Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Women's Place in Buddhism

Reflections on J. Abeygunawardhana's letter (The Island Online, Sri Lanka)

(WQ) It's an unfortunate truth that Buddhism has sexist elements. It was certainly progressive in its day. According to the Buddha, as a dispensation (sasana), Buddhism would not be complete or perfect without -- four kinds of followers: male and female ordained and lay followers.

However, at some point sexism asserted itself. The India of that time pushed back progressive gains, and the texts were interpreted more according to custom and habit. Commentators had one view of women in spite of the histories of many enlightened nuns in the sutras. and things added. The subtraction (of discourses originally memorized and preserved by nuns) were not then memorized by monks when the Order of Nuns declined and disappeared. Indeed, they had their own sutras addressed to them to keep track of. (The Therigatha, "Psalms of the Sisters" or "Enlightened Verses of the Nuns," and the Vinaya rules for nuns are two examples of scriptures specifically aimed at nuns that survive).

One should not doubt that the sexism that pervades the world outside of shamanistic and Pagan traditions also touched Buddhism. The social reality is that sexism is still very much alive. Even as this lay Buddhist writer sending in a letter to the editor in defense of women at The Island reveals, a great deal of ignorance still surrounds women. Moreover, Sri Lanka, which is where The Island is based, was a British colony and took on a great deal of the bias inherent in the English educational system.

Nevertheless, the letter brings up some good points. There is indeed a text that claims that women -- who are fully capable of becoming enlightened, seeing nirvana, being liberated in this very life, and even teaching the Dharma -- cannot become buddhas unless they were to first be reborn as men. Is this true? It would seem not. Is it true that it is written and believed? There can be no doubt about that. Assuming it is true, one must always bear in mind that living beings are neither male nor female. Rebirth from one sex to the other is common. And beyond the level of brahmas (divinities), there is no sexual dimorphism, no male and female, no sexual distinction. Therefore, men cannot claim to be "men" except that they temporarily manifest a type of body which is predominantly masculine and less feminine.

G.A.D. Sirimal’s letter on "Tragic discrimination against women" in the columns of The Island (11/07/09) prompts me to reply to correct his misinterpretation of buddhahood and womanhood. These are his words:

"What about Buddhism? Can any woman become a Buddha? From what I have heard in [sermon] preaching by Buddhist monks, a woman could become a buddha, if during her journey through Samsara, she accrues sufficient merit [for buddhahood], be born as a man, and then attain buddhahood."

A buddha-aspirant has to be born as a male in his last birth, not because man is superior to woman. A bodhisattva’s journey to buddhahood or enlightenment in his last birth, is a trying experience, a woman is not equal to. [This is where the writer falls off a cliff trying to defend equality]. For instance, the [superfluous] six year period of austerity Prince Siddhartha practiced, prior to attaining buddhahood or [perfect] enlightenment, is not something that a woman, tender and physically weaker than a man, could withstand. According to the Buddha’s Teachings, gender is not considered a [disqualifier] to attain nirvana (deathlessness/bliss).

The Buddha’s retinue (parivara) consists of four divisions -- monks and nuns as well as male and female lay disciples. Anyone who belongs to one of these divisions can attain the supreme bliss of nirvana in this very life, if one follows the Teachings (Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path) diligently. There is no discrimination whatsoever against a female. (Except apparently in the imagination or social conception of the writer).

All beings are equal. One is not superior to another by birth, race, caste, creed, or gender. That is the Buddha’s Teaching. Of the three compendiums (Tripitaka, the three divisions of the Teaching), the Book of Discipline was recited by the enlightened monk Upali, a great elder (maha thera) of the Buddha who was born to a so-called low caste (scavenger) family. There was no discrimination in the Buddha's dispensation (Sasana).

Limited space here does not permit me to further elucidate my point that there is no discrimination against women in the Teachings of Gautama Buddha. The nuns Patachara and Kisagotami are two famous women who were ordained by the Buddha before attaining enlightenment. The nuns Sujata and Visakha are great names associated with Gautama Buddha’s lifetime. One should not rush to hasty conclusions and pass judgment on anything without knowing the facts. Source