One of the tremendous changes to Buddhism in our time is the unprecedented involvement of women at every level of Buddhist leadership and practice. While there have been tremendous gains, there is still much to be done for gender equality to manifest.
There have been a variety of voices for gender equality throughout Buddhist history. In fact, the first women’s rights march was led by a Buddhist woman. Yet at the same time, there are plenty of examples of Buddhist literature that are misogynistic or leave women out altogether. Which one is right? Which one is the real Buddhism?
Buddhism is diverse and there have been multiple perspectives on these issues throughout Buddhist history. However, Buddhist philosophy contains a firm basis for the argument for gender equality. For example – skandha theory makes it impossible to argue for gender disparities. Since bodies are made of changing components that do not define the person, then biological sex and gendered expression of bodies can’t be taken as the essence of a person. In terms of emptiness theory, since every person is empty by nature, all persons are equally endowed with the lack of absolute self. Another example comes from buddha-nature theory. Dzogchen (esoteric Buddhism) says that every person and all phenomena are equally endowed with buddha-nature. Therefore every being has an equal quality of primordial wisdom awareness, even though every being manifests diversely. Looking at the lense of personhood through the paradigm of emptiness, the skandhas or buddha-nature, it is clear that Buddhism regards binary sex and gender frameworks as constructed, not intrinsic. Gender, as with every facet of human experience, is a construct, a highly contingent reality. Some Buddhist literature such as the Vimalakirti sutra offers humorous narratives that exemplify teaching moments where Buddha’s disciples learned about gender equality. Other literature such as the Jataka Tales, tell the story of the Buddha’s past life as a woman.
Tied in with gender equality are questions of power in Buddhism, power dynamics in religion and the relationship between Buddhist practice and activism. You can read Pema Khandro’s speech at the historical Women’s March on Washington in 2017, the transcript was published here.
“I believe that not having women priests and women
equally represented at the top ecclesiastical levels
of all religions as one of the greatest human rights issues of our time…”
– Tim Kaine
The push for higher education for women in Buddhist institutions has been a major effort of our time. There are still far fewer female Buddhist teachers, scholars and leaders. Stll the movement for gender equality in Buddhism has been promising.Buddhist women received the highest scholastic degrees of “Khenmo,” in the Nyingma scholastic tradition in the eighties. Its correlate the “Geshema” degree of the Gelugpa school’s scholastic tradition was given to women first in 2017. There has been a worldwide movement advocating for full ordination of Buddhist nuns, education and support for Buddhist women all over the world.
Sakyadhita, which means ‘daughters of the Buddha,’ is a major force for positive change women in Buddhism. This is an International Buddhist Women’s movement that cherishes Buddhist teachings and traditions while also working to create positive change for gender equality. You can see photos and articles here – Pema Khandro at Sakyadhita. These photos are from Pema Khandro’s presentation at the Sakyadhita Conference in Indonesia.
Another positive change has been the recovery of literature about Buddhist women by Western scholars. In works such as those by Sarah Jacoby, Holly Gayley and Sarah Harding contribute important histories of Tibetan and Indian Buddhist women.
“Feminism is the radical idea that women are full human beings.”
– Karma Lekshe Tsomo
Tibetan Buddhism’s Yogis, Yoginis and their communities have included more female adepts throughout history. This is in part due to the emphasis on balancing spiritual practice with work and family life. It has also been a non-celibate tradition, with families as the center of lineages. Although women as a whole did not achieve equal social, economic and ecclesiastical, the iconography and philosophy of esoteric Buddhism presented a more inclusive framework. Read Pema Khandro’s article about one of the earliest female Vajrayana masters here.
There is another article by Pema Khandro on one of the female lineage holders of a major Tibetan monastery here.
Pema Khandro has lectured on the history of women in Buddhism in Universities and Conferences around the world. Her online course “Women in Buddhism,” covers the history of major figures in India and Tibet, gender issues and special features of Buddhist Tantra. Follow Pema Khandro on Facebook here.
Read the latest news about Pema Khandro and the Buddhist Yogis at PemaKhandro.com