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February 2019
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Buddhism, Gender and Modern Society

Buddhism, Gender and Modern Society

The Buddha taught that men and women are entirely equal with respect to their capacity to achieve liberation, which is the goal of the Buddhist path.

In terms of doctrine, I will argue that Buddhism teaches equal potential for all individuals regardless of gender. The Buddhist doctrine does not have two separate paths for male and female seekers, and whoever follows the doctrine diligently may achieve nirvana. Although the Buddha and his teachings did not discriminate against women on a soteriological level, the institutions that were established in India during his time did. In part one of this essay, I will argue that Buddhist doctrine espouses gender equality in terms of soteriological inclusiveness in spite of a history of gender inequality in terms of opportunities due to institutional androcentrism, and in part two I will argue that the Buddhist principal of soteriological inclusiveness is viable in today’s society, and also that Buddhist institutions are now changing to more genuinely reflect the Buddhist doctrine of soteriological gender equality.

Part One

Buddhism is soteriologically inclusive, which means that Buddhist doctrine does not discriminate based on gender in terms of the capacity to attain liberation. As stated in “Attitudes toward Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism” by Alan Sponberg, “The earliest Buddhists clearly held that one’s sex, like one’s caste or class (varṇa), presents no barrier to attaining the Buddhist goal of liberation from suffering. Women can, we are told by the tradition, pursue the path. Moreover, they can (and did) become arhats, Buddhist saints who had broken completely the suffering of the cycle of death and rebirth (saṃsāra)” (8). It is maintained that whoever is able to make the right effort in following Buddhist doctrine is guaranteed to progress on the path.

In spite of teachings of equal potential for liberation, these Buddhist institutions founded to support this aspirations from the Buddha’s time have not offered equal opportunities to women, having arisen in a highly androcentric society in India. Sponberg refers to this as “Institutional Androcentrism,” wherein the institutional structure preserves and reinforces the conventionally accepted social standards of male authority and female subordination (13). The social context in which Buddhism emerged was heavily influenced by early Hinduism, or the Vedic religion of Brahmanism, according to which men took a central role as priestly ritual specialists. There were even rituals developed to prevent the birth of a female child who were deemed an “unwelcome burden” (Harvey 355). As Hinduism developed, this androcentric view persisted in texts like the Laws of Manu, which includes the instruction that, “A woman’s religious duties were simply those of serving her husband and looking after the home (II.67). She should always obey him (V.151) and revere him even if he was adulterous or devoid of virtues (V.154)” (ibid.). In ancient India, many individuals who became Buddhist followers tended to carry with them strong remnants of Brahmin culture, which was evident in their behavior towards women, and to a certain extent Buddhists had to respect the Brahmin tradition which was part of their societal milieu in order to protect social relations within the broader community.

Despite the general androcentrism of Indian society in the Buddha’s time, the Buddha did intend that both women and men play an active role in establishing and expounding his teachings, for, “The Buddha said that he would not die until he had monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen who could teach Dhamma, ‘establish it, expound it, analyse it, make it clear’ (D. II.104, 113)” (Harvey 357). Making an even stronger statement, the Buddha deemed women’s institutional involvement in Buddhism in particular to be essential: “The Buddha says that the holy life instituted by him would have been incomplete without nuns undertaking to practice Dhamma (M. 1.491-3)” (Harvey 385). It has also been observed by Horner (1930:287-8) in her reading of early Buddhist texts that, “The Buddha gave the same teachings to both sexes, and sometimes went out of his way to teach women” (Harvey 357). Even though the environment for Buddhist doctrine was not favourable to women, the Buddha regarded both males and females as playing an important role in Buddhist institutions, reflecting his teaching on the equal potential for both to attain liberation.

Moreover, in reading the sutras, the Buddha can be seen to work within his societal constraints, using skillful methods to gradually guide his disciples towards a less discriminatory view in terms of gender. In An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics, Peter Harvey cites an occasion when the Buddha responded to King Pasenadi who was dismayed at the birth of a daughter: “The Buddha said: indeed, a woman of a certain sort is better than a man, lord of folks: Wise, virtues, revering her husband’s mother, a devoted wife. The man born of her is hero, ruler of the regions, such a son of a good wife is one who advises his realm” (356). In some cases, Buddhist doctrine holds women in even higher regard than men, as evidenced in the fact that it was deemed a tantric root downfall to criticize or demean a woman. In addition, in Mahāyāna Buddhism, the mother’s compassion is idealized as a model for that compassion which the practitioner should seek to develop for all beings.

Buddhism was born at a difficult moment in history in terms of its societal context of gender inequality. This is indeed evidenced in a history of inequality of opportunities available to women in Buddhist institutions as seen in terms of leadership roles, prominence, as well as the relative number of ordained. Despite historical androcentricism present in certain respects in Buddhist institutions, Buddhist doctrine is unwavering in its principle of soteriological inclusiveness with respect to gender.

Part Two

Historically, Buddhist institutions have not afforded equal opportunities to women, however, this need not mean that these institutions are unable to adapt to the expectations of the modern world’s social norms. The teachings of the Buddha themselves and the Buddhist project in general do not inherently possess a bias against women. In fact, the Buddhist teaching of soteriological inclusiveness is more in line with today’s social norms than the male-centric culture of the Buddha’s day. This tension that we see between institutional Buddhism and the soteriologically inclusive teachings of the Buddha should not cause concern with regard to the viability of Buddhism in today’s society, because it is the Buddha’s teaching, not the outdated social norms of his time, that should guide the future direction of Buddhist institutions.

I suggest that we have reason for optimism that Buddhism in a modern setting may rise to the challenge of offering equal opportunities to both men and women, and to support this I will provide several examples of some of today’s Buddhist institutions in which women have leadership roles, are becoming prominent and respected teachers, and where participation by women in the community is increasing. This by no means is evidence for a total absence of discrimination in Buddhist institutions as a whole, but it does point to signs that some Buddhist institutions are making strides in a direction that corresponds with its soteriologically inclusive principles.

For instance, H.E Khandro Rinpoche is one of the most famous nuns in India. She travels all over the world to teach Buddhism, and is as well respected as any renowned Buddhist monk in India. She has established a nunnery which is entirely autonomous, with all its leadership roles filled by nuns. This is significant because historically most Buddhist nunneries have been run by monks.

Women also fill prominent leadership roles and participate in increasingly large numbers in Buddhist institutions in other parts of Asia, such as Taiwan and Singapore. As Harvey points out, “Taiwan’s biggest monastery is largely run by the nuns, who outnumber the monks there by three to one. The nuns have the same opportunities in Buddhist education as the monks and the same responsibilities in teaching” (394). For example, Master Chen Yen is a renowned Taiwanese Buddhist nun who founded a Tzu Chi Foundation, which also engages in vast philanthropic work through hospital and schools.

Finally, we can look to an example of a Buddhist institution in the West to observe the equally active participation of men and women alike, such as Karma Triyana Buddhist center in Woodstock, New York. At this center one finds many female Buddhists engaged in a variety of Buddhist activities, such as attending daily rituals and teachings from different teachers. In fact, some female practitioners are engaged in three-year retreats, led by female retreat master, Lama Lodro Lhamo. In the past, Buddhist institutions have most heavily been populated by male Buddhist practitioners, and in particular those doing three-year retreat have been primarily male, however we are seeing significant changes with female practitioners actively participating in all dharma activities.

In the early days of Buddhism in Asia, and particularly in India, even though equal potential for liberation regardless of gender has been an important part of Buddhist doctrine, due to strong male dominated cultures, Buddhist institutions have historically provided fewer opportunities to women. Things are changing, however, and today in many places like Taiwan, India, Singapore, and also in Western countries, opportunities for female practitioners are improving and moving closer into alignment with the Buddhist doctrine of soteriological inclusiveness.


Works Cited

Harvey, Peter. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics: Foundations, Values, and Issues. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Sponberg, Alan. “Attitudes toward Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism.” Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender. Ed. José Ignacio Cabezón. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985.