Women in Buddhism

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"When it comes to enlightenment, there is no male and female, there is only the truth." Buddhism is a faith which preaches the "awakening from ignorance", that is, freeing oneself and reaching liberation is the utmost goal. While the teachings and values of Buddhism have attracted an immensity of believers (both men and women alike), the religion's embedded patriarchal views has affected the status of women in both a historical and present-day viewpoint. Having said that, using a broad range of research sources, this paper will discuss the position of women in Buddhism, and in particular will consider perspectives regarding women in Buddhist holy writ, the role of women in monastics and lay life, and will also examine the modern development of women. Textual reference of women in Buddhism can be viewed as generally negative in the Cullavaga, Pali Canon, and the Lotus Sutra doctrines, and thus is the basis for the subordination of women. Although this holds true, it is first important to understand that Buddhism was intended as an egalitarian religion from its very beginnings. As per Buddhist doctrine, "whoever has such a vehicle, whether a woman or man, shall indeed by means of that vehicle, come to nirvana." Buddhism thus accepted the fact that both men and women were equal in undergoing the path to achieve the goal of liberation or nirvana. Upon further speculation of the holy writ however, the ideology of women was undermined. Specifically, the role of women was subordinated upon the creation of the Order of Nuns by the Buddha. In the Cullavaga text, Mahaprajapati (the aunt and mother-figure of the Buddha) asked the Buddha to create an Order of Nuns (bhikkhuni) after he had created an Order of Monks (bhikku). She asked three times, with his answer being no upon each request. Finally, upon the intervention of his male cousin and attendant, the Buddha agreed to allow an Order of Nuns to be founded. Nevertheless, in doing so, he stated that women must agree to follow eight rules, called the Gurudhamma. In analyzing this, it is interesting to note that it was a male who played the role of an intermediary in convincing the Buddha to allow women to have an order, as a woman was incapable in doing so herself. Likewise, even though the Buddha agreed to this, the condition of the eight rules undermined the role of women and prevented them from achieving leadership or control in the sangha (community). Although there is argument over whether this was established by the Buddha or was subject to misinterpretation over time, the end result still supported the same view point, that is, the negation of women in monastic life. In addition to this, women were seen as the cause of samsara (rebirth) and prevented monks from achieving nirvana. In the Pali Canon, women were symbolized as temptresses, "I see no other single form so enticing, so desirable...so distracting, such a hindrance to winning the unsurpassed peace from effort...as a woman's form [...]." Understanding the nature of existence is crucial in Buddhism, and more importantly through the mechanism of control, one must "change his or her attitude to lose attachment to it "; this ideology is prevented by women as they act as a barrier on the path toward enlightenment. Similarly, the role of Buddhist women was undermined by early Mahayana Buddhist texts which implied that women could not achieve liberation. As per the Lotus Sutra, "...but as yet there is no example of [a woman] having reached Buddhaship, and that is because a woman cannot occupy the five ranks [...]." In the same chapter of the Lotus Sutra, a change of sex occurs of a female by the name of Sagara into the male form; she then manifests herself as a Boddhisattva. As a result, this text suggests that women are unable to reach nirvana, and thus, must continue into samsara until they are reborn as men. Buddhist text generally negates the role of women, and as a result, in early Buddhism, this had an unduly...
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