My sangha chants a lineage of female ancestors, alternating day by day with our traditional lineage. When we began doing this a few years ago, it was like harvesting fruit from a very old tree. The seeds were planted when Mahapajapati became the first female Buddhist monk and leader of a thriving women’s monastic community in ancient India.
From the beginning of my Soto Zen practice, I’ve known both male and female monks, priests and lay students, and have seen men and women holding equal ranks. In my own sangha, men and women serve in varying roles without gender distinction.
I practiced for years before I realized that equality is not the norm for most Buddhists. In Shingon and Rinzai Zen, there are no women at the highest rank. Tibetan Buddhism expresses reverence for feminine qualities but excludes its nuns from the positions of greatest authority. Theravadan Buddhism holds all women perpetually below men, regardless of seniority. While men and women train together at several small Soto temples in Japan, the Soto-shu doesn’t admit women to the main training temples.
When I began to see these inequities, I didn’t react with anger. What I felt was disbelief. Such inequality is so clearly at odds with basic Buddhist principles that I found it difficult in my initial idealism to understand how it could become policy. Buddhism was founded outside the cultural restrictions of its time, breaking through the Indian caste system and other social barriers to equality. But within a few hundred years of its founding, sexism (and in places, genuine misogyny) became embedded its institutions.
In the Pali canon, the “Admission of Women to the Order” has Shakyamuni saying he doesn’t want to ordain women, predicting that Buddhism will survive only five hundred years if this happens. He relents only after Ananda’s insistence.
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