Gender Equality in Buddhism

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  • 0:01 Comparison to Hinduism
  • 1:16 Women and Nirvana
  • 2:35 Buddhist Nuns
  • 3:23 Orthodox Buddhism
  • 4:58 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Jessica Whittemore

Jessica has taught junior high history and college seminar courses. She has a master's degree in education.

This lesson will seek to explore and explain some of Buddhism's beliefs about gender roles. Focusing on women in the faith, it will highlight the terms Nirvana, bhikkhunis, and the orthodox school of Theravada Buddhism.

Comparison to Hinduism

Depending on which source or scholar you choose to cite, a woman's place in Buddhism can either seem rather equal to men's or rather backseat. Like most subjective issues, it sort of depends on your own paradigm and the opinion of those you listen to. In today's lesson we'll take a look at this topic, and in the end you can decide what you think.

For starters, when stacked up against ancient Hinduism, in which Buddhism has its roots, many would say Buddhism has come a long way in the 'equality of women' department. For example, in ancient Hinduism, women were seen as completely dependent on men for not only their material health but also their spiritual health. In short, Hindu women were considered below men in every aspect of their daily lives and their reincarnated lives to come.

Perhaps nowhere is this more plainly seen than in the Hindu ritual of sati in which a widow would actually commit suicide by throwing herself on her husband's funeral pyre. Although this sounds downright insane to those of us from the Western world, to an ancient Hindu woman this was really her only shot at being reincarnated to a better life.

Women and Nirvana

In light of this, it's easy to see why many claim Buddhism offered a step up for women. For instance, differing quite a bit from Hinduism and its suicidal sati ritual, Buddha taught that anyone, regardless of sex or social position, could achieve enlightenment and the freedom from the cycle of reincarnation.

Known to Buddhists as nirvana, this freedom and enlightenment was open to women from all levels of society. Although this new idea didn't really change the patriarchal society of ancient India or Asia, many would say it offered women much more than Hinduism had. In short, it allowed them to be seen as religiously independent of men. In Western terms, one might say it appeared to give women the freedom to sort of decide their own destinies.

Adding to this, many scholars claim that Buddhism's acceptance of nuns to the faith was also a boost for women. However, although this does make it stand out from many other Eastern religions, many scholars would claim it's not quite as feministically-minded as it may sound. According to David Noss, a leading author on the topic of religion, Buddha himself was rather skeptical about accepting nuns into the faith.

Buddhist Nuns

Noss reports that several of the sutra, or discourses of Buddha, reflect the idea that Buddha actually felt female seduction was a huge hazard to male monasticism. In other words, Buddha thought that the addition of nuns into religious orders just might be too much of a temptation for men.

Despite Noss's estimation of Buddha's opinion on nuns, Noss reports that convents actually made up about 40% of the Chinese Buddhist monasteries of the 8th century. Adding to this, Noss reports that the 11th century saw Buddhist nuns, or bhikkhuni, making up about 30% of all Buddhist monastics.

Orthodox Buddhism

In addition to this, many scholars believe that the Zen Buddhist monasteries of Japan have traditionally offered the most equality or gender-free acceptance to women. However, the very same scholars would admit this is still an anomaly. In most traditional Buddhist schools of thought, especially the most conservative and orthodox Buddhist branch known as Theravada, there is little to no chance for a woman to become a legitimate member of the monastic order. Actual ordination is off limits to women.

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