Every time Buddhism migrated from its place of origin in India to other countries, whether Sri Lanka, Burma, Japan, China or Tibet, the philosophy, customs and rituals transformed as well. Not surprisingly, Buddhism’s relocation to the West comes with a sea change of emphasis and culture. In Tibet, revered masters might isolate themselves in remote caves, sometimes for decades, in deep meditation. In the West, teachers reach thousands instantly by streaming their wisdom on podcasts. Throughout Asia, women rarely had equal access to education. In the West, women demand to be acknowledged in the many leadership roles they assume. In many Asian Buddhist communities, open dissent is unthinkable, while in academia, critical discourse is crucial.
Of all these changes that we are watching Buddhism undergo in the West, the most momentous may be that women are insisting on playing an equal role. More and more Buddhist women are now rising as teachers in their own right who understand their responsibility: to invigorate and bolster women to hold up “half the sky” as spiritual seekers and teachers. As feminist Buddhist scholar Rita Gross points out in her book “Buddhism After Patriarchy,” “The single biggest difference between the practice of Buddhism in Asia and the practice of Buddhism in the West is the full and complete participation of women in Western Buddhism.” The 14th Dalai Lama has acknowledged this by pointing out that his next incarnation could be a woman. “I call myself a feminist,” he said. “Isn’t that what you call someone who fights for women’s rights?” Despite the complex historical, religious and political factors surrounding the selection of incarnate masters in the exiled Tibetan tradition, the Dalai Lama is open to change. Why not? What’s the big deal?