Ethics and Community

Gender and Sexuality

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.

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?

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