Dharma Data: Women

The philosophy of all Buddhist traditions supports the idea that the gender differences are not significant when it comes to spiritual development. Although the Buddha was initially reluctant to ordain women as nuns, perhaps on social or logistical grounds, he affirmed that they are as capable as men of attaining complete enlightenment. In the Samyutta Nikaya of the Pali Tipitaka he further states that anyone “whether they be women or whether they be men”, all can attain Nirvana if they practice the Dhamma. In the Vimalakirtinirdesa Sutra, an important Mahayana work, a monk asks a woman why she does not change her gender, a question reflecting the belief popular in some Mahayana schools that a woman should pray to take rebirth as a man because only then would spiritual development be possible. The woman replied: “I have been here twelve years looking for the innate characteristics of femininity and I have been unable to find them”. This answer is based on the fundamental Buddhist doctrine that all things are without self-nature.

However, despite being philosophically gender neutral, the literature of all Buddhist traditions contain comments that today continually appear to be misogynistic. Women are described as being foolish, sensual and prone to jealousy, nagging and gossip. And sadly, it is such ideas that have tended to condition attitudes to women in Buddhist societies, rather than the philosophical aspects of Buddhism. However, purdha, the impossibility of divorce, female circumcision and other such practices which have not just disadvantaged women, but also oppressed them and which have been sanctioned by other religious traditions, have been absent in Buddhist societies.

See also Lives of the Nuns and Therigatha.

I.B. Horner, Women Under Primitive Buddhism, New York, 1930;
R.M. Grass, Buddhism After Patriarchy, New York, 1993;
L.S. Deinaraja, The Position of Women in Buddhism, Kandy, 1981.