Profile: Women in Buddhism Study Initiative, University of Hamburg

Bhikkhu Analayo spent many years poring through the voluminous discourses of the Pali canon, trying to unravel an enduring mystery. What, he wondered, was the Buddha’s true view on the ordination of female monastics, or bhikkhunis?

For followers of the Theravada school, it’s not an idle question. In countries such as Sri Lanka, Burma, and Thailand, where Theravada Buddhism predominates and the bhikkhuni lineage died out centuries ago, male monastics cite scripture to support their contention that the bhikkhuni order cannot lawfully be restored.

That position vexes not only many women in those countries but also Western Buddhists who assume equality between the sexes. “I have from the outset of my research been puzzled by instances of misogyny in the Buddhist texts,” says Analayo, a German-born Theravada monk and professor at the University of Hamburg’s Numata Centre for Buddhist Studies. “It simply doesn’t square with the information we can get about the Buddha’s early teaching.”

Recently, Analayo published his findings: even in cases where the female lineage has disappeared, Theravada monastic leaders can find textual support for the full ordination of women by male monks. “I hope,” says Analayo, “that we have been able to solve the legal issue and say that it is fully, legally valid if an order of bhikkhunis is started in that way.”

It’s a sensational claim, one that is currently being discussed in an e-learning course Analayo organized through the Women in Buddhism Study Initiative at the University of Hamburg. More than three hundred participants from thirtyseven countries are studying the approaches of the three vinaya schools to bhikkhuni ordination and learning about strategies women have employed in pursuing their renunciant aspirations in the face of institutional gender bias.

The online course is the brainchild of Lisa Fancott, a Canadian Buddhist who has worked for the United Nations and Oxfam International as a gender equity specialist. She traces her interest in the project to a 2007 conference in Hamburg—organized by the Dalai Lama—to examine the question of female ordination. “It just blew me away,” Fancott says. “This field of Buddhist studies is fascinating.”

For Fancott, who has been active in the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women, the online course met a need to challenge a traditionally male-dominated viewpoint. “These narratives are hugely important,” she says. “They play out in the world in a way that does an enormous amount of harm.”

The work of Analayo and other scholars, such as Karma Lekshe Tsomo and Petra Kieffer-Puelz, deserves to reach a wider audience, Fancott believes, and that’s where the online course, with its potential to reach people around the world, comes in.

Excerpted from the Summer 2014 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, available on newsstands and by subscription.