Shyamatara, Green Tara

Women in Buddhism – Challenging Tradition

Within the Buddhist traditions followed in the West, men and women alike practise the Way of the Buddha.

A glance at South East Asia, however, shows that it is monks who dominate religious life, notably in Thailand and Myanmar. 

Even now, in fact, women can only be fully ordained in a few Buddhist nations. While orders of nuns existed in India as far back as the 3rd century BCE, they disappeared during the 8th century. Orders of nuns became established only in China, Korea, and Vietnam.

In this story, you can learn more about the role of women in the various Buddhist traditions throughout history up to the present day.

Shyamatara, Green Tara

Nuns in Early Buddhism

When Buddhism was founded around 500 BCE, women in India played no role in religious life. It must be considered something of a revolution, then, that women were admitted as disciples into the early Buddhist communities.

Legend has it that the Buddha approved the formation of an order of nuns – but only after heeding the pleas of his foster mother, Prajapati, and the requests of his disciple Ananda.

Standing Tara

Equality between Men and Women

The early Buddhist texts of the Pali canon acknowledge that both men and women are capable of awakening to supreme knowledge.

One passage compares the path to awakening with that of a vehicle and reads: “Be it a woman or a man upon whom such a vehicle waits, by means of it they will enter the presence of nirvana.”

Standing Monk with Hands Folded

Despite such notional equality, orders of nuns were clearly subordinate to orders of monks. Nuns had to observe far more rules than monks, for instance, and nuns, whatever their age or rank, were obliged to show respect to monks.

In effect, being a monk was considered the most promising way to achieve supreme knowledge. This belief is reflected in foundation inscriptions and stories in which women express their wish to be reborn as a man.

Mara’s Daughters Tempt the Buddha

Women as Seductresses

Time and again in early Buddhist texts, women are described as seductresses.

Because they arouse desire in men, they were considered a threat to monks and other ascetics. Two Mahayana texts express this idea in drastic terms: “Women are the root of corruption”; “A woman is the destruction of this life and the next”; “They are more despicable than dead dogs”.

Yakshi, Nymph with Lotus Flowers,  fragment of a baluster

Yet as early as the 7th century, the Indian philosopher Chandrakirti explained that it was not women causing the problem, but rather the ascetic’s own subjective desire.

Negative characterizations of women were intended to help men overcome their sexual instincts, which in turn would free them from harmful attachments.

Guanyin, the Bodhisattva of Compassion, as the Patron of fishermen
Buddhist nuns and laywomen, Xi'an temple, Shaanxi Province, China

The Status of Nuns Today

The early orders of nuns in South Asia appear to have dissolved around the 8th century during the slow decline of Buddhism in India.

The 5th century saw the first nun ordained in China. From there the order of nuns was introduced to Korea and Vietnam.

Buddhist nuns and laywomen, Xi'an temple, Shaanxi Province, China

In other countries, there were and are women who lead exclusively religious lives, but officially they are considered to be laywomen. Full ordination is denied them.

The reinvigoration of Buddhism in many Asian countries during the 20th century was accompanied by growing demands for women’s equality.

Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women, for instance, supports the creation of orders of nuns.

Sitatara, White Tara

Buddhist communities around the world differ in their reactions.

Buddhists in Thailand and Myanmar reject the ordination of nuns. Only fully ordained nuns, they argue, have the authority to conduct ordinations; but since there are no such women, no novices can be ordained.Others argue that because Buddhist orders of nuns in South and South East Asia disintegrated a thousand years ago, transmission lineages have been lost, and so the ordination of women can no longer take place.

Thangka of the Twenty-One Taras

But changes are happening.

In 1998/99, Korean nuns ordained some local women in Sri Lanka.

Elsewhere as well, rigid attitudes towards the ordination of women appear to be softening, even within Tibetan schools. The Dalai Lama himself has explicitly expressed his support for equality.

A milestone was reached in this regard in 2016: for the first time, the Dalai Lama conferred the title of “geshe” on 20 nuns in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition – thus ensuring their full ordination.

Master Dazu lay ill in bed.

The abbot asked him: How do you feel?

The Master replied: Buddha with the Sun Face, Buddha with the Moon Face.

Women in Buddhism – Challenging Tradition