Buddhism and Sexism

Buddhist nuns conducting a service at the Fo Guang Shan Temple in Perth, Australia.

Paul Kane / Getty Images

Buddhist women, including nuns, have faced harsh discrimination by Buddhist institutions in Asia for centuries. There is gender inequality in most of the world's religions, of course, but that's no excuse. Is sexism intrinsic to Buddhism, or did Buddhist institutions absorb sexism from Asian culture? Can Buddhism treat women as equals, and remain Buddhism?

The Historical Buddha and the First Nuns

Let's begin at the beginning, with the historical Buddha. According to the Pali Vinaya and other early scriptures, the Buddha originally refused to ordain women as nuns. He said that allowing women into the sangha would cause his teachings to survive only half as long –- 500 years instead of a 1,000.

The Buddha's cousin Ananda asked if there was any reason women could not realize enlightenment and enter Nirvana as well as men. The Buddha admitted there was no reason a woman could not be enlightened. "Women, Ananda, having gone forth are able to realize the fruit of stream-attainment or the fruit of once-returning or the fruit of non-returning or arahantship," he said.

That's the story, anyway. Some historians argue that this story was an invention written into scriptures later, by an unknown editor. Ananda was still a child when the first nuns were ordained, for example, so he couldn't very well have been on hand to advise the Buddha. 

Early scriptures also say that some of the women who were the first Buddhist nuns were praised by the Buddha for their wisdom, and several realized enlightenment. 

Unequal Rules for Nuns

The Vinaya-pitaka records the original rules of discipline for monks and nuns. A bhikkuni (nun) has rules in addition to those given to a bhikku (monk). The most significant of these rules are called the Eight Garudhammas ("heavy rules"). These include total subordination to monks; the most senior nuns are to be considered "junior" to a monk of one day.

Some scholars point to discrepancies between the Pali Bhikkuni Vinaya (the section of the Pali Canon dealing with the rules for nuns) and other versions of the texts and suggest the more odious rules were added after the Buddha's death. Wherever they came from, over the centuries the rules were used in many parts of Asia to discourage women from being ordained.

When most orders of nuns died out centuries ago, conservatives used rules that called for ordained monks and nuns to be present at nuns’ ordination to stop women from being ordained. If there are no living ordained nuns, according to the rules, there can be no nun ordinations. This effectively ended full nun ordination in the Theravada orders of southeast Asia; women there can be novices only. And no nun's order was ever established in Tibetan Buddhism, although there are some women Tibetan lamas.

There is, however, an order of Mahayana nuns in China and Taiwan that can trace its lineage back to the first ordination of nuns. Some women have been ordained as Theravada nuns in the presence of these Mahayana nuns, although this is hugely controversial in some patriarchal Theravada monastic orders. 

Women have had an impact on Buddhism nonetheless. I've been told the nuns of Taiwan enjoy higher status in their country than the monks do. The Zen tradition also has some formidable women Zen masters in its history.

Can Women Enter Nirvana?

Buddhist doctrines on the enlightenment of women are contradictory. There is no one institutional authority that speaks for all Buddhism. The myriad schools and sects do not follow the same scriptures; texts that are central to some schools are not recognized as authentic by others. And the scriptures disagree.

For example, the Larger Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra, also called the Aparimitayur Sutra, is one of three sutras that provide the doctrinal basis of the Pure Land school. This sutra contains a passage usually interpreted to mean that women must be reborn as men before they can enter Nirvana. This opinion pops up in time to time in other Mahayana scriptures, although I'm not aware of it being in the Pali Canon.

On the other hand, the Vimalakirti Sutra teaches that maleness and femaleness, like other phenomenal distinctions, are essentially unreal. "With this in mind, the Buddha said, ’In all things, there is neither male nor female.’" The Vimilakirti is an essential text in several Mahayana schools, including Tibetan and Zen Buddhism.

"All Acquire the Dharma Equally"

In spite of the barriers against them, throughout Buddhist history, many individual women have earned respect for their understanding of dharma.

I've already mentioned women Zen masters. During Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism's golden age (China, ca. 7th-9th centuries) women studied with male teachers, and a few were recognized as dharma heirs and Ch'an masters. These include Liu Tiemo, called the "Iron Grindstone"; ​Moshan; and Miaoxin. Moshan was a teacher to both monks and nuns. 

Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) brought Soto Zen from China to Japan and is one of the most revered masters in the history of Zen. In a commentary called the Raihai Tokuzui, Dogen said, "In acquiring the dharma, all acquire the dharma equally. All should pay homage to and hold in esteem one who has acquired the dharma. Do not make an issue of whether it is a man or a woman. This is the most wondrous law of the buddha-dharma."

Buddhism Today

Today, Buddhist women in the West generally consider institutional sexism to be vestiges of Asian culture that can be surgically excised from dharma. Some western monastic orders are co-ed, with men and women following the same rules.

"In Asia, nuns' orders are working for better conditions and education, but in many countries, they have a long way to go. Centuries of discrimination will not be undone overnight. Equality will be more of a struggle in some schools and cultures than in others. But there is momentum toward equality, and I see no reason why that momentum will not continue.

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O'Brien, Barbara. "Buddhism and Sexism." Learn Religions, Apr. 5, 2023, learnreligions.com/buddhism-and-sexism-449757. O'Brien, Barbara. (2023, April 5). Buddhism and Sexism. Retrieved from https://www.learnreligions.com/buddhism-and-sexism-449757 O'Brien, Barbara. "Buddhism and Sexism." Learn Religions. https://www.learnreligions.com/buddhism-and-sexism-449757 (accessed May 29, 2023).