Q. I find that I relate to a lot of Buddhist teachings but I’m not sure I understand the role of women in Buddhism. Can you help me out?
A. This is actually a complicated issue.
I’ll address the simple part first, but then we’ll go into some of the more complicated issues.
The most popular religions in the world, according to Google, are: Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and Judaism. Only Buddhism explicitly states that men and women are equal.
There’s a story behind this.
Originally the Buddha only welcomed men into the spiritual community. But there came a time when women wanted to join. The Buddha was prepared to reject them at first, but one of his followers intervened.
Ananda, who was the Buddha’s cousin, was one of his closest students and famous for spending more time with the Buddha than anyone and also for having a perfect memory of everything the Buddha said. He is considered the second Patriarch in the Zen lineage.
Ananda said to the Buddha, “Are women as capable of attaining Enlightenment as men?”
The Buddha replied, “Yes, they are equally capable.”
And the Buddha immediately realized his mistake and allowed women into the spiritual community.
This is important for two reasons:
1) It tells us the Buddha wasn’t infallible. He was a man like us, so he was wrong about women.
2) Women and men are equally capable of attaining Enlightenment.
This seems like common sense to us, of course. The story was probably written to illustrate real debates that were going on among the Buddha’s followers.
This was 2,500 years ago. The thought of gender equality was unheard of. Sometimes when we talk about the ancient past we think, “Well they were just a product of their time.” That’s usually how things like mistreatment of women, slavery and other things we object to today are usually discussed.
In this way the Buddha was way ahead of his time—unique among ancient religions and cultures.
The great Mahayana teacher Vimalakirti said, “Gender, like all other distinctions that separate people, is an illusion.”
I would love to end this article here, on such a positive note, but that’s not the whole story. While Buddhism has this teaching that women are equal to men, in practice this has not been the case.
In the original Buddhist communities, right in the Buddha’s time, nuns were automatically considered of lower rank than monks. In addition to this, there’s something worth pointing out in Zen lineages.
Bodhidharma, the teacher who spread Zen teachings from India to China, was the 28th Patriarch in an unbroken line of teachers going back to the Buddha. They’re called Patriarchs because every Zen master for those 28 generations was a man. And this largely continued after that.
Some of the greatest Zen teachers today are women: Joan Halifax, Karen Miller, Geri Larkin, and many others. But historically, it has been a male dominated area. The leadership positions are full of men.
Some other branches of Buddhism fare worse.
Although Pema Chodron is one of the most well known Vajrayana Buddhist teachers, there hasn’t been a female Dalai Lama, Panchen Lama or Karmapa.
What are we to make of this?
Well, I think we shouldn’t ignore the significance of culture. The position of women holding very few leadership roles, is definitely not exclusive to Buddhism or even to religion in general.
Why is the ancient Zen lineage represented by only men for so many generations?
Again, the Buddha said women are as capable as men, so, it’s not a problem with Buddhism. What’s the problem, then?
I submit that it’s a cultural issue. There have been very few female Buddhist leaders throughout history and there are still very few, although there has been a lot of progress. Although the Buddha was ahead of his time and said women were just as likely as men to attain Enlightenment, the people in the Sangha were still a product of their culture. Only the most awakened among us can really throw off the shackles of our culture and engage life without it’s influence.
And it’s still true today. When the United States Senate has 83 men and 17 women, is it any wonder that there are quite a few areas where not many women have leadership roles, including many different kinds of spiritual communities.
It would be easy for us to say, “Of course there were 28 Zen Patriarchs—all men, in a row. They didn’t have gender equality like we do today.”
But do we? Probably not.
But we’ve come a long way.