Women in BuddhismPhoto de Ven.Mujin Sunim

Ven.Mujin Sunim
Head none of Pokye-Sa / Dharma Realm


All through history, women have been persecuted. There are just a few societies in which women held power and through whom the inheritance passed. These few matrilineal societies were always rare and many scholars hold that they were never truly matrilineal. Today there are remnants in tribes in India and China…
In Switzerland the situation was the reverse. Even after two world wars, women were kept in their kitchens and federal vote only truly established in 1971, the last in Europe. Then we have all the restrictions dating from ancient times in Muslim societies which, according to scholars, have nothing to do with either the Koran or the teachings of the holy prophet.
But, some 2500 years ago there lived an extraordinary man who decided that women and men were equal as far as spiritual realization was concerned and who gave women the right to live the homeless life and dedicate themselves to understanding just as their male counterparts were doing.
But there is an aspect to this event that is long disputed. The story goes like this:
The Buddha’s mother died soon after his birth and so he was brought up by his aunt. She had heard some of the Buddha’s ideas and decided to live a monastic-style life in the palace. When the Buddha came to visit, she asked for ordination and was refused. She then followed the Buddha with 500 women and asked again and was refused. Finally she appealed to Ananda, the Buddha’s attendant and cousin, and he felt sorry for the women who had walked so far to seek the Buddha’s approval.
He approached the Buddha and asked if women were incapable of enlightenment. When the Buddha replied that they were capable, Ananda asked why they could not be ordained. With this the Buddha accepted them into the ordained Sangha with some reservations.
When I first encountered this story I was horrified. A late Baby Boomer confronted by discrimination: Oh NO! So I went to my teacher Ven. B Ananda Maitreya and asked him about this. His reply was categorical.
“It’s just a social system so that harmony prevails. It takes into consideration the basic nature of men and women and their way of relating to each other,” Bhante said. He then explained that at the time of the Buddha, women were very strong. (In all ancient cultures men and women were equal. Inequality came with land division. As the land became smaller, dividing it between the children became a problem and so, almost always, the girls lost out.) The Buddha knew that if the monks were faced with strong women, like the mothers and wives that they had left behind, there could be no consistent practice leading to attainment; they would still be under the “thumb” of their homes. Therefore he hesitated so that women would accept eight extra rules to keep everyone happy. Basically the Buddha set up a system for harmony in the greater Sangha, setting down social rules which in no way denigrate women on the spiritual level.
These eight rules concern the behavior of the two sanghas to each other. The monks should continue teaching and nuns cannot reprimand a monk in any way. There are two rules in which the Buddha takes into consideration women’s safety forbidding them from living or practicing in isolated places. However the Buddha is supposed to have said that the result of women joining the Sangha would be that the ordained Sangha would end earlier. My teacher and many others consider this comment to be a later interpolation.
The wisdom of my teacher’s response became evident in a tiny incident when I went back to Europe. Having been accustomed in Asia to letting men go first, I stood in front of a door with an English gentleman while we each waited for the other to pass in front. I clearly saw the wisdom in the Buddha’s social system. There is no shame or problem in paying respects to monks or anyone else. In fact, it is never bad for us to practice humility and we can only gain from such a practice.
The other day, I visited the Islamic Center of Southern California in Los Angeles in order to show a young friend the Muslim prayer system and to have a discussion with the resident Imam. It was so beautiful to see hundreds of men bowing and then sitting quietly and listening to the excellent, simple, practical lecture. Today, most of us never bow to anything and without humility how can we ever see and so change ourselves? How can we ever see that our ego and pride are fabrications and impediments to living a meaningful life?
Now after many years, I am convinced of the wisdom of my teacher’s explanation. I am also grateful for the wisdom of the eight rules that the Buddha gave women for they help our practice. In Korea, the order of bhikkunis is very strong and beautiful. My temple, Soknam-sa has three meditation halls and up to 100 women living and practicing together in harmony. Of course we are human beings and the sun doesn’t shine every day! Discord and problems are common but in general harmony reigns.
The narrowness and stupidity of men thinking that they are superior (they all had mothers!) is sad and misplaced. We have the same attitude in the history of women’s suffrage in Switzerland where the men replied “no” to women voting about 50 times. They replied “no” to the freedom and emancipation of those that had given them life: How shameful!
Today women have unprecedented freedom with bhikkunis now in Sri Lanka and Thailand. Women are accepted in all walks of life but the battle is now for them to illuminate and embellish their femininity for it is not in becoming quasi men that their position can be maintained. In the Buddhist Sangha too, women have their place and work to do as women. After that comes the aim of celibate life: to become whole, to develop the masculine and feminine sides of our person so that we are complete. This is one of the main aims of celibacy as far as I am concerned.
So how are women in Buddhism? They are doing very well and only have to again and again inspire themselves to practice more.
Ven.Mujin Sunim, Head none of Pokye-Sa / Dharma Realm