Women in Buddhism: Questions & Answers


Why do some temples in the north not allow women to circumambulate the stupas?


Many temples in Thailand, seen particularly often in the north, do not allow women to circumambulate the stupas. The monks usually explain that the relics of the Buddha are placed in the centre of the stupas at the time they built it. If women are allowed to circumambulate the stupa, they would be walking at the level higher than the relics and hence might desacralise them.

By saying so, it logically implies that women are so powerful that they could actually desacralise the power of the Buddha’s relics, which is, of course, not the case.

The belief that women are unclean is not limited only to Indian society. Older and primitive societies, particularly tribal peoples also held such beliefs. This results from their inability to explain the myth of menstruation.

All practices following the Vedas, particularly the Atharvaveda which are full of black magic, somehow warn the practitioners to keep away from coming in direct contact with menstruating women as menstruation nullifies the magical power. As a result all monks and men who have been following the Vedas set rules prohibiting women from entering sacred space. In Buddhist temples it is not practical to limit only menstruating women, hence the rules extend to limit all women.

During the Ayudhya period, Buddhist monks and magic masters were forced out of necessity to learn various art of magical power to help their disciples to go through the frequent warfare of the period. They also followed this prohibition of women in order to strengthen their magical practices. Buddhist monks were inseparable from Hindu beliefs and practices, resulting in a denial of the true spirit of Buddhism and the loss of Buddhist teachings and practices. In this manner, we often find many Hindu practices accepted under the name of Buddhism.

It may be concluded that the beliefs and practices as carried out by Buddhist monks are not necessarily Buddhist. Buddhists must be aware of this blend which took place in our historical context and must be able to distinguish what is Buddhism and follow its teaching with a critical mind.

From the above case we see that local beliefs uncritically handed over through tradition sometimes could form into negative social values which become effective tool to suppress women. Merely external changes in establishing legal rights does not always guarantee a change in attitude and social values. We need to be firm in our study of Buddhist texts as they provide us a strong basis to bring about a new insight with spiritual strength that is necessary and important to lead us towards a more positive attitude towards women and in the long run for an improvement of Buddhist society.