July 13, 2011

Gender Inequality in Buddhism

In Week 1 of Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo's ongoing Tricycle Retreat a participant writes,

I look forward to a peer woman teacher; I have had many wonderful experiences with male teachers, but there is something more for me w/ a contemporary, Western, woman.

To which Jetsunma responds,

Of course inherently there is no male or female, but nonetheless on a relative level the female voice has been conspicuous by its absence in the Buddhist world through the centuries. Perhaps this gradual redress of the gender balance is one of the contributions that the West is making—along with contemporary Asia—to the richness of the Dharma in modern times.

Another participant writes,

Thank you Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo for the effort you have made throughout your life to save all beings from suffering. As a man whose primary teachers have been men, wise and compassionate men, I am trying to understand better what your being a woman brings to your way of teaching. I don't think it is just the efforts you have made to improve the standing of nuns and female teachers, or to bring feminist understanding to Buddhism, or to gently criticize the chauvinist elements of Buddhism. Is it your humility? There are arrogant male teachers, but there are humble ones, also. Is it your kindness, gentleness, humor, down-to-earth wisdom? Again, I know many male teachers with these qualities. The answer, I think, may be that there is a way that your understanding that your being a woman is only a quality masking a deeper true nature is refreshingly unfamiliar. I think male teachers don't often study deeply the essence of their maleness and how it is only a bit of persona from a Buddhist perspective. Perhaps gay teachers sometimes do because they have been compelled to by this culture. In any case, the refreshing quality of your teaching is a beautiful gift and a lesson in itself.

and Jetsunma replies,

It is interesting that even most realized male teachers do not appreciate the gender bias that permeates the Dharma at all levels (except the ultimate). They say, 'Buddha nature is beyond male or female - we are all equal" and yet deny women the opportunity for study and training and routinely relegate nuns to the back of the temple (or outside). If we point out this discrepancy we are told that we are lacking 'the view'. However awareness is growing and the double standard - once seen - is slowly being redressed.

Not long after reading through this discussion, I came across an article in the Times of India about a Buddhist nun in Nepal who was sexually assaulted by a group of men and now faces the additional injustice of being told that, because she was sexually assaulted, she can no longer be a nun.

Tenzin Palmo is not only an incredible teacher but also an active advocate for gender equality in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. In one browser window I read about this terrible injustice in Nepal. In the other, I have these wonderful teachings. One makes the other necessary.

I watched the film Cave in the Snow last month, which we screened as a part of our monthlong film festival in partnership with Buddhafest. In one sequence, Jetsunma pushes the Dalai Lama to address and correct the fact that women cannot be fully ordained in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. I was surprised and impressed by her persistence.

What did the Buddha teach about this?

In the Buddha's time the predominant religion was Brahmanism, in which people were divided into hereditary castes, from the  priestly caste down to the "outcastes," the "untouchables." It was a discriminatory system the Buddha emphatically rejected. The Buddha ordained students from all backgrounds, some coming from great power and privilege and others from the fringes of society. The Buddha also taught both men and women. Men were ordained as monks (bhikkhus) and woman as nuns (bhikshunis). The tradition of bhikkshunis continues to this day in many places, including Viet Nam, China, Korea, and in the West. However, the lineage of fully ordained bhikkshunis has died out in other countries, such as Thailand and Sri Lanka, and seems to have never even reached the Himalayas at all.

It is said that the Buddha instructed his students to always teach the dharma in the local idiom and to be able to adapt the teachings so that they are applicable and relevant in whatever culture they reached. It seems to me that this is both a blessing and a curse. Adapting dharma to different cultures makes sense when it is a safeguard against unquestioned dogma and spiritual stagnation, but if this is ever used as a justifaction for  a culture's desire to keep a system of inequality and oppression in place, it just doesn't make sense. In these cases, the orginal Buddhist principles of equal opportunities for all classes, races, and genders must supersede any local cultural notions that suggest otherwise.

As Jetsunma says, "Perhaps this gradual redress of the gender balance is one of the contributions that the West is making—along with contemporary Asia—to the richness of the Dharma modern times." I hope this is the case.

I think that, as Buddhism continues to grow and thrive in the West, some serious thought needs to be given to what aspects of Western culture we want to keep and what we are willing to let go of. Do we want to practice Buddhism while holding onto the narcisism and materialism that is present in our culture? Do we want to practice while doing nothing to address the systems of oppression that are present?


This discussion is ongoing at Jetsunma's online retreat here.



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dolma's picture

I thought you might like to see this clip from a programme 'In Conversation with the Dalai Lama" - an audience between western Buddhist teachers and H.H. the Dalai Lama in 1993- where Sylvia Wetzel askes the the Dalai Lama about the seeming irony of (in)equality in Buddhism. Re-viewing this interview I had forgotton that you cited the start of your long cave retreat as being partly brought about by the experience of being the only woman surrounded by many men. I do hope that anyone wishing to view this clip will find the same inspiration as I have and give thanks that, in the true tradition of Buddhist exploration, debate is the key. http://www.youtube.com/user/meridiantrust#p/u/1/SD5xNvqQE-Y

Melbourne77's picture

thank you jetsunma and monty