Buddhist women, including nuns, have faced harsh discrimination by Buddhist institutions in Asia for centuries. Let’s begin at the beginning, with the historical Buddha who refused to ordain women as nuns. He said that allowing women into the sangha would cause his teachings to survive only half as long. In addition, even when women did become buddhist nuns they experienced Unequal Rules. The Vinaya-pitaka section of the Tripitaka (Pali Canon) records the original rules of discipline and a bhikkuni (nun) has rules in addition to those given to a bhikku (monk). These include subordination to monks; the most senior nuns are to be considered “junior” to a monk of one day.

One of the key references that strongly discriminates against women is the legend of the origin of the nuns (bhikkhuni), in which the Buddha showed his strong disapproval of women’s ordination as requested by Prajapati Gautami, his aunt and stepmother. Ananda, the Buddha’s close attendant stepped in and negotiated on her behalf. As a result, the Buddha laid down a set of special rules, or the so-called Eight Heavy Duties (Garudhammas) that established the conditions for women’s ordination, and nuns were required to strictly adhere to them for the rest of their lives.

The Eight Heavy Duties are:

1. A nun, even if she has been ordained for 100 years, must respect, greet and bow in reverence to the feet of a monk, even if he has just been ordained that day. (Monks pay respect to each other according to their seniority, or the number of years they have been ordained.)

2. A nun is not to stay in a residence where there is no monk. (A monk may take an independent residence.)

3. A nun is to look forward to two duties: asking for the fortnightly Uposatha (meeting day), and receiving instructions by a monk every fortnight. (Monks do not depend on nuns for this obligatory rite, nor are they required to receive any instruction.)

4. A nun who has completed her rains-retreat must offer herself for instruction to both the community of monks and to the community of nuns, based on what is seen, what is heard and what is doubted. (Monks only offer themselves to the community of monks.)

5. A nun who is put on probation for violating a monastic rule of Sanghadisesa must serve a 15-day minimum probation, with reinstatement requiring approval from both the monk and nun communities. (The minimum for monks is a five-day probation with no approval by the nuns required for reinstatement.)

6. A woman must be ordained by both monks and nuns and may be ordained only after a two-year postulancy, or training in six precepts. (Men have no mandatory postulancy and their ordination is performed by monks only.)

7. A nun may not reprimand a monk. (A monk may reprimand a monk, and any monk may reprimand a nun.)

8. From today onwards, no nun shall ever teach a monk. However, monks may teach nuns. (There are no restrictions on whom a monk may teach.)

There is only one conclusion: the Buddha was a sexist. However, the word ”sexist” is too strong for most Buddhists. No traditional Buddhist would want to acknowledge the Buddha’s prejudice. Instead, they usually stand up to defend the message of the Eight Heavy Duties, claiming, ”This is the way things are. This is the Dharma of the Universe, and there is nothing we can do but accept them [the Heavy Duties] as they are authentic messages of the Buddha.” This fundamentalist interpretation has isolated Buddhists from the belief in democracy based on human rights and gender equality. Buddhism with this belief has become just another tool used to marginalise half of the world’s population.

When the orders of nuns died out in India and Sri Lanka centuries ago, conservatives used the rules that called for monks and nuns to be present at nuns’ ordination to prevent the institution of new orders. Only recently has the ordination problem been solved by allowing properly ordained nuns from other parts of Asia to travel to ordination ceremonies. However, the establishment of nuns’ orders in Tibet, where there had been no nuns before, for some time met with resistance. Even today, in some parts of Asia nuns receive less education and financial support than monks. Buddhist women in the West generally consider institutional sexism to be vestiges of Asian culture that can be surgically excised from dharma. Buddhism has been used to repress people (especially women), such as under Hirohito’s rule and currently in Burma.

Buddhist doctrines on the enlightenment of women are contradictory but not universally supporting and some fully reject the idea. A popular belief in Buddhist countries is that negative karma results in a man being reborn as a woman. For example, the Larger Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra, also called the Aparimitayur Sutra, is one of three sutras that provide the doctrinal basis of the Pure Land school. This sutra contains a passage usually interpreted to mean that women must be reborn as men before they can enter Nirvana. The Theravadan Buddhists claim a woman could never become a Buddha.

Again, the female gender’s state is seen as a punishment, one filled with shame. Buddhism teaches that institutions like marriage must be regulated by society though social, political, and legal processes. This does not mean Buddhism is a progressive religion. Rather, it’s sort of like passing the buck. We don’t want to say women are equal to men, so we’ll just let you figure it out. If you decide they’re equal, fine. If you decide she’s the social equivalent of a cow, and you can sell her for a dowry, that’s cool too.

Sexism is still healthy and strong today in most Buddhist countries, such as Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia. Only some communities in Sri Lanka ordain women. Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, ordination of women is illegal. The Ecclesiastical Council of Thailand, for example, announced publicly that any monk who supports the ordination of women will be subject to severe punishment.


By Damien Marie AtHope

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