Rethinking Female Roles


My previous blog post highlighted the lack of access to female roles and spaces in Buddhism in order to challenge its perception as an egalitarian faith. However, I began to reevaluate my previous critique after reading about how female followers received independence from their domestic duties through Buddhism. As shown in Nagarjuna and Vinaya teachings and Therigatha poetry, the monastic life allowed female nuns to gain more agency in their spiritual enlightenment and contribution than women who remained as housekeepers.

By adopting a monastic lifestyle, female followers were able to pursue spiritual enrichment, and therefore, free themselves from the worldly duties enforced by their community. In many societies, women were expected to be dutiful wives (Andrews para. 3). Given this social structure, females who wanted to pursue other professions were usually discouraged and/or treated as interlopers within their community (Andrews para. 3, 7). Consequently, the Therigatha poem, “So freed! So thoroughly freed am I! – from three crooked things set free: from mortar, pestle, and crooked old husband,” shows that the monastic life allowed females to escape from traditional gender roles in a way that did not lead to negative social repercussion (Andrews para. 15-16; Bhikkhu para. 3). As nuns, female followers were expected to abide by monastic teachings, which emphasized spiritual enrichment for nuns and monks. Instead of focusing on housework, they could fully devote themselves to prayers and meditation that would assist in their escape from Samsara. Through Buddhism, nuns received more spiritual freedoms than what was provided by their former environment.

Whereas traditional, male-dominated society has oftentimes relegated women to a place of subordination, Buddhism has emphasized the importance of female followers in the monastery’s sustainability. A text from Nagarjuna’s teachings, “Neither from itself nor from another, nor from both, nor without a cause, does anything whatever, anywhere arise,” shows that everything in the world exists in response to causes and conditions, not by its own accord or absolute independence (Garfield 3). All is interconnected and interrelated (Garfield 4). As members of the monastery, nuns served as spiritual teachers and prayed for the lay community, who, in return, provided the Sangha with food and money (Andrews para. 23; Gethin 93). However, since Vinaya rules instructed the Sangha, which is dominated by men, to avoid “behavior that might be misconstrued by the laity,” “talking in private with a woman or spending the night in the same house as woman” has been prohibited, thereby preventing many female adherents from receiving the same access to the spiritual fruits of Buddhism that men have (Gethin 94). Although monastics and laypeople were needed to uphold the Dharma, many female followers who were not nuns served the Buddhist faith mainly as traditional housewives who donated food (Andrews para. 23). Therefore, by devoting their lives to Buddhist teachings, female nuns actively preserved the natural balance of the universe in a greater spiritual role.

Through Buddhism, women were able to be part of the community of monastic followers who were redeemed for their spiritual devotion and practice. By forgoing conventional gender roles, nuns were able to directly achieve not only their spiritual enrichment, but also that of monks and laypeople.

Works Cited

Andrews, Karen. “Women In Theravada Buddhism.” Institute of Buddhist Studies. Web. 3 Mar. 2015. <>.

Bhikkhu, Thanissaro. “Chapter 1: The Single Verses.” Therigatha Verses of the Elder Nuns. 2005. Web. 3 Mar. 2015. <>.

Garfield, Jay. The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.

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

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