Women and Buddhism

Published 23 Jun 2017

Buddhism is a religion which does not extol a particular personality and a specific sex. This is a fact even though Buddha was a man. Several elements of Buddhism are related to feminism; among these are egolessness, centrality of compassion, Tathagatarbha and worship of the feminine principle in the Vajrayan form of Buddhism. According to Buddhists ego is the major cause of poor mental health (Gross, 1993). Egolessness is a sort of diagnosis of the condition of human beings. This means that all human beings find themselves in similar situations where anxiety, and a situation of impermanence is constantly present. Hence, change is a constant feature in the existence of all human beings. As such the ego, self-identity is also in a situation of constant change meaning that basically human beings ought to be egoless. This is in contrast with the common perception that one needs to have a strong ego to be happy and successful in life. An egoless person is open, calm cheerful and humorous and not in a state of indifference or psychological victimization as the proponents of the importance of a strong ego would have one believe (Gross, 1993). For a long time most feminists have seen egolessness as something that needs to be preached to men. It is however necessary for both men and women so that both genders can strive to achieve egolessness which is not defined by what others have to say.

Compassion is defined as a desire for other people not to endure suffering. Buddhist teachings propose that for one to have compassion, the realization that they are suffering is necessary. This coupled with the knowledge that suffering can come to an end and that all beings, do not want to undergo suffering (Buddhism Kalachakranet.org, 2007). Compassion has often been associated with femininity and since it women are more likely to express it more easily, empowering them with the means to perform acts of compassion in accordance with Buddhism teachings is important.

Tathagatribha theory asserts that all sentient beings have the potential of Budhahood. The implication of this theory is that all beings, both female and male have equal potential for achieving enlightenment. The theory can therefore, be said to be blind to gender or at least neutral. This then means that an enlightened gene is a characteristic of both men and women and the gene is not stronger of more dominant in males than in females (Gross, 1993). This therefore points to the fact that the sexism that is common in Buddhism has little to do with the religion itself. Rather the cultural situation in which the women find themselves has limited their full participation in Buddhism.

The Vajrayana form of Buddhism has a doctrine which is so far the most favorable to women compared to other forms of Buddhism. It has many feminine symbols and images, and women practitioners (laypeople and monastics) who have earned the respect of male and female. Though it is argued that the teachings of the Buddha do not cite sex the Vajrayan form of Buddhism is similar to many religious whose femininity is glorified symbolically and in a mystical way but exhibits a contradiction where the society of the day limits women’s practice and how they are regarded in Buddhist religion (Gross, 1993). Tibetan branch of Vajrayan Buddhism recognizes a deity named Tara who is seen as an agent of liberation. She is a female bodhisattva and a representative of the success and virtue that can be attained from an individual’s work. Tara is used for the development of certain qualities and in teachings concerning emptiness and compassion (Chodron, 2005).

Several changes need to occur for women to experience access equal to that of men in Buddhist institutions. In most of the Buddhist institutions women have experienced exclusion with meditation halls and monasteries being unequally open to women and men. Buddhist nuns are generally considered inferior to monks and experience less support for education and finances than men. Gross suggests that since Buddhism insists that all gender are equal, then the subordination of the orders of the nuns to those of the monks should be ended. This subordination has had a significant role to play in causing the nun’s orders to decline. Lay women have great importance in the monks monasteries due to the strong financial support they offer. Teachings that women can obtain enlightenment using the same paths as men are important changes as well as ensuring that monks make you not to discourage women who desire enlightenment and progress in spiritual matters (Gross, 1993 ).

The changes that are necessary include ordination of nuns both legally and socially. Among the lay people women are seen as the lowest category and it is viewed as an unfortunate thing to be born a woman. By desiring rebirth as a woman this can be a first step towards achieving some equal access. Further, clarification of texts that seem to disparage women is necessary. This is so that there isn’t contradiction in the texts with some teachings glorifying femininity and others putting down women. Allowing girls to be ordained just as boys are ordained before marriage is a change that would empower girls with knowledge and education to care for their families rather than resort to work as housemaids and prostitution (Khuankaew, 1999). Exposure of the marks and nuns to the secular world through involvement of lay people (male and female) monks and nuns is also important to ensure that the monks and nuns are sensitized about issues and social problems the lay society.

Other than gaining equal access, another important issue in relation to feminism is the transformative power of feminism. The sexism present in Buddhism defers depending on the cultural context of a place. Feminism does not oppose Buddhism and the fact that Buddhism insists on enlightenment of both genders, allows for the conclusion that Buddhism does not propose or encourage inferiority against women. Ordination of women is likely to lead to an increase in donations to the Sangha. This is partially because of the awareness that women are not donating to a patriarchy, thus leading to greater willingness to donate. In addition, the empowerment of lay women means that their capability for contributions in support of bhiksuni orders are likely to increase. Furthermore monastic women on the way to enlightenment will most likely earn the respect and support of other members of the lay community bringing about further increase in the amount of support available to the Sangha.

Ordinary domestic everyday life will also benefit from a feminist change. Nuns in some communities that practice Buddhism are currently very active in provision of social services for education centers, cemeteries, orphanage and retirement homes. This has led to increased quality of life for both men and women and every other community member (Fitz-Gerald, 2000). Proper and adequate spiritual discipline is also another real consequence of feminist change in Buddhism. The Sangha in most Buddhism contexts has had a great association with education. Education of nuns will definitely aid in the education and empowerment of education levels in the community. The new teachers will be in a better position to teach women and the education can also be advanced to men, availing opportunities for education to every member of the Buddhist community ( Fitz-Gerald, 2000). With an increase in education opportunities and better domestic everyday life the likelihood of greater adherence and attraction to Buddhist teachings will translate to proper and adequate spiritual discipline.

The potential for increase of the Dharma’s strength is also high following increased involvement of women who form the great percentage of most population meaning Buddhism will be reachable to a greater part of the population of the world.


  • Gross RM 1993, Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis and Reconstruction ISBN:0791414035
  • Kerry L. Fitz-Gerald, 2000, Buddhism needs Feminism, http://www.geocities.com/strongmedicine51/Budhfemn.html
  • Thubten C,2005, How to Free Your Mind: Tara the liberator, Snow Lion Publications
Did it help you?