Sexism in the Buddhadharma.

Via Linda Lewis
on Jan 9, 2012
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It’s important to acknowledge ongoing sexism in the Buddhadharma, especially in the monastic world of Buddhadharma.

Though it’s been 2,550 years, nuns are still burdened with more rules than monks (348 rules for nuns compared to 250 for monks in the vinaya-pitaka).

Still, Buddha was remarkably advanced for his time. He went against the entire caste system, saying anyone, even an untouchable woman, not just Brahmins, could become enlightened and realize the true nature of mind.

It is true his aunt had to ask him three times before he was willing to create an order of nuns. But once he did that, initially there were no rules. The Vinya was created as monks, in particular, had problems with the nuns.

Otabi kitahachi

It’s not like most nuns did anything wrong, but to maintain celibacy, the monks seemed to be quite tempted, so all these petty rules (at least from our 21st century perspective) were worked out–like how far downstream from a monk should a nun wash her begging bowl? Or should a nun mend the hem of a monks garment? Or how far behind a monk should a nun walk? The list goes on and on, and on.

The present 17th Karmapa is actually working hard to establish equality for nuns, going against this remaining frozen “tradition” of sexual inequality within the world of Karme Kagyu monasticism.

But the whole issue doesn’t get me fixated, even though I did the three year retreat at Gampo Abbey and had to follow some of these monastic rules, because I am a lay yogini or practitioner, as are 99 percent of Shambhala Buddhists.

There have been many enlightened yoginis–and in our Tibetan inspired lineage, Padmasambhava’s foremost student and lineage holder in her own right was Yeshe Tsogyal (above painting by Chogyam Trungpa…for more click over to the amazing Chronicle Project). Another Tibetan yogini who bucked all the conventions of the times was Machig Lapdron. Marpa’s consort Dagmema, which means “egoless lady,” was also a teacher in her own right, and gave Milarepa the Six Dharmas of Niguma.

Today there is Jetsun Kushula –a Sakya teacher who lives in BC–and Khandro Rinpoche–who has a center in Virginia– to name just a few. And of course there is wonderful Pema Chodron. She and Khandro Rinpoche are inspiring monastic examples of the present day.

Personally, in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage tradition, I have never experienced sexism as a big problem.


Our Nalanda translators work hard to make all the liturgies gender and user friendly. And I never felt second best with the Vidyadhara Trungpa Rinpoche. I was always welcomed and had great access to him, even though I was no one important. Meditation centers were originally run by one woman, one man teams. Presently in our sangha there are many women acharyas and shastris (senior teachers). And finally, at Gampo Abbey, the nuns are treated with great respect.

Probably if more Western women were drawn to monasticism throughout the wide world of Buddhadharma, any remaining sexism would dissolve faster.

But, good grief, monasticism just doesn’t seem to be as natural a path, compared to what has always been available–the yogini or lay practitioner’s path, which includes all of life and brings everything we meet to the dharmic view and practice–all the joy and sorrow, sickness and emotions which arise sometimes all at once with work and family–the “rich and juicy” situations of life.


About Linda Lewis

Linda Lewis met the Vidyadhara Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche in 1972 and, following Rinpoche’s invitation, immediately moved to Boulder, Colorado to be a part of his young and vital sangha. The predominant themes in her life have been teaching in contemplative schools–Vidya, Naropa, and the Shambhala School in Halifax, Nova Scotia–and studying, practicing, or teaching his Shambhala Buddhadharma wherever she finds herself.


26 Responses to “Sexism in the Buddhadharma.”

  1. Padma Kadag says:

    Hi Linda…."Our Nalanda translators work hard to make all the liturgies gender and user friendly." The translators are really doing this? I would be interested in some examples if you had the notion and the time.

  2. Tsering927 says:

    "But, good grief, monasticism just doesn’t seem to be as natural a path," — I think you have to define what you mean by a natural path. What “actual, " "natural" or “equality” refer to in mundane conceptuality and what these terms refer to in Vajrayana meditation may be different. I think confusion arises in the west over the idea of sexuality and equality in Tibetan Buddhism. If we can’t “see” it, we don’t believe it. In Tibetan Buddhist monasticism, the focus is on the mind-union relationship, which I believe is a more natural way of experiencing the fundamental state of bliss.

    I am not saying that the monks are not better funded — but, doesn't that reflect our own predisposition to support male monastic institutions — most of the sponsors reside in western countries, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.

    I am also wondering if there are any Tibetan or Himalayan nuns who sit with the Bhikshunis at the Kagyu Monlam. Are certain western nuns really concerned with equality or are they using a social issue to get their own asses up front? If they are truly concerned about the status of ordained women in Buddhism, why don’t they offer their seats to the Tibetan and Himalayan nuns who have completed retreat at Sherab Ling and other Ani Gonpas in the Himalayan region. A three and half year retreat along with over seven years service to the monastic community verses two weeks in Taiwan for the Bhikshuni ordination – I think it is a valid issue to reflect upon. BS is on both sides of the fence.

  3. Linda V Lewis says:

    Well, first comes to mind the Sadhana of Mahamudra and the Werma Sadhana, which used to use the word "son" and has now been changed to "child". There are many more such examples. Thanks for asking.

  4. Linda V Lewis says:

    All nuns–Tibetan, Western, from wherever–still sit behind the monks at the Kagyu Monlam. This is a small issue compared to the other larger issues. "Getting their own asses up front" is not the issue. I imagine there will always be a separation between monks and nuns, but I can also imagine a center aisle with monks on the right (upaya) and nuns on the left (prajna), which would be in accord with the scriptures, and certainly more in harmony with equality. Sexual equality is a right recognized by the UN, so it certainly isn't a novel protest unique to Western nuns. And if you consider this a protest, it is certainly one of the most patient and quiet ones on the planet!

  5. Padma Kadag says:

    I guess my inquiry was more directed towards the possibility that Nalanda translators are engaged in the "PC"ing of texts in what you term as "gender and user friendly". Is this what you are implying? If so, to what extent is this going on? How do you feel about that? (if that is accurate) I would be very interested in more examples.

  6. Do you think this is an issue where cultural sexism affects the practices, or the other way around? It seems like many Western spiritual practices have become more integrated in terms of gender equality, women leaders, etc. as those things evolve in our culture. Is this typical of Tibetan culture on the whole?

  7. Padma Kadag says:

    I am going to go out on a limb here… One of the many concepts I carry around regarding the differences between male and females in dharma is this idea that the vajra represents males and the bell females. That males represent skilfull means and females emptiness. That males represent phenomenal display and the females represent the origin of that display…prajnaparamita. So would it not make sense that "display" would lend itself more easily to males than females? I know i know…but i do carry this concept around with me. Afterall, only women can bare and give birth to a child.

  8. Linda V Lewis says:

    PC has so many connotations–not all positive. The Nalanda Translators take a great deal of time to find the most accurate word when translating Tibetan and I feel they do an excellent job. So words like "king" which are obviously gender exclusive, are now translated as "sovereign"–great! Certainly no problem from my point of view! You can check out their website or go to a Shambhala Centre to read any of their daily chants, the Sadhanna of Mahamudra, etc. for yourself. Cheers, and thank you for drawing me out a bit more!

  9. Linda V Lewis says:

    Well, practice is meant to liberate us from conceptual fixations of all kinds. Ultimately we see there is no difference between male and female, while relatively we enjoy the difference–but that does not make us biased in terms of human rights. Women's rights are relatively new even in the West–a bit more than 100 years. Buddha lived 2550+ years ago and tradition ruled in the East until now, yes with the influence of the West asking so many questions, challenging, and the 17th Karmapa is very open and responsive. Take for example his recommendation that all followers of the Kagyu path no longer eat meat; and in his monasteries in India they no longer do. But his Western students are slow to adopt this kindness to the animal world. But in other words, there is a great exchange going on, a very positive one between the East and West.

  10. Linda V Lewis says:

    Well yes and no–because each one of us has both energies within our bodies. Just as our left hand represents prajna and the right upaya. If you are familiar with the Six Yogas or Dharmas of Naropa, when a practitioner visualizes the inner channels, the lalana on the left and the rasana on the right, these too represent the male and female channels or nadis within the body of each practitioner. And the uma (Tibetan) or avadhuti (Sanskrit) or central channel represents the non-dual. So again, enjoy the differences, but each one of us has it all!

  11. Padma Kadag says:

    yes…agreed…but just as one is attracted to the father or the mother while in the bardo we cannot deny our karma for either male or female. That we "act" out these roles. Hermaphrodites are rare and yet we are subject to that karma within the channels. Display is display we both can agree. But since we are looking at "sexism" the channels are still present in what appears to be males, females, and hermaphrodites. In nature we see males with more colorful plumage, more of a mane and greater antlers…this is "display". Females obviously are display as well. But the differences are not because one is less equal than the other. The problem is that over time we have placed too much importance on the display which we judge as important. We beleive in all that is impermanent. And certainly the channels themselves are dualistic conceptual display.

  12. Padma Kadag says:

    yes you are right about PC…this translations business is very tricky. But as "harmless" as your examples are regarding changes to Tibetan texts they are still changing meaning. Then where does this stop? This is to be decided by a committee? If we have a Ter which includes samaya instructions that state one must consume meat or stay away from raw foods are we going to see fit to "adjust" the meanings? We are even changing the Tibetan alphabet with the advent of computerized tibetan font. On the subject of Ter…the text should be presented as it is…in Tibetan…with translation then it should be as literal as intended. Yet, the tormas are changing as are the tunes as well as the meaning. One more important point…translators notoriously translate the same word the same way for many practices. But a word in a Chod text has a different meaning in some other text. I do think that your "gender and user friendly" idea for translations is a grave error if this is the direction of translation committees….

  13. I am studying this in my acupressure class right now! Different terminology since it is the Japanese perspective, but same concept. It's interesting to be able to physically palpate the meridians and find imbalances. We do all have all of it.

  14. Hopefully as this positive dialogue continues on both sides we will be able to worry less about East/West, male/female and enjoy the differences without equating them with being of different value. Thanks!

  15. Beth Williamson says:

    I also have never felt less in the Shambhala sangha because of being a woman. I always felt there was room for me to be the best person I can be in the contest of the sangha. Personally I have struggled with much neurosis and immaturity over the many years I have been in the sangha (about 40) and I’ve come along slowly, always feeling encouraged to show up as much as I’ve been willing/able. The teachings are truly all-encompassing.

  16. Linda V Lewis says:

    Thank you for responding again. I have been working for many years with Scott Wellenbach, a wonderful teacher and translator. I am part of a small group of translator-wanna-bees. I see the work that goes into translating each word literally. There are expressions in Tibetan like "the Buddha and his sons" if you were to translate it literally. What is meant is the Buddha and bodhisattvas. There were definitely female bodhisattvas at the time of the Buddha. So we translate what was meant, the buddha and bodhisattvas. Whenever in doubt the translators ask several Tibetan teachers who often do not agree on a word or on what was meant. But large strokes of meaning, like your examples above, are never distorted, omitted, or edited out. I have great respect for the Nalanda Translators. Cheers.

  17. Linda V Lewis says:

    A la la Hoh! Yes indeed!

  18. Linda V Lewis says:

    This is so honest. Thank you for sharing. Shambhala does make an effort to be all inclusive.

  19. Louise Brooks says:

    Padma, the word "hermaphrodite" is no longer used. The correct term is "intersex". And no, this is not simply a PC thing. Blessings.

  20. Linda, you must be careful not to position Shambhala against other Buddhist communities in comparing sexism and gender politics because you then fall into a clearly typical Western position of criticizing the "other" Buddhists, especially given that Shambhala is predominantly Western and therefore very White.

    It is quite simple for any Westerner to judge both Eastern and Southern traditions as that has always been the position of the West and comes from a place of White privilege. There are gender politics and gross sexism throughout the Buddhist world that have less to do with Buddhist teachings and more to do with the cultural metamorphosis Buddhism undergoes when taken up by the people.

    However, to then go on to say "Personally, in the Shambhala Buddhist lineage tradition, I have never experienced sexism as a big problem" made you you sound very elitist. SGI could ask Shambhala why they aren't as diverse as they should be with SGI having the most African-Americans than any other Buddhist organization, or Tzu Chi could ask Shambhala why haven't they done more for earthquake relief in Haiti than they have.

    I encourage feminism in Buddhism (I currently manage the 7000+ "Buddhist Women" fan page on facebook) and the establishment of stronger institution for nuns throughout the Buddhist sangha – Vajrayana, Mahayana, and Theravda, but let us do it without the "my Buddhism is more egalitarian than yours" argument.

  21. […] Sexism in the Buddhadharma. ( […]

  22. […] all the male gurus in the lineages of Tibetan buddhadharma, it is worth remembering one of many female gurus: Machig […]

  23. Linda V Lewis says:

    Thank you. Good points. And Shambhala is very white. However I would also like to update you on a few points. The Shambhalians in Atlantic Canada (17 centers or study groups in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland, and Prince Edward Island) did a great deal to donate money to Haiti after the earthquake. In fact the Shambhala School children from pre-school to 12 grade made pins with the Haitian flag and sold them at the Farmers' Market to raise money for Haiti. And I am sure the Centers in Quebec did the same, as the French connection remains strong with Haiti.
    I was actually inspired to write this article by a young man, Travis, in Fredericton, NB who had questions about Shambhala, so I was concentrating my info on Shambhala Buddhists and trying to compare it with the past historical struggles of the buddhadharma in India, and monasticism in Tibet etc. So if you reread the article, I wasn't really trying to compare Shambhala with other current dharma organizations. But thank you for bringing more groups into the discussion.

  24. Good article. That what was in practise was the product of that time. Many things go refined but the technique is tried to preserve in it's pure form. By it we can understand the law of impermanence.