Can Women Achieve Enlightenment
A while back we received a comment that indicated that the only way to attain enlightenment is to be reborn as a male. We wanted to repost our investigation on the issue.
Buddhism for the most part is male dominated, and yes, even chauvinism lives within the ranks of the religion, hence the comment to the blog. There are some Buddhists who say that the only way to attain enlightenment is to be reborn as a male, and in the Vinaya, the monastic code of conduct, women have more vows than men…yes, that is all true. It is also true that Buddhist leaders in Asian countries are almost always men.
Let’s look at the history of Vajrayana Buddhism, where women have always played key roles. The Indian tantric master who introduced Vajrayana into Tibet, Padmasambhava (Guru Rinpoche), had many consorts. Among these were two who played pivotal roles in his teachings. One was the Princess Mandarava of Zahor in India who chose the Dharma over wealth and power that was hers for the taking if she had so chosen. Padmasambhava came to Zahor specifically to teach her and make her his consort. The other principal consort of Padmasambhava was Yeshe Tsogyal, a highly realized Tibetan yogini. Originally one of King Trisong Deutsen’s queens, she later became Padmasambhava’s spiritual consort. Thus two of the foundational figures of Vajrayana Buddhism were highly accomplished women. You can find out more about these two consorts in particular as well as some history of great yoginis by referring to our post, Women in Vajrayana Buddhism http://protectingnyingma2.wordpress.com/?s=women+in+buddhism
There has been controversy over the years that while women can attain enlightenment, there are no female Buddhas. Many great female writers and “activist” along with being Buddhist have written about the early female Buddhists (http://www.wisdom-books.com/ProductExtract.asp?PID=10924).
In the tantric iconography of the Vajrayana practice path of Buddhism, female Buddhas do appear. Sometimes they appear as consorts but many have appeared as the central figures of tantric sadhana in their own right. (Shaw, Miranda (1994). Passionate Enlightenment:Women in Tantric Buddhism. New Jersey: Princeton University Press).
For the ordinary practitioner, the role of women in Vajrayana Buddhism is equivalent to that of men. While it is true that in Tibet monastic institutions were nearly always headed by men, female practitioners were greatly respected and revered. In 1985, a western woman named Alyce Zeoli was identified by the 11th throne-holder of the Palyul Lineage (Nyingma school of Buddhism) His Holiness Penor Rinpoche that Alyce Zeoli is indeed the reincarnation of Genyenma Ahkon Lhamo, the sister of Rigdzin Kunzang Sherab, the First Throneholder of the Palyul lineage. Alyce Zeoli was given the name Ahkon Norbu Lhamo with the honorific title of Jetsunma.
The first Ahkon Lhamo spent most of her life in meditation in a cave far above the monastery and was regarded as a female emanation of enlightened mind. She was widely considered to be a living saint during her lifetime, and so many nuns came to hear her teachings and practice with her that the hills around the cave in which she lived in retreat became known as the “Red Hills”, a name which persists even today. Upon her death, she left a miraculous relic that became one of the most cherished at Palyul. That relic can be seen today at Kunzang Palyul Choling in Poolesville, MD.
You can learn more about Jetsunma at http://www.tara.org/jetsunma-ahkon-lhamo/biography/, who continues to teach the world about the great Bodhichitta using the modern times of technology:
Women are considered to be superior practitioners to men as they are said to have a greater capacity for wisdom. In the Vajrayana view, the female is symbolic of wisdom, while the male is symbolic of compassion, which is somewhat opposite of the way the sexes are viewed in the West. The union of the male and female principles, compassion and wisdom, is known as bodhicitta and is enlightenment itself.
It is clear that women play a vital role in the practice of Vajrayana Buddhism and are essential to the attainment of the ultimate goal, enlightenment. Without them, there would be no Diamond Vehicle.
Khandro Rinpoche, a female lama in Tibetan Buddhism, downplays the significance of growing attention to the topic:
“When there is a talk about women and Buddhism, I have noticed that people often regard the topic as something new and different. They believe that women in Buddhism has become an important topic because we live in modern times and so many women are practicing the Dharma now. However, this is not the case. The female sangha has been here for centuries. We are not bringing something new into a twenty-five hundred-year-old tradition. The roots are there, and we are simply re-energizing them.” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Buddhism).
The various schools and traditions within Buddhism hold different views as to the possibilities of women’s spiritual attainments. Feminist scholars have also noted than even when a woman’s potential for spiritual attainment is acknowledged, records of such achievements may not be kept – or may be obscured by gender-neutral language or mis-translation of original sources by Western scholars. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Women_in_Buddhism).
Khandro Tsering Chödrön , who passed away just this year (May, 2011) was the spiritual wife of Jamyang Khyentse Chökyi Lodrö, and was universally acknowledged as one of the foremost female practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism of recent times and was considered to be an emanation of Shelkar Dorje Tso, another consort of Guru Rinpoche. (http://www.rigpawiki.org/index.php?title=Khandro_Tsering_Ch%C3%B6dr%C3%B6n)
Simply google Female Buddhist Masters, and get prepared to be bombarded by the literature and commentary on the presence and significance of women in Buddhism, and the great female Buddhist masters, who have accomplished, and are qualified to teach. Perhaps this is a difficult pill to swallow for the insecure, but we submit that your position on the matter needs revisiting, and we are honored to offer the truth about women in Buddhism, enthusiastically acknowledging that female Buddhas, thank goodness, do appear in the world.
If you’re still confused, perhaps this video will help your study: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6CcwD1ryZ0&noredirect=1
And, for the reader who wrote to us on the subject, perhaps you can share your sources that contradicts this information…in the sutras, page and verse.