Where Buddhist Women Have Been
(book excerpt)

Historically, there are at least four areas in which Buddhist women have found obstacles in their spiritual lives. The first area is religious practices, that is, lifestyle customs, instructional opportunities, meditational forms, and institutional structures, many of which are routinely available to lay men and monks but are infrequently or never available to lay women and nuns. in spite of the misogynistic tone of some of their rhetoric, canonical texts clearly state that women can experience enlightenment as women. However, channels through which women can progress to this experience are often severely truncated. The full and irreversible transformation of Buddhist enlightenment is reached primarily through lengthy and arduous disciplines, which, though they vary by tradition, are each designed to move the adept to a posture of non-attachment and compassionate activity within the world. With limited access to these traditional disciplinary opportunities, women practitioners have been hampered in their efforts to actualize the fullness of their spiritual lives.

Second, the disciplinary rules that govern the monastic lives of nuns have clearly delineated them as second-class citizens in relation to monks. The best examples of this, of course, are the eight disciplinary rules said to have been laid down for nuns by Gautama Buddha at the time of the admission of the first group of women into the Buddhist life of the "gone forth," a disciplinary guide still normative in the Buddhist world today. These eight rules, for example, require all nuns to pay homage to all monks regardless of how senior a nun might be or how junior a monk might be; to be instructed by monks in the teachings and conduct of the tradition but not vice versa; to refrain from criticizing or reprimanding monks though the reverse may happen; and to be ordained by the orders of both nuns and monks though the reverse does not happen. This unevenness in institutional governance places nuns' daily lives directly under the jurisdiction of monks, thus curtailing any possibility of the kind of full self-governance for nuns that has been the norm for their brother monks.

Third, although women are, by doctrine, fully capable of experiencing enlightenment, the recognition of that highest of experiences in terms of title and status has often been withheld from them at various points in Buddhism's history. The Pali term arahant, for example, though applied to specific women in the later and commentarial traditions, is not applied to specific women in earlier texts -- even though the conversion and enlightenment narratives of a number of individual women clearly show that the women, like their corresponding male colleagues, deserve the title. This same imbalance in the application of terms reflecting spiritual achievement and status is true in later Mahayana traditions as well -- in the use, or lack of use, of the term bodhisattva, for example, as it recognizes women of committed practice who work for the benefit of all sentient beings.

Finally, female renunciants have at many times in Buddhist history been refused the kind of material support that male renunciants have received. Both as individuals and as members of Sangha communities, nuns have received donations, but this material support has lagged well behind that given to comparable monks and their communities. in the Pali canon, nuns are known as those who receive things only with difficulty (kicchalabha, dullabha). The evidence of early inscriptions, in which there are many women donors but many fewer nun receivers, and the dying back of the nuns' order in india for lack of support are good illustrations that donor support has been much greater for renunciant men than for renunciant women.

Why women in Buddhist history are discriminated against in terms of the structures by which their Buddhist lives can be carried out is not necessarily in the evidence documenting their discrimination. We may surmise, however, based on what is otherwise presented in the archives of the tradition, that the reasons have to do with the prevailing social and cultural milieus in which Buddhist women practice. it is eminently probable that as tolerant, egalitarian, and non-gendered as Buddhism may be in theory, in reality, the values of the prevailing social and religious systems in which Buddhists find themselves help to shape the current working attitudes of local Buddhist communities, as well as those of the donors who contribute to them. And often these attitudes work negatively against women. Moreover, it is quite possible that, over time, the characteristics of prevailing venues of Buddhist life have not only been adopted in part or in whole by Buddhist communities, but have accrued to the tradition passed down through teaching and disciplinary lineages and today belong to the powerful Buddhist heritage bequeathed to women. And because these unfortunate social views constitute part of the cultural baggage of twentieth-century tradition, they are currently being deemed separable from more egalitarian Buddhist doctrine by women practitioners who hope to reshape the forms, but not the content of, their spiritual quests in the contemporary setting.

from Women's Buddhism, Buddhism's Women, edited by Ellison Banks Findly

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