The role of women in Buddhism is the subject of much debate and discussion in modern literature. Many people claim that Buddhism is gender biased, with women side-lined. This bias, if it exists, has happened despite Buddha’s insistence that men and women are equal. According to his teaching, both can reach enlightenment. Both follow the same path to enlightenment. Most monks have through the ages believed that the path of enlightenment is the preserve of men.
Buddha Finds Enlightenment in a Land of Social Injustice
Buddha spent years of self-denial and near starvation seeking the Truth. He then founded the Middle Way, living a more balanced life. One day while meditating under the bodhi tree he found enlightenment. In attaining what he had sought for so many years he saw all people as equal. For this reason, he had to do what he could to correct the social injustices of his time.
In India 2500 years ago the two worst forms of injustice were the caste system and the treatment of women. Under the caste system, people were separated with some living a life of luxury. Others, the untouchables, were condemned to a life of menial labor on the outskirts of society. After finding the truth, one of Buddha’s first moves was to admit untouchables into his monasteries. This action met with severe resistance from society.
Women’s Position in Society
Buddha considered men and women to have equal worth. He taught married partners to share responsibility in the family. He expected both partners to dedicate themselves to the task of looking after the home.
Women, in his view, played a vital role in the success of the family. He expected women to learn aspects of their husbands’ trades or businesses. In this way, they could help their partners with the business when they could not be there.
In his views, Buddha was way ahead of his time. Many women were miserable during his life in India. The birth of a girl into a family was considered ill-fortune. Females could not carry the family name and could not perform religious rites for the parents once they died. Some people deemed women even lower than Sudras. Sudras were from the lowest caste in India and were reviled.
A woman was dependent on the men in her life. She would pass from the authority of her father to her husband. If she became a widow, her sons had authority over her. Women received little or no education and had little religious freedom. They could not get to heaven through their own actions. Only obedience to her husband could get her into heaven.
Families wanted boys to continue the family name and perform the rites of the ancestors. Girls were an inconvenience.
Buddha put no restrictions on education or religion for either men or women. He considered them equals. In the Sangha’s there was no caste system and little hierarchy.
He expected men to treat their wives as partners and companions. In his view, women had an important and dignified role to play in society. Buddha challenged on many occasions the widespread hostile attitude toward women.
Buddha frequently challenged the misogynistic ideas of the day. According to Buddha women could reach the same level of enlightenment as men. In addition, the path to enlightenment is the same for both men and women
Women in the Monastery
Within five years of finding the Truth, Buddha allowed women to enter his monasteries or Sangha. Entry into a Sangha freed the women of the time from household and sexual slavery.
Much is made of the fact that Buddha had been very reluctant to allow women to enter a monastery. His beloved stepmother and aunt Mahaprajapati Gotamiwho wanted to follow him into the Sangha. She had raised him when his own mother had died shortly after his birth. Three times he denied her.
While many have claimed this as a sign of misogyny on the part of Buddha, his reluctance may have been for practical concerns. He may have worried about the wellbeing of a high bred woman used to living a life of luxury. Those who entered a Sangha had to depend on the goodwill of the surrounding communities. They lived a hard life.
He may have feared the consequences of allowing women to enter the Sangha. The monks had to live celibate lives. He may have had concerns that allowing women into the monasteries could cause a problem in this respect.
Monks had to take to the streets and seek alms. This lifestyle could have put women at risk. It is said that Buddha believed that the ordination of women would cause the early demise of his teachings. He expected his teachings to last 500 rather than 1000 years.
Many scholars have thrown doubt on the origin of the stories about the reluctance of the Buddha. They believe that these accounts were written into records by sexist monks. As an enlightened being, Buddha could not hold any ill-will against any human being. So, he could only have held kind and respectful feelings for women.
The first nun ordained into a Sangha was the Buddha’s stepmother. She and a group of friends had renounced their lives, shaved their heads and walked for days to ask for ordination.
Stricter Rules for Women
Female nuns, or bhikkhuni, are subjected to far stricter rules than monks. This is often discussed as further evidence of sexism in the Buddhist religion. The most significant of these rules are eight Garudhammas.
According to these rules, women must respect monks even those freshly ordained. They have to undergo extra training in discipline and they may not worship in a place where there is no monk present.
Many scholars believe that these rules do not go all the way back the Buddha but were added in after his death. Nonetheless, even if this was the case, the rules must have been added by some rather close disciples of Buddha. These rules have discouraged women from entering the Sangha throughout Asia.
The limitations placed on the nuns may have been to increase the acceptance of the orders by society at the time. In fact, many of the rules were intended to protect the nuns from the unwanted attention of men whom they might encounter. This is why they needed monks to go with them wherever they went. Still, others protected them from a life of servitude to the monks.
Although Buddha had ordained women, the female Sangha’s died out in the Theravada more than 2000 years ago. There were never nuns in the Tibetan tradition, but they continue to this day in the Mahayana traditions.
Buddhist Doctrines do not Differentiate Between Men and Women
Buddhist doctrines do not differentiate between men and women since all suffer from sickness, age, and death. In Buddhism, both men and woman can find supreme enlightenment through following the teachings of the Buddha. This was the categorical statement of Buddha when he answered Ananda’s question about women’s chances of enlightenment.
The biggest differences in Buddhism today and historically is not between men and women but between lay people and monks. Many Buddhists believe that it isn’t possible to find spiritual enlightenment when distracted by the everyday requirements of home life and work. Buddha, himself, took leave of his family and sought spiritual retreat in monastic orders in his quest for enlightenment. He subsequently ordained hundreds of monks and nuns into monastic orders.
Despite Buddha’s clear belief that men and women are equal, there are some orders where it is considered more fortunate to be reborn as a man. Monasteries and even convents are male-dominated. In Theravada, Buddhism men are considered higher than women. Before women can find enlightenment, they must be reborn as a man
An Active Role for Women
Buddha’s belief that all men and women regardless of their caste were spiritual of equal worth was remarkable since he lived more than 2500 years ago at a time when women were not even allowed to read religious texts nor perform spiritual rites. The Buddhist doctrine does not discriminate against women. Gender inequality spread as Buddhism spread across Asia.
Compared with other religions women have played a far more active role in Buddhism as disciples and later as nuns. Female disciples depicted in the Pali Canon are bright and spiritual beings. When it comes to family life, the Buddhism marriage is secular. The partnership is reciprocal each partner has obligations to the other and to the family as a whole.