May 19, 2010

Buddhism & Bhikshuni Ordination: Why are Religions Scared of the Vagina?

All religions are inherently sexist…and Buddhism is no different.

This post consists of a question I received from a student writing a paper on Buddhist practice.  My answers were supplemented slightly before posting with additional info, links and quotes.

I hope my answers can be of some benefit and maybe inspire conversation (and possible even an ‘A’ from my student!).  For more on this topic, see Part 1 Part 2 Part 3 Part 4 on my personal blog, Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt. ~ Cheers, John




Question: How do you feel about the rise in female Buddhist leaders?

From A Sacred Lotus:

“I think the Buddha was revolutionary and radical to have cared about gender equality 2,500 years ago. It’s nearly impossible for us to appreciate what an advanced thinker and compassionate person the Buddha was, to have worked so hard in his lifetime to protect women. Out of respect and veneration for the Buddha, it falls on all of us to maintain that spirit of protection of women.”

My response:

This is wonderful. Simply wonderful.

While progressive in many ways, Buddhism still suffers from the same stigmas and sexism that afflict other religions that maintain an old world mentality. The Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches come to mind when I think of an oppressive regime that remains in power long after it has fallen in world’s eyes (can you tell that I was raised Catholic and Orthodox?). How many women currently hold positions of power in those organizations? None. The reason for this, in my opinion, is blind allegiance to outdated social norms.

Buddhist women—from Pema Chodron and Joan Halifax-Roshi to any number of prominent Buddhist/Meditation teachers in Zen Centers around the world, as well as nuns and lay-ordained practitioners—hold important places in our hearts and practices. Buddhism should provide an open playing field for both genders to achieve spiritually. I wonder if the prominence of female teachers is due to its focus on practices of compassion and introspection that may appeal to women as teachers?

Organizationally, though, Buddhism has been slow in providing equal spiritual and organizational status to women.

There are Chinese and Korean traditions that offer full ordination for women but I believe this is still a relatively recent development. Many traditional Buddhist organizations have been dragging their feet. Personally, I am not even sure if the ‘official’ seat of Soto Zen in Japan—Sotoshu—accepts full ordination of women but I do know that many of the western permutations of Soto Zen do actively have female teachers—some of my favorites actually!.

And that is a huge difference.

Are we talking about the organization or the practitioners? While I don’t think that Sotoshu is necessarily any less in line with the Dharma and compassion, I do believe that “Sotoshu” becomes a higher priority than the actual practice as you rise up the administrative ladder.

Hopefully through the works of more progressive Buddhist dignitaries, we will see more female spiritual leaders, and more women receiving full bhikshuni ordination. Recently, the 17th Karmapa declared his commitment towards the full ordination of women as bhikshunis (nuns) providing an equal organizational and spiritual footing as the male monks.

Whether or not these changes will occur as quickly as those initiated in the Theravadan tradition by the “renegade monk” Ajahn Brahm with his ordination of women in Perth, Australia is unknown. Ajahn Brahm’s actions drew some heat from the presiding monastery of the Thai Forest Tradition and even an followed with an excommunication. (I hope to be excommunicated one day. It will let me know that I am doing something right!)

The 17th Karmapa seems to prefer change to occur slowly over time and on his terms but the fact that it was addressed so prominently is promising. Rarely do organizational Buddhist leaders take such a public stance on bhikshuni ordination. I don’t know much about the monastic codes for female ordination but this is a change that was a long time coming. I think that Ajahn Brahm put it succinctly when he stated,

Even though my ordination as a monk was in Thailand,I understood that my obligations were to the Dhamma and Vinaya, not to the Thai state.Nor was allegiance to Thailand part of the advice given to me by the Acting Sangharaja who presented me with the Thai ecclesiastical honour of Tan Chao Khun. The certificate that I received at the ceremony merely states that “Phra Brahmavamso of Bodhinyana Monastery in Australia is a monk of Royal Grade with the title of Phra Visuddhisamvarathera. May he accept the duty in the Buddha’s dispensation of teaching, settling Sangha business and looking after the monks and novices in his monastery in an appropriate manner. And to develop happiness and well being in the Buddha’s Dispensation.”

To put it bluntly, not allowing women the same status as men in both liturgical and organizational positions is to state that their spiritual potential is less than that of men.

This is counter to “developing happiness and well being in the Buddha’s dispensation” in any community, Buddhist or not.

A few comments from the Dalai Lama:

Some additional reading on Women and Buddhism courtesy of BuddhaDharma magazine

  • The Time Has Come
  • Are We Equal Yet ~ While things have improved since Buddhist scholar Rita Gross wrote her groundbreaking book Buddhism After Patriarchy, she says that many of the barriers to women’s development and recognition as Dharma teachers remain firmly entrenched.
  • Hear Them Roar ~ The lives of Buddhism’s women ancestors are too often whispers of a forgotten past. This special collection of essays, stories, and poems brings their lion’s roar back to life.
  • Under the Autumn Moon ~ Grace Jill Schireson on the life, art, and poetic inspiration of the Zen nun Otagaki Rengetsu, a woman “humbled by life’s blows as well as its beauty.”
  • The Many Lives of Yeshe Tsogyal ~ Holly Gayley discusses the power of Padmasambhava’s foremost disciple and consort, Yeshe Tsogyal, and the life of one of her modern emanations.
  • To Women of the Way ~ In these seventeenth-century poems, translated from the Chinese by scholar Beata Grant, women Chan teachers and senior students pay homage to the women who taught and inspired them.
  • An Unlikely Dharma Warrior ~ Miriam Levering on the life of Miaozong, a laywoman turned abbess who stood her ground in dharma battles with some of the great Chan masters of her day.
  • Longing to Ordain ~ Bhikkhuni Sudhamma traces the origins of Buddhist ordination for women to Queen Anula, Sri Lanka’s first Buddhist nun.
  • Enlightenment in Female Form ~ While the images we habitually associate with enlightenment—whether buddhas, teachers, or deities—are usually male, awakened mind equally expresses itself in female form. Gelek Rinpoche argues that enlightenment is possible only when female and male energies are both fully present. He teaches us Tara practices to bring enlightened female energy into our lives.
  • Mother of Light ~ Amy Schmidt and Sara Jenkins tell the inspiring story of Dipa Ma, known as “the patron saint of householders.”
  • Ordained at Last ~ On February 28, 2003, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, formerly known as Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, became the first Thai woman to receive full ordination as a Theravadin nun. Kristin Barendsen reports on Dhammananda’s steadfast commitment to paving the way for other Thai women practitioners.
  • From Servants to Practitioners ~ Jan Willis reveals why life is getting better for the nuns of Ladakh.


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