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Tibetan Buddhist nun Khandro Rinpoche

Some scholars argue that Gautama Buddha espoused equality for women. With some trepidation, he allowed women to become monks and gave tacit approval for women to participate in serious philosophical debates. These scholars argue that Buddhism's sexist side is due primarily to its links with Hinduism and the conservative monk hierarchy that determined the path Buddhism took after The Buddha death.

In Buddhist societies, women generally have pretty high status. They inherit property, own land and work and enjoy many of the same rights as men. But still it is hard to say that are treated equally. The often quoted saying??Men are the front legs of an elephant and women are the hind legs?’still sums up a view held by many.

Jacob Kinnard wrote in the Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices: One would think that Buddhism would have been entirely open to women, because it is purely one's own effort, one's own ability to understand the nature of the dharma and to realize the truth of impermanence, that determines where one is on the path. In other words, we might expect to find inclusiveness in Buddhism, and to a certain extent we do. One's gender should not, in theory, hinder one's spiritual attainment any more than one's caste would. In practice, however, the status of women has been anything but clear in Buddhism.[Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018, Encyclopedia.com]

Websites and Resources on Buddhism: Buddha Net buddhanet.net/e-learning/basic-guide ; Internet Sacred Texts Archive sacred-texts.com/bud/index ; Introduction to Buddhism webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/buddhaintro ; Early Buddhist texts, translations, and parallels, SuttaCentral suttacentral.net ; East Asian Buddhist Studies: A Reference Guide, UCLA web.archive.org ; View on Buddhism viewonbuddhism.org ; Tricycle: The Buddhist Review tricycle.org ; BBC - Religion: Buddhism bbc.co.uk/religion

Views of Women in Buddhism

As is true with many other religions, Buddhism sees women in a less favorable light than men and provides them with fewer opportunities.
Kinnard wrote: In the early textual tradition the vision of women is often quite negative, and women become a kind of hindrance and a distraction, the embodiment of illusion and the objects of lustful grasping. There are, to be sure, also positive images of women — as mothers, as devoted wives, as model givers. This last role is particularly important, for among the laity it is the women of the community who are often most actively involved in supporting the sangha and, as a result, in receiving the dharma. [Source: Jacob Kinnard, Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2018, Encyclopedia.com]

Some Buddhist scriptures are downright cruel. One sutra reads: “one who looks at a woman even a moment will lose the virtuous function of eyes. Even though you may look at a large snake, you must not look at a woman." Another reads, “If all the desires and delusions of all the men throughout the major world system were lumped together, they would be no greater than the karmic impediment of one single woman."

Theravada Buddhists have traditionally believed that women had to be reborn as men to achieve nirvana or become Bodhisattvas. Mahayana Buddhism by contrast cast women in more favorable terms. Female deities hold high positions; The Buddha is regarded a subordinate to a primordial female force described as the “Mother of all Buddhas?; men are told they are more likely to attain enlightenment if they open up their soft, intuitive feminine side in meditation.

Book: Gender Equality in Buddhism by Masatoshi Ueki (Peter Lang Publishing).

Buddhist Nuns

The Theravada Buddhist scholar Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote: “In principle, the word Sangha includes bhikkhunis - that is, fully ordained nuns — but in Theravada countries the full ordination lineage for women has become defunct, though there continue to exist independent orders of nuns.”

Nuns spend much of their time in meditation and study like other monks. Sometimes nuns shave their heads, which sometimes makes them almost indistinguishable from the men. In some cultures their robes are the same as the men (in Korea, for example, they are grey) and other ones they are different (in Myanmar they are orange and pink). After the head of a Buddhist nun is shaved, the hair is buried under a tree.

Buddhist nuns perform various duties and chores. Nuns-in-training make around 10,000 incense sticks a day working at easel-like desks at a building near the pagoda. carol of Lufty wrote in the New York Times, "The women, all in their 20s and exceedingly friendly...wrap a sawdust-and -tapioca flour mixture around pink sticks and roll them in yellow powder. These are then dried along the roadside before they are sold to the public."

Status of Women from the Buddhist Perspective

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laughing nuns
A.G.S. Kariyawasam, a Sri Lankan writer and scholar, wrote: “Woman's role as mother is highly valued in Buddhism by designating her as 'the society of mothers' (matugama). Her role as wife is equally valued for the Buddha has said that a man's best friend is his wife. (bhariya ti parama sakham, Samyutta N.i, 37]. Women who have no inclination for matrimonial responsibilities have the monastic life of bhikkhunis open to them. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ***]

“The woman's being a member of the "weaker sex" entitles her to man's protective coverage and related niceties of behaviour which are collectively referred to as 'chivalry'. This virtue seems to be slowly disappearing from the modern social scene perhaps as an unwelcome outfall of the women's liberation movements, most of which are on a wrong course because they have forgotten the very significant point regarding the biological unity of man and woman after the nature's own system. ***

“This implies that a woman cannot achieve freedom from male "chauvinism" or "domination" through a process of isolation form the male because the two are complementary to each other. When one of the two halves (wife as the better half) moves away from its natural and complementary companion, how can that lead to freedom? It can only lead to further confusion and isolation as has been happening today. Mutual understanding and confidence built on a successful matrimonial partnership would be the most successful path of the gender problem. ***

“The Buddha's Sigala discourse offers a comprehensive recipe for this. The implication of a certain degree of 'superiority' is man's masculinity is a nature's way which has to be accepted without cause for prejudice to either sex. The symbolical stories of genesis of the world, both from East and West maintain that it was the male that appeared first on earth.

Thus Eve followed Adam and the Buddhist story of genesis in the Agganna Sutta of the Digha Nikaya also maintain the same position. Buddhism also maintains that only a male can become a Buddha. All this without any prejudice to woman. ***

“What has been said so far does not preclude the fact that the woman is heir to certain frailties and failings. Here Buddhism is severely demanding in the field of woman's virtue. Buddha has said in the Dhammapada (stz. 242) that "mis-conduct is the worst taint for a woman" (malitthiya duccaritam). The value of this for a woman may be summed up by saying that "there is no worse evil than a spoilt bad woman and no better blessing than an unspoilt good woman." ***

The Buddha on the Status of Women

A.G.S. Kariyawasam, a Sri Lankan writer and scholar, wrote: “Pasenadi, the king of Kosala, was a faithful follower of the Buddha and was in the habit of visiting and seeking his guidance when confronted with problems, both personal and public. Once, during the course of such an encounter, news was brought to him that his chief Queen Mallika had borne him a daughter. On receipt of this news the king became distraught, his face falling with a grief-stricken and disconsolate look. He began to think that he had elevated Mallika from a poor family to the status of his chief Queen so that she would bear him a son and thereby would have won great honour: but now, as she has borne him a daughter, she has lost that opportunity. [Source: Virtual Library Sri Lanka lankalibrary.com ]

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Buddhist girls meditating
“Noticing the king's sadness and disappointment, the Buddha addressed Pasenadi with the following words which words, in reality marked the beginning of a new chapter for womankind in general and for the Indian women in particular:
"A woman, O king, may prove
Even better than a man:
She, becoming wise and virtuous,
A faithful wife devoted to the in-laws,
May give birth to a son
Who may become a hero, ruler of the land:
The son of such a blessed woman
May even rule a wide realm" - (Samyutta Nikaya, i, P.86, PTS)

“A proper evaluation of these words of the Buddha is not possible without first bringing into focus the position of women in India in the 6th century B.C. during the Buddha's day...the birth of a girl in a family was regarded as a disappointing event, ominous and calamitous. The religious tenet that had gained ground that a father could obtain heavenly birth only if he had a son who could perform the ceremony of offering to the Manes, the sraddha-puja, added insult to injury. These super-men were blind to the fact that even a son had to be borne, bred and nourished by a woman in her vital capacity as the mother! The absence of a son meant that the father would be thrown out of heaven! Thus was Pasenadi's lament.

“Even matrimony had become a bond of slavery for a woman as she would become fully fettered and tethered to a man as an attendant and a survitor, this undemocratic wifely fidelity being pursued even upto the husband's funeral pyre. And it had been further laid down, also as a religious tenet, that it was only through such unqualified submission to her husband only that a woman could obtain a passport to heaven (patim susruyate yena - tena svarge mahiyate Manu: V, 153).

“It was in such a background that Gautama Buddha appeared with His message of liberation for women. His portrait in this Indian social background, dominated by Brahmanic hegemony, appears as that of a rebel and a social reformer. Among many contemporary social issues the restoration of due place to women in society ranked quite significant in the Buddha's programme. It is in this context that the Buddha's words to king Pasenadi quoted earlier assume their true worth.

“Those were the words of a rebel against undue authority, words of a reformist seeking to redeem woman from her slavery. It was with remarkable courage and vision that the Buddha championed the cause of woman against the injustice that had been perpetrated on her in the then society, seeking to bring equality between man and woman who constitute two complementary units of a single whole.

“In direct contrast to the brahmanic way of confining the woman to the position of a full-time servant, the Buddha opened the doors of freedom to her as He has specifically laid down in His celebrated address to Sigala, the Sigalovada Sutta. In very simple terms here He shows, in the true spirit of a democrat, how man and woman should live in holy matrimony together as partners on par with each other.

Buddhist Sources on Women

"There is no worse evil than a spoilt bad woman and no better blessing than an unspoilt good woman." - Buddha

Many a great man has had a woman as his inspirer.
Men whose lives were ruined through women also are many.
All told, virtue claims the highest premium for a woman.
Let the woman's decorative value also be recorded here.

Even could she have kept it secret from men, ... could she have kept it secret from spirit, ... could she have kept it secret from the gods, yet she could not have escaped herself from the knowledge of her sin.—Questions of King Milinda. [Source: “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg]

Clad in garments pure as the moonbeams, ... her ornaments modesty and virtuous conduct.—Ajanta Cave Inscriptions.

If you speak ... to a woman, do it with pureness of heart.... Say to yourself: "Placed in this sinful world, let me be as the spotless lily, unsoiled by the mire in which it grows." Is she old? regard her as your mother. Is she honorable? as your sister. Is She of small account? as a younger sister. Is she a child? then treat her with reverence and politeness.—Sutra of Forty-two Sections. Gentle and true, simple and kind was she,Noble of mien, with gracious speech to all, And gladsome looks—a pearl of womanhood. —Sir Edwin Arnold.

Theravada Buddhist Beliefs About Gender

According to the Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand: “ Despite the rigidity of Thai gender-role manifestations, it is interesting to note that Thai people perceive transience in gender identity. In Buddhist philosophy, the notion of individual “personality” is false, because a being differs upon each incarnation. Gender differs in every life, with social position, fortune or misfortune, mental and physical dispositions, life events, and even the species (human, animal, ghost, or deity) and location of rebirth (strata of heavens or hells), all of which depend on the being's fund of merit accumulated through committing good deeds in past lives. In the Thai interpretation, women are commonly seen as lower on the hierarchy of merit because they cannot be ordained. Khin Thitsa observed that according to the Theravada view, “a being is born as a woman because of bad karma or lack of sufficient good merit." [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (Muang Thai) by Kittiwut Jod Taywaditep, M.D., M.A., Eli Coleman, Ph.D. and Pacharin Dumronggittigule, M.Sc., late 1990s; www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/IES/thailand

In Susanne Thorbek's study, a woman illustrates her frustration with being a woman: In a minor domestic crisis, she shouts, “Oh, it's my evil fate to have been born a woman!” Somewhat more reservedly, a pious young woman in Penny Van Esterik's study, also admitted her desire to be reborn as a male in order to become a monk. Yet another more “worldly” woman, seemingly satisfied with her female gender and hoping to be reborn as a deity of the sensuous heavens, argued that those who desired a specific gender upon rebirth would be born of indeterminate sex. Even within a lifespan, men's transitions between the Sangha and the laity demonstrates the transient nature of gender as the two masculine gender roles are abruptly switched. As serious as they are in observing the gender codes, Thai men and women accept gender identities as important yet temporary. Even those in frustration learn to think life will be “better off the next time around," especially as long as they do not question the inequity of their sometimes arduous, yet transient, states. [Ibid]

Many ideal images for men and women are found in religious folk tales, which the monks read or retell during sermons (thetsana). These sermons, although rarely translated from the Buddhist canon (Tripitaka or Phra Trai-pidok in Thai), are taken by most Thais as the authentic teachings of the Buddha. Similarly, other ritual traditions, folk operas, and local legends contain gender-relevant images in the depiction of men and women's lives, both sovereign and common, showing their sins and merits through their actions and relationships, all of which purportedly convey Buddhist messages. Thereby, the Theravada world view, both authentic and interpreted through the Thai eyes, has exerted enormous influences on the gender construction in Thailand.

nuns and monks at Doi Inthanon in Thailand

Gender Roles in Theravada Buddhism and Their Implications

With a firm belief in karma and reincarnation, Thai people are concerned with accumulating merit in everyday life in order to attain an enhanced status in rebirth rather than striving for nirvana. In real life, men and women “make merit," and the Theravada culture prescribes different ways for this quest. The ideal “merit making” for men is through ordination in the Sangha (order of monks, or in Thai, Phra Song). Women, on the other hand, are not allowed to be ordained. Although the order of Bhikkhuni (the female equivalent to the Sangha monks) was established by the Buddha with some reluctance, the practice disappeared from Sri Lanka and India after several centuries and never existed in Southeast Asia (Keyes 1984; P. Van Esterik 1982). Today, lay women can intensify their Buddhist practice by becoming mae chii, (often erroneously translated to “nun”). These are lay female ascetics who shave their heads and wear white robes. Although mae chii abstain from worldly pleasures and sexuality, the laity consider giving alms to mae chii a lesser merit-making activity than alms given to the monks. Hence, these women usually depend on themselves and/or on their relatives for the necessities of life. Obviously, mae chii are not as highly regarded as monks, and indeed many mae chii are even perceived negatively. [Source: Encyclopedia of Sexuality: Thailand (Muang Thai) by Kittiwut Jod Taywaditep, M.D., M.A., Eli Coleman, Ph.D. and Pacharin Dumronggittigule, M.Sc., late 1990s; www2.hu-berlin.de/sexology/IES/thailand *]

“The fact that the Buddhist religious roles for women are underdeveloped has led Kirsch to comment that women in Theravada societies are “religiously disadvantaged." Conventionally, the exclusion of women from monastic roles has been rationalized by the view that women are less ready than men to attain the Buddhist salvation because of their deeper enmeshment in worldly matters. Instead, women's greatest contribution to Buddhism lies in their secular role through enabling the religious pursuit for the men in their lives. Hence, the role for women in religion is characterized by the mother-nurturer image: Women support and provide for Buddhism byway of “giving” young men to the Sangha, and “nurturing” the religion by alms givin. The ways in which Thai women constantly support Buddhist institutions and contribute to various spiritual functions in their communities have been well illustrated in Penny Van Esterik's work." *

“This mother-nurturer image is also prominent in the Thai women's secular pursuits. Women are expected to provide for the well-being of their husbands, children, and parents. As pointed out by Kirsch (1985), this historical mother-nurturer role has had a self-perpetuating effect on the exclusion of women from monastic roles. Because women are barred from the monastic position, and because the weight of filial and family obligations falls more on women than on men, women are doubly locked in the same secular mother-nurturer role with no other options. They, therefore, are indeed enmeshed in worldly matters, and their redemption lies in the actions of the men in their lives. *

“Two important religious texts illustrate this condition. In the tale of Prince Vessantara, his wife, Queen Maddi, is praised because of her unconditional support of his generosity. In Anisong Buat (“Blessings of Ordination”), a woman with no merit is saved from hell because she had allowed her son to be ordained as a monk. In reality, the mother-nurturer image entails a certain life path for women, as noted by Kirsch: “Under typical circumstances young women could expect to remain rooted in village life, eventually snaring a husband, having children, and 'replacing' their mothers." Men, as seen in the depiction of Prince Vessantara and the young son with religious aspirations in the “Blessings of Ordination," are afforded autonomy, as well as geographic and social mobility, to pursue both religious and secular goals, therefore “affirming” the conventional wisdom that men are more ready than women to give up attachments. *

Siddhartha (Buddha) leaving his family

“Undoubtedly, these differential role prescriptions for men and women have led to a clear division of labor along gender lines. Thai women's role of mother and their routine merit-making activities necessitate their specialization in economic-entrepreneurial activities, such as small-scale trading, productive activities in the field, and craft work at home. Thai men, encouraged by the logistic freedom, prefer political-bureaucratic activities, particularly those in government service . The connection between monastic institutions and polity has always been salient to Thai people, therefore, positions in bureaucracy and politics represent a man's ideal pursuit should he choose to excel in the secular role. In the nineteenth century, more Thai men began to strive for secular success when the Buddhist reformation in Thailand demanded more intensified discipline in monks; this coincided with an expansion of government occupations that resulted from a bureaucratic system reorganization in the 1890s.

“Becoming a temporary member of the monkhood has long been seen in Thailand as a rite of passage which demarcates Thai men's transformation from “raw” to “ripe," or from immature men to scholars or wise men (bundit, from Pali pandit). In Sathian Kosed's “Popular Buddhism in Thailand”, young Buddhist men, upon turning 20 years old, are expected to become a monk for the period of about three months during the Buddhist Lenten period. Because the merit from ordination of a married man will be transferred to his wife (and because she must consent to his ordination), parents are understandably anxious to see that their sons are ordained before they get married. Traditionally, a “raw” unordained adult man would be seen as uneducated and, therefore, not a suitable man to be a husband or son-in-law. The man's girlfriend or fiancée, therefore, delights in his temporary monkhood as it should enhance her parents' approval of him. She often sees this as a sign of relationship commitment, and promises to wait patiently for the day he leaves his monkhood at the end of the Lenten period. In Thai society today, this practice of ordination has changed and is less significant, as men are more involved in secular education or occupied by their employment. Statistics show that today, members of the Sangha account for a smaller percent of the male population than in earlier times (Keyes 1984). As early as the late 1940s, when Sathian Kosed wrote Popular Buddhism in Thailand, there were already some signs of weakening customs around the Buddhist ordination."

“Many other phenomena related to gender and sexuality in Thailand today can be traced to the Theravada world view. As will be more evident in subsequent discussions, the Thai culture exhibits a double standard, which gives men a greater latitude to express their sexuality and other “deviant” behaviors (e.g., drinking, gambling, and extramarital sex). Keyes has pointed out that whereas women are seen as inherently close to the Buddha's teachings about sufferings, men require the discipline of ordination in order to achieve this insight, for they tend to digress from the Buddhist Precepts. With Keyes' notion in mind, we can speculate that Thai men perceive that demeritorious behaviors can be amended through their eventual ordination. Up to 70 percent of all men in central Thailand become monks on a temporary basis (J. Van Esterik 1982). Other adult males renounce “worldly” living to be ordained to the Sangha, living a midlife or old age “robed in yellow” as is commonly said in Thai. With such redemptive options, Thai men may feel little need to suppress their passions and vices. These attachments are, after all, easy to give up and are insubstantial compared to the salvation available to them in their twilight years. *

“On the contrary, women's lack of access to direct religious salvation makes them work harder to maintain virtuous lives, which means refraining from and disapproving of sexual indulgences, in order to keep their demerit to a minimum. With no access to formal Buddhist scholastic activities, it is unlikely that women would be able to discern which virtues and sins were defined by the Theravada values and which by the local gender construction (see discussion of kulasatrii in Section 1A). Further, because women believe that their strongest merit is to be a mother of a son who is ordained, the pressure on women to marry and have a family is heightened. They must do everything to enhance their likelihood of marriage, perhaps including adherence to the ideal female images no matter how difficult. Viewed this way, both men and women in Thai society strongly endorse a double standard regarding gender and sexuality, albeit for different reasons."

Types of Wives in Buddhism

wedding portrait of a Vietnamese couple

Mr. Mithra Wettimuny of the Sambodhi Viharaya in Columbo, Sri Lanka wrote on Beyond the Net: “A wife must first clearly comprehend whether she has been a good wife or a bad wife. In this regard the Buddha declares that there are seven types of wives in this world: 1) There is a wife who hates her husband, would prefer to kill him if she could, is not obedient, is not loyal, does not guard the husband’s wealth. Such a wife is called a ‘Killer wife’. 2) There is a wife who does not guard her husband’s wealth, scrounges and wastes his wealth, is not obedient and is not loyal to him. Such a wife is called a ‘Robber wife’. 3) There is a wife who behaves like a tyrant, cruel, oppressive, domineering, is disobedient, not loyal and does not guard the husband’s wealth. Such a wife is called a ‘Tyrant wife’. [Source: Mr.Mithra Wettimuny, Beyond the Net]

“4) Then there is the wife who sees her husband like the way the mother sees her son. Looks after all his needs, safeguards his wealth, is loyal and is devoted to him. Such a wife is called a ‘Motherly wife’. 5) Then there is also a wife who looks up to her husband like the way she looks up to her elder sister. Respects him, is obedient and humble, safeguards his wealth and is loyal to him. Such a wife is called a ‘Sisterly wife’. 6) Then there is the wife who when she sees her husband, it is as if two friends have met after a long time. She is humble, obedient, loyal and safeguards his wealth. Such a wife is called a ‘Friendly wife’. 7) Then there is also the wife who serves her husband at all times in every way without complaint, bears up shortcomings of the husband, if any, in silence, is obedient, humble, loyal and safeguards his wealth. Such a wife is called an ‘Attendant wife’.

These are the seven types of wives found in the world. Of them, the first three types (the Killer, the Robber and the Tyrant wife) lead a life of unhappiness here and now and at death is born in a place of torment [i.e., the animal world, the world of prethas (ghosts) and demons, asuras and the realm of hells.] The other four types of wives, that is the Motherly, Sisterly, Friendly and the Attendant wife lead a life of happiness here and now and at death is born in a place of happiness [i.e., divine worlds or human world].

Buddhist Sources on Being a Good Wife

She orders her household aright, she is hospitable to kinsmen and friends, a chaste wife, a thrifty housekeeper, skilful and diligent in all her duties.—Sigalovada-sutta.

The wife ... should be cherished by her husband.—Sigalovada-sutta.

Were I not ready to suffer adversity with my husband as well as to enjoy happiness with him, I should be no true wife.—Legend of We-than-da-ya.

He is my husband. I love and revere him with all my heart, and therefore am determined to share his fate. Kill me first, ... and afterwards do to him as you list.—Fo-pen-hing-tsih-king.

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: East Asia History Sourcebook sourcebooks.fordham.edu , “Topics in Japanese Cultural History” by Gregory Smits, Penn State University figal-sensei.org, Asia for Educators, Columbia University; Asia Society Museum “The Essence of Buddhism” Edited by E. Haldeman-Julius, 1922, Project Gutenberg, Virtual Library Sri Lanka; “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “Encyclopedia of the World's Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures: Volume 5 East and Southeast Asia” edited by Paul Hockings (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1993); BBC, Wikipedia, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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