Women In Buddhism: Lessons On Cultural Bilateral-Transformation
Ven. David Xi-Ken Shi
I have been wanting to explore the role women played in monastic Buddhism over the centuries for a while now, not only to be better informed when asked, but to clear up some of the ambiguities as presented in Buddhist scriptures. The subject is being more actively discussed today in various journals and documentaries, but more importantly, it is also a glaring fact that many of the contemporary Buddhist teachers in the West are women representing all traditions. Yet, almost all of the legacy discourse is from men. I began to ask questions and was confronted with answers that I did not expect.
It seems to me that the Bhikkhunis (nuns) make up a growing number in the monastic community in the East today as the pressures on them to remain in their traditional social/family roles are relaxed. I don’t know the figures, but I would think that the number of women in the West that are also choosing to take their practice into the monastic modality is growing too. So, as I began my research on this important subject, I was struck by the lessons that emerged. These lessons point directly to the basic principles of Buddhism themselves, and highlight an aspect of Siddhartha’s life that is in conflict between his doctrine and the prevailing cultural norms of the day that he subscribed to.
It is against this background that one has to view the impact that Buddhism has had on indigenous cultures especially the social norms of the time, and the pressure these cultures imposed on gender definition. This is true over the centuries as Buddhism moved across the East toward the West, as it was during the life and times of Siddhartha Gotama. We must first understand how individuals 2500 years ago in India viewed the differences between men and women. Especially biologically as well as socially. Discrimination against women is a feature common in all societies. The social attitude towards women in pre-Buddhist days can be traced from the early Vedic literature. Women came to be considered as greatly inferior to men, both physically and mentally. Although the Buddha was enlightened as to how the Universe is, he still held many of the views of his day relative to social norms and class distinction. Yes, the Buddha inaugurated a campaign for the liberation of Indian women, and he also created a stir against Brahman dogma and superstition. Don’t forget Siddhartha was a Hindu reformer. He condemned the caste structure and denied the existence of a Creator, as well as the social structure that valued the supremacy of the male. He spoke often about liberation by one’s own efforts, which would presuppose the spiritual equality of all beings, male and female. But he was also conflicted on how women should obtain their liberation from suffering as reflected in the Four Nobel Truths according to ancient text. Although he had pointed out on many occasions the natural tendencies and weakness of women, he had also given due credit to their abilities and capabilities. He truly paved the way for women to lead a full spiritual life among his disciples.
It was in the midst of such extreme social discrimination and degrading attitudes towards women that Siddhartha made his appearance in India. His teachings on the real nature of life and death associated with suffering, and about the nature of the causal universe, gave rise to considerable changes in the social attitudes towards women during his long life. Despite the fact that the Buddha elevated the status of women, he was pragmatic in his observations and advice given from time to time in that he realized the social and physiological differences that existed between men and women.
In many of the sutras he is reported as saying that women would find liberation upon their rebirth as a male. We must remember that there is no evidence to suggest Siddhartha left for posterity any written documents of his own, and the sutra scriptures were written by disciples recording what they remember the Buddha saying that most likely integrates their own notions of the social norms of their day, and projecting them into their writing. The Nikaya’s, some of the most early Buddhist texts, were most likely written over decades, or even centuries, after the death of the Buddha, for example.
The Buddha permitted women to join his monastic community and fully participate in it, although there were certain provisos that acted to separate them as well. The nun’s Sangha was a radical experiment for its day. And the historical record suggests that these active and educated women early on were teaching on the same level as the monks. However the admission of women into the Sangha was a step too advanced for the period and became short-lived. Whenever an innovation or improvement was in advance of the thinking development of a people during a particular era, the people were unable to adapt themselves to the improved conditions and tended to regress back to the society that they were used to. Hostile propaganda by the Brahmins was also a factor that caused the reversal of advances women enjoyed under the Buddha’s guidance and protection. But over time restrictions were imposed that restricted their community involvement. These restrictions were instituted by the Buddha we are told because of the customs of the time, but modern scholars doubt that these rules can be traced back to him at all.
The Aganna-Sutta from the Pali Canon is often interpreted as showing women being responsible for the downfall of the human race. However, modern scholars studying the original language generally think this interpretation is incorrect, and point out that it was more likely the idea of lust in general rather than women as causing this downfall. However, despite this type of negative description of women in early Buddhist texts, there are also examples in the Pali Canon that are positive which suggest that the very concept of gender differentiation can serve as a hindrance to attaining awakening. It is stated in both the Sagatha-vagga and the Soma Sutta in the Samyutta Nikaya, that gender discrimination is an inhibitor to the spiritual path, and gender neutrality to the Buddhist concept of ‘not-self’ is a strategy the Buddha taught for release from suffering. The Buddha states that when either a man or a woman clings to gender identity, that person is in bondage. He even said that in certain circumstances, women are considered more discerning and wise than men, and women are even considered capable of attaining perfection after walking on the noble Eightfold path.
Just a few hundred years later in Mahayana text, however, it was maintained that a woman can become enlightened, but not in the female form. We can find this conflicting thought and language throughout the scriptures. Even in the Vinaya Pitaka of the Pali Canon another statement by the Buddha suggests that Siddhartha speaks of the fact that a woman can attain enlightenment, but could never become a female Buddha. This is a good example where it does not necessarily follow that social practice conforms to theory. The egalitarian ideals of Buddhism appear to have been impotent against the universal ideology of masculine superiority. This worldview remained strong for centuries, and influenced how women were allowed to practice Buddhism beyond private home devotion.