Daughters of the Buddha

Venerable Karuna Dharma discusses gender equality in Buddhism and her pioneering role in the rebirth of of female ordination.

Do you think the gender equality happening within the American Buddhist community is a reflection of the gender situation in the larger society? I think that has a lot to do with it. Men like to be around liberated women. After Dr. Thien-An died and I became the abbess, I thought most of the men would leave the temple. But they didn’t, and I have more male students than I do female ones. I think men are actually a bit tired of the patriarchy and want to see strong women in leadership roles.

A lot of the American female teachers are highly respected, primarily because we’ve somehow avoided getting into the big controversies that have entangled men. It’s not so much that we’re purer than men, but rather that women are more aware of what can happen if they get involved in some of these things.

Are you referring to the sex scandals? Yes. If you are a master at a temple and someone wants to get at you, they will accuse you of abusing two things: sex and money. And, very frankly, these accusations are not always true. People make up stories. Women are much more careful than men about these things—not that there isn’t plenty of opportunity for it. In fact I’ve been approached by both male and female students.

Really? Yes. When one female student approached me, I just laughed at her. She said, “I’m serious,” and I said, “You think you are, but you’re not really.” A few months later she came to me and said, “Rev. Karuna, I’m so glad that you told me that.” Because by that time she’d found a partner with whom she became involved, and they have a very loving relationship.

This sounds like a very modern, even American situation. How do you find the gender issues you deal with here relate to the gender issues you find when you travel to Buddhist Asia? In the U.S. there is equality. In the rest of the world there is still quite a bit of inequality regarding men and women. When I talk to the Vietnamese monks, I’ll say, “Please make sure the women play the role they should! Encourage them to take a more active role in the temple instead of just cooking and cleaning. Encourage them to become teachers of the dharma.”

Actually, in some Mahayana Asian countries like Taiwan, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Korea, most of the ordained are female. The Korean women are very strong. Their basic concern is that the big temples are run by men, not by women. My gosh, in most countries around the world bhikkhunis would be glad if that were their biggest problem!

Conservative Sri Lankan monks believe that bhikkhunis must be ordained by other Theravada bhikkhunis. Since there haven’t been any bhikkhunis there for a thousand years, none could be ordained, but there are monks all over Sri Lanka who have quietly been encouraging women to become bhikkhunis for some time. As far as I know, I ordained the very first Sri Lankan bhikkhuni in 1997. Her religious name is Sumentha, but her nickname is Loku Mani, meaning Big Mother, and she runs an orphanage in Sri Lanka. She had been a novice nun for at least twenty years when she came to our temple to visit Dr. Ratanasara and some of the other Sri Lankan monks in residence here. I offered to give her ordination. At first she was unsure, but Ven. Ratanasara convinced her to do it. Now there are almost a thousand bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka, whereas ten years ago there were none.

That’s exciting. Yes, it is quite exciting. In fact, I’ve noticed a change in the Thai people themselves. When I was in Thailand two years ago, it was the very first time that Thai men would come up and bow to me. When they saw the yellow robes they knew exactly what I was, but they didn’t bow before. So the Thai people are changing much faster than the monks, particularly the older monks.

Do you think it’s a question of the old order dying out for bhikkhunis to be accepted in Theravada countries? I think that’s part of it. Once the old order dies out, the younger monks will be able to express their more liberal viewpoint. In fact, that is already starting to happen in Thailand, but it’s going to be a while before it takes hold.

The problem in Thailand is that women can only become Mahayana bhikkhunis. Any woman there who puts on a robe so that she looks like a Theravada bhikkhuni can be arrested and thrown in jail. But Theravada women don’t want to become Mahayana bhikkhunis—they want to be Theravada bhikkhunis.

Isn’t another obstacle for women the extra precepts they must take to be considered fully ordained? What is your opinion of them? I would like to see the eight special vows for nuns be absolutely thrown out the window! The Buddha, in spite of what many people think, did not lay them down. Theravada scholars—both Thai and Sri Lankan—will point out to you that these were not taught by the Buddha. They were added later.

What are the eight special precepts? The first one—probably the most obnoxious to women—is that no matter how old the bhikkhuni is, she has to bow down before a monk who has been a bhikkhu even for one day. That’s probably the most offensive of them. They are rules like that. I teach them to my students, but I explain that these were not originally written down by the Buddha himself.

I don’t remember seeing you do that. Do you bow down to male monks that are younger in dharma years than you? Are you kidding?

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