Membership, Community, Diversity

What gender-related issues are important for Buddhists?

Tradition has it that the Buddha rejected various forms of social discrimination deeply embedded in the Indian culture of his day. He is said to have repudiated caste distinctions altogether. The Buddha’s attitudes toward the place of women in religion and society also represented a step forward in some respects, but many problems remained. When the Buddha’s aunt, who had raised him after his mother died, asked to be allowed into the Sangha, the Buddha balked. Only after a prominent monk named Ananda took up the woman’s cause did the Buddha relent. So began the Buddhist order of nuns, but female members of the Order have never achieved the status of their male counterparts. There has been a breakdown in the lineage of the nuns’ Sangha—a complete rupture, according to some historians. Some women continue to live in community and call themselves nuns, but they lack official sanction. A sore point for many women has been that classical Buddhist teaching says that women must be reborn as men before having a chance at nirvana.

Still, it appears that early Buddhist tradition did introduce significant improvements in the lot of many women in India. No longer merely the possessions of their men, women had a larger purpose than childbearing, had personal psychic lives and could seek their own spiritual goals. So much of the gender bias that persists everywhere in our world has a great deal more to do with culture than with any one religious tradition as such. Interaction of religious tradition and culture often makes it impossible to distinguish between the two. And it is not uncommon for people in any given culture to claim religious sanction for time-honored values and practices even when the religious tradition’s sources offer little support for them.


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