1. Introduction
  2. The Place of Women in Buddhism
  3. Pre-Buddhist osition of Women
  4. Women and the Buddha's path
  5. The Position of Lay Women
  6. The Order of Bhikkhunis
  7. Women in Early Buddhism
  8. Some Modern Feminist Views
  9. Concluding Remarks

The Buddha’s Attitude to Women

by Victor Gunasekara

1. Introduction

The position of women has been a subject of considerable interest in recent decades. In all societies, particularly in the West, there has been a rethinking of the position accorded to women in all spheres of activity. This has resulted in a significant change in the role played by women in social, economic and political life. This reappraisal has also touched the question of the position accorded to women in the main religious traditions of the world. In Christian countries the issue of the ordination of women has become a controversial topic, and some Churches are facing the prospect of dissension, and even schism, on this question. The position of women in Islam has been the subject of considerable discussion and controversy. In contrast to this the position of women in Buddhism has been relatively neglected. This neglect is now coming to be rectified.

What we will be considering is not so much the current position of women in the religions, but the position accorded to them in the original scriptures of the religion concerned. This is generally supposed to reflect the view of the founder of the religion concerned. [NOTE 1]

Almost all religions have shown a degree of departure from the position of the founder in this question as in several others. But there is no doubt that the position of the founder of the religion on a particular question has had a profound effect on the way that religion has dealt with that question even if it had involved a degree of revision. In any case there are fundamentalists who will always insist on looking at questions from the perspective of the founder of the religion. Thus it is necessary that we consider the views of the founder insofar as these could be discerned from the authoritative scriptures of the religion concerned, and from the reports of the actual conduct of the founder in his encounters with women.

2. Place of Women in Buddhism

The place and role of women in Buddhism may be considered in several ways.

  1. The doctrinal statements relating to gender in the Buddhist teaching (which Buddhists call Dhamma/Dharma [NOTE 2]
  2. The position of women in the religious and the secular life in India before the Buddha’s time with that after;
  3. Whether the Buddha’s teaching accords to women a position different to that accorded to men, as is the case in some other religions;
  4. Whether the accident of the sex of one’s birth helps or retards progress on the Buddha’s path, and indeed whether gender is itself a chance event or caused by pre-existing factors;
  5. The part played by women in the early history of Buddhism, notably during the Buddha’s own time;
  6. ) The circumstances surrounding the establishment of the Order of Nuns (Bhikkhunis); and
  7. The influence of Buddhism on the position of women in the countries where Buddhism became a living presence It is not possible to onsider all these questions in an article, of this length, so the treatment of the subject has to be selective.

While the attitude of the Buddha to the role of women was an enlightened one, even when judged by the standards of the modern age, it must not be thought that everything that is said on this subject in Buddhist writing, is complementary to women. There are many explanations for this, not least of which is the fact that most of the Buddha’s discourses were written down several centuries after the his death. During this time the teachings were sustained in an oral tradition by monks, some of whom were not entirely free from the prejudices of the age. It is interesting to note that such “backsliding” occurs most commonly in the later works, e.g. in the prose sections of the Jātakas. [NOTE 3] And popular Buddhism took liberties of its own with this aspect of Buddhist teaching as it did with several others.

A small literature on this subject has accumulated since the late Ms I. B. Horner wrote her book Women under Primitive Buddhism well over 50 years ago. This book presents a comprehensive account of this question, and is still in may ways the best source on this question.

3. The Pre-Buddhist Position of Women

The social matrix in which Buddhism arose was one which accorded to women an inferior position. In this regard Indian society did not differ radically from that in other places, and in some respects its treatment of women may actually have been more liberal. Indian religion in the Buddha’s time is usually designated as “Brahmanism” to distinguish it from Hinduism, which in its classic form was a post-Buddhist development.

The position of women under Hinduism is well-known. Some idea of this position could be gleaned from the classic Hindu Dharmashstras of which the Manu-smirthi, popularly knows as the “Laws of Manu”, is the best known. This work describes the duties of women as follows”

“By a girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house. In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent”. (Laws of Manu, V, 147-8).

Women were prevented from performing religious rites, and even the knowledge of the Vedas was to be kept away from them (IX, 18). The question for historians is how far these laws were in force in the time of the Buddha. The Hindus claim a divine origin for the laws of Manu but they were probably complied later when Hinduism had assumed its rigid form centuries after the Buddha’s time. However the Brahmanical religion of the Buddha’s day, though somewhat better in this respect, did not accord spiritual parity to women. The primordial principle in the Vedic-Upanishadic philosophy which was dominant in the Buddha’s time was the male principle (purusha), and this provided justification for the exclusion of women generally from social and spiritual activity.

It was in contrast to this attitude which reserved spiritual achievement for males that the Buddha proclaimed a message that was to be universal, one designed for the good of humanity as a whole without exception as to race, caste or sex. One of the classic titles given to the Buddha is satt devamanussna or “teacher of humans and gods”. [NOTE 4] If the Buddha had been regarded as a teacher of men as opposed to women the term “purisa” (which is the Pali counterpart of “itti”, woman) would have been used in this classic description, rather than the generic term manussa. More generally the teaching of the Buddha is referred to as one that could lead all beings (satt) to liberation, in whatever realm they lived and whatever form they assumed. However another of the classic description of the Buddha describes him as “Purisadammasārathīi”, or “charioteer of men to be tamed”. Some might see in this sexist language, but what it probably means is precisely what it says, viz that men a subject to more violent misdeeds and have to be “tamed” to a greater extent than women. [NOTE 5]

While the change in attitude towards women brought about by the Buddha has to be appreciated it must be remembered that he was not alone in this regard. The Jains too took a more enlightened attitude towards women when compared to the dominant Brhmanical religion. But Jainism unlike Buddhism did not concede the possibility of ultimate spiritual liberation to a woman, although a woman could become a man. Some, but not all, Jain sects extended their religious orders to women.

4. Women and the Buddha's Path.

There is very little, if any at all, in Buddhism that identifies it with a particular sex. The Buddha himself was historically a man, but the essence of Buddhism does not involve any extolling of the personality of the Buddha (unlike say the Christian extolling of the person of Jesus in his capacity as the Son of God). What the Buddha claimed was that he discovered a universal law which existed independently of all the Buddhas, and which others male or female can discover by following the directions of the Buddha, or by their own unaided efforts. The cult of the Buddha’s person, the worship of relics, the conduct of the Buddha pūjās (offerings) and the like, were all later developments, both in the Theravada and the Mahayana, and have scant justification in the discourses of the Buddha.

Later academic speculation has raised the question whether a female could become a Buddha or a Bodhisattva. [NOTE 6] Mahayanists have taken an affirmative position, but the Theravada position is less clear. Some have claimed that the Buddhas have to be males, others have taken a more ambiguous position. The correct way to approach this question is to regard it as another of those profitless questions which the Buddha left unresolved (avyākata) as it is irrelevant to the question of release from suffering. There can be only one Buddha in a given Buddha-era, and the present era happened to have been inaugurated whether by necessity or coincidence, by a male, Siddhatta Gotama.

Another way to regard this question is that even though the male-female identity is set at birth this is only true of a particular birth. The Buddhists doctrine of rebirth asserts that gender can change over successive births. Thus in the “samsāric” [NOTE 7] sense there is no male or female, but only a single karmic stream. This is hardly surprising given that the anatt (no-soul) doctrine ensures that there is not even a personal identity over the sasric stream. This is another reason why the Dhamma for the most part ignores the sexual identity of persons.

Unfortunately a contrary view has gained some popularity in Buddhist countries mainly due to the influence of the Jtaka stories. In these stories men tend to be men and women tend to be women (e.g. Siddatta and Yasodarā are said to have been consorts over countless births), [NOTE 8]as mentioned earlier, are later accretions to the Buddhist tradition meant for popular consumption, and as we have them the essence of the stories seem to run counter to the fundamental Buddhist principle of anattā.

Another popular misunderstanding in many Buddhist countries is that negative (“unskillful”) karma results in a male being reborn as a woman, and positive (“skillful”) karma has the opposite effect. There does not seem to be any authoritative basis for the belief. In fact the workings of the law of kamma is one of the unknowable questions for those who had not reached enlightenment. What factors result in a person becoming a male or a female were not discussed by the Buddha. Thus popular beliefs with regard to this are without foundation in the Buddha’s Dhamma.

Buddhist practice is generally gender-neutral. This practice is contained in the “Noble Eightfold Path”, which is usually divided into three groups – paññā (wisdom), sīla (morality), and bhāvanā (mental development). Of these the first and third do not involve any differentiation between males and females. The practice of morality may in some minor respects involve different kinds of conduct for the two sexes, particularly when it comes to sexual morality. But in the practice of the path gender has no relevance. The highest achievement of Buddhism, supreme enlightenment, is available to both men and women. There is a categorical affirmative answer to the question put to him whether women could reach enlightenment. This was stated well before there were any female arahants (i.e. persons who have reached full enlightenment).

Buddhist practice, in its pure form, has no place for ritual. It is in the conduct of rituals in most religions that sex-typing becomes important and questions of precedence, ritual purity and the like arise. Later developments in some Buddhist countries has seen the emergence of some ritual, but even this kind of simple ritual has not involved any typing by the sex of the devotee. Buddhist ritual usually involves simple forms of worship or chanting or symbolic offerings, and all these are available to men and women on equal terms.

In this connection it must also be mentioned that Buddhism has no place for a priestly class. Buddhist monks are sometimes mistakenly referred to as “Buddhist priests”, but this is wrong use of terminology. The role of the priest in religious life is to officiate between the faithful and the God, and Buddhism being essentially atheistic has no place for God or priest. [NOTE 9] Thus Buddhism has been spared the problem now all too evident ill theistic religions of women protesting their exclusion from the priestly circle. The position of monks and nuns in Buddhism will be considered in a later section.

The Buddha’s disciples fell into the four categories of monk (bhikkhu), nun (bhikkhunī), layman (upāsaka), and laywoman (upāsikā). The difference between the ordained and the lay persons was one of the degree of commitment in following the path, and the life-style they follow. There are no differences between male and female lay persons. However some questions have been raised as to the relative status of monks and nuns.

There was general recognition that both men ane women were capable of equal spiritual attainment. However there was a lingering prejudice that women were less intelligent and therefore could not aspire to the higher levels of knowledge and wisdom which is necessary for enlightenment. An incident reported in the Pali Canon illustrates this illustrates this well. It records an exchange between Mara, the Buddhist embodiment of evil, and a nun Soma Theri. Mara taunts Soma that no woman could reach “the high ground of the wise” because she has only the “two-finger knowledge” (dvaṅgulapaññā), an allusion to cooking where the consistency of the cooked rice is tested by pressing it between the fingers. Mara is refuted in the following stanzas uttered by Soma Theri:

ittibhāvo kim kiyirā What matters being a woman
cittamhi susamhite  If with mind firmly set
Ñānamhi vattamnamhi  One grows in the knowledge
sammādhamma vipassato  Of the Right Law with insight?

yassa nūna siy evaṃ Any one who has to question
itthham puriso ti va  Am I a woman or am I a man
kici va pana asamti   And does not really know
tam māro vattum arahatti,   Over such will Mara triumph

There is another version of this incident given in the Therigāthā, [NOTE 10] which preserves the essential first stanza which asserts the irrelevance of the “female condition” (ittibhāvo) to spiritual progress, but replaces the second with a more conventional stanza:

sabbattha vihatā nanadi With all pleasures overcome
tamokkhadho padālito And ignorance torn away
evam janÂhi pāpima Know this, O Defiled One,
nihato tvam asi antaka Driven out art thou at last!

Whether this involves some later reworking by monks compilers we shall never know. It is however a fact that the udānas recorded in the Therigāthā are somewhat disappointing if we were to look in them for evidence on the question that is considered here. In most respects what the Therīs see as the travails of life from which they seek escape into the ineffable, are not different from those identified by the theras in the Theragāthā.

The laws of Buddhism, like the law of karma, work equally for women as for men: “anyone, man or woman, who performs deeds of deliberate choice reaps a destiny which in no way depends on the sex of the doer”.[NOTE 11]

5. The Position of Lay Women in Buddhism

When we consider the position accorded to women in ordinary life we have to note that the Buddha’s teaching was primarily concerned with individual spiritual emancipation. This emancipation would be manifested in the worldly conduct of individuals, but the Buddha was not interested in establishing and perpetuating a particular worldly order, for whatever actual regime were put in place it would in a Buddhist sense be unsatisfactory. In this respect Buddhism differs from other religions where private and public affairs were brought within the ambit of religious regulation.

Thus Buddhism does not make such things as marriage (where the position of women is important) a religious “sacrament” as it is, for instance, in Christianity or Hinduism. The Buddhist position was that these matters have to be regulated by society thorough some kind of social, political or legal process. This is similar to the Humanist position on this question. What is only required is that such arrangements should not be in fundamental conflict with the Dhamma. It is possible to have many different kinds of social and family arrangements which are compatible with the broad framework of the Dhamma. Thus matter like divorce, inheritance of property, etc. are entirely regulated by social processes, and there is considerable freedom for individuals in these arrangements. In matters like marriage, divorce, ownership of property, personal political or religious beliefs, etc. wives were allowed considerable liberty.

Nonetheless in his discourses to lay person the Buddha does express views, and recommend practices which he considered as compatible with the Dhamma. Sometimes the Buddha’s views happened to coincide with commonly accepted social principles, sometimes they were contrary to these views.

Thus for instance, in a society which considered male children to be more desirable than female ones, the Buddha held a different view. When King Pasenadi of Kosala, while still an adherent of the Brahmanical religion and thus shared its values, was disappointed that his Queen Mallika bore him a daughter, the Buddha told him: “A woman-child, O Lord of men, may prove to be a better offspring than a male” (Sa. Nik, iii, 2, 6). It is possible to see in this a kind of diplomatic response to prevent the King developing an aversion to his Queen who was a Buddhist, but the sentiment expressed is genuine, and in keeping with the rest of the Buddha’s teaching.

A few discourses given to householders emphasise the more worldly aspects of living, and of these the Sigalovda Sutta is the best known. This Sutta has been dissected to get actual rules of conduct on a wide variety of secular matters. This is a wrong way to approach the question. In this Sutta the Buddha was not laying down a code of domestic jurisprudence but instructing the Brahmin Sigala on certain basic principles. Of these the ones that are relevant here are the duties of wife to husband aud vice versa. The Buddha lays down rules in this regard that could be considered common sense and eminently sensible. They conform to the mores of the time. The actual details are not important, but what is important is that the Buddha emphasises the principle of reciprocity. Thus just as the wife has duties prescribed vis-a-vis the husband, so has the husband towards the wife. The equal burden of responsibility and duty laid on both husband and wife if the hall-mark of the Buddha’s attitude to the role of women in the family life. In this Sutta the Buddha identifies qualities in women (beauty, wealth, kin, sons, virtue) which would make them the superior partner in the marriage, but these qualities are those generally accepted in society in the Buddha’s time. The Sigalovda Sutta presupposes a monogamous system, but some of the royal patrons of the Buddha practiced polygamy having large harems, but they were not admonished for this by the Buddha. This was a matter belonging to social convention, and the Buddha preferred not to pontificate on it.

At other places in the Pali Canon there are references to the position of females that might not satisfy a modern exponent of “women’s liberation”. Thus the Dhaniya Sutta of the Sutta Nipata extols obedience in wives (reminding us of the Christian marriage vow imposed on wives to “obey” their husbands). Then there are the various lists of kinds of wives that appear in the Vinaya and the Sutta Pitaka, with the occasional hint that the more docile the kind of wife the better. But it must be remembered that these opinions do not have any kind of binding force, and are not always consistent with statements elsewhere. In a compilation as large as the Pali Canon such inconsistency on relatively minor matter is to be expected.

If one were to get a general principle on the question of the relation between the sexes it is the principle of reciprocity and non-dominance that emerges in the Buddhist writing. Even the later Jatakas it is sometimes sated that woman living in fear of her husband is no true wife (No.537).

6. The Order of Bhikkhunis

This is often regarded as crucial to the evaluation of the role of women in Buddhism. [NOTE 12] What can be concluded is that while Buddhism passes this test it does so with a few qualifications.

Every religion has jealously guarded entry into its innermost sanctum. In many religions the doors of this sanctum are barred to women. In Buddhism one could consider the Sangha (a collective term denoting the boxy of ordained monks and nuns) as forming part of the core of the Buddha Ssana (Dispensation of the Buddha). It is part of the Triple Gem to which all Buddhists go for refuge. [NOTE 13] As is well-known that the Buddha established the Order for Bhikkhus a few months after the Enlightenment, and established the Bhikkhuni Order only five years later. The facts relating to the establishment of the Bhikkhuni Order are as follows. His foster mother, Maha Prajapati Gotami, expressed her wish to enter the Order and the Buddha rejected this request thrice. But Prajpati persisted, and finally after the intercession of the Buddha’s principal attendant the monk Ananda, he finally agreed to set up an Order for women.

The establishment of the Bhikkhu Order (for men) may be considered as something revolutionary in religious history. It is the first time that we have a body of men coming under a strict discipline not discharging a priestly function, all earnestly engaged in seeking a way of release. Previously in India ascetics were individual wanderers (samanas), not belonging to a body corporate. The Jains are sometimes credited with first establishing a religious Order but the Jain orders were something intermediate between the isolated Hindu ascetic and the organized body of sramanas that constituted the Bhikkhu Sangha.

The extension of the monastic principle to women was even more revolutionary. Involvement of women in the religious life has at most times been either non-existent or dubious. In course of time Prajāpati Gotami’s wish to become a Bhikkhuni became the common aspiration of many women. Perhaps they saw in the Bhikkhuni order a freedom that they could not find in the secular life, where they were bound down by the rules of a society which accorded little importance to women.

The new Order had its own rules of discipline (the Vinaya) which for the most part corresponded to the Vinaya for Bhikkhus, but there were eight special rules which have remained contentious and which are seen as making the Bhikkhuni Order subordinate to the Bhikkhu Order. These rules were:

  1. Bhikkhus were always to have precedence over Bhikkhunis in matters of salutation, etc.
  2. Bhikkhunis could not observe the annual retreat (vassa) in a district where there were no Bhikkhus.
  3. Bhikkhus had to set the dates for Uposatha ceremonies (convocations of the Order).
  4. Confession transgression by Bhikkhnis had to done before the assembly of both Orders.
  5. Certain judicial processes in case of Bhikkhunis had to be undertaken by both Orders.
  6. 6. The higher initiation (Upasampad) of Bhikkhunis should be given by both Orders.
  7. 7. A Bhikkhuni should never abuse a Bhikkhu.
  8. 8. Bhikkhus can officially admonish Bhikkhunis, but not vice versa.

These rules related to the internal administration of the Bhikkhuni Order, and made it in some respects subordinate to the Bhikkhu Order. Some of the rules may be explained in terms of practical necessity. Thus Rule 2 recognized the dangers to which Bhikkhunis would be exposed to if they spent the long period of retreat in isolated areas. Rules 3 and 6 might have been set up to see that the procedures in the newly established Bhikkhuni Order would correspond to and benefit from similar procedures in the already established Bhikkhu Sangha. Rule 7 seems to be a restatement of the precept regarding “wrong speech”. But Rules 1 and 8 cannot be seen in any other light than a concession to male superiority. In practical terms Rule 1 must have been the most irksome, and even humiliating in a society where the protocol attaching to salutation was very strict. The usual Buddhist rule which guided seniority was the number of years a person had spent in the Order, and while this continued to apply to Bhikkhus and Bhikkhnis considered separately, any individual Bhikkhuni would rank lower than any Bhikkhu however junior the latter may be. It is not surprising that it was from this rule that Prajpati Gotami sought exemption (unsuccessfully despite the support of Ananda).

Yet whatever be the explanation the rules lack reciprocity between males and females, and would not suit the present age. The Bhikkhuni Order in the Theravada tradition died out some centuries ago, and has only recently been revived. In the Mahayana tradition the female order does not seem to have recognized the special rules. The recent revival of the Theravada Bhikkhuni order has followed the Mahayana conventions in this regard.

The special rules for Bhikkhunis have come for criticism from certain Western observers. [NOTE 14] In Christianity there were no female priests, and therefore no equivalent to Bhikkhunis. The closest that we have are the various orders of Christian nuns (whose equivalents in Buddhist countries are the women who take the ten precepts). The position of Christian nuns vis-a-vis monks and male laity is distinctly worse that the position of Bhikkhunis under the (original) Vinaya rules. At least the Bhikkhunis did not have to acknowledge (after the death of the Buddha) a male person as the spiritual head (as for instance Christian nuns would have to acknowledge Bishop, Pope or God).

The subordination of Bhikkhunis to Bhikkhus could be seen as one relating to protocol rather than to spiritual progress. Even amongst monks it does not follow that a more senior monk is necessarily more spiritually advanced than another who is a junior in terms of years spent in the Order. Similarly while Bhikkhunis may rank lower than Bhikkhus in terms of formal position they can be more advanced in terms of spiritual attainment.

7. Women in Early Buddhism

Once the order of Bhikkhunis was founded a large number of distinguished women from various social backgrounds came to adorn this Order, attracted by the power of the Buddha’s teaching and the freedom which the new Order offered them. Many of these Bhikkhunis attained to the supreme state of enlightenment. The stories, sayings and deeds of these distinguished Bhikkhunis are recorded in many places in the Pali Canon, most notably in the Therigāthā, a compilation of verses uttered by these Theris when they saw the clear light of the Dhamma, and which constitutes a part of the Khuḍḍaka Nikāya of the Sutta Piṭaka (see footnote 10).

Amongst those whose verses are recorded in the Therigāthā are some of the best known names in early Buddhism. The include Prajāpati Gotami, who was the first Bhikkhuni, Uppalavannā and Khema, who are traditionally regarded as “foremost of the Bhikkhunis”, Kisāgotamī and Paṭācāra, who figure in the best known stories in early Buddhism. The members of the order belonged to all walks of life. Some were former courtesans like Ambapāli and Vimalā, others were of royal lineage like Sumeda and Sela. There were distinguished exponents of he Dhamma like Dhammadinnā, scions of noble or merchant families like Bhadda Kunḍalkesa, Sujāta, and Anopama, not to mention those of humbler origins like Punnika the slave girl, or Chanda the daughter of a poor Brahmin. The actual numbers of Theris involved is not known. Paṭācāra is credited with having 500 personal followers, and there are several unnamed Theris to whom sayings are attributed. [NOTE 15]

Buddhists point out that the accomplishment of these Theris of old is that they gave living proof of the Buddha’s utterance (Sam.Nik, 1, 5, 6):

yassa etdisa yāna The one who takes this vehicle
ittiva purisassa va Be it a woman or be it a man
sa ve etena yānena This is the only vehicle
nibbānasseva santikeThat can reach nibbāna’s peace.

where the vehicle referred to is the Buddha’s teaching.

Apart from these Theris and Arahants there were many women from all walks of life who embraced the Buddha’s teaching. They became upāsikās and sāvakas, students and servitors of the Buddha and the Sangha. Their names have gone down in Buddhist legend and their piety is well known. These stories do not need repetition here.

8. Some Modern Feminist Views

The recent literature of feminism contains several views of women who had sought to interpret the Buddhist position on women. The following is a brief cull of the views held by some of them.

1. Anne Bancroft, “Women in Buddhism” in Ursala King (ed). Women in the Worlds’ Religions, Past and Present (1987). Bancroft is a Christian feminist and makes an impartial assessment of the Buddha’s position on the subject. Her conclusion is: “The Buddha himself, in answer to a question whether woman could attain arahantship or not, replied that it is possible for them to do so. From this we can know that he saw nothing inherently inferior in a woman’s mind although the wandering life might be difficult for her” (op. cit., p. 82).

2. Nancy Barnes, “Buddhism” in Sharma (ed), Women in World Religions (N.Y., 1987). Barnes is also a Christian, and makes her assessment in a symposium discussing the involvement of women in religion. Her views could be gathered from this representative quotation: “Buddhism originally offered no doctrinal resistance to the acceptance of women and men as equally capable of spiritual enlightenment, and this continued to be the practice of mainstream Buddhist thought through the centuries” (op. cit., p.13).

3. Janice D. Wills, “Nuns and Benefactresses: the role of women in the development of Buddhism”, Y. Hadad and Findly Women, Religion and Social Change (N.Y. 1985). Wills too is a Christian feminist, but she too makes an impartial assessment of the role of women in Buddhism. She writes: “Women were elevated, presented positively, and granted more esteem in the texts at the same time that such elevation and esteem were accorded to the laity in general” (op. cit., p. 77).

4. Diana Paul, Women in Buddhism: Images in the Feminine in the Mahâyâna tradition (1974). This work concentrates on the role of women in the Mahayana which is much less controversial than in the Theravada. In effect Paul seeks to do for Mahayana what Ms Horner did for Pali Buddhism. The Mahayana attitude to women is much more positive than the Theravada and needs no further consideration.

5. Nancy A. Falk, “The Case of the Vanishing Nuns: the Fruits of Ambivalence in Ancient Indian Buddhism” in Falk and Gross (eds) Unspoken Worlds Harper, 1980). This work highlights the elimination of the Bhikkhuni order. Falk too has a positive assessment of the position of women in Buddhism: “The early Buddhists held a reasonably positive view of woman’s capacities and achievements” (op. cit., p. 105). Falk is a Christian.

6. Rita M. Gross, “Buddhism and Feminism”, Eastern Buddhist 1986. Ms Gross is both a Buddhist (of Tibetan lineage) and a feminist. She has identified many points of contact between Buddhism and feminism and argues that the way forward for Western women is to “join the vision of Buddhism with the vision of feminism”. There is no detailed study of the texts but she considers three popular criticisms (male children being considered superior to female, the subservience of nuns to monks, and the alleged halving of the dispensation because nuns have been ordained).

7 .Kajiyama Yuichi, “Women in Buddhism”. Eastern Buddhist, 1982. No new insights into this question could be got from this article.

8. Lorna S. Dewaraja, The Position of Women in Buddhism (Kandy: Buddhist Publications Society, 1981). This work does not consider the scriptural statements at all, but instead concentrates on the position of women in Buddhist countries. Opinions quoted are selective and it does not mention the contrary views advanced by Christian missionaries.

9. Swarna de Silva, The Place of Women in Buddhism (B.S.Q., 1989). This is the text of a short talk given on the subject, and does not go into detail even though the relevant problems are mentioned.

10. Lily de Silva, “The Place of Women in Buddhism” (Dialogue, 1992-3). This author argues that Buddhism continued the improvement of the position of women which the Upanishads had already affected to the position of women in Vedic Society. While the positive aspects of the Buddhist attitude to women are considered the author does not seek to explain the more problematical references on which the critics of the Buddha ave concentrated.

11. L.P.N.Perera, “Sexuality and the woman in Buddhism” Dialogue, 1992-3. This is in the vein of M. Walsh’s Buddhism and Sex (Wheel Series). In spite of its title the question of woman is not really addressed, and some propositions are debatable e.g. the claim that “Buddhism traced the origins of dukkha ... to the incorrect attitude of man towards sensation”. By means of selective quotation he speaks of a “Buddhist recognition of the assessment of woman as a sex-object”, whereas Buddhist texts are generally even-handed as between the two sexes.

12. André Golob, Buddha und die Frauen (OrosVerlag, 2003) gives a more balanced assessment but leans towards a positive conclusion: “In Buddhismus ... hatte die Frau aufgehört nur eine Dienerin ihres Mannes zu sein, sie wurde als eigenständige Person betrachte, und ihr wurde die Möglichkeit gegeben, sich auch in religiöser Dingen aktiv zu engagieren” (p. 476)

From this brief survey of writings on the subject it will be seen that most modern feminist writers, including Christian feminists, take a positive view of the position of women in Buddhism. Indeed they must do so if any semblance of impartiality has to be accorded to their conclusions on this question.

This however is not to say that criticism have not been made on the Buddha’s stand on the question of women. A convenient list of the passages from the Pali Canon to which the Buddha’s critics take exception to is contained in two articles that have appeared in Sri Lanka as part of a so-called “Buddhist-Christian dialogue”. . The first is by Fr Aloysius Pieris and has the rather imposing title “Woman and Religion in Asia: Towards a Buddhist and Christian Appropriation of the Feminist Critique”. The second is by Elizabeth Harris entitled more modestly “The Female in Buddhism”. It is not the purpose to deal with these arguments here as they have been considered by this writer elsewhere. [NOTE 16]

9. Concluding Remarks

By way of conclusion we may consider some changes in the position of women in Buddhist countries since the era of the Buddha. This must include a consideration of the attempt to revive the Bhikkhuni order in Theravada countries.

However strong was the role of women in the Buddha’s day once the charismatic presence of the Buddha ended with his decease, the Bhikkhuni sangha too appeared to have entered into decline. While the Bhikkhu Sangha has continued in unbroken succession in many parts of the world (though not in the land of its birth) the fate of the Bhikkhuni Sangha is less well recorded.

The Buddha is credited with the prophecy that the lifespan of the dispensation be founded would be curtailed because of the creation of the Bhikkhuni order. Whatever value be added to such prophecies, it is a fact that after the period foreseen by the Buddha (500 years) Buddhism saw the great bifurcation between the Mahayana and the Theravada streams. Even the Theravada which is the closest of these two streams to the original views of the Buddha, developed numerous tendencies which were not seen in the Buddha’s day. The rise of the Mahayana has had some implications for the role of women in Buddhism. It has been claimed that the Mahayana entertained a positive attitude to the role of women than the Theravada. However the early Mahayana masters were all male. Indeed it is the claim of some Mahayana sects that the Buddha established a line of patriarchs with Maha Kassapa as the first. This line of patriarchs naturally all consisted of males. When Chinese orders of Bhikshunis were finally established this was done with the aid of Theravada bhikkhunis from Sri Lanka.

While the Mahayana bhikshuni orders still survive the fate of the bhikkhuni order in Theravada countries has been different. In India itself not only the bhikkhuni order but also the bhikkhu order came to an end. But before this happened both orders were established in Sri Lanka which henceforth became the source of Theravada Buddhism. There is no evidence that a Theravada bhikkhuni order has existed in any country other than India and Sri Lanka. Whereas the Bhikkhu order was exported to countries in South-East Asia this does not seem to have been the case with the Bhikkhuni Order.

The Bhikkhuni Order was brought to Sri Lanka by the Theri Sanghamitta in the third century BCE. She seems to have had a great initial success with many of the leading ladies of the country including those of royal blood taking to the monastic life. From Sri Lanka the Bhikkhuni Sangha was taken to China in the fifth century by enterprising Sri Lankan Bhikkhunis. Other than this very little is recorded of the activity of Bhikkhunis in Sri Lanka. We do not even have the exact date as to when the Order vanished in Sri Lanka.

The revival of the Bhikkhuni Order in Theravada tradition has not been without controversy. Many leading Bhikkhus still do not recognize its validity. [NOTE 17] In Sri Lanka and other Theravada countries women who want to play a more active role than that of lay followers of the Dhamma can only take the Ten Precepts. Some Western women who have become Buddhists and wishing to play a deeper role than that possible by being lay-disciples have donned the yellow robe and have called themselves “nuns”. There does not appear to be a justification for this in the Theravada tradition. The terms “monk” and “nun” have usually been used to denote Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni, and as the latter has become extinct the term “nun” must now refer to those who undertake the 10 precepts. Usually those who follow these rules wear a white robe rather than a yellow robe. To prevent confusion it is best to restrict the yellow robe to those who have been ordained into Sangha orders following the currently prevailing methods.

But even without a Bhikkhuni order there is ample scope for the participation of women in Dhamma work. The Buddha has not said that enlightenment can come only from formal adherence to a monastic order. Both laymen and laywomen have become arahants in the past. Thus the door to the highest goal of Buddhism is not barred to women simply because the Bhikkhuni order has become extinct.

A few comments of the Buddhist position of women with that of other religions may be made. We have had occasion to make a few remarks on the position of women under classic Hinduism. Modern Hinduism has not changed much, although there has been some elevation in the social position of women. Women cannot still officiate as priests in the Hindu religion.

Christianity has traditionally been a masculine religion mainly because its main dogma relates to the God considered as a male (“Father”) and a prophet-teacher Jesus who is considered as his “Son”. The centrepiece of the religion is the Father-Son relationship, and it is not surprising that women have been relegated to a secondary place and denied spiritual equality with men. Jesus considered himself to be a Jewish Messiah, and did not challenge Jewish vies on this subject. His comments on the role of women are at best ambiguous. None of the 12 original disciples were women. The modern Christian Church was constituted out of the claims of Jesus by St Peter, who is well-known as a misogynist, and the subsequent record of Christian Churches has reflected this quite well. Now there are moves to ordain women priests in some Christian denominations but these moves have led to much dissension.

The position of women in Islam is well known. They too are denied full access to religious functions, and in some countries even access to the mosque. It is disturbing that the revival of Islamic fundamentalism is threatening to undo some progress that has been made in some Islamic countries.

Thus whatever comparison we may care to make with other religions the Buddhist view on this question is unique [NOTE 18].


[1.] The founder of Christianity is Jesus, a person of dubious historicity. By contrast Muhammad (founder of Islam) and the Buddha (that of Buddhism) were real persons. The Buddha’s name is Siddhatta Gotama (Siddhrtha Gautama in Sanskrit) who lived 563-483 BCE in North-Eastern India. He was a contemporary of Socrates in Greece and Confucius in China. This article will not give the basics of Buddhism. For this see the present writer’s Basic Buddhism.

[2.] Buddhist scriptures were first compiled in two Indian languages Pali and Sanskrit. Of the two main branches of Buddhism the Theravada uses the Pali version (referred to as the Pali Canon, while the Mahayana uses the Sanskrit.

[3.] The Jaataka tales (of which there are over 500) purport to tell of the past lives of the Buddha. They are used to illustrate some moral issues, and have never been considered as historical or actually spoken by the Buddha. They are not regarded officially as part of the Buddhist Canon.

[4.] The devas (usually translated “gods”) refer to the Vedic pantheon which deified natural forces (like the old Greek religion). Early Buddhists held that the “gods” were inferior to humans and certainly to the Buddha who was a human.

[5.] In the Pali texts the term puriso is often used not in its strict meaning of “man” but to denote a human being in general, just as the term putta is used to denote “child” rather than “son” that it literally means. This is also true of many languages, and it is only now that language is coming to be used in a strict non-sexist manner.

[6.] In the Theravada tradition a Bodhisattva was a being working towards Buddhahood. In the Mahayana they are given a more exalted position.';

[7.] The word saṃmsāra is used in Buddhism as the entire “stream of consciousness” as it manifests over successive rebirths. For the Buddhist theory of rebirth see Basic Buddhism in the reference given in footnote 1.';

[8.] Even though none of the Jtaka tales in the Pall Canon represent the Bodhisattva as a woman some of the iconographic representations of Jātaka scenes at the Sanchi stūpa represent the Bodhisattva in a female form. Thus the Buddha was not a male person in all his previous births.

[9.] In practice Buddhist monks have assumed some kind of priestly role as when they recite stanzas of blessings to the lay followers. This is part of the process by which Buddhism has been made into a religion, when it was not one in its original form.

10.] The Therigāthā is an anthology of verses by Buddhist nuns during the Buddha’s lifetime. It is one of the books of the Pali Canon and is the complement of the Theragāthā an anthology of verses attributed to monks. There are other instances of authoritative teachings by women in the Buddhist Canon, which may be contrasted with the absence of significant texts by females in the scriptures of other religions.

[11.] Cūlakammavibhangasutta, Majjima Nikāya, iii, 204-5.

[12.] This matter could be compared to the current controversy relating to the ordination of women in Christianity. But whereas Christianity had to confront it only now after 2000 years the Buddha had to confront it at the very inception of his system.

[13.] There is some argument as to whether the Sangha consists of those who have formally undertaken to follow the rules of the Vinaya, or consists of those who have “entered the stream” (leading to final emancipation) be they monk or lay, but we shall not consider this questions here, and take the popular view that the Sangha consists only of those who have taken the ascetic vows.

[14.] Several Western women have embraced Buddhism, and many of them wanted to go beyond being mere lay followers. They have been in the forefront in the agitation to revive the Bhikkhuni order. We may mention the Australian Ilse Ledermann who under the name of Sister Dhammadinnā was one of the earliest Western women to take to the robe.

[15.] The great number of women who figure in the Buddhist texts may be contrasted with the fewness in the Gospels, where they are usually cast as servitors of Jesus, never as teachers in their own right.

[16.] See this writer’s essay The Buddhist-Christian Dialogue on Women and Feminism. Some material from this essay has been incorporated in this article.

[17.] According to the Vinaya rules new members can be initiated into an Order only by existing members of that order. So when an Order dies out there is no way of resuscitating it. The recent revival of the Theravada Order of Bhikkhunis had been done with the aid of Mahayana Bhikshunis. Hence the refusal of some Theravada Bhikkhus to recognise its legitimacy.

[18.] For a discussion of the Precepts see this author’s Basic Buddhismmentioned in footnote 1.';