American Folk Buddhism (10)

Full Moon, Uposatha, June 4, 2012            Series Index

For an updated version of this post, see my essay “What Did the Buddha Think of Women?”

Gender Equality in American Folk Buddhism (1).

Two characteristics are often regarded as most unique in Western Folk Buddhism: (1) gender equality and (2) social engagement. This week I look at the first of these.

Gender equality is relatively well established in Western Folk Buddhism. And in fact exemplary women teachers abound in America and it is very common for male American students of Buddhism to accept the authority of a qualified female teacher without a second thought, as I did myself for many years. This stands in contrast to the situation in much of Asia where women are often marginalized in Buddhism and relatively few gain reputations as teachers, or have over much of the history of Buddhism. In many countries of Asia there are no fully ordained nuns, or they are just coming into existence with some resistance. As before I would like to examine this week and next the origin of gender equality in American Folk Buddhism then consider whether it is friendly, neutral or inimical toward Essential Buddhism.

Origins of Gender Equality in Western Folk Buddhism. In this series I have pointed out a number of attributes of American Folk Buddhism whose origin is Western more than Eastern, but which nonetheless are attributed to Buddhism and whose actual compatibility with Buddhism varies widely. I think it is clear that gender equality in Western Buddhism has been conditioned largely by the progress in improving women’s rights in the West, especially in the last 40 years or so. We still have a long way to go in this process and certainly in America much of the population is resistant to many aspects of gender equality, but American Buddhists on the other hand stand out from most of American culture in that they tend to belong by and large to that very progressive and very educated subculture that has generally been most supportive of gender equality.

Furthermore I would guess that most American Buddhists are clearly aware in this case of the largely Western origin of gender equality in American Folk Buddhism, since Asian Buddhism is generally viewed as unsupportive. First the Asian teachers who have been very influential in America and the West (the Daila Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Suzuki Roshi, Chogyam Trungpa, Shen Yen and so on), while each exemplary in himself, count virtually no women among their numbers. Second, relatively few women have gone down in Asian history as teachers, yogis and thinkers; the great Indian scholar-monks, for instance, were all exactly that, monks, and the lineages tracked in East Asia list one man after another. Third many countries in Asia fail to support full ordination into the monastic Sangha for women, while monk sanghas thrive. And finally the Vinaya itself, the monastic code originating with the Buddha, is sometimes regarded as sexist. In fact the role of women in much of Buddhist Asia would be almost intolerable here, and an attempt to impose it here would be a deal-breaker for many potential American Buddhists.

The Situation in the Sangha. Perhaps the most clearcut way to look at the role of women in Buddhism cross-culturally in both Essential and Folk Buddhism, is through the status of women in the Sangha of women, the fully ordained nuns. Not only do we have very early sources on this matter, including words of the Buddha himself, but we can see how the bhikkhuni/bhikshuni Sangha has been upheld historically, in modern Buddhism and in Western Buddhism. Naturally I am particularly interested in this perspective as a monk and also somewhat qualified to speak to this issue. The current situation regarding of nuns’ ordination also presents a particular instructive view of a very real tension between Western and Eastern Buddhisms.

Just to recap very briefly some history, the Buddha set up a twofold Sangha, an order of full ordained monks (bhikshus or bhikkhus) and several years later an order of fully ordained nuns (bhikshunis or bhikkhunis), with quite a lot of independence such that new monks were ordained by the proper quorum of existing monks and new nuns ordained by the proper quorum of existing nuns (with a qualification in the case of nuns which we will see below).

The Buddha started in the early days of the Bhikkhu Sangha to establish rules to regulate the lives of the monks, which came to be compiled into the Patimokkha (Pali), and then began to establish specific rules for nuns, which came to be the Bhikkhuni Patimokkha. Most of the rules of the Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni Patimokkhas are shared in common, but many rules are only found in the Bhikkhu Patimokkha or in the Bhikkhuni Patimokkha. The Vinaya is a large text (about the size of War and Peace) that developed around the Patimokkhas as a commentary and supplement. It includes, for instance, details about the origins of rules, stories about the early Sangha and in fact most of what we know about the life of the Buddha and additional rules apparently decreed too late to be included in the Patimokkhas, which had become fixed for bi-monthly recitation.

As Buddhism spread throughout Asia the Bhikkhu Sangha generally established itself first in a new territory, followed by the Bhikkhuni Sangha. For instance, Buddhism seems to have established itself in China first by monks who traveled along the Silk Road with caravans. The Bhikkhuni Sangha was established more deliberately, in 433 AD after a shipload of nuns was brought from Sri Lanka to provide the necessary quorum for ordaining indigenous nuns. That lineage of nuns still exists today. An order of nuns was however apparently never established in Tibet. Meanwhile the monastic orders in Southern Asia, in the Theravada countries, have had a shaky history. The bhikkhu order actually disappeared completely in Sri Lanka at one point and had to be rebooted from Burma. And sometime in the last one thousand years ago all of the bhikkhuni orders died out entirely without a reboot. In most, perhaps all, of the countries that do not or no longer have a bhikkhuni order a subsitute ordination for nuns has been instituted, generally involving eight or ten precepts, in support of the monastic lifestyle, but without the symbolic recognition of being “Sangha,” and with varying degrees of support and respect accruing to the nuns.

Beginning in the Twentieth Century a slow process has begun of introducing or reintroducing full ordination for women where it was not available. This has been largely driven by Western demand. Western Monastic Buddhism has been much more closely tied to Asia than Western Buddhism at large, where most monastics like myself have one foot in an Asian tradition and the other in the American. As a result, even in America opportunities have been available to me as a man to pursue my aspirations that would have been much harder to come by for a woman of similar aspiration. This is the locus of tension between Western and Eastern Buddhism.

Full ordination has naturally always been available in the West through the numerous Chinese or Vietnamese bhikshunis, for instance. However not for Westerners who are drawn doctrinally to the Tibetan or Theravada tradition, even though the monastic code is almost identical in all Buddhist traditions. Most commonly the approach to this impasse has been to mix traditions. There are now, for instance, Sri Lankan bhikkhunis who trace their lineage through those courageous Sri Lankan nuns who traveled by ship to China sixteen centuries ago, through a long line of Chinese Mahayana nuns and then very recently back to Sri Lanka again where their numbers are growing. Nonetheless such modern ordinations meet with some controversy in Asia. For many Theravadins they have been tainted by the Mahayana, for others the whole concept of full ordination of women is a modern newfangled Western innovation.

This is a short episode this week because I’ve been busier than a monk should be. Next week I will turn to what the Buddha and the Vinaya actually tell us with respect to gender equality as the earliest representatives of Essential Buddhism, and then compare this to the American Folk Buddhist view.

3 Responses to “American Folk Buddhism (10)”

  1. buddhawithlove Says:

    How can there be gender equality when females are better.

  2. Kevin Says:

    One of the reasons I was attracted to the Dharma was its non-sexist language. I always liked the Buddha rejecting the caste system and including women in the Sangha early on.

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