Posted inOther Teachings

Buddhism in the West, by Maria Reis Habito, Part 4

August 26, 2016

In the West, the question of whether a woman can become enlightened or not is now considered historical, at best. Women have not only carved out their own spaces, both at American universities and Buddhist centers, but have also been in the forefront of helping the efforts of their Asian sisters to gain full monastic ordination…


Click to read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3 of Buddhism in the West.

The Dharma is neither male nor Female

Urged by his aunt Mahaprajapati, who raised him after his mother’s death, the Buddha finally granted permission to establish the nuns’ order, and thereby opened a socially viable option and spiritual path for women, which was an alternative to the traditional role of wife and mother.  Canonical texts however contain numerous misogynistic statements about women doubting their ability to become enlightened, including a prediction ascribed to the Buddha to the effect that the life-span of the sangha would decline because of the establishment of the nun’s order.  In addition to the earlier Pali sources, texts of the Mahayana tradition, which spread to China, Korea and Japan, also contain the notion that a woman has to be reborn as a man in order to reach enlightenment.  In fact, one of the vows of the future Buddha Amitabha of the Pure Land, which is also echoed in other Mahayana texts, is that he will not reach ultimate enlightenment unless all women who desire to give up their female body and acquire a male body will be reborn as men.  The Pure Land Sutra maintains that there will be no women in paradise, because all those reborn there will have a male body.

The implications of texts such as these, reflecting the cultural norms and fears of patriarchal societies, have been deep in Asia.  Today, women still play a secondary role in Buddhist hierarchies there, with the exception of Taiwan.  The fact that the direct monastic line of ordination for women died out in Sri Lanka in the 11th century still affects women in Theravada countries, where the authorities have been resisting the re-installment of full monastic ordination for women.  Tibetan nuns have been in a similar situation.  So one could pointedly ask what it was that attracted Westerners to a patriarchal religious tradition that in some way considers the male self closer to, or even a precondition of enlightenment?  Can only males come to full self-realization?

When Buddhist teachers from Asia started introducing Buddhism to a lay Western audience, these aspects were not highlighted. Women who sought out Buddhist teachers were generally accepted as students, just as men were.  In the earlier stages of the introduction of Buddhism to the West, most Westerners did not particularly concern themselves with the position of women in Asian Buddhist countries, and did also not know the texts well enough to draw any conclusions one way or the other.  But as Buddhist studies became a discipline in American universities in the 70’s and 80’s, at about the same time when the women’s movement had led to the creation of women’s studies program at universities, these questions came up for scrutiny.  Diana Paul’s book Women in Buddhism, published in 1979, systematically explores statements on women in Buddhist sources and addresses the question of how egalitarian tendencies in Buddhism came to terms with the even stronger heritage of misogyny.  This was later followed up by Rita Gross’ Buddhism after Patriarchy (1993), which addresses the issue of being a Buddhist Feminist and reading Buddhist texts from a feminist perspective.

These and other scholars have pointed out that misogynist statements attributed to Buddha Shakyamuni in fact date from a later period, when the monastic order experienced stress over internal frictions and the rise of the more lay-oriented Mahayana movement.  Nevertheless, uneasiness bubbled up among women, since they could no longer be certain that Buddhism was less affected by patriarchal structures than, for example, Judaism and Christianity, traditions that many of them had left behind because of the oppressiveness of their structures vis-à-vis women.

Even though the issue of patriarchal structures in religion, including Buddhism, remains, women in the West (and to a much lesser degree in Asia) have assumed leadership roles in various Buddhist lineages, and this especially in the Zen-tradition where fully authorized women teachers offer spiritual guidance and leadership to their sanghas.  This is significant not only in terms of numbers, but also in the qualitative difference that women can make in their teaching.  In the West, the question of whether a woman can become enlightened or not is now considered historical, at best.  Women have not only carved out their own spaces, both at American universities and Buddhist centers, but have also been in the forefront of helping the efforts of their Asian sisters to gain full monastic ordination and the greater recognition in society that comes with it.

Ven. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, an American who was ordained in the Tibetan tradition and currently teaches at the University of San Diego, is the president of Sakyadhita, an international Buddhist women’s organization. One of the organization’s many goals, which also includes the education of Buddhist girls and women in Asia, is to help reestablish the Buddhist nuns’ order where it is not present.  As such, the organization invited the Dalai Lama to its conference in Hamburg in summer of 2007, a widely publicized event during which he promised his support for the reestablishment of the Tibetan nuns’ order.

However, the road to the leadership positions that women hold in Buddhism in the West today has not always been smooth.  The problem here is not only coming to terms with traditional patriarchal structures and misogynist statements but with the inherent difficulty of having a hierarchical master-disciple relationship, common in traditional Asian societies, transferred to a Western context, and with the ambiguity involved in the very personal relationship between teacher and student, especially when the teacher is a man and the student a woman or vice-versa.

No right no wrong

In the Zen and Tibetan traditions, a teacher who has transmission, meaning the full authorization to teach, is seen as a fully enlightened being in historical succession of the Buddha. Thus, the teacher’s behavior is usually beyond question. However, this uncritical attitude has changed after the sexual and financial scandals that troubled some American Buddhist centers in the 70’s and 80’s.  On one hand, many students felt attracted to Buddhism precisely because they took as their guiding motto the Buddha’s parting words to his disciples, encouraging them to be a lamp unto themselves, and not to trust any teachers, teachings, or customs unless proven valid through their own experiences. On the other hand, they often accepted a teacher’s behavior without question, believing that the enlightened status somehow exempts the teacher from any objective standard of behavior. A lifestyle involving misappropriation of funds, luxury cars, frequently changing sexual relationships with students and substance abuse would most likely be regarded as self-indulgent or destructive in the case of anyone else, but in the case of an enlightened teacher, these kinds of behaviors were somehow interpreted as an expression of self-realization.

The herd-mentality that can befall students who gather around a charismatic leader such as, for example, her own teacher, Chögyam Trungpa, was described by Pema Chödrön in an interview conducted by the Buddhist Review Tricycle in 1993.  Asked whether it was possible to turn down a sexual invitation by her teacher and still retain a close relationship with him, she answered:

Yes. Definitely.  The other students were often the ones who made people feel like they were square and uptight if they didn’t want to sleep with Rinpoche, but Rinpoche’s teaching was to throw out the party line. However, we are always up against human nature. The teacher says something, then everybody does it. There was a time when he smoked cigarettes, and everyone started smoking.  Then he stopped and they stopped and it was ridiculous.  But we are just people with habitual patterns, and you can count on the fact that students will make everything into a party line, and we did.

The same edition of Tricycle contains a letter that was composed by Western Dharma teachers after meeting with His Holiness the Dalai Lama to discuss the direction of Buddhism in the West. This letter sets out guidelines for ethical conduct for teachers and encourages students to be very circumspect in choosing a teacher and “to take responsible measures to confront teachers with unethical aspects of their conduct”  The issues spelled out in the letter have also been taken up by the annual meetings of Zen-teachers in America, who continue to work on safe-guarding ethical behavior in their own communities. Here is Pema Chödrön’s comment on the letter:

I’m glad to see the subject discussed. It’s important for students to see that dharma teachers have tempers or aggression or passion.  Buddhism isn’t about seeing a world all cleaned up or thinking that the world can be all cleaned up. The other side is that it brings up people’s moralism, their conventional mindedness. It concerns me that guidelines like this may become like some government edict or law of the land. My whole training in Buddhism has been that there is no way to tie up all the loose ends. And that comes from my teachers and their teachings.  You’re never going to erase the groundlessness. You’re never going to have a neat, sweet little picture with no messiness, no matter how many rules you make.

This caution needs to be taken seriously. At the same time, for Western Buddhists, who are establishing their own forms of community, be it in centers or in monastic settings where committed sexual relationships are often allowed, the attempt to find rules that guide these new settings are necessary in order to avoid harmful and self-indulgent patterns of behavior.  Again, the evaluation of which kind of behaviors are self-indulgent and which ones are not varies and remains in the eyes of the beholder.

Click here for part 5 of Buddhism in the West.

Maria Reis Habito is a Zen teacher at the Maria Kannon Zen Center in Dallas Texas. This article was published on their website as Buddhism in the West: Self Realization or Self Indulgence.

Image: I am here, by Hartwig HKD, CC by-ND 2.0, from

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