WOMEN IN BUDDHISM -- By Rev. Patti Nakai

Part One: Prajapati, the First Buddhist Nun

If anyone wanted to present Buddhism as a viciously sexist religion, they could easily do so by quoting out of context passages from numerous sutras or from more recent texts such as Shinran's wasan (poems) or the by-laws of the Shinshu Otani-ha (Higashi Honganji's denomination) which denies female clergy the same status as male priests. But I believe the essential spirit of Buddhism absolutely includes all beings, male and female, in its vision of enlightenment. If I did not believe in that then I would not want to be a part of this religious tradition. In this intermittent series, I hope to make it clear that women have always been involved in Buddhist history and that their role has been very crucial even if often overlooked.

The first Buddhist nun is said to be Prajapati, Shakamuni Buddha's aunt who had raised him after the death of his mother Maya. Instead of letting his dear stepmother join his Sangha when she asked to become one of his disciples, Shakamuni's response was a declaration of the mental inferiority of women, saying they lacked the capacity to understand and practice the teachings of non-attachment to self. The BCA Dharma School textbook, Long Ago in India, glosses over this harsh refusal with the argument of "a woman's place is in the home and she can be a good Buddhist there," the typical statement heard in the Japanese cultural context. However, in the U.S., the American followers of Tibetan Buddhism have been at the forefront of dealing with women's issues and their textbook presentation of Buddha's life for young people does not shy away from quoting Shakamuni's denunciation of women. They then go on to explain why they think Shakamuni spoke that way to his own aunt. From the time he was a boy, he was taught that women were only objects, like domesticated animals trained to breed, nurture and entertain men. From his stepmother to his wife, to all the dancing girls and servants of the palace, Shakamuni as a young prince viewed women only as creatures who lived for the rewards of pleasing men. In the Tibetan American book on Buddha's life, Shakamuni is not blamed for his sexist attitude but is recognized as someone whose cultural conditioning allowed for no other view.

Prajapati is reluctantly allowed into the Sangha after Buddha's cousin Ananda says, "Give women a chance; we cannot say for sure that they will fail unless they have a chance to study and follow the Dharma." Although Ananda had the same cultural conditioning as his cousin, here he speaks from his awareness of impermanence, that because of continual change, the world in each moment is new and we cannot judge the present based on the conceptions of the past. One concrete instance of impermanence which shakes up Shakamuni's view of women as pets/slaves of men is the death of his father. Prajapati now stands before him stripped of her former identity as mother and wife, no longer having a man for her life to revolve around. (As most people know, the ancient Indian custom was to throw the widow on her husband's funeral pyre since her life without a man was considered useless.)

It is my feeling that Prajapati was the person who fostered Shakamuni's interest in religion. Anyone reading the life of Buddha has to wonder why the young prince becomes so resolved to be a religious seeker when his father gave him a purely materialistic upbringing. Most ministers will say Shakamuni's spiritual sensitivity came about because of his mother's death, but Maya died when he was only a week old, too young to have much of a bond to her. Although the king surely grieved over the loss of his wife, it was not long before he had the perfect replacement for Maya - her younger sister Prajapati, called in to be his new consort and the nurturer of his son.

If anyone was greatly impacted by Maya's death, it had to be Prajapati. Because of her sister's sudden death, she had to give up whatever plans and dreams she had for herself and was expected to live up to the whole kingdom's expectation to be another Maya. The experience of impermanence- that Life does not go according to our own wishes - was clearly felt by Prajapati and to learn from it and somehow go on living, she must have had to seek spiritual guidance from the religious traditions of the time. The king probably had no use for such spiritual guidance except for gaining good luck in battle and fortune-telling, but for Prajapati, she needed to seek out something to make her disrupted life meaningful. If this view of Prajapati is true, it could explain why she was the first to ask the Buddha to become a disciple immediately after hearing his teachings, and persisted in her request even after his brusque refusal.

As for Shakamuni, he later came to appreciate more deeply the many elements that led him to his awakening, saying there were many Buddhas before him and that their legacy made his awakening possible. This legacy could not have come to him only during his six years of ascetic practice, but there must have been some prior exposure to the religious influences of his time. In his acknowledgment of this legacy, Shakamuni must have realized that the first woman he reluctantly let into the Sangha was actually his first teacher.

Obviously, Prajapati as the first nun, and the other women of the palace who joined the Sangha along with her, succeeded in breaking down Shakamuni's cultural conditioning and enabled him to see women as equal to men in their ability to grasp and practice the teachings. Shakamuni's sexist view had to have been completely eliminated by the time of the famous sutra stories of his encounters with women such as Kisa Gotami (in the tale of the mustard seed) and Queen vaidehi (Meditation Sutra). In those stories, he would have failed to relate to them if he had held any prejudices against them as women.

Part Two: Negative Depictions and Positive Contributions of Women in Theravada Buddhism

The historical Buddha, Shakamuni, enjoyed a life of complete freedom. He did not pursue or cling to luxuries that were unessential to his basic survival, but he also did not make a big fuss trying to avoid or refuse those things when he encountered them. However, in the earliest form of Buddhism, called Theravada (also known as Hinayana), there was a conscious effort to emulate the Buddha's sparse lifestyle as closely as possible. The ever-increasing amount of rules and regulations came to be known as the Vinaya. As all scholars of Buddhism are quick to point out, there were many more rules for women than for men; in one version, there are about 250 rules for monks and 348 rules for nuns.

Nuns and the Vinaya

Why were nuns more restricted than monks when, in Buddha's lifetime, the Sangha had transcended society's view of women as inferior? One reason, I think, was the way society treated nuns as opposed to monks. A monk going to meditate in the woods carrying only a begging bowl of table scraps would be an unlikely target for muggers. But nuns, wherever they went, were subjected to much harassment; the verbal taunts about their chastity, which Indian society considered unnatural, sometimes escalated into physical assault. Probably because of several violent incidents, monks were asked to chaperone nuns in their various activities in and out of the nunnery. The monks may have started out in the spirit of giving assistance to their sister disciples, but the Vinaya rules requiring a male presence at the nuns' religious ceremonies only reinforced the prejudiced view that women were unable to make any kind of spiritual progress without the guidance of men.

In an English translation of the Vinaya that I looked through at Otani University, I was surprised that many of the rules for nuns were about avoiding any behavior that could be taken as sexually suggestive. Some rules about what not to do were so graphic that it read more like someone's X-rated fantasies than guidelines to feminine modesty. This aspect of the Vinaya reflects the belief in ancient India that, because women existed mainly to please men and have babies, they were much more sex-driven than men. Due to this belief, the compilers of the Vinaya felt women needed many and more specific rules about controlling their sexuality than men did.

Women as Objects of Revulsion

I think most women would agree with me that it seemed to be the monks who had a problem with sex, rather than the nuns. This would explain why a large part of Theravada texts is devoted to the depiction of women as disgusting creatures too repulsive to touch.

A good analogy to this situation is the desperate dieter trying to imagine all food as oozing, rotting substances too nauseating to eat. Since sexual desires were considered a great hindrance in the striving for enlightenment, the monks believed the only way to eliminate their desire was to make the objects of their attachment less attractive in their minds. The historical Buddha used this approach in some instances. There was a courtesan who became a Buddhist follower and donated all her wealth to the Sangha. However, many males in the Sangha were too obsessed with her beauty and reputation to see her as a fellow disciple. When she died, the Buddha had her corpse put on display for those disciples and told them to observe the process of decay so that they would see how transient the qualities of beauty and sexuality were. Towards the woman herself, though, Buddha meant no disrespect - he knew that during her last years she had been a sincere follower of the Teachings. The problem for the Theravada monks was that in psyching themselves into seeing women's bodies as repulsive, they also came to see all other aspects of women as unworthy, making it increasingly difficult for monks to relate to nuns as human beings with the same religious aspirations as they had.

The Lost History of Theravada Nuns

According to research by female scholars of early Buddhism such as I.B. Horner, there were a large number of nuns during the first few centuries after Buddha's death. However, due to the growing hostility of secular society and of the monks, nunneries were phased out and eliminated. For almost two thousand years in India, the birthplace of Buddhism, and in Sri Lanka, where it first spread, there were no ordained women. Only in recent times has there been a reappearance of Buddhist nuns inspired by their sisters in other countries.

In the feminist view of world history, the accomplishments of women have been either ignored or appropriated by male-dominated cultures. This could very well be true for the early nuns. The only surviving text of Theravada Buddhism that is positively attributed to nuns is a compilation of songs. Who knows what other works they produced that were lost when Hinduism and Islam drove Buddhism out of favor in South Asia? It is unlikely that the monks trying to keep Buddhism alive were concerned with the works of women when so many other texts needed to be saved from destruction. Yet it is a testament to the nuns' spiritual insight and expressive power that their book of songs was respected enough to be preserved through all the upheavals in South Asia.

Part Three: The Power and Participation of Women in Mahayana Buddhism

In the last installment, I talked about the early form of Buddhism called Theravada ("the elders"). This form was later called Hinayana ("small vehicle") by the movement which developed a few hundred years after Buddha's death. This movement, known as Mahayana ("large vehicle"), grew as more and more serious seekers realized that Theravada's insistence on following hundreds of rules and suppressing physical desires was really an attachment to fixed ideas. What was desired was a path to experiencing the ultimate truth of impermanence which the Buddha taught. In Mahayana Buddhism, since discrimination between beings was a delusion that must be transcended, lay people had as much potential to be enlightened as clergy. "Lay" and "clergy" were only artificial categories created by karmic conditions. For women this meant a new opportunity to be recognized as seekers because women were less free to leave their obligations in the secular world than men.

Northern India (Ghandara)

While Theravada Buddhism became established in southern India and neighboring countries, Mahayana flourished in northern India. This region, called Ghandara, was active in the commerce along the route between the Mediterranean and China known as the Silk Road. With the interaction between people of various cultural backgrounds along the Silk Road, the people of Central Asia in the early centuries (A.D.) were more cosmopolitan than traditional. (Ghandara Buddhist sculptures are easily recognized for their Greco-Roman characteristics.) In the rising merchant class, it was the women who were very involved in supporting Buddhist temples. It may be crass to say, but because women were in a position of economic power, Buddhist institutions had to pay attention to their spiritual needs. This explains the emphasis on sutras featuring women such as the Meditation Sutra and the Queen Srimala Sutra.


Mahayana Buddhism spread to China from Central Asia. In China, one of the most powerful champions of Buddhism was the Empress Wu (late 7th century). She knew that a woman seizing control of the throne went against Confucian tradition, so she used Buddhist scriptures to justify her rule. Although she was ruthlessly using Buddhism for her own political gain, the new sutras which declared the spiritual potential of women benefited the nuns in various Chinese sects. It was not uncommon for nuns to practice and work alongside monks in the monasteries, and for male and female clergy to participate together in rituals. In Chinese temples, nuns enjoyed a high degree of respect and equality, a situation that was not to be in Japan.


Ironically, when Buddhism was first established in Japan in the 6th century, the three sutras emphasized by Prince Shotoku were the Lotus Sutra, Vimalakirti Sutra and the Queen Srimala Sutra. The latter two described the acceptance in Buddha's time of female seekers as being the equal of men.

In one episode of the Vimalakirti Sutra, a woman creates the illusion of changing bodies with one of the Buddha's disciples in order to prove that the physical form of a person has nothing to do with their spiritual insight. In doing this, the woman teaches the disciple that his prejudice against women was an attachment to fixed ideas, which goes against the basic Mahayana teaching of transcending artificial categories. (I have not read the Queen Srimala Sutra, but an English translation was published a few years ago.)

Unfortunately for women in Japan, a certain episode in the Lotus Sutra was used to justify discrimination against them in Buddhist institutions. In that episode, the Princess Naga, despite her devoted practice, is told she cannot attain enlightenment because her defiled female body is a hindrance. However, when she proves how earnestly she follows the Buddha's teachings, she is "rewarded" with the sudden transformation into a male.

During the Heian period in Japan, women produced honored literary works like The Tale of Genji. After that however, the position of women steadily declined. By the Kamakura period of Shinran's day, nuns were segregated from monks, and all women, clerical and lay, were out of consideration for enlightenment unless they could repeat the "miracle" of Princess Naga.

Shinran and the 35th Vow -- Revised September, 2002

So profound is Amida’s great compassion
That, manifesting inconceivable Buddha-wisdom,
The Buddha established the Vow of transformation into men,
Thereby vowing to enable women to attain Buddhahood

-- From Jodo Wasan (p. 341, The Collected Works of Shinran, Vol. 1, Dennis Hirota et. al., trans., Kyoto: Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha, 1997)

According to the ceremonial rulebooks for priests, the above wasan (type of Japanese verse) is supposed to be chanted at the funerals for women, but there was considerable objection to the practice in Japan and most temples in America tend to chant a more standard wasan at funerals regardless of the deceased’s gender. But the above wasan is important in revealing how Shinran felt about women who were very much alive.

In the Chinese version of the Immeasurable Life Sutra (also known as the Larger Sukhavativyuha Sutra), there are 48 vows made by the seeker Dharmakara to his teacher Lokesvararaja. The most essential of these is the 18th vow, known as Hongan (main-vow), where Dharmakara proclaims that his enlightenment cannot be complete unless he can be called by the Name "Namu Amida Butsu" (meaning, the one who bows down, namu, to all beings, Amida, as enlightened, Butsu).

In the same spirit of Hongan's reverent view of all beings as existing in the state of enlightenment (Pure Land), the other vows deal with overcoming specific forms of discrimination which prevent us from seeing certain people as Pure Land residents. For example, vow #3 deals with racism ("all skin colors will be seen as glowing like precious gold") and vow #38 deals with dress codes ("all garments will be considered acceptable for Buddhas to wear no matter how torn, discolored or dirty").

Although the 35th vow represents Dharmakara’s overcoming of his sexist view, in Japanese Buddhist history, the text of the vow has been interpreted as a rationale for discrimination against women. One widely accepted translation reads:

"If...women of the [Buddha-worlds] who, having heard my Name, rejoice in faith, awaken aspiration for Enlightenment, and wish to renounce womanhood* should be reborn again as women**, may I not attain perfect Enlightenment." -- (p. 37, The Three Pure Land Sutras, Hisao Inagaki, trans., Berkeley: Numata Center, 1995)

In the above interpretation, life as a woman is a terrible state of existence that must be renounced and avoided in future rebirths in order to attain enlightenment. You can see how this became a justification for Buddhist sects to limit the role of women in the temples. Yet at the same time, the men in control assured women that their contributions of money and labor to the temples were not in vain since they still had a future chance of salvation. With this attitude directed at them, women felt unworthy of enlightenment because of their female bodies. It was sad to read in one book about Japanese Buddhism that the writer overheard one female temple member say to another while hard at work at a benefit function, "I really hate being a woman, don't you?"

During my studies in Japan, I found there is a different way of interpreting the 35th vow. One of my professors at Otani University, Akira Hataya, said the use of the word nyonin in Chinese translations of Buddhist texts, though normally read as a compound noun "female-person" (i.e., woman), could also be read as an adjective and noun memeshii hito, "effeminate (weak, wimpy) person," referring to either a man or a woman. From this, I came to feel that Buddhist texts are not trying to exclude women from the path to enlightenment, but rather the Teachings admonish both sexes not to fall into the negative traits stereotyped as "feminine" - that is, being cowardly, manipulative, or parasitic on others. There are plenty of passages in the sutras which encourage both sexes to emulate the positive aspects of femininity - to be nurturing, compassionate and sensitive towards others.

From ancient times to the present, women much more than men have been relegated to the role of "sex object," existing only to be pleasing to men's sight and other senses. The woman who seeks enlightenment, however, must break free of the mad pursuit to live up to that stereotype, and see that she is not just an object for others' pleasure. In other words, in the enlightened world, the Pure Land, women will be seen and see themselves as human beings equal to men, not as inferior objects. See how different the 35th vow sounds when we put in an objectifying term such as "bimbo."

"May I attain the highest enlightenment only when women who hear my Name realize how demeaning it is to be seen as a bimbo and in their new life of seeking the Dharma, their joy and faith will keep them from ever wanting to be seen as a bimbo again."

Shinran in his day did not have the benefit of such a progressive interpretation, but he came to a similar conclusion through his own experience of the Nembutsu. Shinran did not question the prevailing belief that women were too defiled to be enlightened. However, to think that a woman's body would be more corrupt than a man's did not matter much when Shinran already felt that the human body itself was irredeemably corrupt - full of desires and angers which cannot be quieted for more than a few moments at a time. He questioned the claims that there were actual people who totally conquered their bodily functions and manifested the so-called "marks of the Buddha" (such as special swirls on the feet and the retraction of private parts).

According to Shinran, complete enlightenment cannot be attained as long as we exist as biological creatures, yet once we awaken to the truth that our individual lives are embraced by Infinite Life (Amida), it means complete enlightenment will definitely occur. Shinran often uses the phrase, "equal to Maitreya," meaning that despite our defiled bodies, we are on the brink of enlightenment like the prototype Maitreya, the "Buddha-to-be." To Shinran, since each "Buddha-to-be" will inevitably arrive at the Pure Land like Maitreya, they can start enjoying the benefits of enlightenment here and now, rather than waiting for the distant future.

This absorption of a future inevitability into the present moment also characterizes Shinran's attitude towards women. In the above wasan, Shinran praises Amida's power to change a being in a separate category labeled "women" to a someone in the same "Buddha-to-be" category of all men. Since Shinran believes this will definitely occur, he can consider all women as "Buddhas-to-be" equal to any man. The power of the all-encompassing Infinite Life breaks down what the people of Shinran's time saw as women's biological obstacle on the spiritual path.

I believe that due to cultural conditioning, some women may require different approaches to religion than most men, just like some Americans need to approach Buddhism differently than most Japanese. But whatever your gender, race, economic status, etc., the 48 vows in the Immeasurable Life Sutra point out that there is no discrimination against anyone on the path to spiritual truth. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, be assured that the Buddha's words won't support them.

*In the Chinese text of the 35th vow, what Prof. Inagaki translated as "womanhood" is actually "female-body" (nyo-shin) which can be taken as the objectified physical form.

** Here the Chinese text has "female-image" (nyo-zo) referring again to the form seen as object and not to the real substance of a person.

Women In Buddhism, by Rev. Patti Nakai -- http://www.livingdharma.org/Living.Dharma.Articles/WomenInBuddhism1.html