Embracing the Transition: The Role of Women in Buddhism Today

The contemporary religious landscape is undergoing a profound transformation, with gender equality gaining significant recognition and appreciation. Today, women are taking charge, promoting the welfare of children, fostering the development of ethical organizations, and advocating for the rights of all species. This vision is steadily becoming a reality, largely thanks to the meaningful contributions and ever-increasing roles of women in religious communities. This perspective, offered by revered American Zen teacher and author, Roshi Joan Halifax, offers a beacon of hope to Buddhist women worldwide.

Further fuelling this optimism is the continuous growth of organizations like the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women, which recently convened its 18th international conference in Korea.

Nonetheless, the United Nations categorizes gender equality as the “unfinished business of our time and the greatest human rights challenge in our world.” Over time, feminist movements worldwide have shattered longstanding barriers, enabling women and girls to overcome restrictive customs and climb to the pinnacle of various sectors, including business, military, and politics.

However, gender imbalances persist. Despite women’s significant strides, men continue to dominate crucial decision-making roles. In 2021, a mere 25% of the world’s parliamentarians were women, showing a slow yet steady rise from the 11.3% recorded in 1995.

BDG contributor, Sónia Gomez, highlighted in 2018 the patriarchal system as the central obstacle to gender equality. As with any entrenched system, altering the patriarchal structure proves challenging due to its deep roots in numerous cherished traditions.

Buddhism, as many scholars assert, is inherently egalitarian in its essence. Prof. Alice Collett, a faculty member at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, has prolifically analyzed the position of women in Buddhism. She argues that the core tenets of Buddhism expressly reject discrimination against women. However, she also notes a minority of texts that depict women negatively, suggesting these ideas are reflections of societal norms rather than inherent to Buddhist philosophy.

Anam Thubten Rinpoche, focusing on Vajrayana Buddhism, asserts that misogyny finds no place in its pure doctrine, which he describes as among the most progressive and timeless wisdom traditions ever formed by humanity.

Religion and culture are intertwined, often affecting and dominating one another. It takes discernment to distinguish a religion’s true nature from its cultural manifestations. While some perceive gender bias in Buddhism, particularly in male-centric Asian societies, it is essential to understand that Buddhism promotes equality, viewing everyone as equal in their fundamental essence and innately divine. This discrepancy arises from cultural factors rather than Buddhism itself, underscoring the belief that Buddhism isn’t just a historical religion, but one that will thrive in the future.

Scholars and practitioners alike guide us towards the roots of Buddhist tradition to address the persistent issue of gender inequality. By exploring its texts, ideas, and practices, we can comprehend the transcendent identity that defies gender dualisms and the very real suffering inflicted upon women due to societal norms that frequently marginalize them.

Women have held significant positions throughout Buddhist history. The Buddha’s mother, Maya, his stepmother, Mahapajapati—the first woman to adopt monastic life under his tutelage—and many other remarkable Buddhist women exemplify the Buddha’s teachings emphasizing awakening potential, irrespective of gender.

Nevertheless, teachings that disparage women cannot be dismissed or overlooked. They require constant engagement and interpretation. We can view these teachings as the byproducts of the societies in which Buddhism evolved, or as reflections of their authors’ human frailties. We may even view the Buddha as flawed in this aspect, while still being fully enlightened about suffering, impermanence, and the absence of self.

Buddhists should unequivocally recognize that discrimination constitutes a form of violence against women. We, as Buddhists, pledge to refrain from violence and prevent it whenever possible.

Our world is often subtly marred by unseen violence: every woman burdened with unpaid labor, every woman earning less despite working equally, and every societal rule complicating women’s lives. While it is impossible to address all these issues, the bodhisattva vow prompts us to try. This comprehension, the ability to see inequality for what it truly is, and the commitment to eradicate it represent our ongoing responsibility and the transformative shift the world is currently experiencing, for our mothers, sisters, daughters, and ourselves.

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