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Religion Library: Buddhism

Gender and Sexuality

Written by: Julia Hardy

Monks, nuns, and laypersons vow to avoid sexual misconduct. The early texts forbade any sort of sexual activity to monks and nuns, but in practice, in some Buddhist countries, heterosexual or homosexual liaisons involving monks have been accepted without great condemnation. Expectations for nuns have been stricter, due to cultural norms regarding women. In Japan and Korea, Buddhist priests typically marry, but nuns do not.

For laypersons, no specifics are given as to what constitutes sexual misconduct. In a broader ethical discussion in one of the early texts, the example is given that sexual intercourse outside of marriage would be "unpleasant" for one's spouse, and thus should be avoided. Some countries condemn abortion and divorce but most do not, based on societal norms rather than religious regulations. In Buddhist countries where abortion is forbidden, the Buddhist precept against killing is cited.

Buddhist ethics have been oriented toward maintaining social harmony rather than a concept like the Christian notion of "sin." Under the influence of Westernization, however, some Buddhist countries have adopted stricter attitudes in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Gender equality in Buddhism has been a topic of much scholarship in the last thirty years. According to early textual accounts, the Buddha's own stepmother approached him along with a group of women, asking to join his group; when he refused, they shaved their heads, put on robes, and followed the Buddha anyway. Ananda, one of his trusted followers, interceded with the Buddha on the women's behalf, repeating the request that they be allowed to join several times. While the Buddha finally did agree, the texts state that he imposed extra regulations that placed the women in an inferior position to the men, and predicted that this would shorten considerably the amount of time that his teachings would be remembered.

Feminist scholars have suggested that some elements of this story were inserted into the texts later, and that, given his dismissal of strict caste divisions, one might expect the Buddha to have treated women as equal to men. Others argue that, while the Buddha may seem misogynistic to us today, his attitude was liberal for the 6th - 5th century B.C.E. He did accept women into the order and thus provided them with social freedoms and opportunities they might not have otherwise had.

A number of stories about women in the early Buddhist texts give some indication of who they were and what their place was within the community. Some were mothers or wives of renunciants who had no one left to take care of them. Others were women who abandoned their lives to wander, many of them daughters of the wealthy who were intelligent, independent, and deeply interested in spiritual matters. Some of them defied social norms with courage and a few undertook extreme acts, such as disfiguring themselves, in order to be allowed to become nuns. There were also many stories of laywomen who generously supported the Buddha and his followers.