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.
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.