With our modern social climate seeming to become more and more rife with stories of gender inequality and sexual abuse, there is a growing necessity to carry on a discourse about all the angles of achievement women have made. From Cleopatra to Eleanor Roosevelt, Amelia Earhart to Malala Yousafzai, women have historically seized positions of great capability when it was customary, and fought hard for esteem when it was not. There is a determination unlike any other brought forth by women to balance an otherwise overtly masculine environment, whether in social arrangements or political rhetoric. Such a case is prevalent within Buddhist monasticism, ensuring that bhikkhuni nuns are capable of attaining the same states of liberation as their contemporary bhikkhu brethren. Buddhism itself serves as a useful juxtaposition for observing social inequality in our modern age, as the conviction of social constraints are seen as a direct hindrance to awakening the mind within the tradition. This essay is to serve as a primer in revealing the toil that bhikkhuni nuns have faced in their ordinations, yet it shall also draw from a vital pertinence that these beautiful bald-headed honorables offer for the modern world.
When brought to the subject of a woman’s place within piety, most religious leaders, at least historically, would have contended that women were innately inferior to their male counterparts. There was an excessive amount of patriarchal superiority preceding the present, and much of this dominion has only begun to be reconsidered in our modern age. The Buddha is considered to be of categorical uniqueness when it comes to his approach toward gender. Guatama Buddha was indeed hesitant at first to allow women to join his sangha, but after some discussion with his cousin Ananda, he was convinced to allow women to take up the spiritual life under his mastership. Accordingly, it was not that Guatama regarded women as incapable of attaining the awakened state, but rather because he felt their ordination would hasten the decline of cosmic order in the Dharma (Gethin 90). Ultimately, celibacy was a crucial condition of monasticism, and Guatama may have simply been reflecting on the realistic view of what happens when men and women live in close proximity.
Aside from the associated risks of combining men and women, the Buddha offered a gender-neutral and highly experiential philosophy. This is perhaps one reason among many as to why the Buddha referred to his teachings as the middle-way, and yet, most likely why he foresaw the potential gamble in his teachings becoming muddled by combining men and women. Like most religious founders, Siddhartha Guatama was a man, though the history of religious foundation does not necessarily have to cite patriarchy as its origin. Instead, it is more likely that historically men have simply been those with the requisite social standing to gain greater influence among the widespread community. Within Buddhism, gender-neutrality is relevant to the core teaching of anatta, otherwise translated as “no-self” from the Pali language. To assert that there is any such thing as gender that one could form an identity from is simply missing the point of the philosophy of anatta. “According to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality, and it produces harmful thoughts of ‘me’ and ‘mine’, selfish desire, craving, attachment, hatred, ill-will, conceit, pride, egoism, and other defilements, impurities and problems” (Rahula 51). This teaching befitted a proclamation toward gender inequality, but through inversion of this idea, it is to say that gender is merely an illusory impression in which one cultivates a sense of self. Therefore, not only was the masculine authority dethroned in Buddhist teachings, but women too were brought into the same doctrine of metaphysics as men.
Bhikkhuni nuns wear the same double layered robes as bhikkhu monks. They shave their heads just as the monks do. They essentially follow the same teachings of Guatama Buddha, and they were regarded by the Buddha to be capable of achieving the same meditative states as their male counterparts. Although views differ by denominations as to whether a nun may attain Buddha-hood in her lifetime, the teachings of the original Guatama Buddha were surprisingly egalitarian. It was not until later that, upon varying interpretation of the teachings, some monks went as far as to suggest that a nun would first have to be reborn as a man before attaining enlightenment (Silva). The incorporation of these later doctrines into Buddhism were undoubtedly relevant to the political and social climates of the regions in which it spread to. Though there were emerging Buddhist scriptures which acknowledged the aptitude for enlightenment to women, they proliferated with much less influence. According to the doctrine recorded by the bhikkhuni nun, Soma, in reaction to the great demon of illusion: “What difference does being a woman make when the mind’s well-centered, when knowledge is progressing, seeing clearly, rightly, into the Dhamma? Any who thinks ‘I’m a woman’ or ‘a man’ or ‘Am I anything at all?’—that’s who Mara’s fit to address” (Soma).
As one might imagine, in the time of the Buddha, around the 5th century BCE, a great amount of pressure befell women who defied social norms. It certainly must have come as a shock to high society when they began to see Buddhist women walking around with shaved heads and wearing the traditional orange robes signifying their discipleship. Yet it also must have been surprising to see bhikkhu monks and bhikkhuni nuns without any difference in their attire. In our modern age, it has become accustomed for business suits to be marketed to women in order to bring about inclusion in the public office. Although this endorsement may be still erring on the side of patriarchal superiority, it nonetheless is a step in the direction of a greater acceptance of women. There are many values, such as standards of dress, to which culture has acquired and assigned specifications for regarding the roles necessary for either gender to follow. Typically these roles situate some form of masculinity on top. According to the Buddhist feminist, and professor of Comparative Studies in Religion, Rita M. Gross asserts, “One can readily see that there is a traditional basis from which to argue for more equitable gender relations as the norm for Buddhism, as well as a need to toss out certain conventions because they are so hopelessly sexist. Using this strategy allows one to maintain continuity with the tradition and with the past when it is possible to do so without violating standards of gender equity” (26).
As is integral to Buddhist philosophy, the basic stance toward worldly life is one of general renunciation. Early Buddhist disciples were originally monastic, living within the sangha and learning under the Buddha’s dharma. Before Buddhism broke off into many schools, those disciples who followed the teachings of Guatama Buddha most precisely became renowned as the Theravada tradition. When bhikkhunis were included to act as a sangha under the Buddha’s tutelage, many women were said to have achieved complete realization of the Dharma, including the former wife of Siddhartha Guatama, Yasodhara, along with Guatama’s aunt, Pajapati (Media). The lineage of women’s ordination continued for hundreds of years in Theravada, but as time passed, the bhikkhuni order all but vanished due to patriarchal prejudice of the more substantial community of monks. It was not until recent that bhikkhuni ordination began again in the Theravada tradition through the determination of Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, now regarded as Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, to be admitted into full monasticism (2015). The fortitude that Dhammananda exercised in her quest to reach ordination is a message to all women; suggesting that defying the inertia of hundreds of years of masculine authority is possible.
Certainly in many more cases than men, women have been able to excel in situations requiring compassion, insight and emotional maturity. The inequality that women have faced for centuries is not a result of biological inferiority, but rather arose as a byproduct of exploitation and a tendency for the masculine psyche to establish itself through leverage. In every case, societies can learn from incorporating more women into business and political office. According to the Dalai Lama, one of the most prevalent leaders in the Mahayana Buddhist tradition, the next leader of Buddhism in Tibet cold be reincarnated as a woman (Spencer). He went on to say, “Although men and women have the same potentials for aggression and warm-heartedness, they differ in which of the two more easily manifests. Thus, if the majority of world leaders were women, perhaps there would be less danger of war and more cooperation on the basis of global concern” (Berzin). Not only does the reemergence of the feminine bring about a necessary moral conclusion to a long history of sexual inequality, but it may very well be that which prevents the world from descending into ecological disaster. Undoubtedly, such a consideration weighs heavy on the mind of many modern individuals.
Whether it is in education, politics, business, or especially that of religion, the true strength of a woman has been made known in the ability to overcome prejudice. Not only have women marked their achievements today in the ability to become CEOs of multi-billion dollar companies, and in the ability to contend in presidential races, but the ability to attain complete realization within the Buddhist teachings also brings exaltation for women. It is implicit to point out that dedicated women have, perhaps, more rarely gained their strength from things going right within the society. Instead, it has been because of those brave women who questioned social norms, and deliberately chose to go against the grain that all women have been given the opportunity to achieve inexpressible heights. For the bhikkhuni nun, conflict sometimes still arises. There is an enduring struggle to always refer the tradition back to the gender-neutral sutras of the Buddha in order to counteract the hundreds of years of patriarchal acquisition which the tradition has been overwhelmed with. To contemporary bhikkhuni nuns, women like Dhammananda have served to propagate the true spirit of Buddhism all around the world. Not only has this current allowed bhikkhuni nuns to become more recognized and vitalized, but it has also served to show that gender classification has been long overdue for a monumental change.
Berzin, Alexander. “Summary of Speeches at the Bhikshuni Congress: Day 3.” Study Buddhism, Berzine Archives e.V., July 2007.
Dhammananda Bhikkhuni. “Bhikkhuni Order: Path of Spiritual Freedom for Women.” Online video clip. Youtube, Feb. 23 2015. Web. Dec. 5 2017.
Gethin, Rupert. “The Buddhist Community.” Foundations of Buddhism, Oxford University Press, 2014, p. 90.
Gross, Rita M. “Buddhism After Patriarchy.” Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism, State University of New York, 1993, p. 26.
Media, Steven. “Library: Member Essays.” Dharma Fellowship of His Holiness the Gyalwa Karmapa, Dharma Fellowship, 2015, www.dharmafellowship.org/library/essays/women-buddhas.htm.
Rahula, Walpola. “The Doctrine of No-Soul: Anatta.” What the Buddha Taught, Grove Press Inc., 1964, p. 51.
Silva, Swarna de. “The Place of Women in Buddhism.” Alliance for Bhikkhunis, 2017, www.bhikkhuni.net/the-place-of-women-in-buddhism/.
Sister Soma. “Soma Sutta.” Buddha Sutra, http://www.buddhasutra.com/files/soma_sutta.htm.
Spencer, Richard. “Dalai Lama says successor could be a woman.” The Telegraph, Telegraph Media Group, 7 Dec. 2007, www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/1571850/Dalai-Lama-says-successor-could-be-a-woman.html.