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Religion Library: Buddhism

Gender and Sexuality

Written by: Julia Hardy

The texts include quite a few negative stories and express many negative opinions about women. The female body was described as a source of pollution: childbirth was polluting; sexual intercourse was polluting; menstruation was polluting. Women were portrayed as temptresses who were to be avoided at all times. One visualization practice for monks, attributed to the Buddha, was to imagine the corpse of a beautiful woman as it deteriorated after death.

According to some of Buddhist texts, women could not become enlightened, but must first be reborn as men. This is not a consistent view, as the Buddha's stepmother was said to have become an arhat, and there is no mention of such a transformation in her case. In the Mahayana sutras, the doctrine that women could not become enlightened without first being reborn as men was called into question.

Because of women's lower status, Buddhist nunneries have never been as successful as the monasteries. It has been more difficult for them to raise funds to support themselves and maintain their infrastructure. In some Buddhist countries, the order of nuns shrank centuries ago to the point where there were not enough nuns left to ordain new ones and the orders disappeared. In some countries, ordination for women was never allowed.

As Buddhism has entered the Americas and Europe, new female converts have been active in working to change the status of these women. In the late 20th century, a few Sri Lankan nuns came to the United States to be ordained at a Taiwanese temple. Eight years later, some Sri Lankan women traveled to India to be ordained by Korean Buddhists. While some male monks in Sri Lanka objected to this radical change in tradition, the ordinations were popular with the people, and the order of nuns was restored in Sri Lanka. An order of nuns in Mongolia was also established in the late 20th century.

Orders of Buddhist nuns have remained viable in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, as well as in Japan, China, and Korea. The strongest organization of nuns in the modern world is in Taiwan, where the number of women entering monastic life outnumbers men by five to one. Taiwanese Buddhist nuns are famous educators, artists, and activists. The largest civic organization in Taiwan is Tzu Chi, which was founded by a nun in 1966 and is run by Buddhist nuns. Tzu Chi has organized a number of social service projects and distributes tens of millions of dollar every year. As the example of Taiwan indicates, it is very likely that the status of Buddhist nuns will change as attitudes toward women change in the modern world.

Study Questions:
1.     How does the notion of sexual misconduct vary across Buddhism?
2.     Is abortion debated by Buddhists? Why or why not?
3.     Why is there debate about the role of women in Buddhism?
4.     How has the status of women continuously evolved over time?