There’s no simple answer to this question. The Buddha taught that everyone, regardless of gender, has the capacity for enlightenment and through the millennia, countless women have flourished on the path as lay practitioners, teachers, and monastics. Yet over the past 25 centuries, most Buddhist institutions have discriminated against women, some more severely than others.
As recorded in the Pali canon, which comprises some of the earliest Buddhist teachings, the Buddha praised the attainments of his female disciples but refused to ordain women until his stepmother, Mahapajapati, and his attendant and cousin, Ananda, convinced him to. Still, when women were allowed to ordain, they were saddled with eight “heavy rules” (in Pali, garudhammas) that kept them subordinate to monks. Some scholars argue, however, that this account and the eight further rules are later additions.
In the centuries since the Buddha’s death, men have dominated the hierarchies in all Buddhist traditions. In Asia, it was widely believed that a woman had to be reborn as a man before she could attain nirvana. That wasn’t a teaching from the Pali canon, however, and though some passages in later Mahayana texts can be interpreted to support the belief, others contradict it.
Nuns’ orders that granted full ordination died out in many Buddhist countries centuries ago—and in some cases, were never established in the first place—leaving various forms of novice and lay ordination as the only option for women. But recent developments arguably are making full ordination available to women practicing in traditions where it is not offered. In the countries of East Asia where Chinese Buddhism took hold, lineages of Mahayana nuns that grant full ordination are thriving, and there is a movement to “transplant” this practice, with fully ordained Mahayana nuns and monks ordaining Theravada and Tibetan novices. Theravada and Tibetan monks have also held ordinations. Though this would finally open the doors for all Buddhist nuns to access a status monks have long enjoyed, the validity of such ordinations is a matter of debate.
As women across the world have made strides towards gender equality in the last century, Buddhist women and their male allies have worked to uproot gender discrimination in their communities. Buddhist women founded an international association, Sakyadhita, in 1987 “to benefit Buddhist women [and] reduce gender injustice.” More recently, the #MeToo movement has shaken Buddhist communities with revelations of widespread sexual misconduct and assault, sparking a public reckoning and building on preexisting efforts to address sexism and abuse. There is more to be done to achieve gender equality, and many Buddhists believe the Buddha would approve.
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