While things have improved since Buddhist scholar Rita Gross wrote her groundbreaking book Buddhism After Patriarchy, she says that many of the barriers to women’s development and recognition as dharma teachers remain firmly entrenched.
The primary feminist criticism of Buddhism is that dharma teachers are most often men. Feminists have responded with different solutions to this problem. One obvious solution is to make structural changes to ensure that women are trained and promoted as teachers. However, some feminists have argued that giving dharma teachers any real authority is itself a patriarchal practice that cannot be redeemed by encouraging women to become teachers.
Many Westerners are deeply suspicious of the authority that a Vajrayana or Zen teacher has over his or her students. These suspicions regarding unlimited teaching authority grew particularly after scandals involving abuses of power that rocked North American Buddhism in the 1980s. Nevertheless, from the point of view of Buddhist practice, there are limits as to how egalitarian and democratic Buddhism can become. While power has been and can be abused, some aspects of Buddhist life do require the authority of a lineage and teacher. It is important to sort out which issues can be decided by group consensus and which aspects of Buddhist life cannot be subjected to majority rule.
It would be dangerous to allow people who do not understand Buddhism thoroughly to decide what should be taught or what meditation technique to use. Many fundamental Buddhist teachings, such as the four noble truths or the teachings on egolessness, go so much against the grain of peoples’ ordinary hopes and fears that they would never be taught as the result of a popular vote. This is why democracy is a poor tool for deciding what should be taught at a dharma center. Authoritative teachers are unlikely to become unnecessary in genuine Buddhism anytime soon.
On the other hand, the authority of dharma teachers pertains to dharma, to the teachings and practices of Buddhism, not to a sangha’s institutional life, which can be decided by the community. Even though dharma teachers have spiritual authority, they must be subject to judgment by the community if they engage in inappropriate behavior, such as sexual misconduct or misappropriation of funds.
Because dharma teaching is so important in Buddhism, the acid test for whether or not Buddhism has overcome its male-dominant heritage is the frequency with which women become dharma teachers. There is no logical reason why half the dharma teachers should not be women, yet historically men have monopolized teaching roles. This can be traced to two factors: the male-dominated cultures in which Buddhism was founded and in which it has always been practiced, and some of the rules of Buddhist institutional life.
Some people think that this historical generalization is no longer relevant because of the visibility and popularity of some North American women dharma teachers, such as Pema Chödrön, and the fact that many North American women are senior teachers. Buddhism, however, is a much larger and longer-lived phenomenon than Western-convert Buddhism, and those historical norms are still widespread in much of the Buddhist world.
Even among North American Buddhists, a disproportionate percentage of the most respected and authoritative teachers are men, especially in Tibetan Buddhism. This claim can readily be verified by looking at teachers’ ads in North American Buddhist publications. In a recent issue of Buddhadharma, thirteen teachers were pictured in ads for dharma programs that they were leading; twelve of them were men. The Shambhala Sun ads pictured nineteen male teachers and no female teachers. In Tricycle, the ratio was fifteen male teachers to two women teachers. That magazine was advertising its own “Tele-Teachings” series, featuring six male teachers and one female teacher.
North American Buddhists tout the fact that roughly half of the people teaching at Western dharma centers are women. Nevertheless, a phenomenon I have long observed still prevails: within the hierarchy of those who have teaching titles and authority, men dominate at the top ranks, while women do most of the teaching at the lower ranks. Given these facts, it’s premature to congratulate ourselves or to deny the relevance of the issue. Instead, we should question more deeply why women teachers are so important and consider what institutional forms promote or discourage their presence. Moreover, we need to look at what factors in the contemporary situation, at least for North Americans, could help promote an actual presence of women teachers that would be more in accord with dharma.
Some modern people are truly mystified as to why the Buddha seemingly concurred with the male dominance of his culture, but there is little question that he did, or least that he is portrayed as having done so in the stories that were told about him and that became authoritative. Historical records, which may or may not go back to the Buddha himself, not only portray the Buddha as concurring with the male dominance of the times but also as initiating rules that ensured male dominance in his sangha and made it difficult for women to attain the status of a major dharma teacher. Monastic rules declare that all nuns are junior to even the most recently ordained monk. (Laypeople, of course, are junior to monastics.) It is recorded that when Prajapati, the first nun, suggested that seniority should be determined by how long one has been ordained, rather than by one’s gender, the Buddha replied that even in sects with poor leadership, men never regarded women as their superiors, so how could such behavior occur in his sangha?
Some have argued that women are not harmed by not becoming dharma teachers, so long as they receive the same training as men. Such commentators emphasize that the point of Buddhism is to practice meditation and attain enlightenment, not to attain a prestigious reputation as a teacher. Some have even argued that institutional male dominance actually benefits women. They suggest that because women have no hope of attaining status and fame as a dharma teacher, they are free to practice sincerely and well, unencumbered by the eight worldly concerns. Men, by contrast, it is claimed, often take up monastic life as a career path and become more concerned about their prestige and position than about their practice and attainment, thus perverting the purpose of Buddhist study and practice. But if this were the case, women should definitely be the dharma teachers because their attainments would be more genuine!
I argue that the institutional arrangements that have been dominant in most Buddhist cultures for most of Buddhist history make it difficult, if not impossible, for women to become highly respected dharma teachers, and that this does in fact harm women, in at least five ways.
First, there is sheer practicality. It has been argued that even though nuns’ hierarchal subordination to monks does not limit their practice and attainment, that subordination may well explain the demise of the nuns’ order in many parts of the Buddhist world. The immediate cause of the decline of the nuns’ order was economic; nuns simply didn’t receive much economic support, which made it difficult for them to survive.
Throughout the traditional Buddhist world, the merit earned by making donations was thought to depend on the worth of the recipient; therefore, lay donors preferred to support the most prestigious teachers—all of whom, because of monastic rules regarding seniority, were monks. So even an excellent woman teacher simply could not gain the same kind of following as a monk, and, consequently, she would attract less economic support for herself and her nunnery. This was a large part of the downward spiral that doomed the nuns’ order in some parts of the Buddhist world.
Second, the cultural beliefs about women’s intellectual and spiritual inferiority, combined with the fact that women were not going to be dharma teachers anyway, led to the view that women didn’t really need to receive much training. For example, Tibetan Buddhist nuns were usually not taught philosophy and debate or how to draw sand mandalas, on the grounds that they wouldn’t be using those skills anyway. Recently, Tibetan nuns have received training in such skills, but I know of no instance of women being taught the lama dances for which Tibetan Buddhism is so famous.
This logic for not even teaching women represents not a downward spiral but rather a vicious circle: because women are thought to be intellectually and spiritually inferior, it is said that they don’t need to be trained. Their lack of attainments, due to their lack of training, is then used as justification for not giving women high teachings or advanced practices.
Third, given the lack of economic support and the common prejudice that women—non-teachers by definition—did not need to be well educated, it is not surprising that the option of becoming a nun was not very attractive, and traditionally nuns had little prestige. A family might well be embarrassed to have a daughter become a nun, whereas when a son became a monk, he brought great honor to the family. As a result, women were often discouraged from becoming nuns or taking on serious spiritual discipline. By and large, it seems clear that most Buddhists preferred women to become wives and mothers rather than nuns or even lay retreatants practicing solitary renunciation. This was true even in the Buddha’s time. Glowing praises of generous female lay donors contrast significantly with the reluctance with which the Buddha is reported to have allowed women to become nuns. Thus women who had a genuine spiritual vocation often found no support for their calling.
The fourth way in which the lack of women dharma teachers harms women is particularly devastating: women practitioners have no role models. I have often been told that because the dharma is beyond gender, such issues are irrelevant. I have also been told that since the dharma is the same whether it is taught by a woman or a man, it couldn’t possibly make any difference if there are no women dharma teachers. And I have been told that it is trivial and undignified to even bring up such concerns. My reply is that if the dharma is truly beyond gender, then there should be no disparity between the number of women and men teachers. I also believe that if the dharma is genuinely gender free and gender neutral, the reason there have been so few women teachers historically lies elsewhere. It lies with the Buddhist tendency to uncritically buy into whatever social arrangements it finds in the surrounding culture.
It is impossible to argue that role models who look like oneself make no difference. From the point of view of absolute truth, of course, role models who look like oneself are irrelevant. But students do not begin at the level of absolute truth. We begin at a very confused level of relative truth—not even accurate relative truth, but at the level of simple mistakes, thinking that the rope is a snake. It is very easy to see Buddhism as a snake that is not helpful to women when most or all of the teachers are men. An intelligent and perceptive student would naturally ask if people like her benefit from this particular path.
Is it worthwhile to become deeply involved in Buddhist study and practice if one is told that one has little chance of success because of one’s gender? With the lack of role models who looks like oneself in Buddhism’s most valued roles, one wonders why women should take Buddhism seriously. I’ve certainly experienced this dilemma myself.
Buddhists are much less defensive regarding most other basic questions about the path, and they show great concern for finding the most effective skillful means for helping people to see that the supposed snake is really a rope—and that the rope itself is illusory. But when it comes to gender, as I’ve said, people like myself are often reprimanded for even bringing up questions surrounding it. If gender is truly irrelevant, the only way to demonstrate that irrelevance is the skillful means of empowering women teachers. Of course, for women to be empowered as teachers, they must first be trained completely, which is difficult in an environment where women are defined as subordinate to any man, regardless of their relative accomplishments and seniority.
The fifth way in which making it difficult for women to become dharma teachers harms women may be the most devastating of all. If there are few or no women teachers, the experiences and viewpoints of women are forever lost to history. And the women who do achieve high levels of realization, despite all obstacles, are obliterated in historical records. This difficulty intersects with the fourth difficulty, the lack of role models for women practitioners. The role models may well have existed, but they were not recognized and, therefore, not recorded.
If women are not recognized as dharma teachers, their spiritual biographies will not be available to illuminate the path. Some Buddhist traditions rely heavily on the life stories of great teachers to provide inspiration and guidance for contemporary students. Stories of women dharma teachers are needed by men to counter their own culturally based feelings of superiority, and women need these biographies for inspiration.
What is the path for a woman who has been taught that her rebirth is less free and well favored than that of a man? For a woman who has few role models and who was probably discouraged from thinking of herself as a serious practitioner? Gender may be ultimately irrelevant, but that ultimate irrelevancy is situated in a relative and samsaric world. How does she come to realize the irrelevance of gender, and what does her experience of conventional gender norms mean to her in her Buddhist path?
A woman’s specific experiences as a female practitioner in a male-dominated world and a male-dominated religion will be different from those of a man, and they are worth recording as a guidepost for other practitioners, both women and men. But who records the experiences of an unrecognized teacher? Because she is not recognized and her experiences are not recorded, the example of her path to realization, those specific experiences, are lost, furthering the impression that women are indeed less free and well-favored than men because so few of them are known to have achieved success on the path.
Sometimes the fault for losing these stories and role models lies not with the Buddhists of a specific era but with those who keep the records. Women may be known in their own contexts as highly competent practitioners and teachers, but no one thinks to record their teachings as they would the teachings of a similar male teacher. Or, if the records are kept, they may not be remembered as frequently as the records of male teachers. For example, highly accomplished women were relatively common in Tibetan Buddhism, but the first teachers Western students of Tibetan Buddhism heard about were all men. Western practitioners of Zen Buddhism recite daily a lineage pedigree devoid of female names. Only recently did some women painstakingly reconstruct a lineage of female dharma teachers.
Until sexist and male-dominated conventions and institutional practices are eliminated from Buddhism, we must conclude that although gender is ultimately irrelevant, it still matters in the relative world. As I have argued many times, the Buddhist view may be gender neutral and gender free, but Buddhist practices and institutions are not. And the view and practice should be in line with each other, not in contradiction. Among the Buddhist practices that honor gender far more than it deserves to be honored, none is more devastating than the omnipresent tradition of not honoring and recognizing women as dharma teachers, which is founded on the equally devastating practice of not training women competently and completely. And that practice, of course, traces its parentage to sexist notions of female inferiority and the need for men to be ranked as superior to women in each and every case.
Since many Western Buddhists are completely unfamiliar with Buddhist history and the way in which Buddhists have traditionally accepted the social practices of their cultural matrix, it is important to circulate this information more widely. There are valid reasons why so many non-Buddhists regard Buddhism as a highly patriarchal religion that is quite disadvantageous to women, and we should be familiar with our own dark side.
It would be unwise to conclude that gender inequities are a thing of the past now that more women are teaching dharma in the West. Nevertheless, it’s important to acknowledge that much has changed for Buddhism worldwide in the past thirty years. There is a flourishing Buddhist women’s movement, and much progress has been made in reestablishing the nuns’ sangha and upgrading the training nuns receive. The training available to laywomen has also improved greatly, and Western Buddhism is almost entirely a lay movement at this point. Among Western Buddhists, many women have also been recognized as lineage-holding dharma teachers, more so in the Zen and Vipassana communities than in Tibetan Buddhism ones.
Most observers would agree that something unprecedented in Buddhist history is taking place in the West. If we were to count all the Western dharma teachers, rather than only the best-known and most recognized ones, almost half would be women.
To what do we owe these vast changes in Buddhist practice? Certainly, they are more in line with fundamental Buddhist teachings than the traditional sexist and male-dominant practices. Those of us who advocate greater gender equity in Buddhist practice always look to Buddhist teachings for our warrant for what we advocate, and we also look to past exemplars, such as Yeshe Tsogyel, for inspiration. If classic Buddhist teachings contradicted practices of gender equity, we would not have much of a case (and I, for one, would not be a Buddhist). However, the gender-free and gender-neutral teachings have always been part of Buddhism, even though they have not made a significant impact on Buddhist practices surrounding gender in the past. So something in addition to Buddhism’s gender-neutral and gender-free teachings must be contributing to the current changing situation.
Western Buddhists have tended not to explore the impact that their Western heritage may have had on how they practice Buddhism. But I would suggest that aspects of our Western heritage are extremely valuable to our Buddhist practice and that we discard or denigrate our Western roots at our peril. Would we feel so comfortable abandoning the religions of our parents and families without Western concepts of individual choice and freedom of religion? For most of human history, in most parts of the world, such conduct would have been unthinkable and nearly impossible. We Western Buddhists sometimes decry individualism, human rights, and other ideas of the European enlightenment, or question their relevance to Buddhist practice, but without their large-scale acceptance in our society, I doubt that Western Buddhism would have flourished the way that it has.
The major thinkers of the European enlightenment did not necessarily extend their proclamations of individual liberty and dignity to women, but women quickly picked up on the cues and made the logical implications themselves. Famous early female heroes who made the case for women’s equity and equality include Mary Wollstonecraft, Ann Hutchinson, and Abigail Adams. When it was originally drafted, the United States Constitution did not consider women to be citizens, and it did not grant us the right to vote. But again, women quickly drew the logical conclusions. By the mid-nineteenth century, the Grimke sisters, Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and others led the struggle for women to be recognized as human beings by granting them the same rights that were granted men, including the right to vote. Finally, less than one hundred years ago, in 1920, the U.S. Constitution was amended to grant women the right to vote.
Concern about gender equity and equality lessened after this victory and became completely dormant during the 1950s, when women had been dismissed from their vital factory jobs following the war and sent home to have babies. The 1950s perhaps represent a nadir in awareness that women might want to have lives not bounded by the gender roles assigned to them by a patriarchal culture. As someone socialized in the 1950s, I often suggest that those of us who remember how horrible things were back then need to explain to others why the second wave of feminism arose in the first place.
By the late 1960s, both women and men were again fully aware of just how much the conventional gender arrangements crippled women, and they were advocating more equitable gender arrangements. This is the environment in which Buddhist teachings first became available on a large scale to North Americans of non-Asian descent.
Though often they will not acknowledge their debts to the second wave of feminism, I would argue that most of the current leading female teachers of Buddhism owe at least part of their success to that movement. Whether or not they are personally poised to acknowledge that influence, most highly regarded contemporary North American women teachers benefited greatly from the feminist insistence that if men deserved human rights, so too did women.
Had Asian Buddhist teachers first brought Buddhism to the West in a large-scale way during the 1950s, when the cult of domesticity was at its height and conventional gender roles were rigidly enforced, women would have been staging bake sales rather than meditating and studying side by side with men, preparing to become teachers. Thus without the milieu produced by feminism, it is unlikely that many of the most noted North American female teachers would have been prepared to teach, and even more unlikely that they would have been accepted as teachers. Therefore, I suggest that at least some of the inspiration and motivation for changes in the contemporary acceptance and elevation of some Western women teachers of the dharma is the result of the second wave of feminism, which has changed everything about our lives for the better, forever.
We would do well to delight in the auspicious coincidence that brought Buddhist teachers and feminist consciousness together at the same time. And when we trace our ancestry as practitioners, it would be accurate to thank not only our overt lineage ancestors—those whose connections we chant every day—and not only the more obscure female Buddhist ancestors, whom we painstakingly research and discover, but also the generations of women and men who taught us the practical, everyday, institutional meaning of that simplest, most radical, and most accurate of feminist slogan: “Women are human beings.”
If we do not now lose, through waves of backlash and complacency, what we have only recently gained, we may live to see the day when not only will women teach dharma, but they will be just as likely as men to be honored lineage holders. When that happens, Buddhism will finally be actualizing its teachings and its vision, rather than perpetuating the current contradiction between gender-free and gender-neutral teachings and the institutions that favor men over women.