Buddha and Women, Pt. 1

Henry Karlson

Inter-religious dialogue tells us something about gender:  it can show us how different cultures have dealt with the questions that New Feminists ask today.


Dialogue is an important part of the human experience.  Our existence as persons comes to us through our relations with others.  To establish good, healthy relationships, we need to be able to speak, to learn from each other. Through dialogue, we get to hear the views of others.  We get to understand them and who they are: we find a way to respect them as a person even if we do not agree with their views or actions. 

The dignity of the human person requires an openness to the other, to let the other make themselves known. It also expects reciprocity.  When we come together to dialogue we want to be heard.  We must come willing to share who we are, what we believe.  Especially important in dialogue is the need to be honest about oneself, one’s experiences in life, one’s beliefs and practices.  We shouldn’t hide from someone that which we think they don’t want to hear.  We must be able to reveal to the other; that is, we must become vulnerable to them.  We can’t hide what appears to be a point of contention with someone else.  If we do so, we are being dishonest.  We are giving them a false sense of who we are and they will come out of the discussion not really understanding us.  This is what I have learned through my exploration of inter-religious dialogue.  It is a truth not just for inter-religious dialogue, but for all dialogue when we come across someone who is different from us.  It shows us how and why we can learn from people from all kinds of faiths. 

Inter-religious dialogue also can tell us something about gender. It can show us how different cultures have dealt with the questions that New Feminists ask today. We can learn about the difficulties people have faced as a result of their gender, difficulties which might raise questions as to what different religious traditions believe about gender even today.  Since New Feminism is concerned about the human experience, about the real-world lived experiences of people from all faiths and backgrounds, I want to bring up two interesting examples from Buddhism where the question of gender had been raised.  Through them, we can see the questions which come to us today are not new ones, not ones exclusive to the Western tradition: they are universal questions which can be examined time and time again, always reforming our thought. 

The first example comes from the beginning of Buddhism.  Siddartha (the Buddha) was a man of his time.  Though he questioned the structures of society and ontologically overturned them, he also saw that cultural traditions were not something one can entirely repudiate and expect people to listen.  His way was a middle way, where he accepted the relative value of one’s culture while working to transform society from within.  He criticized the absolute nature of the Hindu caste system, but he saw one could use it as a relative structure for morality, emphasizing that the true “brahmin” was not one who was born a brahmin, but one who earned it through deeds. 

Because he relativized the caste system, one might think Siddartha would have dealt with the place of women in society.  In reality, it took the action of his friend, Ananda, to raise the question.  Siddartha had been teaching men how to become monks, but he had nothing similar for women.  Siddartha’s aunt, Mahapajapati, wanted to become a nun.  Ananda asked the question:  are women incapable of entering Nirvana?  Siddhartha said no, they could also attain Nirvana.   

That being the case, Ananda asked why the Buddha had been hesitant in allowing women to form their own monastic communities?  Siddartha said that if women were willing to follow eight conditions he set forth, he would allow the creation of a female order within the Buddhist community (the Sangha).  In this way, Siddartha was to establish a rule for women, to allow them to become nuns, separate from, different from men, but nonetheless, capable of Buddhist practice and attaining Nirvana.  The ramifications of this would be questioned time and again. 

In my next post, I will explore them as I address one of the most important  and interesting ways the question of gender was re-addressed in Buddhism, one in which cultural biases were further negated.  The response allowed a positive value of the feminine gender while denying the prejudices against it from times past (unlike the Buddha’s).

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