Women in Buddhism: Questions & Answers


Is it true that the Tripitaka suppresses women?


The Tripitaka, a large body of a Buddhist canonical texts, consists of three major parts. The teaching was recorded and put into three baskets called pitakas. The first part, Vinaya, deals with monastic prohibitions and allowances for bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. Sutta, the second part deals with the teachings both of the Buddha and his major disciples. Some deal with the development of the mind free from social context while others are still cloaked with Indian social values. Some are Jatakas or the stories of the Buddha’s previous births woven out of popular stories from the Indian soil. These two portions of the Tripitaka were recited at the first council which took place three months after the Great Passing Away of the Buddha. Abhidharma, the third part of the Tripitaka, is philosophical exposition of the mind and its function composed by later commentators. All three parts of the Tripitaka were first recorded in written form not earlier than 450 B.E. (about 90 B.C.)

The materials found in the Tripitaka may be divided into two major portions : Lokuttara and Lokiya. Lokuttara deals with pure dharma aiming at mental freedom. By its nature, the mind has no gender difference. Lokuttara dharma is therefore beyond gender difference and bias.

The latter portion, namely lokiya, is the teaching within a social and historical context. Therefore its value is subjected to social and historical factors. This portion may further be divided under two categories. The first part is that taken from the Indian social context, hence carried on and reinforced by Indian social values. This is responsible for the large part of materials found in the Tripitaka which appear to be suppressing women if we read the Tripitaka without understanding its framework.

The other portion clearly presents an attitude of Buddhism trying to free itself from Indian social values, e.g. the caste system. The Buddha clearly denied the caste system which was a social measure to divide people into different castes. He, instead, emphasised that a brahmin is not one who is born from brahmin parents but becomes one through his righteous action.

Then he made his standpoint very clear to announce that men and women are equal in their potentiality to achieve spiritual enlightenment. A woman’s spiritual achievement came from her own action, not through devotion to her husband. Once women were admitted to the Order, they enjoyed equal opportunity to practice dharma. Many vinaya rules were laid down so that the bhikkhus will not take advantage of the bhikkhunis, e.g. monks are not to ask the bhikkhunis to wash their robes, rugs, etc.

In this portion of materials we find the Tripitaka supports and promotes women. We should take this as a true spirit of Buddhism. It is indeed social reform in an attempt to uplift women to share the responsibility as one of the four groups of Buddhists equally responsible for the growth or decline of Buddhism.

In conclusion, we can say that it is true that there are certain passages in the Tripitaka which are suppressing to women but that they do not represent the true spirit of Buddhism.

The Tripitaka


beyond gender

handed down through
Indian social values



within social context

True Buddhist spirit
liberating & uplifting women