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Barbara O'Brien

The Feminist Future of Buddhism?

By March 27, 2014

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March is almost over, and I have failed to acknowledge that March is Women's History Month. It's a good time for some reflection on the role of women in Buddhism.

Now that Buddhism is becoming more visible in the West, all kinds of people are trying to "fix" it to make it more "western." Or maybe just less "Asian," or less "sectarian," or  more "secular" or more "natural." Most of these fixers mean well. But I also think most of their attempts at imposing a makeover will have little real impact on the future of Buddhism in the West, which in fact is evolving in its own way from the many Asian traditions that have been transplanted here.

It seems to me that the most significant contribution of the West is that women are becoming more prominent as priests, teachers, and leaders within Buddhism. This is not completely new, as there have been currents of women's influence in Buddhism all along, especially in Mahayana. I've written about women who are prominent in Zen history, for example. However, prominent women have been the exceptions.

How is this changing Buddhism? Although I've never run into this myself, many women who were Zen students in the 1960s and 1970s reported less-than-equal treatment. For example, the late Maurine Stuart Roshi trained for a while with Eido Shimano, one of the teachers at the forefront of our many Zen sex scandals, at Dai Bosatsu monastery in upstate New York. In 1980 Eido Shimano decided that only men could attend the intensive three- month training periods considered essential for priests and teachers. And then the pattern of exploiting women students sexually emerged also. Stuart and many other students left.

I'm not so naive that I think all the sex scandals are behind us now, but I do think it is significant that all of the "perps" in Zen so far have been men from the "first class," either Japanese teachers who came here years ago or their first generation of men students. I do think the "boy's club" days of western Zen are nearly over, and that's changing how Zen is taught and practiced in many subtle and not-so-subtle ways.

In western Zen men and women are training and being confirmed as dharma heirs in the same lineages. Since Japanese Buddhism is no longer celibate ( by the Meiji Emperor's order!) and no longer tied to the Vinaya, there's no longer any issue with maintaining separate monks' and nuns' ordinations and lineages.

But that's not so in the rest of Asia. "Lineage" usually refers to the unbroken line of ordinations carried out according to the rules of the Vinaya going back to the historical Buddha. There are four lineages of monk ordinations thought to be unbroken, but only one lineage of nun ordinations, which survives in China and Taiwan.

Theravada Buddhism has a big problem, then, because the Chinese ordinations follow the Sanskrit/Chinese version of the Vinaya, not the Pali one.  Women's ordinations according to the Pali Vinaya stopped in the 5th century. Theravada bhikkhunis cannot be correctly ordained without the presence of correctly ordained Theravada nuns, and there are none, so technically women cannot be fully ordained in Theravada Buddhism. And someday they're going to have to find a way around that, because there will be a day when all-male clergy will not be tolerated. I don't expect that in my lifetime, but it's going to happen sooner or later.

March 27, 2014 at 6:05 pm
(1) Blair says:

It’s already happened. There are fully ordained Theravada nuns in Australia now. Ajahn Brahm ordained them. Here is the first of three papers on Bhikkhuni ordination written by Bhikkhu Bodhi.
With links to the other two at the end.
Ajahns Sujato and Brahmali have written extensively on the legitimacy of the ordination.

March 29, 2014 at 9:41 am
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

Blair — The Australian ordinations are not recognized as legitimate by most of the Theravada establishment, unfortunately, because the nuns in attendance were Mahayana nuns. The hurdle of there not being an unbroken Theravada lineage of nuns’ ordinations remains.

March 27, 2014 at 6:15 pm
(3) Mila says:

but wasn’t Ajahn Brahm expelled from his order/lineage for doing this?

if so, how valid are those ordinations, I wonder?

March 27, 2014 at 8:43 pm
(4) osumarko says:

Here is something Ajahn Brahm wrote about those ordinations.


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