Women in Buddhism

In August 2010, the Dalai Lama made a somewhat astonishing statement that he could be replaced by a woman, although he did clarify that she “should be attractive.” Never mind the howls of feminists about that last bit, but in his remarks Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader did break with long-held traditions of sexism and gender discrimination within Buddhism.

Although many people believe Buddhism is an “egalitarian” religion, the fact will remain that sexism/gender bias has been a very integral part of the faith for many centuries. There is less of virulent anti-woman bigotry within Buddhism than many other religions, especially the Abrahamic cultus, but misogyny and chauvinism have been apparent enough in the Eastern faiths as well, including the Buddhist.

In my book The Gospel According to Acharya S (140-14), I write:

In Buddhism too has reigned a sexist attitude in many places, with the belief, for example, that a woman can only attain to Buddhahood if she reincarnates first as a man. As stated by Dr. Serinity Young, a professor at Columbia University:

Texts like the Pure Land, Astasaharikaprajnaparamita, Lotus sutras, and several others, insist one must become a man before achieving enlightenment because one of the marks of an enlightened being is a sheathed penis, one of the thirty-two marks of the historical Buddha. Even with an unusual penis, the male remains the normative human, and when a woman becomes a man she achieves higher status.

Scholarly debates abound on the depth and nature of sexism and misogyny in various Buddhist sects over the centuries since the alleged time of “the historical Buddha.” The sexism in Japanese Buddhism is described by Dr. James DeMeo:

Puritanism…spread into Japan during the 800s through the agency of Confucian and Buddhist scholars. They preached chastity for women, concubines for men, and placed taboos on remarriage of widows or female divorcees…. Women were seen as the root of all evil, and vaginal blood taboos and cleaning rituals appeared. Vaginal blood was feared as a poison by the common man, and Buddhist priests were appointed to deflower virgin brides on their wedding night…

This history of Buddhist misogyny to the point where women “were seen as the root of all evil” is likewise discussed in an article entitled, “Women in Ancient Japan: From Matriarchal Antiquity to Acquiescent Confinement“:

…Amaterasu is portrayed as the epitome of perfection in the Shinto religion exemplifying intelligence, beauty, fertility, and purity. As the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu is the primary kami [“spiritual essence”] of worship and her feminine qualities are embraced and admired. This mythology based on femininity, created a “matriarchal antiquity” in Japan. The mythology surrounding Amaterasu was not only the birth of the Yamato line, but of a feminine allure that would dictate a reputable attitude towards women until the sixth century….

In 552 A.D the introduction of Buddhism from China would interfere with the Shinto dominated perception of women. According to Dr. Lebra and Joy Paulson, “The aspects of Buddhism which define its character had begun to make inroads on society’s attitude towards women.” This particular form of Buddhism that assimilated in Japan was immensely anti-feminine. Japan’s newfound Buddhism had fundamental convictions that women were of evil nature, which eventually led women into a submissive role of in Japanese society. The concept of obtaining enlightenment was limited to men, “…man is the personification of the Buddha.” In certain sects of Buddhism it is diplomatically implied that the only way for a woman to reach salvation is if she were reincarnated as a man. Teachings even went as far as to associate woman as “agents of the devil” to seduce men away from obtaining Buddahood. These spiritually based judgments produced a chauvinistic society.

These spiritual attitudes can be found in the literary works of the time. The thirteenth century Buddhist morality tale The Captain of Naruto emphasizes the concept of female submission and male dominance….

The sexist attitude continues to this day within Buddhism in many places, but the Dalai Lama’s remarks provide a more enlightened perspective within Tibetan Buddhism at least, and we can only hope that this sort of satori or epiphany will hit the noggins of many more practitioners of the meditative faith.