Where are the female Buddhist Monks?

iBrian

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While reading Vajradhara's long and detailed posts, a question suddenly came to mind:

"Where are the female Buddhist Monks?"

I'm curious - what are the actual attitudes to gender in Buddhism as a general point?

A general question, actually.
 
I said:
While reading Vajradhara's long and detailed posts, a question suddenly came to mind:

"Where are the female Buddhist Monks?"

I'm curious - what are the actual attitudes to gender in Buddhism as a general point?

A general question, actually.

Namaste Brian,

Buddhism developed in the context of an Indian society that was patriarchal. Women were seen as subservient to men and
very much dependent on them (see Hindu Views on Marriage). In Hinduism, the main religion in India at the time of the
Buddha, only men were able to become priests. This meant that before a woman could be freed from samsara she had to be
reborn as a male (as priests were the highest caste in Hinduism).
There was also the unfortunate practice of widow burning (sati) in which it was deemed a great honour for a woman to
be cremated with her husband.

The first Buddhist nun was the Buddha's aunt, Prajapati (who brought him up after the death of his mother). At first
Siddhartha was reluctant to allow her to join the monastic sangha because he said women would not understand his
teaching. This seems to be a strange attitude for one who promoted compassion and loving kindness (metta) towards all
living things. Some Buddhists choose to ignore this discrepancy in the Buddha's early life however others point out
that he was simply expressing a typical Indian attitude towards women at the time. This is because they acknowledge
that unlike Jesus (who Christians believe was always different to the average person), the Buddha began life as just
an ordinary man (although admittedly he was significantly extraordinary in that he ended up making a major
contribution to the Indian and global religious landscape).[1]

The key to understanding the Buddha's change of attitude towards women is his teaching about anicca (everything
changes). Ananda, the Buddha's cousin, used the idea of impermanence to show that just because Indian culture treated
women this way, this was not necessarily the way things should remain. As a result the Buddha changed his attitude and
allowed women to enter the sangha and become a real part of the Buddhist community. The death of Prajapati's husband
also demonstrated the reality of impermanence and allowed her to become someone different to the person she was when
married (E.g. As a wife her life would revolve around her husband).

In the earliest form of Buddhism, called Theravada, there was a conscious effort to follow the Buddha's lifestyle as
closely as possible. The ever-increasing amount of rules and regulations to assist this came to be known as the
Vinaya. As all scholars of Buddhism are quick to point out, there were many more rules for women than men however this
may have been to protect them in a sexist society. Although the Vinaya required men to be present at nun's religious
ceremonies this is likely to have been in order to protect them. It was certainly not to oversee or lead them in spiritual matters.

Despite the Buddha's inclusion of women to the monastic sangha some monks believed their presence was a hindrance to
them attaining Enlightenment. This was because they were finding the women sexually attractive and as a result this
increased their desires (which they were trying to overcome to reach nirvana (which is the extinguishing of desires)).
The Buddha also became concerned about this but only in the sense that to view women in this way was degrading to
them. In the end, nunneries would be phased out however this was more due to the pressures of a society which reacted
against women being allowed to adopt new roles previously denied to them.[2] It should be noted, however, that
nunneries are being re-established in the West.

Traditional Buddhist teaching naturally lends itself to the idea of gender equality. For instance, the idea of anatta
(non-self) breaks down the divisions between male and female. Gender is often defined according to a fixed idea of
what is considered masculine and feminine and as such male and female roles in society. These fixed ideas are often
the cause of sexual stereotypes. However, if one has no fixed 'self' then such gender definitions become ambiguous
(although this is not to say that there are no men and women!).

At the heart of Buddhism is the problem of dukkha (suffering). This is not only physical but also involves much
emotional and psychological suffering caused through bad actions or attitudes. An example of how dukkha may arise in
relation to women is if they are denied opportunities due to being discriminated against on the basis of their gender
(E.g. Women should not be mechanics because that is a man's job). Combined with this is the idea of compassion which
is the promotion of respect and dignity for all living things. Clearly, if women are not being treated equally then compassion is not being demonstrated.
Although the third precept challenges the sexual relationships of men and women, once again it is the first precept
which encourages the development of wholesome attitudes by men and women towards each other ('I undertake not to take
life'). This precept does not just involve the literal physical taking of life but anything which promotes attitudes
that deny people a quality of life. Thus it is vital for Buddhists that society is seen to protect and promote equal
opportunities for both men and women.

It should be remembered that despite these teachings traditional Buddhists believe that, although men and women are
equal, they have different roles. They believe it is the role of the man (husband) to provide for the family whilst it
is the role of the woman (wife) to care for it. This attitude
can also be seen in the separation of monks and nuns (also for reasons discussed earlier - and maybe the practical
purpose of protecting both from breaking the third precept ('I undertake to avoid sexual misconduct')).

In Vajrayana Buddhism there are many female Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The most well known is Green Tara whose name
means 'She who saves'. There is also the Bodhisattva Kuan Yin, whose name means 'Compassion' as well as Prajnaparamita
who is known as the mother of all Buddha's because she represents anicca (the fundamental truth of life). This shows
that the truth of Buddhism can be represented to people in both male and female forms.

[1] It is interesting that both Jesus and Buddha rejected the religion they had been brought up to believe in to
develop teachings which were to become the basis of new religions and what we know as Christianity (Jesus was brought
up as a Jew) and Buddhism (Buddha was brought up as a Hindu).
[2] The traditional Hindu view is that priests should be male. By allowing women to become nuns Buddhists were
essentially giving women the same spiritual authority as men.
 
Thanks for that. :)

I guess you're saying that the nuns have less of a profile in the western image, and that Buddhism is generally permeated by patriarchal cultural values.

Somehow I see a lot in common there as with Christianity.

I wonder how long before Islam does the same - or are there no gender restrictions on a woman's spiritual authority within Islam?
 
I said:
Thanks for that. :)

I guess you're saying that the nuns have less of a profile in the western image, and that Buddhism is generally permeated by patriarchal cultural values.

Somehow I see a lot in common there as with Christianity.

I wonder how long before Islam does the same - or are there no gender restrictions on a woman's spiritual authority within Islam?

Namaste Brian,

one thing to keep in mind is that there are a great many schools of Buddhism and they don't all share the same cultural clutter :) in fact, in many ways the Western Buddhist Order is a new school of Buddhism as our cultural values and so forth are much different from those of East Asians. in the Western Order, women are in every respect equal with men. Also, in the Tibetan (Vajrayana) tradition women are also treated as equal with men in religious matters. in fact, it could be argued that women are regarded as more inclined to certain aspects of the Path.

Ayeshah is one of the greatest commentators of the Qur'an and she is a female, though i think that is a bit uncommon. one of the things that is difficult for me in Islam is that Islam, itself, does not advocate any sects... however, as is plain, there are a great many sects of Islam... and they are rather different from each other in some fundamental ways.

As an aside.. i've posed a question regarding monastic tradition within Islam on the understanding-islam.org site. basically, there isn't a monastic tradition... though the Sufi's have something sort of like it.

back to Buddhism for a moment... recall, the Buddha says that each being has Buddha-nature so we can see that any type of discrimination of women was for cultural rather than religious reasons.
 
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