On December 1, 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, an African-American woman refused to obey a bus driver’s order to give up her seat to a white passenger. This simple act of defiance became one of the most important symbols of the modern Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
Before she passed away in 2005, Rosa Parks became a Buddhist—at age 92. One can speculate that this female icon—and fierce opponent of discrimination—chose Buddhism because it lends itself to the advancement of social justice causes.
She was right.
Buddhism should advance the particular social justice issues described in United Nations Millennium Development Goal Number Three (MDG 3): Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. For Buddhism to grow in our modern world, we need to do more than teach meditation, preach inspiring sermons, and make the sutras available online. We are good at studying, publishing, and spreading the word of Buddhism. Where we have not been very successful is showcasing the compassion and selflessness of the dharma by our actions. We have written many more words in our books than what few kind words we have spoken to the poor, lonely, and desperate. We have built so many more temples than orphanages.
Patriarchy in Buddhism today
Theravada Buddhism’s current male leadership, in particular, needs to clearly demonstrate its commitment to MDG 3 through the acceptance of bhikkhuni ordination. Only then can the Theravada sangha use its considerable influence to make a fairer world—one where people are judged by their character, not by their gender.
Theravada Buddhist monks, generally speaking, are very conservative. Claiming to be the guardians of “original Buddhism,” they consider one of their most important duties the preservation of these precious early teachings. However, monks of all traditions in all countries—and Buddhist lay scholars as well—accept that there were fully ordained women, called bhikkhuni, in the lifetime of the Buddha. Moreover, in these early teachings, the Buddha clearly states that he seeks to give full ordination to women:
Ananda, once I was staying at Uruvela on the bank of the river Neranjara [present day Bodh Gaya] under the Goatherd’s Banyan tree, when I had just attained supreme enlightenment. And Mara the Evil One came to me, stood to one side, and said, ‘May the Blessed One now attain final Nibbana; may the Sugata [Buddha] now attain final Nibbana. Now is the time for the Blessed Lord’s final Nibbana.’
At this, I said to Mara: ‘Evil One, I will not take final Nibbana until I have bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, lay men, and lay women followers who are accomplished, trained, skilled, learned, knowers of the dhamma, trained in conformity with the dhamma, correctly trained and walking in the path of the dhamma, who will pass on what they have gained from their teacher, teach it, declare it, establish it, expound it, analyse it, make it clear, until they shall be able, by means of the dhamma, to refute false teachings that have arisen and teach the dhamma of wondrous effect.
Theravada Buddhists should have an advantage over other major world religions because their tradition explicitly gives equity to women. Christianity has no tradition of gender equality in its priesthood—nor does Islam, Judaism, or the various schools of Hinduism. Buddhism stood ahead of its time in granting such status to women from “when [the Buddha] had just attained supreme enlightenment” at Bodh Gaya.
Nevertheless, there remain two significant obstacles to the acceptance of bhikkhuni ordination in Theravada Buddhism: (1) Ignorance about who makes the decisions that govern the sangha, and (2) Ignorance of the Vinaya, the rules established by the Buddha that restrict what decisions may be made.
As to that first point, for instance, many monks in Thailand argue that a 1928 ruling from the Sangharaja [head Buddhist monk] of Thailand, Phra Bancha Somdet Phra Sangharacha Jiao Gromluang Jinawarn Siriwad, banned the ordination of female monks:
It is unallowable for any bhikkhu to give the going-forth [ordination] to women. Any woman who wishes to ordain as a samaneri [novice nun] in accordance with the Buddha’s allowances, has to be ordained by a fully ordained bhikkhuni. The Buddha laid down the rule that only a bhikkhuni over 12 vassas [an annual three-month retreat] is eligible to be a preceptor [ceremonial guide who delivers vows]. Since there are no more fully fledged bhikkhunis to pass on the lineage, there are thus no samaneris who have obtained a proper ordination from a fully fledged bhikkhuni.
The Status of Nuns in Thailand
Besides the antiquity of the ruling, one could also point out that the Sangharaja of Thailand, together with the Thai Council of Elders [senior monks], is only permitted to rule on matters directly concerning the monks and novices of the two main Thai Buddhist sects, Mahanikaya and Dhammayuttanikaya. They are not legally empowered to rule over the affairs of other monastic groups, such as Mahayana monks or nuns. The wait will never end for those well-meaning monks holding out hope that the Thai Council of Elders will sanction the legitimacy of Theravada bhikkhunis. The Thai Council of Elders, after all, is not legally entitled to rule on matters beyond its remit.
As for the Vinaya, the second obstacle that I listed, each monastic community is bound to act within its rules.
Renowned Theravada scholar monk Bhikkhu Analayo argues that the Thai Sangharaja’s 1928 ruling—and thus, the Vinaya in its current form—has no bearing because it directly contradicts the Buddha’s original teachings. In a recent publication, “The Revival of the Bhikkuni Order and the Decline of the Sasana,” Analayo argues persuasively that the Buddha gave authority for bhikkhunis to receive ordination in a dual ceremony—both in a sangha of bhikkhunis and then in a sangha of bhikkhus.
By restoring equity to women in the Theravada sangha through reinstating bhikkhuni ordination, we will address the inferior status of women in many Theravada countries, promote gender equity in education, and thereby make a strong statement in support of the third UN Millennium Development Goal: gender equality and the empowerment of women.
In a recent paper, scholars Emma Tomalin and Caroline Starkey explore the role that Buddhism in Thailand and Cambodia plays in maintaining gender disparity in education. Ultimately they ask, “What is the relationship between the reassertion of women’s traditional ordination rights and female empowerment through education?” Since, as they note, “several scholars, both Thai and Western, have implicated Buddhism as one explanatory factor for the historical inequality between genders, particularly in the poorest areas,” many advocates of bhikkhuni ordination see “a direct relationship between the low status of women in many Buddhist traditions and the inferior status of women within Buddhist societies.”
By fixing our own house first, we have the considerable opportunity and moral authority—through our books and sermons—to inspire our Buddhist followers to work toward gender equality in spheres other than religion. Such action would lead to a world with less violence, better health, and more prosperity.
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