2014 Religious Trends
Buddhist Milestones on the Path to Gender Justice
Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Buddhist community here.
It should come as no surprise that gender justice remains an unresolved challenge to Buddhists. This is not because Buddhism is uniquely guilty of patriarchy and the denial of respect and opportunity for women and members of LGBT communities. All of the world's religions struggle with these issues, despite the progress women and men have made to achieve equality in recent decades.
But Buddhism has unique stories to tell regarding the role of women in the dharma. No other tradition honors the relatives of its Founder for demanding and forming a monastic institution for women. And no other tradition has faithfully preserved the intimate stories of struggle and breakthrough told by these pioneering religious women. (See Susan Murcott's account in The First Buddhist Women.)
It is true that the earliest Buddhist monastic code contains rules that subordinate the nuns to the monks, and a prediction that the ordination of women will lead to a premature end to the tradition. But most commentators attribute these sayings to the misogyny of the early monks, who reflected the social values of ancient India, and not to the distinctively new message of Shakyamuni Buddha, who taught that superficial distinctions of birth, caste, wealth, power, and gender are not ultimately consequential for the spiritual life.
After centuries as a beacon and refuge for women throughout Asia, women's ordination and the bhikkhuni sangha had declined or disappeared in most countries by modern times. But who could have predicted that revivals inspired by generations of reformist women would foster the birth of such powerful global organizations as the Tzu Chi Compassion Relief Foundation of Taiwan, founded in 1966 by the thirty-year-old nun Cheng Yen; and Sakyadhītā, "Daughters of the Buddha," co-founded in Bodhgaya in 1987 by an American nun, Karma Lekshe Tsomo, and nine other ordained Buddhist women?
Today, Tzu Chi is a multi-million dollar organization, operating hospitals, schools, and media outlets and attracting hundreds of thousands of volunteers in response to natural disasters and humanitarian crises worldwide. Since 1987, Sakyadhītā's biennial gatherings have attracted thousands of Buddhist women monastics and lay activists to promote gender equality in Buddhism, to revive Buddhist women's institutions, and to provide training in conflict resolution, environmental ethics, healthcare, and human rights to girls and women of all ages in vulnerable communities.
In the West, women have assumed increasingly prominent roles as teachers and leaders in Buddhist retreat centers and temples, despite lingering prejudice and occasional abuse. Much has been accomplished and written about these trends since the 1980s, when women leaders began to gather and share experiences and resources. I will never forget the impression that four teachers made on a packed dharma hall at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts in June 1978, on the first day of a fourteen-day retreat (my first). The center, only three years old, was already attracting men and women in nearly equal numbers, and the teachers -- Joseph Goldstein, Sharon Salzberg, Jack Kornfield, and Jacqueline Mandell -- represented a new generation of religious leaders. Today, Goldstein and Salzberg still anchor the regular and guest teaching roster, which comprises thirty-one males and twenty-eight females.
Christopher Queen lectures on contemporary Buddhism and World Religions at Harvard University. He served as dean of students for continuing education at Harvard for twenty years and holds degrees in religion, theology, and the history and phenomenology of religion from Oberlin College, Union Theological Seminary, and Boston University. Queen's publications have focused on the rise of socially engaged Buddhism in Asia and the West, American Buddhism, and the Buddhist conversion and human rights movement of the Dalits or ex-Untouchables of India, spearheaded by B. R. Ambedkar -- scholar, activist and principal author of the Indian Constitution.
He co-edited and contributed to four anthologies on contemporary Buddhism: Action Dharma: New Studies in Engaged Buddhism (2003); Engaged Buddhism in the West (2000); American Buddhism: Methods and Findings in Recent Scholarship (1999); and Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia (1996), and has published numerous articles, chapters, and reference entries on Ambedkar Buddhism and Socially Engaged Buddhism in Asia and the West. Queen is co-founder of the Dharma Chakra Mission and Academy in Bodhgaya, India, serving low-caste and low-income Buddhists in this worldwide tourist destination. He lectures widely on contemporary Buddhism in the US and abroad and teaches World Religions and Buddhism and Social Change through the Harvard Extension School http://www.extension.harvard.edu/courses/buddhism-social-change.