Adoration of the Buddha’s feet, Amaravati Stupa, India, eleventh century, stone relief

WHY BE a Buddhist? After seventeen years of practice, I still sometimes think I need my head examined. How did my Burmese teacher convince me, for four whole years starting in 1984, that I was going to hell? How many bows have I made to old, brown men on thrones? What about the little boys the men once were? I’ve bowed to them, too, tiny kids taken from their families at an early age, forced to wear huge crowns, bless multitudes, and sit weeping through rituals that even adults find tedious.

What am I doing in a religion whose formal expression is a highly defended, medieval, male, sexist hierarchy?

I can hardly discuss these thoughts with anyone. My secular-humanist friends pity me; the Buddhists tell me to go and meditate until I feel better. Buddhist logic says that if I’m mad and sad because I’m a woman, I’m also a woman because I’m mad and sad. It’s karma. If I keep indulging negative thoughts, I’ll be reborn as a woman again—or worse, since the lowest hell is reserved for those who criticize the Buddhist teachings.

Personally, I’d be more than happy to stop fixating on the differences between women and men. This would be easier if our beloved tradition stopped doing it, too. But it’s hard to stop behavior that one won’t acknowledge. Even His Holiness the Dalai Lama, a most compassionate human being and nuns’ advocate, said, after hearing Western women talk about sexism in the Buddhist tradition, “Some of these problems may be more imagined than real.”

The historical Buddha abandoned his wife, and named his infant “Fetter”: is this a model for how a spiritually motivated person should behave? Must I believe Pali texts’ insistence that a fully enlightened Buddha must have “a penis with a sheath”? At Wat Suan Mokkh, in Thailand, there’s a painting of a sexy lady, her miniskirt adorned with scary barbed hooks as she slyly displays a fishing rod: she’s a warning of dangerous female intentions. Is it rude to suggest lust be cleansed from monks, rather than just projected onto women? Zen schools are like boot camp; where are the female roshis in Korea and Japan? The Tibetan word for woman means “lesser birth”; women serve tea to slake lamas’ thirst while they chant the rituals that women can sponsor but are rarely qualified to conduct. The Pure Land of Great Bliss has no women, the scriptures recount. Why not? For this, there is an answer: because it’s supposed to be pure and blissful!

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