Dawa has become a patron for women within the Buddhist traditions, helping to promote the good of women: among her titles is “mother of liberation” showing the positive value of motherhood, similar to the way the Christian tradition looks at Mary’s motherhood as vindication of motherhood.
While the Buddha eventually opened up the possibility for women to form monastic communities officially sanctioned by him, the way they were treated indicated that women were still inferiors in society. The rules put a Buddhist monk, even a newly-established monk, as outranking any nun.
Was the Buddha’s solution one which really gave value to women?
One can argue that he gave what he thought he could give for the society of his town and that he sowed the seeds for something greater to come of it. From the Buddha himself, Buddhism has a way of negating conventions, even Buddhist conventions. Though some solutions are of greater significance than others, Buddhist conventions are often seen as pragmatic, with room for development and change in differing circumstances. Everything is impermanent, and so no social construct should be seen as holding lasting value.
Such pragmatism can be troubling. Did it mean that the difference between men and women should ultimately be overlooked, seen as a mental construct, like so many other constructs in the world? One might think this would be the answer which would eventually develop; and there is room for this in Buddhist discussion, For most, though, especially those following Mahayana Buddhist thought, this would be seen as failing to appreciate conventional truths, truths revealed by experience – even if not ultimate truth. What a thing is in the world must be seen as something, not nothing.
Buddhism is not nihilism, however nihilistic it might appear to the outside observer. A mountain is really a mountain, a river really is a river, a man is really a man and a woman really is a woman. There is something which comes out of being a woman which differs from being a man. Even if one might, through one’s lives, be a man sometimes and a woman at other times, the differences in gender must reflect conventional truths and are not to be radically eliminated by the elimination of the idea of gender.
In Mahayana Buddhism, where there is the emphasis not only of salvation for oneself, but the bodhisattva ideal where one works to save many others by becoming a Buddha, the question of gender re-emerged – and took a rather interesting turn which actually helped promote the value of the feminine. This can be seen in stories of the bodhisattva Tārā, stories which developed around the 6th century CE (and possibly with Hindu influences). There was a princess, Yeshe Dawa, whose devotion to many Buddhas was said to extend for eons, and through them, she became a highly-developed spiritual personage. Eventually attaining great merit, Dawa was told by some monks that should she seek to become greater, and that meant she should seek to become a male in her next life.
Dawa’s response was simple: no. She made a vow to seek enlightenment as a Buddha and to do so as a woman, to perpetually be born as a woman until she attained her goal and demonstrated that it was only the “weak-minded” who frowned upon womanhood. She would promote the good abilities and achievements of women, and indeed, promote their welfare and salvation. Women, though different, did not have to see their difference as hindering them in their spiritual quest.
Dawa has become a patron for women within the Buddhist traditions, helping to promote the good of women, such as motherhood; among her titles is “mother of liberation” showing the positive value of motherhood, similar to the way the Christian tradition looks at Mary’s motherhood as vindication of motherhood.
Human traditions contain much which is true. When we explore traditions, be it our own or those of others, we must be careful and critical, recognizing their social contexts and ideas which might need to be rejected as mere accidents that are not essential to our understanding of the truth. By looking at how people from a tradition or culture other than our own have wrestled with questions which we face today, we can get a better sense of the prudence needed to find solutions for today. We don’t have to accept what they believed, or the answers they provided, but we can appreciate that these questions are universal and are worth investigating time and time again, never to be seen as fully answered.