Liberation for All Women

What are the challenges for today’s Buddhist women, and how can they be overcome? Mihiri Tillakaratne discusses these pressing questions with Lama Karma Chotso, Arisika Razak, Sharon Suh, and Brooke Schedneck.

Mihiri Tillakaratne  •  Sharon Suh  •  Lama Karma Chotso  •  Arisika Razak  •  Brooke Schedneck
12 July 2023
Ven. Dhammananda is the abbot of Thailand’s first all-women Buddhist monastery. It’s illegal to ordain women in Thailand. Photo by REUTERS / Athit Perawongmetha

Mihiri Tillakaratne (associate editor at Lion’s Roar):What Buddhist women have influenced your work or spiritual path?

Lama Karma Chotso (founder of Open Awareness Buddhist Center in Florida): Khandro Rinpoche is one of the best Tibetan Buddhist teachers I’ve ever heard. Her level of knowledge and realization is incredible.

Over forty years ago, when women in the U.S. started practicing Tibetan Buddhism, there were virtually no examples of women practitioners for us to follow. My first teacher was Kalu Rinpoche, who was the holder of the Shangpa Kagyu lineage of Niguma, a tenth- or eleventh-century realized yogini born to a Brahman family in Kashmir. Teachers in the Shangpa Kagyu lineage would teach about Niguma and the female buddha Tara, but still, the teachings came from men. While that was difficult in one way, in another, it was freeing, because we women didn’t have to copy a certain way of being.

Arisika Razak (former chair of the Women’s Spirituality Program at the California Institute of Integral Studies): As someone who defines themselves as spiritual, not religious, I feel I belong to a lineage of nondenominational African American women healers. When Black women were denied the pulpit in the 1800s, many went into the forest and heard the voice of spirit. When they came back, they ministered to the people. I’m also of the lineage of women like Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman, who integrated faith in God with the liberation of the people and leadership by women.

Some women whose work inspires me are Vimalasara Mason-John, who brings African ritual and vernacular practices to the forefront; Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, author of The Shamanic Bones of Zen; Ruth King, author of Mindful of Race; and Rima Vesely-Flad, author of Black Buddhists and the Black Radical Tradition.

Sharon Suh (president of Sakyadhita, the international association of Buddhist women): One of the people that influenced me to accept myself in my Buddhist identity was bell hooks. As an Asian American, I’d always felt I didn’t meditate enough to be considered a Buddhist. Many folks in Asian American communities struggle with this authenticity anxiety, because we’re modeling ourselves off an American modernist view of Buddhism: “Oh, we should be meditating all the time, and that’s the most important thing.”

About twenty years ago, I was on a panel at Smith College with bell hooks and the Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo. I thought, “What’s a person like me doing on a panel like this? I’m not good enough.” At one point, I said, “I don’t even have enough time to meditate like these people. I really wish I did!”

Bell hooks looked at me and said, “You know, Sharon, two minutes is all you need.”

It was such a wonderful reminder for me that I was good as I was, that I didn’t need to become somebody I wasn’t, considering the conditions of my life then—I was tenure-track and raising two children under the age of five. Her comment opened this door for me to not compare myself to practices that, at the time, were not relatable, not doable. That encounter was small, but it was also huge for me.

Brooke Schedneck (associate professor of religious studies at Rhodes College in Tennessee): Thinking about the qualities of the Buddhist women I admire, I immediately thought of Venerable Dhammananda Bhikkhuni, the first Thai woman to receive full ordination in the Theravada tradition. One time I took my students to her monastery, Songdhammakalyani. When my students and I entered a building, Dhammananda Bhikkhuni followed, and said, “Okay, everybody, come back out.”

We came out, and she showed us our shoes, which were scattered all around. She said, “You need to fix this, and then you can come back inside.”

I love that she wasn’t holding these American kids to a different standard. Essentially, she was saying, We’re practicing mindfulness within this space. This is a space of discipline. She was extremely caring and compassionate, while exuding seriousness. I also saw those qualities in the recently deceased Bhikkhuni Nantayani, who was the abbess of Thailand’s largest community of female monastics. She and her female monastics were so dedicated, always telling me and my students how to get to nibbana and the importance of ordination.

In mainland Southeast Asia, women have to travel to Sri Lanka to get their novice ordination, then go back to their countries, wait two years, and then travel again to Sri Lanka to get full ordination. Male monastics get ordained in one afternoon. If it were that easy to become ordained as a woman, we’d have much greater numbers of women leaders establishing sanghas. Clearly, women want to do this, because they’ve created these pathways to do it, but there are still barriers to providing opportunities for ordination.

A pregnant woman sits in a group meditation
Meditative practices, including moment-to-moment focus and focusing on the breath, can be used in childbirth. Photo by Frederic Fasano.

Mihiri Tillakaratne: How have you navigated gendered power dynamics in Buddhist communities?

Sharon Suh: I’m always looking for spaces that resonate with my experience. While I visit as many different sanghas as possible, the ones I relate to most are BIPOC, specifically ones with BIPOC female teachers. There’s just an energy and a sense of camaraderie in those spaces. I’m not always comfortable in predominantly white Buddhist spaces that are run primarily by men. I go to those spaces because I feel like I should know what’s going on, but I cannot breathe into my full sense of self there. So I tend to seek out other spaces for refuge where I can let myself be unguarded, in spaces that feel safe enough.

Brooke Schedneck: I navigate gendered spaces in Southeast Asia, and as an outsider, I learn the norms and follow along. In the Thai Forest Tradition, when a woman is speaking to a monk, she kneels. I’m used to other communities where I can stand while communicating with monks. While I don’t feel terribly comfortable with kneeling, I do it because I don’t want the women who live in these communities to think I disrespect their choices. They have their reasons for being in communities that have these hierarchies between men and women.

Most of my students are from American universities, and when I take them to Chiang Mai, they’re aware of the gendered hierarchies right away. The female students notice when they can’t enter a building, for example. We also go to a bhikkhuni temple on these trips so they can see another side.

Once, the students asked the bhikkhunis at one of Bhikkhuni Nantayani’s temples, “How do you feel about how in Thai Buddhism, women can’t enter into certain places because women are seen as polluting?” The bhikkhunis asked the students to let this go and accept that it isn’t something that’s in their control. This approach is a different starting point from the students’, which is feminist resistance. One is not more valid than the other; it’s just a different way of thinking about gender dynamics.

Arisika Razak: I’m a core teacher at the East Bay Meditation Center, and we’ve always had a very strong presence of women—both teachers and volunteers. Having been a midwife for twenty years, I was shocked that few male or female meditation teachers discuss childbirth and the use of meditative practices in childbirth. One of the vital things you promote as a midwife is moment-to-moment focus: inner focus, body focus, focus on the breath. All these are critical to natural childbirth.

I’ve written about the misogyny that crept into Buddhism, where the female body is seen as inherently unclean and polluting. For example, the Buddha is divinely conceived: he’s not in his mother’s womb because he’s in a crystal vase inside her body, and he exits from her side, so he doesn’t go through the polluting vagina. All of that is in accord with many patriarchal religions, but that’s not all Buddhism is.

As teachers, we need to discuss these patriarchal and misogynistic beliefs that adhere to the bodies of women and consequently, to our values. I remember once saying, “Everything that men do to become saints, a mother does in service to her children. She sacrifices, she puts her body second, she endures pain in the birth-giving paradigm. Women suffer now for the benefit of humanity in the future.”

I’ve always been struck by how the Indian Theravada teacher Dipa Ma once advised a working-class woman who said she could not meditate due to her household responsibilities. She told the woman to meditate on the sucking of the baby at her breast, because every aspect of our bodies, and what our bodies do, can be used in meditation. Certainly, the Buddha taught that, but he didn’t always teach that by using the female body as a positive example.

Lama Karma Chotso: When I first started out, I was in a Buddhist community headed by Tibetans. Coming from an American background, I didn’t realize for a long time the depth of patriarchal issues in Asia.

Our lama went back to Tibet to rebuild his monastery for men, and everybody showed up to help build it. Then he built a monastery for women, and no one showed up. So the Tibetan women did it themselves, with shovels and their own hands, cutting the road they needed, six miles long into the side of a mountain.

It was astonishing every time I found another layer of the gender hierarchy. Decades later, I learned that a huge part of the hierarchy in that particular community was based on sexual consorts for the lama. Luckily, by the time that came out, I’d already left.

Though I didn’t understand the community’s gender dynamics when I first started practicing, I felt a sense of unease. One of the most important things we teachers must do is ensure that women are not only seen and valued, but that when they walk in the door, there’s a sense of safety.

Mihiri Tillakaratne: How can we create safe communities?

Sharon Suh: Ann Gleig, Amy Langenberg, and other scholars and activists are doing great work in this area, creating opportunities for addressing accountability.

I emphasize healing from a deeply embodied perspective, and learning, sharing, and teaching how to become safe enough in the body. The body that’s been assaulted and brutalized is a trauma body; people don’t feel safe inside their own skin. Healing from trauma is learning how to be safer in the body, even for a specific moment in time.

A nun dressed in traditional outfit performs a sacred dance
At Druk Gawa Khilwa nunnery, nuns learn sacred dances customarily prohibited for women to perform. Many male practitioners voiced disapproval, yet the nuns’ practice endures. Photo Courtesy of Druk Gawa Khilwa Nunnery.

It’s important to offer different kinds of embodied practices that are not silent meditation, since asking people to close their eyes and focus on their breath can be incredibly traumatizing and triggering. It can make people hyperaware of their breath, and closing the eyes can be frightening. So it’s helpful to provide opportunities for doing things in a more liberatory fashion, for example, saying, “Open your eyes if you want to.” Whether you choose to open or close your eyes has a profound way of rewiring the brain because you make the choice yourself.

There are a lot of Buddhist teachers that incorporate a more trauma-informed perspective, like Mushim Ikeda at East Bay Meditation Center. When she teaches, it’s always choice-making, which, to me, is the heart of healing from trauma. Trauma is that event for which we had no choice. Starting with small details, such as using empowering language, including phrases like “when you’re ready” or “if you’d like,” allows people to make choices.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about anger and finding robust, generative, liberatory ways of expressing it. I’ve been reading Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her, which is about learning how to express anger in a way that’s skillful and fruitful—and by “skillful” I don’t mean respectable, but rather really expressing anger over injustice.

There’s a difference between “silence” and “silence as a disciplinary force.” I feel that “noble silence” is often just ignoble. It’s detrimental. It’s devastating. For communities dealing with sexual assault or violence, physical and psychic—which is probably all communities—it’s vital to have expansive ways of addressing anger instead of pathologizing individual expressions of it.

Arisika Razak: Sexual abuse in any religious community is part of a global issue of patriarchy and sexism. It occurs in spiritual communities where there’s a power differential, where your spiritual teacher can do no wrong, and whatever he—and it’s usually a “he”—asks you to do is something you should submit to; the teacher is beyond the judgment of conventional morality. This isn’t simply a Buddhist issue. It’s a problem with top-down structures where authority is granted to a patriarch.

We’ve also not had positive paradigms about human sexuality. How do we talk about this in cultures where woman is viewed as the root of evil, seductress, temptress? That notion is found in certain forms of Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity. But there are earth-based spiritual cultures that believe woman is the life bringer, the culture bringer, and that sexuality is a divine gift.

I don’t believe we can look to monastics, particularly male monastics, to advise us how to manifest and live in a healthy sexuality. On a panel ten or fifteen years ago, Jack Kornfield talked about the loneliness of teachers. He felt that some of this predation and inappropriate sexuality occurs because teachers get elevated, and they don’t pay enough attention to their frailty and needs as humans. He talked about how at Spirit Rock, they purposefully have communities of peers, so teachers don’t experience that isolation. You need to ensure that teachers can be ordinary human beings. There are certain cultures in Africa and in Central America where in order to be a shaman, you must be married. That doesn’t eliminate sexual abuse or predation, but at least it recognizes that if you’re in these positions of power, the risk of abuse increases if you don’t have healthy outlets for your sexuality. How do we begin to talk about these issues, so that when people go into sanghas, they have a sense about their autonomy and their right to say yes or no?

Lama Karma Chotso: Someone who takes vows and then has sex with those below them sets up a cognitive dissonance. Honesty is a huge thing for a sangha. Sangha in Tibetan is gendun: “ge,” from ge wa, means “virtue,” and “dun” means to strive for that. If you have a sangha that’s striving after virtue, they’re not going to be lying to each other. If you have a teacher that’s not only having sex with his students, but also telling them that they must lie about it, that’s devastating for a sangha.

Brooke Schedneck: The structure of the sangha affects the prevalence of sexual abuse. There are different ways to structure a sangha: including being monastic or lay, having only female or only male monastics, or having male and female monastics living together. There are also Thai Buddhist communities with just one or two precept nuns, or maechi, living in a temple with male monastics. It’s still illegal for women to ordain in Thailand, so maechi are women who choose to live a spiritual life, but they’re considered as neither fully monastic nor lay, and they don’t have the rights or opportunities that monks have. They often serve as temple staff, cooking and cleaning.

Buddhist sanghas with few women, or women who are just part of a bigger structure, have more potential for having issues. However, if you have a sizable community of women leaders that people feel secure in, a culture of listening and sharing develops. Then when problems arise, there’s a system in place to address them. If you don’t have leadership positions for women, or some kind of balance in men’s and women’s roles, that’s hard to overcome.

Sharon Suh: Certainly, the institution of the sangha itself needs to change. When we only focus on the individual, abuse becomes an individual issue, not something dealt with systemically. So number one, how do we create structures where women are trusted? Women are mistrusted all the time. How do we have sanghas where those who bring forward allegations of sexual abuse—not just women—are actually trusted? That needs to be built into the sangha.

Number two, how do we ensure the safety of the person who’s been abused? I can imagine that person doesn’t feel safe, which reinforces the silence, which in turn reinforces the isolation, which may then lead to expressions of trauma that are then pathologized. All of this, to use a Buddhist term, is interconnected. Thinking about what systemic channels of safety and trust we can build into these age-old systems is a big question.

Two women sit outdoors in Indonesia at the Sakyadhita conference
Sakyadhita, the international association of Buddhist women, holds conferences, which include panel discussions, performances, and Buddhist practice. Their fourteenth conference was held in Indonesia. Photo by Olivier Adam.

Arisika Razak: The community being able to hear allegations, deliberate, and interrogate is critical. Buddhist playwright Canyon Sam opens one of her solo performances with the comment: “The third precept means that we do not bow to the power of lust.” It’s important that we acknowledge lust as a power. Given that it’s a power, how do we treat this energy with respect? How do we acknowledge it, hold it, shepherd it, guide it?

And this is not just a male problem. A friend of mine was in a sangha led by a woman teacher, and one of the other women confided in my friend that she was having a sexual relationship with the teacher. The teacher wasn’t a monastic, but the relationship had to be secret. My friend felt they were violating the precept about lying, so she left the community. It was a hard situation.

Ann Gleig and Amy Langenberg say most of the literature looks at those who find a rationale to remain in these abusive communities, but we don’t talk to those who leave sanghas, and leave Buddhism. She says whatever we build must be survivor-centered. What is it that survivors want? How do they see the way back?

We’ve all heard of restorative justice, which is a great idea if implemented well. How do we recognize the failures of human beings and bring them back into the fold of humanity? I want a model that’s both survivor-centered and deals with perpetrators in a way that doesn’t make them monsters. They’re not monsters; they’re human beings. I don’t have the answer. But I want to be in dialogue with people who are working on answers plural, guidelines plural.

Mihiri Tillakaratne: What does a “Buddhist feminism” or a “Buddhist feminist practice” mean to you?

Sharon Suh: It’s an attentiveness to the ways in which women, women’s bodies, and everything related to being female-identified has not been the norm, and renorming that. What makes Buddhist feminisms Buddhist for me is the liberatory aspect, which includes everyone, not just women. It’s about liberating ourselves from the epistemic violence that that we encounter and reproduce every day. It’s how we view others. Buddhist feminisms are deeply political and deeply connected to bodies. I don’t know how to be Buddhist without being a feminist.

Lama Karma Chotso: I feel the same way. If Buddhism is about liberation, then it must be about liberation for all sentient beings, including women.

The Mahayana text Uttaratantra Shastra discusses our common denominator: we all have buddhanature, we can all become a buddha. It doesn’t matter if you’re female or male, or which of the six realms of samsara you happen to be born into this time; you can still become a buddha because you have buddhanature.

I also love the stories about Tara! I love that she was told, “If you want to become enlightened, you must take rebirth in men’s bodies,” and she essentially came back with, “You guys just don’t get it. You’re locked into the way a body appears, instead of the way the person embodying it is using it for enlightenment.” She said, “I’ll just have to show you that achieving enlightenment in a female body is possible.” And that’s what she did!

In Vajrayana Buddhism, every single one of us who practices is beginning the process of balancing our own female and male energies. When they become balanced, that’s feminism, as far as I’m concerned! I totally agree with Sharon, I don’t know how to be a Buddhist without being a feminist, because we’re all striving for liberation.

We may also want to include men in this discussion about what it means to be a woman in a particular Buddhist community: How are you viewing us? This is how we view ourselves. That kind of dialogue between men and women, whether they’re monks or nuns, or laypeople, really has to happen.

Sharon Suh: Based on what you just said, I’ll recommend How to Raise a Feminist Son by Sonora Jha. It’s so important for us to expand this association of feminism with women and raise our children, our sons, and the men in our lives as feminists. In today’s climate in the U.S., feminism is still such a dirty word, which is shocking to me! Think about the possibilities if this transformative viewpoint were shared by more than just women!

Arisika Razak: I like talking about feminisms, plural, because the project that supports, enables, and creates the emergence of women-identified and femme-identified people in their full powers and potentials is a project that has been going on forever. I tell my students that no matter what the rules were, there were always women who broke them. People say, “Oh, no, women in the old times couldn’t go to male monasteries.” Well, there were women who, in search of knowledge, broke the rules and went to male monasteries to study, and there were always men who supported them. Back then, they wouldn’t have called themselves feminist men, but we would call them that today.

If the Buddha said that men and women equally can walk through the door of enlightenment, what would it mean to have a society in which that is upheld for all women—not just for the female deity Prajnaparamita, not just for Tara, not just for these statues that men pray to, but for ordinary women? What would it mean to put that into practice? It would mean actually following the Buddha’s instructions to not uncritically embrace customs, scriptural teachings, or bias, and to teach in the vernacular of the local people.

As a cultural outsider, I don’t know the best way to support women’s ordination in Thailand. That needs to emerge from the ground up, from people who know those conditions and those causes. The global citizens who support those efforts need to trust people to make the best decisions for their vernaculars and their locations. Maybe there’s a role for outsiders questioning the unequal rules for women monastics; however, I’m not going to lead that struggle, because I’m in a different location, and I don’t understand all the complexities. But I want to support what the women in those locations are doing, whether or not it’s my version of feminism.

Brooke Schedneck: You remind me, Arisika, of this moment when I visited a bhikkhuni temple with my students, and they asked, “Do you consider yourselves feminists?” Half the nuns were from Western countries and half were of Thai and Malaysian backgrounds. The Western nuns said yes and the Asian nuns said no. Female monastics from Asian backgrounds consider feminism as something outside of Buddhism that’s hard to reconcile with their practice, as opposed to monastics from cultures deeply rooted in feminism who can integrate it into their practice more easily.

While I agree, of course, that a Buddhist feminism is about equality at all levels and opportunities, another thing to think about are practices other than women’s ordination and leadership. Practices like merit-making, making devotional offerings, cooking, and maintaining temples are often important ways women feel a part of their Buddhist communities. There needs to be more of a balance of not just ensuring that women have leadership opportunities, but also valuing practices that are meaningful to ordinary laywomen.

Mihiri Tillakaratne

Mihiri Tillakaratne

Mihiri Tillakaratne (she/her) is an associate editor at Lion’s Roar. She has a PhD in Ethnic Studies and Gender, Women, and Sexuality (UC Berkeley), a M.A. in Ethnic Studies (UC Berkeley), and a M.A. in Asian American Studies (UCLA). She learned Pali and studied Sinhala Buddhist nationalism in post-independence Sri Lanka at Harvard. Mihiri is the director of I Take Refuge, a documentary on Sri Lankan American Buddhist identity, and the founder of Sri Lankan Americans for Social Justice.
Sharon Suh

Sharon Suh

Sharon Suh is a professor of theology and religious studies at Seattle University and the author of Silver Screen Buddha: Buddhism in Asian and Western Film.
Lama Karma Chotso

Lama Karma Chotso

Lama Karma Chötso has studied and practiced Tibetan Buddhism for forty years, including completing a three-year retreat, studying Tibetan language in India and Nepal, and touring Tibet with Khenpo Tsultrim Gyatso Rinpoche. She is based in Miami, where she founded Open Awareness Buddhist Center twenty-five years ago, and also teaches in Peru, where she and her students have built a Tibetan stupa in the Amazon Basin.
Arisika Razak

Arisika Razak

Arisika Razak RAZAK is Professor Emerita at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco, where she also served as the director of the Women’s Spirituality MA and PhD program and as Director of Diversity. She has been an inner-city midwife for over two decades, has performed nationally and internationally as a spiritual dancer, and has led embodied healing workshops for over thirty-five years. She teaches at East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland.