Female Inequality in Buddhism

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Above Picture: Mahaprajapati Gotami asks her stepson, Siddhartha Gautama, to allow female ordination

Since its founding by Siddhartha Gautama in sixth century B.C.E., Buddhism has attracted many followers from different cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. Yet, despite the religion’s global appeal, the role of women in Buddhism has been a subject of public debate. Even though female Buddhists played important duties as nuns and motherly figures, Buddhist teachings have undermined women’s access to religious spaces and roles.

In contrast to their male counterparts, female nuns are subjected to stricter spiritual guidelines, which pose challenges in their monastic life. As shown in Buddhist texts, Siddhartha reluctantly allows women to become ordained after enforcing the Eight Garudhammas, which are additional spiritual guidelines directly imposed on nuns, not monks (Gethin 90). These rules require women to respect monks, undergo additional discipline training, and not worship in a space devoid of their male counterparts (Salgado 81-82). Furthermore, some Buddhist scholars interpreted that it is impossible for a woman to become a Buddha, barring women from reaching the highest spiritual level of their religion (Gethin 91). Some believe that males, given their state of rebirth, could only achieve the highest spiritual enlightenment and therefore become the exemplar of the Buddhist faith (Gethin 91). Consequently, the imposition of additional rules and the impossibility of female Buddhahood have subordinated “the nuns’ order to that of the monks” (Gethin 89). It seems that Buddhist teachings have depicted women as religious interlopers whose place belongs in the fringes of Buddhist worship and leadership among the monastery elite. Thus, Buddhist rules have prevented many women from gaining the privileges that are granted to men.

Moreover, Buddhists’ adherence to social customs has limited the spiritual growth of female followers. Given their physical and spiritual deviance from worldly pleasures, Buddhists rely on their local community to gain food and manage money (Gethin 93). In order for local residents to view Buddhists positively, Vinaya rules instructed the sangha, which is dominated by men, to avoid “behavior that might be misconstrued by the laity” (Gethin 94). Consequently, “talking in private with a woman or spending the night in the same house as woman” has been prohibited, preventing many female adherents in conservative cultures from receiving the same access to the social and spiritual fruits of Buddhism that men have (Gethin 94). It seems that the preservation of the cultural status quo has prevented many Buddhists from seeking female converts. Given Buddhists’ need to please their community for their sustainability, one’s access to religious spaces and resources has been based on the gender norms of his/her contemporary environment, where women rights have been nonexistent or suppressed.

Overall, the lacking female participation and leadership roles in Buddhism have been the byproduct of the religious traditions that favored male adherents. As members of a theoretically egalitarian faith, Buddhist leaders, mostly comprised of men, have yet to solve the limited spiritual engagement and opportunities of female followers ranging from commoners to devout nuns.

Works Cited

Gethin, Rupert. The Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.

Salgado, Nirmala. Buddhist Nuns and Gendered Practice: In Search of the Female Renunciant. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. Print.

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4 Responses to Female Inequality in Buddhism

  1. rswartz says:

    I agree with the above comment that explains women’s restriction to nunhood as being a product of society’s expectations for women to fulfill duties within the home. Being a part of the monastic community gives one power in a Buddhist context, and it is easy to rid women of this power by constructing them as primary child caregivers as well as subordinates to their husbands. This construction of women as belonging primarily to the domestic sphere along with all of the barriers that make it more difficult for women to be inducted into the clergy presumably causes women to be less inclined to join. Moreover, Gethin’s discussion on the distancing that monks and nuns are expected to maintain positions women as these dangerous object that men need to be shielded of. This allows the clergy to uphold these stricter barriers to entry for women, as it is considered unfit for men to associate with women. It is talked about in a way that assumes monastic life is a man’s domain, and allowing a woman to take part will corrupt it in some way.

  2. Rebecca Swartz says:

    I agree with the above comment that explains women’s restriction to nunhood as being a product of society’s expectations for women to fulfill duties within the home. Being a part of the monastic community gives one power in a Buddhist context, and it is easy to rid women of this power by constructing them as primary child caregivers as well as subordinates to their husbands. This construction of women as belonging primarily to the domestic sphere along with all of the barriers that makes it more difficult for women to be inducted into the clergy, which presumably causes women to be less inclined to join. Moreover, Gethin’s discussion on the distancing that monks and nuns are expected to maintain positions women as this dangerous object that men needed to be shielded of. This allows the clergy to uphold these stricter barriers to entry for women, as it is considered unfit for men to associate with women. It is talked about in a way that assumes monastic life is a man’s domain, and allowing a woman to take part will corrupt it in some way.

  3. Annabel says:

    I have found myself thinking a lot about the manifestations of gender inequality in Buddhism in this class. That’s not saying much as I tend to think about gender inequality in most classes, but it seems especially troubling in the context of religion, which has the power to make inequality appear fundamentally “right.”

    After reading your post, I remembered Connie mentioning the current Karmapa, the head of one of the largest sub-schools of Tibetan Buddhism and a believer that men and women should be treated as equals, inside and outside of Buddhism. In an interview for Newsweek he said:
    “In some Asian countries, men have all the control and power. From a Buddhist
    point of view, men and women are equal. All sentient beings are capable of
    attaining enlightenment, so obviously women can. But sometimes some traditional
    cultures hold the wrong view, that men are more powerful. This is not correct.”

    Although we haven’t yet talked about Tibetan Buddhism in class, I thought I would bring up the Karmapa as an example of a Buddhist leader who does favor opportunities for women.

    Newsweek interview: http://www.newsweek.com/tibets-holy-man-waiting-91133

  4. mwright says:

    I found this really interesting in class. Buddha said it was to protect the dharma. He also said that monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen are necessary in order to maintain the dharma. Perhaps as you suggested he wanted to please the laypeople and respect their cultural beliefs?
    He also could have said this because of the role women play in society as a mother and wife. I am reminded of the poem where the nun is happy to not have to be a wife, who cooks and cleans after her husband and children. If women were allowed to have the same benefits as monks I imagine a lot more women would become monks! They would finally be able to have the same benefits as men. Which could upset the dharma, all of the laywomen would be nuns in order to escape the monotony of domesticity.

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