 years before the nuns order and the only way to keep the peace would be for Buddha to make them subordinate.

Other scholars think that the subordination went a little too far in some cases. Like in the case of one of the Eight Garudharma; “ A nun who has been ordained (even) for a century must greet respectfully, rise up from her seat, salute with joined palms, do proper homage to a monk ordained but that day” (Buddhist Studies: 7 Q & A on Women in Buddhism). This idea that even the highest and most respected of nuns must pay homage to the lowest of monks seems to say that no matter what women are inferior to men.

In American Buddhism it isn’t that the rules of the Vinaya don’t apply, it’s just that Buddhism has adapted to the environment that it is in. “South and Southeast Asian women from Theravada traditions have recently been ordained in a Chinese Buddhist monastery in Los Angeles” (Gregory). Western Buddhist nuns are helping to reestablish the lineages of ordination that had died out because of war like in Sri Lanka and Burma. Buddhism in America is very diverse just like its cultural makeup. There are different levels of Buddhism just like there are many different sects of Buddhism in Asia.

There is the practicing Buddhist, the “nightstand” Buddhist, the lay Buddhist, the Buddhist nun and many more. Buddhist nuns in America like the Venerable Dam Luu came to the United States as a refugee from Vietnam with only twenty-six dollars and without knowing English, and eventually built the Duc Vien Temple where she educates young nuns. Another example is Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a fully ordained Tibetan nun who teaches at the University of San Diego, and is the president and founder of Sakyadhita International Association for Buddhist Women.

Buddhist scholar Rita Gross states that women in American began practicing Buddhism because “the basic teachings [of Buddhism] were gender-free and gender-neutral, and many found the practice of meditation not only gender-free, but intensely liberating. To many feminists…Buddhism and feminism seemed to be allies” (Gross). American women in Buddhism have significant leadership roles in the Buddhism of the West and their contributions are numerous, but the same could be said for Asian Buddhist women. “Even without the fully ordained women’s order there have been women renunciants in recent centuries in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and Tibet.

In Sri Lanka during the nineteenth century, some women took the Ten Precepts, shaved their heads, put on saffron and white robes, and lived in women’s communities…these women not only studied and practiced meditation but also opened schools to educate young girls, counseled laypeople, cared for the sick, chanted Buddhist texts for the laity, and assisted at religious ceremonies” (Mitchell). It must also be said that these renunciants have decided not to become fully ordained because they feel as if it would subjugate them to the monastic order.

The Tibetan Nuns Project is an example of east and west working together; based in India and Seattle, Washington; this organization works to provide education and support to nuns and nunneries from all Tibetan Buddhist lineages in India and Nepal and supports 5 nunneries, over 500 nuns and encourages leadership among the women for their communities. In conclusion, I will say that there is no question whether Buddhist women have limited roles in Buddhism. Even in the West where there are more leadership opportunities for women, most of those women are still secondary to their male counterparts.

I can also conclude that the plight of women in Eastern Buddhism isn’t as bad as some might think, and maybe the cultural differences between the East and the West are more a reason why Eastern Buddhist women seem to be even more limited. Buddha I believe had good reason to subjugate the women’s order of nun’s to their monastic counterparts; whether you believe it was for the continuation of the religion or for the protection of the women who serve it, I don’t believe that he thought women to be inferior to men and he certainly didn’t believe that they couldn’t reach nirvana like men could.

Buddhism to survive must adapt to the world that it is in, as should all other religions, they should change with the differing social views of the people. I think that Buddhism is the closet, in thought anyway, to the equality of gender, and ultimately the equality of all people. The cooperation of women of both the Eastern and Western sects of Buddhism is a very good first step, along with examples like that of Fo Guang Shan that “provide equal opportunities to men and women for education, training practice, and leadership” (Mitchell), to get women on the same status as their male colleagues.

Bibliography 1. Bhikkhu, Thanissaro. “Bhikkhuni Patimokkha: The Bhikkhunis’ Code of Discipline. ” 26 May 2010. Access to Insight. 17 July 2010 <http://www. accesstoinsight. org/tipitaka/vin/sv/bhikkhuni-pati. html#pc-94>. 2. “Buddhist Studies: 7 Q ; A on Women in Buddhism. ” 2008. BuddhaNet-Worldwide Buddhist Information and Education Network. 17 July 2010 <http://buddhanet. net/e-learning/history/wbq07. htm>. 3. Gregory, Peter N. , and Susanne Mrozik. Women Practicing Buddhism: American


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