Since the mid-sixties, I have practiced Buddhism. From my point of view, Buddhism is more of a philosophy and, as well, a method to train the mind and heart. At its base, there should be no gender bias in Buddhism, if we examine Buddhism’s basic tenets. But in fact there is, as we learn that female monastics observing the full nun’s Patimokkha (around 348 rules), or precept body (the Vinaya), are subject to eight precepts that favor their brother monks, precepts that imply nuns are less worthy than individuals of the opposite sex. These are called “the eight heavy rules” and were reputedly crafted by the Buddha, who resisted ordaining women until he was persuaded otherwise by his cousin Ananda and the power of the presence of his step mother and her women associates.
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How women are remaking Buddhism
These rules were created some 2,500 years ago, and though faithfully observed by women monastics for centuries, are now being examined in the light of the 21st Century, with the intent to honor the equal rights and capacity for awakening of both men and women.
Although it has not been typical for women to have positions of authority within traditional Buddhism, in our time, we are seeing a dramatic and positive change for women in all Buddhist orders. For example, I believe there are more women roshis (Zen masters) in the United States than there are in Japan. In the United States, more and more women find themselves head of monasteries and Buddhist institutions. And women are setting policies in place that guarantee practitioners ethical treatment, honor families, insure democratic processes in their organizations, and are dedicated to environmental justice and social engagement.
This means that Buddhism is not only good for women, but good for the world, and much of this has arisen as a result of women being empowered in various Buddhist schools in our time. For this, we must thank not only women but men as well, as the transmission process for the most part, has come from them. In this regard, I look at my own lineage chart, and there are 81 men’s names, names of ancestors, from the Buddha on, and my own living teacher, until the 82nd name, which is my own, the first woman’s name on the lineage chart, except for Prajnaparamita, the so-called Mother of all Buddhas, whose large circle at the top of the chart is the womb from which all Buddhas flow. And still, the historical and social significance that this lineage chart reveals can’t go unnoticed.
That women are receiving transmission in our era is an extraordinary shift away from a patriarchal religion toward a religion that honors gender parity, and practices what it preaches about inclusivity. This bodes well for Buddhism and all religions, as women have much to contribute to the psycho-social body of religion, as well as the philosophy, ethics, and practices that ground religious institutions.