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Is Gender an issue in Buddhism?

From Tibetan Buddhist Encyclopedia
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In terms of Buddhist meditation does it make a difference if one is a man or a woman? I do not know. Time to time, I dream of finding an answer to this question by going around interviewing men and women about their meditation practice. But I am generally daunted by the complexity of the task.

It is important to acknowledge that Buddhism in itself is conditioned by the culture and social context in which it has grown. Although Buddhists sometimes proclaim transcendental values, a practitioner might transcend hatred, greed and delusion but would not necessarily transcend his or her own spiritual experiences or his/her social conditionings.

Secondly, people with little dust in their eyes who practise diligently are relatively few compared to the whole population of a country, therefore people of wisdom tend not to achieve a critical mass which would be able to change society deeply. Hence it is natural that society's own values and cultural preferences will influence Buddhism more than Buddhism will influence the society.

All this preamble is to explain why Buddhism in the past has been relatively patriarchal. Not because it is intrinsic to Buddhism but because it would have been truly amazing if it had not been because of the existing social patriarchal conditions. For this reason I am personally grateful that the Buddha let an order of nuns happen. He was already going against the tendencies of his time.

It is interesting to notice where all the Buddhist traditions are today. They all started from the same point. But 2500 years later, the positions of the nuns in the various traditions and Buddhist countries are very different. Simply put, I would grade it this way: in Korea, the nuns are 98% equal; in Taiwan, 95%; in Sri Lanka, it used to be 40% now I would say 80%; in Burma 55%; in Japan, 50%; in Tibetan Buddhism, 45%; in Thailand, 20%. I do not think this tells us so much about Buddhism as it tells us about cultural tendencies and historical facts.

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In Korea, the full ordination is available to nuns. They have their own nunneries, their own preceptresses, their own abbesses and teachers. They are financially independent from the monks. For five hundred years, from 1400 to 1900, Buddhism was repressed by a Confucianist regime so monks had little power. Monks and nuns were very equal in their having to survive against difficult odds. In Korea, there is also a very strong tradition of female shamans. All these various conditions could go towards explaining why Korean nuns are the most equal to the monks among all Buddhist traditions.

In Taiwan, nuns have the full ordination but generally the nuns' preceptor is a monk apart from a few exceptions. There are many more nuns than monks and they generally live in the same compound. In Japan the position of the nuns is very ambiguous and there are very few. They live in small temples, they have few training places. They often have to support themselves financially by working outside teaching. Japanese monks can marry but nuns are not encouraged to do so.

Tibetan nuns can be ordained only as sramanerikas (36 precepts). As far as we know, the full ordination never reached Tibet. They are fewer than the monks and have limited opportunity to study and to meditate, though this is improving. The Korean, Taiwanese, Japanese and Tibetan nuns wear the same robes as the monks.


In Sri Lanka, the nuns used to take only ten precepts, were not recognised as sramanerikas and were not really considered a part of the Sangha. Now there is full ordination in Sri Lanka and they have started to receive more support and training. They dress in saffron robes. In Burma, they are called anagarikas (which is the name given to laypeople who live a life of celibacy and training). They dress either in orange or pink robes. In Thailand the nuns receive eight precepts and are not considered anything, laywomen or nuns. They wear white and often serve as servants to the monks, specially by cooking for them, though this is starting to change.

Why did the full ordination for nuns reach Sri Lanka but die out until recently? The full ordination for the monks died out several times in Sri Lanka but every time it was revived. I would suggest it was because the society did not consider the women equal in general and the women having more restrictions placed on their actions in those days, it would have been harder if not impossible for them to organise a trip to Burma which is what the monks and their supporters did.

Why is it that the full ordination reached China and Korea and survived there and why did it not reach Tibet or Thailand? Is it historical or geographical? Is it something in the culture itself? Confucianism is a very strong part of both Chinese and Korean culture. Is it because of their kind of Buddhism? But Tibetan Buddhism and Thai Buddhism could not be more different? As yet I do not have the answers to these questions. It would necessitate not only research in the religious life of those times but also anthropological, cultural and historical studies.

Personally I am very grateful to have been born as a woman in 1953 in France because this gave me much more freedom and choices in my life. The greatest influence for the position of women in the world and on the spiritual path is the possibility of free and equal education. I was able to become a Zen nun in Korea and stay there ten years because the status and the opportunity for nuns are very good, I do not think that I would have remained otherwise.

The dharma is about becoming a full human being, awakened to and expressing totally our potential for wisdom and compassion. Being a woman or a man is only part of what makes us a human being. However to believe that because one is a woman one is spiritually inferior or disadvantaged is a trap set up by ancient patriarchal mores, still unfortunately existing today.

When I visited nuns in Thailand what impressed me most was to see that notwithstanding the difficult conditions, many great, wise and compassionate nuns have developed and arisen supported by great monks or on their own. This is the only proof needed. What the person is in themselves, their sincerity, their vision, their endurance, their commitment is what matters, not what gender they are.

Is gender an issue on the Buddhist path? I do not think so in practical terms. Is patriarchal social, cultural, historical influence on Buddhism, Buddhist traditions, Buddhist teachers, Buddhist practitioners an issue? Very often it can be.