An Examination of Buddhist Patriarchal Roots Challenging The Modern Buddhist Woman.
Kaitlyn Wilson, Austin Mardon
Unity, serenity, and equality are some words that come to mind when an outsider surveyor considers a Buddhist lifestyle. This perspective on this way of being, usually entails visualizing a person forgoing all material possessions and earthly ties in attempts to attain a higher state of being. It is often understood doing so leads to reaching enlightenment, or Nirvana, just as the founder of this movement, Siddharta Guatama was able to do. It is an admirable existence in which any person, regardless of gender or financial standing can embrace. However, as humankind does, they have placed certain caveats upon gender roles within the Buddhist community, or sangha. It is in writing this article, that I hope to inform readers of the patriarchal history and continued gender divide within the Buddhist community at large, while also providing perspectives of Buddhist communities that see strength and value in womanhood, so one can have their own informed glimpse at the direction of future Buddhist practices.
Chand R. Sirimanne enables western practicing Buddhists to educate themselves about the gendered history of this practice, particularly Theravāda Buddhism, in their work, Buddhism and Women - The Dhamma Has No Gender. Sirimanne writes that the Buddha did indeed accept women into the monastic community, and many times had spoken of his disciples being comprised of both sexes. They also write that women have been pivotal in supporting the Dharma, or teachings of the Buddha, which includes “... doctrines of kamma [karma] and … harmlessness (ahimsa) and universal loving kindness (mettā) and compassion (karunā) and the precepts all make any type of discrimination or harm towards others totally unacceptable.” (Sirimanna, 276). Though this sounds ideal in concept, they go on to explain that scholars hypothesize there has been misinterpretation of this ethos, ultimately resulting in a twisting of the original teachings to fit the cultural norms and prejudices of practitioners in their home countries, thus producing a patriarchal community base.
This misogynistic base is easily found in the history of Sadartha Guatama himself. Scholars are also quick to point out that Guatama Buddha was not a figure that welcomed all with open arms into the practice initially. Archana Paudel and Qun Dong identify the resistance Buddha had in taking on female followers, as it was only done once his assistant, Ananda, requested the change. The first woman given permission to enter the Sangha, was the Buddha’s aunt, Mahaprajapati Gotami. As women became accepted, it was with a caveat to follow additional tenants than their male counterparts did. Paudel and Dong bring to attention the sexism that Buddhist female monks, bhikkhuni, face. Bhikkhuni were ordered to follow eight restrictions that their male counterparts, bhikkhu, did not have to act in accordance with, known as the Eight Garudhammas. Furthermore, it is mentioned that women’s bodies are not deemed able to attain enlightenment, and if they wish to do so, they must first be reborn as a man. It seems that only the female bhikkhuni face adversity and hardship as a result of these and other patriarchal views, but this way of thought creates harm towards both genders of the monastic community as a whole.
Both sexes face harm from the consequences of negative Buddhist teachings relating to women. Not only are women subject to discrimination, but they also face limitations on their agency and rights within Buddhist institutions. Allison A. Goodwin breaks down the truly negative impacts that both genders face in her work entitled, Right View, Red Rust, and White Bones: A Reexamination of Buddhist Teachings on Female Inferiority.
In present day Buddhist practice, Goodwin explains that nuns cannot apply for or hold high ranks of authority and have to surrender the positions they do have when a male monk is present. Futhermore, she writes that “Laywomen and nuns are routinely made to eat after men have eaten (that is, to eat their leftovers); to speak after men have spoken; to sit, walk and stand behind monks and laymen in ceremonies, rituals, classes, and retreats; and to chant, study, and teach sūtras that contain disparaging messages about women.” (203).
She states that the teaching found in these various subsets of Buddhism,being Theravāda, Mahāyana, and Vajrayāna, all relate in these schools of thought agree that beings are to be treated equal without discrimination. And yet, even in a location such as Taiwan, in which nuns with the highest status, reside, and female nuns and laywomen outnumber the male laypeople and monks, Goodwin emhpasizes the only 2 leaders, Master Yin Shun, and Master Xing Yun who have publicly rejected the Eight Garudhammas with very few outwardly supporting that statement.
She has also reported the psychological and social consequences faced by male monks have discriminated against female practitioners. It was found that those who participated in discrimination were socially conditioned to gain personal status in a maladaptive manner. Following what the culture permits only pushes males to alienate the opposite sex and the discriminator may develop rationalizations towards their behaviors, guilt, and other coping mechanisms to try and justify a knowing ignorance towards the injustice that the group they are outwardly discriminating against, faces. This behaviour eventually distorts the perception of themselves as a higher authority, while the others are viewed as ‘less than’. One can find themselves in an echo chamber of sorts if they don’t examine all facets of Buddhism. From further reading on the subject, one can find that a misogynistic and patriarchal viewpoint is not the only understanding of Buddhism. There are facets of Buddhism that view the feminine as much more than a person to be ostracizing or treating poorly.
In a thesis submitted by Enneli R. Coakley to The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, they speak of the wisdom that women represent within the Vajrayāna Buddhist school of thought. She writes of Tārā, a female Buddha, that is worshipped as an enlightened being, and female embodiments of enlightened energy known as dākinīs that comprise a tantric practice central to any Buddhist monks, male or female, practice.
Coakley does clarify that although as a male, his Holiness the Dalai Lama is the most influential figure, there is ample opportunity for both men and women within Vajrayana Buddhism. The Dalai Lama makes it clear that the different treatment of female monks isn’t rooted in sexism within the community, but instead a lack of an authoritative figure to properly ordain the bhikkhunī. In an article published by Thea Mohr and Jampa Tsedroen, they note how he responds as such,
“I just want to make clear that we all accept and recognize as Bhikkunīs those Tibetans and Westerners who have received Dharmaguptaka Bhikkunī ordination. This is not the issue. The issue is to find the way to ordain Bhikkhunīs that is in accordance with the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya Texts. There needs to be a Buddha alive and here and now to ask. If I were a Buddha, I could decide; but that is not the case… Based on the common-sense viewpoint, I am 100 percent certain that were the Buddha here today, he would give permission for Bhikkunī ordination. That would make things much easier. Unfortunately, there is no Buddha here, and I cannot act as the Buddha”. (Mohr et al., 284). Though it is quite a statement to have total faith that the Buddha of India circa 563 B.C would accept the ordination, we know that Buddha had accepted women into the sangha (monastic community) and gave full ordination to them. In doing so, the community would then be considered a four-fold sangha. The criteria to be deemed as such is to be a monastic community comprised of bhikkhu (ordained male monks), bhikkhunīs (ordained female monks), and upāsakas and upāsikās (male and female laypersons that will take Buddhist vows). Sadly, the Tibertan monastic community is missing the bhikkhunīs. It is made clear that this limit is in place due to narrow mindedness from positions of power that deem women inferior, blocking them from achieving a higher education, and not from the Buddha himself. Though it is a seemingly uphill battle for women to make their authority known in the realm of Buddhism, they do not shy away from the challenge. This expectation for women to pave a path of equality should not be their burden to bear, male practitioners should emphatically promote the equality of sentient beings that the Buddha stands for.
Noriko Kawahasi summarizes the irony of the sexism women face in their article for Nanzan Institute for Religion and Culture, Feminist Buddhism as Praxis: Women in Traditional Buddhism”. They write, “Buddhism is originally supposed to have taught the equality and liberation for human beings– one wonders, then, how it could have changed so much that it can be termed a gender-discriminating religion.” (Kawahasi, 308). They go on to call for men to have the courage to create self-reform, and alter these relationships of control and submission to be relationships of equity. She states that the most influential step a man can take is to listen to the female voices of the repressed within their community.
In a news report published by Luis Andres Henao of Associated Press for U.S News & World Report, Bhikkuni Dhammavanna who was a Buddhist scholar and TV personality before ordination, vowed celibacy and travelled to Sri Lanka for her ordination in 2001. She then returned to Thailand with a shaved head, donning robes strictly for men, and consequently faced criticism for these actions. Now, 20 years later the judgement is no longer as pervasive, with over 280 ordained Buddhist nuns calling Thailand home. Dhammavanna proudly stated that she felt she is “on the right side of history.” (Henao, Associated Press). The Buddhist community continue its progressive movement to an environment wherein all practitioners can feel safe to be their authentic selves, and realize women are able to speak for themselves freely, they do not require men to speak on their behalf.
In the end, there are indeed steps being taken, to reform the patriarchal origins that many Buddhist monks and nuns find their teachings and practices entrenched within. Buddhist women are finding their voices, breaking out of the shell the patriarchal practice has had in place to silence them under. As numbers of female nuns increase, inevitably, priests will have to alter their practices so as to stay true to Buddha’s teachings that all sentient beings contain a Buddha-nature, and all sentient beings contain the potential to break free of the cycle of samsara (reincarnation) to achieve Buddhahood, regardless of gender. As women’s empowerment increases, it is ultimately hoped the number of Buddhists supporting gender equality will rise alongside it.
Goodwin, Allison. “Journal of Buddhist Ethics Right View, Red Rust, and White Bones: A Reexamination of Buddhist Teachings on Female Inferiority.” College of Liberal Arts, National Taiwan University. 2012. Accessed April 6 2022. https://www.academia.edu/6123318/Journal_of_Buddhist_Ethics_Right_View_Red_Rust_and_White_Bones_A_Reexamination_of_Buddhist_Teachings_on_Female_Inferiority
Coakley, R., Eneli. Women in Vajrayāna Buddhism – The Embodiment of Wisdom and Enlightenment in Traditionally Male-Oriented Buddhism. Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. 1 Nov. 2012. Accessed 6 April 2022. https://repository.library.georgetown.edu/bitstream/handle/10822/557694/Coakley_georgetown_0076M_11960.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y
Mohr, Thea. Jampa Tsedroen. “Dignity & Discipline: Reviving Full Ordination for Buddhist Nuns. Journal of Global Buddhism 13. Reed College. 2012. Accessed April 7 2022. https://www.worldcat.org/title/dignity-discipline-reviving-full-ordination-for-buddhist-nuns/oclc/880452515
Henao, Luis Andres. “In Buddhism, Women Blaze a Path but Strive for Gender Equity.” Associated Press. USNews.com. 9 Dec. 2021. Acccessed April 7 2022. https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2021-12-09/in-buddhism-women-blaze-a-path-but-strive-for-gender-equity
Sirimanne, R. Chand. “Buddhism and Women – The Dhamma Has No Gender.” Journal of International Women’s Studies. Bridgewater State University. Nov. 2016. Accessed 6 April 2022. https://vc.bridgew.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1923&context=jiws
Paulel, Archana, Qun Dong. “The Discrimination of Women in Buddhism: An Ethical Analysis.” School of Humanities, Southeast University, Nanjing, China. 26 April 2017, Accessed April 6 2022. https://doi.org/10.4236/oalib.1103578