A Little Buddhist Feminism

A Little Buddhist Feminism May 29, 2010

Volumes have been written over the past few decades on Buddhism and Feminism, much of it by feminists in the West pushing Buddhism to live up to its egalitarian values in opposition to its often chauvinistic institutions. See below for a short list of recommended books.

The work of Buddhist feminists, which should be all of us, still has a long way to go. But anyone who thinks that this is a wholly new development has some catching up to do. The Buddha did create the world’s first female monastic order. And while he made them ‘under’ the men, I support arguments that this was for pragmatic purposes. In a sense he was a radical, ordaining women, but he was also well aware of the need to fit somewhat within the social structures of his day. A cooperative relationship with the laity, while pushing them toward greater generosity, mindfulness, and so on, was a must in order for his ‘middle way’ to be successful in the world.

Today, of course, much of the world has changed. Women still face unfair challenges, but we’ve come a long way. And even in the time of the Buddha it was acknowledged that women were absolutely equal in ability to attain awakening (if there were hindrances, they were socially constructed, and not inherent in gender).

A wonderful little “Poem by an Elder Nun” (Therigatha) helps us see some early feminism in action.  Other poetry in the Therigatha is certainly amongst the most endearing and human of all the poetry I have ever read. In all humility, I think it needs a better translator than Thanissaro Bhikkhu, let alone myself. But with proper translation, I would expect these poems to rise quite near the level of Neruda or Rumi.

So here goes. A poem simply titled, “The Poem of the Elder Nun, ‘Free'”.

My translation (staying very close to the original structure):

So free, I’m so wonderfully free! From three lowly things I’m freed:

From mortar and pestle, and lowly husband

Free from birth & death, having removed the support of becoming.

                        — The Elder Nun, “Free”

(Pāli from here):

11. Muttātherīgāthā

‘‘Sumuttā sādhumuttāmhi, tīhi khujjehi muttiyā;

Udukkhalena musalena, patinā khujjakena ca;

Muttāmhi jātimaraṇā, bhavanetti samūhatā’’ti.

Muttā therī….

Some notes on translation. Click on words for the PTS definitions of each word (and sometimes prefix). Some words, like sādhumuttāmhi, are conjuncts, joined in a process called sandhi, of several words. In this case: sādhu + muttā + amhi. I’m pretty sure that’s how it breaks down, though I’m still pretty new to this. One bit of good news to the budding Pāli student is that the use of sandhi is much, much rarer than it is in Sanskrit, where three or four or sometimes more words are all meshed together, with each junction following it’s own rules, often changing the vowels that may be at the end or beginning of the words. Here we have a simple one, where the only tricky part is the last ā, where it could be muttā+amhi, or mutta+amhi, or muttā+mhi (and mhi isn’t a word as far as I know, so we can rule that out). There may be other combinations that can create the ā, but I’m not sure.
Also, Thanissaro Bhikkhu translates bhavanetti samūhatā as “Having uprooted the craving that leads to becoming” (See AtI). I am a bit unsure about the ending on bhavanetti. It may be another sandhi (bhavana + itti or itta?). Or it may be  a verb ending that I don’t know. I took the ‘e’ as indicating a causal verb. Samūhata  is straightforward as ‘taken out, removed’. So ‘having removed the cause of cultivation’? That seems wrong.
This and other poems of Elder Nuns are available at Access to Insight.
Burmese nuns on alms rounds, Burma 2011
Burmese nuns on alms rounds, Burma 2011


Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism – Rita M. Gross

Meeting the Great Bliss Queen: Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self – Anne C. Klein

Prolife, Prochoice: Buddhism and Reproductive Ethics.: An article from: Feminism & Nonviolence Studies – Karma Lekshe Tsomo

Religious Feminism and the Future of the Planet: A Christian-Buddhist Conversation – Rita M. Gross, Rosemary Radford Ruether

Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender – Jose Ignacio Cabezon (Editor). My undergrad advisor has an article in this on early Buddhism and Women that has been very influential.

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