Gender Discrimination in Buddhism

By Rev. Peter Hata

Good morning, I’d like to speak a little today on the topic of gender discrimation in Buddhism. I was recently asked by one of our female West Covina Buddhist Temple board members if I thought there was discrimination against women in Higashi Honganji. This question kind of took me by surprise, but it certainly is a hot topic. Actually, I think there are clearly various forms of discrimination against women in Buddhism in general and also in our Higashi Honganji tradition. Not really in terms of the lay Sangha, but more probably in the clergy. Of course, anyone can train for and take initial or tokudo ordination in Higashi. But will we ever see a male socho or head administrator at the Honzan? I doubt if this will ever happen. But this has to do also not just with the Higashi Honganji institution, but of course with the male-dominant culture of Japan.

Though there is still discrimination against women in Higashi clergy, because of the greater freedom for women in the U.S. and in the West in general, I think women can rise to positions of leadership in U.S. Buddhist institutions easier than those in Japan. I think this is most apparent in the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) where their Minister's Assistant Program (MAP) has already generated something like 120 Minister’s Assistants. I don’t have firm statistics, but in the group photos I’ve seen in the BCA publications, there seems to be a much higher percentage of women in these MAP programs—and some MAP graduates go on to take tokudo and beyond. In other words, women seem to be rising up the ranks of American Shin clergy.

This seems to be true also in American Shin lay groups. There was a very interesting resolution passed by the BCA’s Federation of Buddhist Women’s Associations (FBWA) at their recent national meeting in Sacramento. In my opinion, it is not a coincidence that this issue is originating from American Sanghas. Their resolution was a petition to the BCA National Board and Council to “encourage” all BCA temples to display pictures of Eshinni [Shinran’s wife] and Kakushinni [his daughter] in places of honor “near the naijin.” Now, I haven’t heard what the BCA’s leaders decided on this issue. My guess is that, if they are mostly men, they are probably stonewalling the issue.

Who were Eshinni and Kakushinni? Eshinni is revered, but not because she was Shinran’s wife. I think it is due largely to the understanding of her as being a very devoted Nembutsu follower that has emerged since a collection of her private letters were discovered in the early 20th century. In a similar way, Kakushinni is also revered not because she was Shinran’s daughter, but because she was the one most responsible for preserving Shinran’s teachings. It is said that after Shinran’s death in 1262, she contacted some of Shinran’s most devoted followers in the Kanto region and asked for their help in keeping his memory and teachings alive. Kakushinni was instrumental in establishing a shrine to her father, which later became the Honganji, the institution which has preserved Shinran’s teaching for us today. Also, Shin abbots (Higashi and Nishi monshu) trace their lineage to Shinran through Kakushinni’s son, not through any of Shinran’s sons as might be expected (as you may know, Shinran disowned his son Zenran for straying from the Dharma). In any case, it will be interesting to note what action the BCA takes on the issue of placing the images of Eshinnini and Kakushinni on or near the altar.

But maybe more relevant to contemporary women’s issues, perhaps the FBWA members are consciously or unconsciously addressing certain often-mentioned questions about Buddhism’s “sexist past.” That is, they are not only interested in honoring Eshinni and Kakushinni and clarifying their contribution to the beginning of the Jodo Shinshu tradtion some 750 years ago; like many modern women, they also are interested in “righting a wrong” that they feel is relevant to them today. Actually, gender discrimination has a long history in Buddhism. According to Rev. Patti Nakai, it may have actually begun well before Shinran’s time. In a Tricycle magazine interview, Rev. Patti was asked about her take on the famous 35th Vow of the Larger Sutra. This is the Vow that Dharmakara makes that states that if women who want to become enlighened aren’t transformed into men, may he, Dharmakara, not become a buddha. In other words, it seems to state that one has to be male to realize enlightenment. However, Rev. Patti rewrote it as, “May I obtain the highest enlightenment only when women who hear my name realize how demeaning it is to be seen as a bimbo.” As she explained, “One of the things that I tell people is that I have yet to see a good printed translation of the 35th vow. What the Chinese version conveys just doesn't get translated into English very skillfully. The term used in the Chinese is actually more like ‘image’ than ‘body.’ So my translation is that women will not be reborn in that image that males have, that they will instead be reborn as someone who is not judged by image. See, the vow is really written from a man‘s point of view: ‘Once I realize women are more than bimbos, then in my mind I‘ll never see them again like that.’ The translated versions I've seen take it from a male chauvinistic viewpoint, which make it sound like there‘s something wrong about being a woman. It‘s a problem that is found throughout the Buddhist texts, the idea that it is impossible to become a Buddha in a female body.” Personally, I think another way of reinterpreting the 35th Vow might be to restate it as, “If when I attain buddhahood, people wishing to become buddhas cannot become buddhas through the power of my Vow regardless of their gender, may I not become a buddha.” In any case, it’s not surprising Rev. Patti suggests that the traditional chauvinistic reading of this vow may have been responsible for some of the sexism that has historically existed in the Honganji clergy.

But even though we might think this “rising up” of women in Buddhism is a product of contemporary post-women’s liberation era, there is actually support for it in the earliest history of Buddhism. Here, I’d like to share some thoughts from Dr. Lori Meeks, who was the keynote speaker at a recent Los Angeles Buddhist Temple Federation Hanamatsuri. I think it is very relevant to this idea of Buddhist women being empowered to become leaders. Actually, the story Dr. Meeks told, which is of Prajapati, the first Buddhist nun, is very well-known.

First, some of you may already be familiar with Prajapati’s story. Dharma School teachers probably know that she was Queen Maya’s sister and that, upon Maya’s death after giving birth to Siddhartha, Prajapati took over the raising of the young prince. I think we can assume that she may have been at least somewhat reluctant to do this, since it meant giving up her own life for the king (her brother in law) and the prince. But I think it’s easy to imagine that Prajapati was moved by the death of her sister, and later, by the death of her husband, King Suddhodana. By this time, Siddhartha was now the Buddha, and it is said Prajapati was also moved by hearing his teachings. Prajapati decided that she wanted to renounce the world and enter the sangha. In other words, she wanted to become the first Buddhist nun.

Here’s how Dr. Meeks told the story from this point: “Prajapati approached the Buddha and told him that she wanted to enter the Buddhist order. It is reported that she asked him to confirm that women could indeed attain the four stages of awakening. The Buddha confirmed that women could in fact achieve nirvana, but he denied Prajapati’s initial request for ordination. It is said that Prajapati made this same request two additional times, only to receive the same negative response from the Buddha. She departed in tears.” The Buddha then leaves for the town of Vaishali.

Dr. Meeks gave several possible explanations for the Buddha’s refusal to admit Prajapati. Dr. Meeks said it was possible that, because monks at that time were required to live lives of itinerancy, traveling on foot and sleeping under trees, this lifestyle might have been seen as too dangerous for women so the Buddha’s initial refusal of women into the order might be a sign of concern for women. She also said the Buddha might have been concerned about the reputation of the sangha. Granting women permission to renounce the world would have represented such a radical break from the social and cultural norms of the time, that it would have threatened the reputation of the sangha.

But the most interesting fact that Dr. Meeks mentioned was that, though disappointed by the Buddha’s refusal to admit her and her fellow female seekers into the Sangha, Prajapati then made a bold decision. As Dr. Meeks put it, despite the Buddha’s refusal, “Prajapati decided that she and her followers would shave their heads, don the saffron-colored robes of renunciants, and follow the Buddha to Vaishali. The trip, which they made on foot, and without male protection, required them to cover a distance of 150 miles. It is said that they arrived at Vaishali where the Buddha was then preaching, “with swollen feet and covered in dust.” The trip had been very difficult. Seeing Prajapati and her followers in distress, the Buddha’s close disciple Ananda inquired, “Why are you crying?” Prajapati explained the Buddha had refused to permit women “to renounce their homes and enter into the homeless state.” Ananda, moved by the dedication of Prajapati and her followers, is said to have taken up her cause. He went to the Buddha and, telling him that Prajapati—the very woman who had raised him—was outside crying, with swollen feet and covered in dust. She is crying, Ananda explained, because you, the Buddha, have refused to allow women to enter the sangha. “It would be good, Lord, if women were to have permission to do this.” But the Buddha’s reply was the same as it had been before: “Enough, Ananda. Don’t set your heart on women being allowed to do this.” Ananda asked two additional times, and the Buddha continued to respond with the same negative answer. At this point, Ananda decided to take a different tack: he asked the Buddha if women can attain the four stages of awakening, and the Buddha confirms that women can, in fact, attain nirvana. He then reminded the Buddha that he owed a great deal to Prajapati: “She was your aunt, nurse, and your foster mother.” In the face of these compelling arguments—and, we can imagine, in recognition of Prajapati’s visible determination—the Buddha finally relents.”

As Dr. Meeks said, “What is most notable here is the boldness of her suggestion, especially at this early point in Buddhist history. Social equality between men and women would have been unthinkable during in Prajapati’s time. And yet she had the courage to resist a ruling, by the Buddha himself, which she viewed as discriminatory.”

While I agree with Dr. Meeks that Prajapati’s story is indeed an empowering one for Buddhist women, I believe it would be a mistake to interpret this as meaning that Prajapati was “wiser than the Buddha or that women are wiser than men.” Rather, I think Prajapati’s story is ultimately not a testimory to female courage as much as it is a testimony to the power of the Dharma, to the truth of the teaching of impermanence. I believe it was ultimately the death of her sister, the death of her husband, and the refuge she found within the wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings that gave her the determination to continue to ask the Buddha to be admitted to the Sangha. In this sense, Prajapati’s story is not only a source of inspiration for Buddhist women around the world; it is a testament to the power of the human aspiration to become a buddha. As we know, our particular sect of Buddhism, Higashi Honganji, means “Eastern temple of Hongan,” And hongan is, in fact, this aspiration for buddhahood. Therefore, all of us, male and female, can be empowered by Prajapati’s example.

Still, to refer back to that WCBT female board member’s question, “Yes, there is discrimination against women in Higashi.” Of course, in our 21st century, women are no longer excluded from the Sangha, but they may still find it difficult to reach the highest positions of leadership. But despite that, following Prajapati’s example, female Buddhists who sincerely listen to the Dharma will without question change the face of Buddhism just like Prajapati and Eshinni and Kakushinni did in ancient times. Today, female Buddhist scholars like Dr. Meeks, ministers like Rev. Patti Nakai, and lay groups like the Federation of Buddhist Women, are changing the face of Buddhism. And going forward, I think their “pushing of the envelope” will only increase.

What does this mean for Higashi Honganji? What do you think?

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