Women in Buddhism

by Jennifer Watts

307 Student, Fall, 1987

Buddhist literature contains a wide range of views of women, from extreme misogynist attitudes to religious ideals of nondiscrimination and universal salvation. Buddhism is a male-created institution dominated by a patriarchal power structure, and as a result, the feminine is often associated with the secular, profane, powerless, and imperfect. Despite these attitudes, women have continued to prove that their spiritual needs and capacities are as great as men’s.

Traditional Buddhist attitudes toward women associate the feminine with the sensual realm as opposed to the Dharma realm. Women are either depicted as lustful temptresses who threaten the spiritual welfare of monks or as the maternal source of man’s anguish and pain. One level of hell described in both Theravadin and Mahayana literatures depicts a realm which is populated by elderly, grotesquely formed women. This association of the temptress/seductress with the death of the spiritual being is also depicted by the daughters of Mara: Lust, Aversion, and Craving.

A few passages from "The Tale of King Udayana of Valsa" from the Collection of Jewels illustrates the mon’s insecurities about women and their beliefs that women are the causes of evil and suffering.

"Women can be

The cause of great suffering.

If desire is destroyed

There will be everlasting happiness."

"The dead snake and dog

Are detestable,

But women are even more

Detestable than they are."

Woman as mother represents a state of attachment to home and children, thus assuring the continuity of samsara. The housewife is judged incapable of entering the religious realm while she is attached to domestic duties. This negative image of motherhood contrasts with a Tibetan Buddhist feminine image "The Great Mother or Consort." This is the primordial principle of creation. This Great Mother principle is the void state of all dharmas which gives birth to the phenomenal world. Tibetan literature describes a noble lineage coming through the Great Mother, Tara. Tara gives a sense of spiritual heritage and inspiration to women.

In spite of the prevalence of the previously described traditional attitudes about women in Theravadin and Mahayana literature, Buddhism does offer soteriological paths which are open to women. The Buddha’s aunt, Mahaprajapati, was the first woman to ask to be admitted to a Buddhist monastic order. The Buddha refused her at first, but the monk Ananda convinced the Buddha to allow women in the order. The women were required to take eight extra vows which served the purpose of keeping the nuns under control of the male monastic community. Any nun, no matter how high her rank, must treat any monk as if he were her senior. By admitting women in to the monastic community the Buddha said that the life of the order would be shortened by five hundred years. Textual descriptions of the path of the nun reflect concern for disintegration of the family structure. Texts do not show concern that the separation of monks from familial duties also disrupts society.

Another soteriological path available to women is to be a teacher of the Dharma and a spiritual friend. A "good son" is a man who has entered the Mahayana path and is on his way to Boddhisattvahood. His female counterpart, a "good daughter" performs deeds similar to the good son, although her destiny is more ambiguous. According to the Lotus Sutra, a good daughter is capable of awakening to the thought of enlightenment, worshiping a multitude of Buddhas, and teaching and respecting the Dharma. Familial associations with a husband, father, or child are not mentioned in textual accounts of a "good daughter," suggesting again that responsibilities at home are obstacles in the pursuit of the Dharma.

The path of salvation of the Bodhisattva varies within Mahayana literature, as does the potential for women to become Bodhisattvas. Mahayana sutras which depict the woman’s role as a Bodhisattva can be classified into three types: 1) denial of a woman’s entrance into Buddha land. 2) acceptance of women as lower-stage Bodhisattvas and 3) acceptance of women as advanced Bodhisattvas. The majority of Mahayana sutras fall into the second category. Because of the association of the female body with evil, lust, and greed, it was said that a woman cannot become a Bodhisattva. However, some sutras allow for a woman to transform herself into a man. She would then be capable of participating in advanced stages of Bodhisattva practice. This sexual change can be interpreted as a physiological process in which a mental sexual power can actually control physical changes pertaining to sexual characteristics, or it can be interpreted as a symbolic process involving a mental transition from a state of attachment to a state of desirelessness and eventual enlightenment. According to "The Sutra on Changing the Female Sex:" "If women awaken to the though of enlightenment, then they will not be bound to the limitation of a womans state of mind. Because they will not be limited, they will forever separate from the female sex and become sons."

The following quote is attributed to the Buddha.

"The female’s defects- greed, hate, and delusion and other defilements- are greater than the male’s...You (women) should have such an intention... Because I wish to be freed from the impurities of the woman’s body, I will acquire the beautiful and fresh body of a man."

Other sutras, such as the Diamond Sutra, stress that to be a Bodhisattva, one must dispel all notions of sexuality. One should not think of oneself as male or female. Understanding the teaching of Emptiness removes illusions of sexuality. According to the Diamond Sutra there are only two conditions of achieving enlightenment: the opportunity of hearing the Diamond Sutra and being a good son or a good daughter. In the Lotus Sutra the noble matron Gautami along with six hundred other nuns are assured by the Buddha that they will become Bodhisattvas and preachers of the Pharma. After they have completed the course of the Bodhisattva the Buddha told them that they will become Tathagatas and Arhats.

Celestial Bodhisattvas became deities in their own right, being personifications of the highest Mahayana Buddhist ideals. One important celestial Bodhisattva, Kuan-yin, is associated with many feminine qualities. Chapter 25 of the Lotus Sutra is popularly known in China as the "Kuan-yin sutra." This chapter depicts the celestial Bodhisattva as a savior who immediately relieves the sorrows of all who call out. Kuan-yin is referred to as the "compassionate mother of sentient beings," yet she is an asexual figure in the sense that sexual desire is disassociated from her.

An important feminine image in Tibetan Buddhism is the dakini, which means literally "sky goer." A dakini may appear as a human being, a goddess- peaceful or wrathful, or she may be perceived as energy. The goddess Tara is a popular female form of the Buddha.

Several biographies of Tibetan women who have reached high spiritual goals are translated in Tsultrim Allione’s Women of Wisdom. The life story of one woman, Nangsa Obum, describes some of the obstacles that women must overcome on their personal path to salvation.

Nangsa Obum was a classic example of a "good daughter." In spite of the Tibetan preference for boys, her parents described her as "a daughter better than a thousand sons." As she grew up she decided that she would not marry, but become a yogini instead. She grew very beautiful, however, and the Rinang King snatched her up "Like an eagle falling upon a small bird." to be the bride of his son. Nangsa did not wish to marry, but she had no choice in the matter as Tibet was a medieval society and the local king had power over the populace. Nangsa carried out her duty as a good wife and gave birth to a son, but she still longed to renounce worldly life and practice the Dharma. She helped the local beggars and yogis and took an interest in them. Her sister-in-law was very jealous of Nangsa and beat her for giving food to the yogis. The next day the king overheard her talking with a beggar and he too began to beat her. They finally beat her to death. She entered the Bardo where she met the Lord of Death. It was determined that Nangsa was a very special dakini and her good works outweighed by far any of her transgressions. The Lord of Death told her that she must reenter her old body and continue to help others on earth. She awoke where her husband’s family had left her body. She returned home with her son, but her parents threw her out of the house and kept her son. She was forced to enter the wilderness and search for a guru. After years of independent and courageous searching she became a great yogini.

Today Buddhist nuns are still practicing in countries such as Sri Lanka and Nepal. They shave their heads, take vows of poverty and chastity, and fast in the afternoon. Their status has not improved much with time. They are still subordinate to monks and one of their duties is to serve as housekeepers for the monks. The Sri Lankan government subsidizes food, housing, health care and education for monks, but not for nuns. Still, nuns are expanding their role in society, leaving the nunneries to travel to rural villages to teach home economics, nursing, meditation, and the Dharma.

Throughout history women have strove to fulfill their spiritual goals. Women practicing Buddhism were forced to overcome traditional negative stereotypes of women in order to practice the Dharma and continue on the path to salvation.


Allione, Tsultrium Women of Wisdom, Arkana, 1984.

Goldberg, Ellen "Buddhist Nuns Make Comeback in Sri Lanka- to Monks Dislike" The Christian Science Monitor April 2, 1984.

Paul, Diana Y. Women in Buddhism University of California Press 1979

Stryk, Lucien The World of the Buddha, Grove Press, Inc. 1968.

Welty, Roger "With Shaven Head and Robe of White" Sawaddi. July-August 1983.