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

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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 The reason for this, in my opinion, is blind allegiance to outdated social norms.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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About John Pappas

John Pappas is a struggling Zen practitioner with a slight Vajrayana palate (but he won't admit it) stumbling between the relative and absolute through the Buddhist Purgatory otherwise known as the Great Plains of South Dakota. Emerging writer, librarian and aspiring hungry ghost, John spews his skewed perception of the dharma all over his personal blog, Subtle Dharma Mouth Punch as well as on the ephemeral Elephant Journal and occasionally (while having no artistic ability to speak of) on Dharma/Arte. John also loves tacos, homebrew, yoginis and obscure Cthulhu references. You can follow him on twitter under the handle @zendustzendirt


37 Responses to “Buddhism & Bhikshuni Ordination: Why are Religions Scared of the Vagina?”

  1. Personally, I don't think "All religions are inherently sexist…and Buddhism is no different." I think rather that all religions are culturally and historically sexist, unfortunately, and some more than others.

    But inherently, they are hopefully about love, about union with God or the present moment or goodness—and all that should not be sexist at all, at its essence. Rather, hopefully the opposite!

    • Jack Daw says:

      That would be nice … and my farts could smell like daisies if I just hoped enough! The problem (?) is that religion and culture is very tightly intertwined and impossible to tease apart. Was Buddha sexist? Was Jesus? Probably not and both were visionary for their times but the wheel and Dharma and the Christian faith both fell into the same cultural trap so yes the religions are sexist….but perhaps the original intent of the "founders" was not.

      Except Wicca….they're cool.

      John <a href="http://www.zendirtzendust.com” target=”_blank”>www.zendirtzendust.com

  2. *AL* says:

    For a boy would it be "J. Apostlakis" or "J. Avalokitesvara"
    Congrats big daddy!

  3. weneedus says:

    Religions are terrified of vaginae (that's what my spell checker liked; so do I. It's Latin, after all) because there's no power that can stand up to Pussy Power.

    At least not for long.

  4. Panchenlama says:

    In the Mahayana Buddhist tradition there are Sutras in which the Buddha specifies, by name, the women present in His Sangha who are Buddhas on the making.

    The truth is that Buddha raised women to Buddhahood.

  5. Panchenlama says:

    'The Lotus of the True Law' , i.e., Sadharma-Pundarika [in the Buddhist Sanskrit Canon], is the book in which the Buddha says that Bhikshuni Mahapajapati Gotami – the first Bhikshuni ordained by the Buddha Himself – would be a Buddha.

    'The Therigatha' [in the Buddhist Pali Canon], is the book in which countless women, from the poorest classes to the higher nobility, inform that they have attained Arhatship, the highest level of enlightenment which must be achieved before the attainment of Buddhahood.

    In that book, each one of them give details about their struggles and accomplishments along the road to Arhatship.

    As Bhikkhu Thanissaro wrote: 'Their stories are told with often heart-breaking honesty and beauty, revealing the deeply human side of these extraordinary women, and thus serve as inspiring reminders of our own potential to follow in their footsteps.'(*)
    (*) –http://www.accesstoinsight.org

  6. hana sha says:

    Hi great topic! another recent book which was really revolutionary to read is called "Zen Women"…

  7. Machado says:

    Women are John Pappas vagina in Zen. Not in Buddhism.

    • Often I just don't know what to say.

      During those times I just say "pipquank" and let everything works itself out.


      John <a href="http://www.zendirtzendust.com” target=”_blank”>www.zendirtzendust.com

      • Machado says:

        Garudhammas are not for 'zen dirt'.

        Garudhammas are not for 'zen dust'.

        • No argument there! Great communication skills, by the way. For those that don't know what the Garudhammas are ~ They are the differences between Bhikshuni and Bhikshu which basically makes fully ordained women subordinate to fully ordained men.

          There is some doctrinal difficulty with these texts since some experts don't believe that they are accurate. But, either way, Buddha's words or organizational creation of the monks, they serve the same purpose and I have very little difficulty in saying that they were uttered with someone's head firmly up their ass.

          So I agree but let me reiterate.

          Gender-specific Spiritual inequities are not for 'zen dirt'
          Gender-specific Spiritual inequities are not for 'zen dust'


          John http://www.zendirtzendust.com

          And the proper response to "pipsquank" is "MMMMM…bird"

  8. Panchenlama says:

    "So long as the Bhikkhunis introduce no revolutionary ordinance, so long as the Bhikkhunis break up no established ordinance, but live in accordance with the appointed charges, the prosperity of the Bhikkhunis may be looked for, and not their decay."
    [Discourse of the Buddha to Bhikkhus found in the Digha Nikaya].

    • Thump. Thump. Thump.

      Translation: "So as long as the women don't stir up any trouble, think for themselves or question why they are in lesser standing of the men then they are fine."

      Bravo. Can you add a commentary or some original thought or is the best you can do is thump a sutra and throw a quote? Personally, it looks to me that either directly from the beginning or interpreted by the monks that follow, Buddhism has instilled the same organizational sexism that many other religions display.

      Sounds like fat to be trimmed to me.

      John <a href="http://www.zendirtzendust.com” target=”_blank”>www.zendirtzendust.com

  9. meghanelaine says:

    I think that what the commenter said above about religions not being inherently sexist is both true and untrue. Religions serve more than one purpose, as y'all know, to help us to enlightenment as well as to shape culture, to define a culture's values. Thus, all religions are inherently sexist because they are all designed to define the cultures they come into contact with with sexist values (or racist values, or heterosexist values, etc.).

    Then again, the basic ideas of any one religion are (usually) not grounded in sexism.

    Anyway as for Buddhism, I am not one to cling to every doctrine of a religion. I strive to live in accordance with Buddhist doctrine, but if the way I want to live my life clashes with that doctrine, I chose to make my own decision every time.

    • Jack Daw says:

      Well put. I prefer to look at the culture as an explaination of some of the sexist veiws in Buddhism (although, as Panchanlama refers to, there are mentions in the suttas). However, I do not wish to sutra-thump and constantly bring it back to translated work of an oral tradition to say "See!? Its written here, so it must be so".

      Practice requires more intuition and insight to make decisions beyond the written word. So I can easily remove that aspect of the canon and support the full ordination of Bhikshunis in a manner where they are in equal standing of men.

      Thanks for your insightful comment!

      John <a href="http://www.zendirtzendust.com” target=”_blank”>www.zendirtzendust.com

  10. I can hardly hold back my admiration for Buddhists who've allowed ancient texts to do 100% of their thinking for them, as well as using them so effectively to back up their prejudices, just like the fundamentalist Christians, fundamentalist Muslims, and fundamentalist Hindus (not to mention, for the militantly secular set, the dogmatic Marxists). I don't know if all religions are inherently sexist, but clearly all of them have the potential to really suck when people use them to close rather than open their minds and hearts.

    On a related note, much as I like the "Sweep the Dust, Push the Dirt," thing, "Women are John Pappas vagina in Zen" could be a really catchy new title for your blog. Think about it, dude….

  11. lighthasmass says:

    Spent some time in a Bodhisattva Temple; they treated menstruation as an "illness"???! Kinda turned me off to organized Buddhism. "Do not follow in the footsteps of wise men, seek what they sought." It is the inherent TRUTH. Everything else is folly, BS.

  12. Adam says:

    You sure attract the dharmasaurs don't you John?

    I tend to view this issue in the same way I view the gay marriage one here in the US. I'm all for the state recognizing same-sex couples, but if religous institutions don't want to be a part of that, that's there choice.

    If there is a school of Buddhism that doesn't want to treat women on equal footing with men, so be it. However, I sincerely believe that such institutions will surely die out because of a decision like this. They also make the rest of us look like a buch of backwards sexists, and for that we should certainly speak up.

    I also find any such institution unworthy of respect. Any buddhist school that would rely upon outdated dogma over compassion and non-dualsitic thought doesn't deserve it.


    • I do attract some interesting folks. For the most part, I enjoy the interaction. I can think of a few that are very knowledgable and willing to enage. Some just want to 'warn' others about me.

      Anyway, your comments reminded me of this story:

      A woman in China supported a monk's practice for 20 years. To measure his progress she invited a local girl to go embrace him and ask "What are ya going to do about it?".

      The monk replied "An ancient tree grows on a rock in the winter. There is no warmth."

      The old woman, angry realized that the monk should have replied out of compassion rather than passion or stoicism and went over to the monk's hut and burned it down.

      While I don't advocate the burning down of temples or huts. I do advocate the turning away from a community that is contrary to my social beliefs.

      John http://www.zendirtzendust.com

      • Adam says:

        that story reminded me of another:

        A senior monk and a junior monk were traveling together. At one point, they came to a river with a strong current. As the monks were preparing to cross the river, they saw a very young and beautiful woman also attempting to cross. The young woman asked if they could help her.

        The senior monk carried this woman on his shoulder, forded the river and let her down on the other bank. The junior monk was very upset, but said nothing.

        They both were walking and senior monk noticed that his junior was suddenly silent and enquired “Is something the matter, you seem very upset?”

        The junior monk replied, “As monks, we are not permitted a woman, how could you then carry that woman on your shoulders?”

        The senior monk replied, “I left the woman a long time ago at the bank, however, you seem to be carrying her still.”

  13. yeah. Suttras arne't my thing. Ive read them but they were mostly memorized chants in a dead language.

    Women are sentient beings and they are human beings, thus capable of escaping samsara as men.

    If any women have an advantage over men. They don't have as obvious a part of their anatomy that betrays their sexual attraction and for most women the river of lust starts as a trickle that can easily be dammed with men…ours is often a torrent in the desert.

    Everyone is different but we are expressions of and facets of the Buddha-nature of the Universe. I've got breasts and a vagina as surely as I have a penis.

  14. Here's to the day we can take vagina out of the headline and still have 1,000 views. All institutions are patriarchal. Authentic practice never is. That's where the question always ends.

  15. YogiOne says:

    Looking at this from the outside – I'm not a member of any organized religion, it sure seems to me that all of problems you are dealing with here involve the insititutionalization of the practice. Maybe it is inevitable that when a practice becomes institutionalized, the human needs reflected in the organization will not serve the practice well. That makes me wonder how beneficial it is to waste energy on reforming the institution rather than simply practicing.

    • Damn. That is a good point but for many (myself included) the institution aids in the practice. I remember practicing completely on my own and it was beyond difficult. Having a support group is beneficial and equally beneficial is having that group reflect your values. My values are that we are all on equal spiritual footing and reforms help make that happen. And I can't imagine that being a waste of energy.

      I consider myself (barely) a member of organized religion. My practicing group is led by two lay-ordained practitioners and the main center to which is loosely affiliated ordains women and supports equality. If it were to cease to be that progressive, I would continue to sit with the small group but wouldn't support the larger organization.

      Great comment and insight!

      John http://www.zendirtzendust.com

  16. Roger Wolsey says:

    Another article in Elephant related to this one: Women of the Cloth? Some still say no… http://www.elephantjournal.com/2010/06/women-of-t

  17. Arhat Ariya says:

    John Pappas transmigrated to:
    Dog Lhasa Apso, at the feet of the XIVth Dalai Lama.

  18. Yuriy says:

    Just an opinion from East Europe.

    The majority of Ukrainian society still cherishes traditional values on gender, marriage, sexuality. Some of them are, indeed, outdated, but others must remain, I believe.

    Most of people I know (college, university graduates, other well-read people with close to Buddhist outlooks) view the coming of modern gender, feminist, gay-positive, transsexual as a destructive propaganda, which is promoted by certain circles aiming to corrupt and delude young peoples’ minds.

    Everywhere in the media they create an image of sexually deviant people as being “cool”, advanced, romantic heroes (which they are not, of course). What a young, unsophisticated mind has to counter this? Nothing. It just takes on the cool gay image. I’ve seen this everywhere in Kyiv and major ukrainian cities. That looks disgusting, even to my Ukrainian Theravadin eye. I start missing a bit of Hitler, you know:)

    The same story happened for all developed Western countries, sooner or later. And those at the wheel(Jews, Masons, Maras or whoever they are) with immense propaganda and brainwashing resources surely succeeded in changing European peoples’ values.

    Well, that’s the worldly part of it. Where I’m heading to is that the quest for bhikkhuni ordination started perfectly in line with all this gay equality movement. Some see it as a just struggle for equality, but the forces behind the movement are undoubtedly trying to corrupt the Theravadin Sangha.

    When|if they succeed, they will proceed with promoting ordination for transsexuals and hermaphrodites) (which was, in fact, prohibited by the Buddha in the Vinaya).

    Later on they will demand the same for sexless aliens, for animals (why not – they are sentient beings, how can we deny them ordination!) Al of this will be done under the excuse: “The times are changing, so are the Vinaya rules. The Buddha surely wouldn’t mind:))”

    In part, I am a Theravadin due to this school’s clutching to the Tradition and Buddha’s original message. Whoever likes flexible new-age values, can switch to Mahayana at will.

    Let Theravada remain a sanctuary for traditionally-minded people!

    A bit about myself. My name is Yuriy. I am 34, half Ukrainian and half-Luthuanian, well-traveled, two bachelor’s degrees, Theravada Buddhist|Nazi-Socialist, in 1999-2001 ordained and practiced as bhikkhu for 2 years.

    And yes, I am scared of the vagina too, as is every unenlightened dick-possessing heterosexual:))

    • Yes. indeed it is a very slippery slope. Once we allow the ordination of women then dogs and cow ordination are sure to follow.

      But seriously, what Ajahn Brahm did was what needs to happen. He is a progressive and he broke the rules and then ties to a more conservative group. A wonderful step for Theravadan practice.

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