Society’s perception of women’s role in Asian countries is still totally different from the western countries. The existing perception is very much influential on the practitioners and their opportunity to practice Buddhism.
This is a good opportunity for me to compare and contrast the role
of women in Theravada Buddhism and Vajrayana Buddhism.
In this context, I don’t think it is worthwhile spending time in describing the historical background of the formation of Theravada and Vajrayana Buddhism.
A typical Asian woman spends her youth-serving and obeying her parents, her middle years serving and obeying her husband and his parents, and her old age serving and obeying her grown children. Women are seldom allowed to make their own decisions. They are told what to do and what not to by men.
Sri Lanka is one of the best examples of a Theravada Buddhist country. I would like to compare the Buddhist background for a woman in Sri Lanka with the status given for a woman in Vajrayana Buddhism.
According to Buddhist scriptures, the order of Bhikkhuni was first created by the Buddha at the specific request of his foster mother Mahaprajapathi Gothami who became the first ordained Bhikkhuni.
The order of Bhikkhuni was introduced to Sri Lanka in 3rd Century BC by Theri Sangamitta who was the daughter of Emperor Asoka about 2300 years ago. Sri Lankan Bhikkhuuni sasana was started with Queen Anula who was the consort of King Devanam Piyatissa. Bhikkhuni order then slowly moved east, from India through Sri Lanka, China, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea and Japan.
And most recently, it has begun its move across the oceans to the western countries. With each move, the approach and the presentation of Buddhism had to be changed to suit the different cultural aspects. In most of the Asian Buddhist countries, the male practitioners are more privileged and respected while the female practitioners are given less prestigious roles. Gender bias aspect in traditional Buddhism which is being practised in most of the Asian countries is one of the most problematic areas which is being discussed widely.
With the fall of Anuradhapura to the Chola invaders in AD 1017, after another ten centuries, the Bhikkhuni order disappeared and became non- operational.
The Bhikkhu Order also disappeared in Sri Lanka and there appeared white-clad Ganinnanse, who were leading a lay life. Recent history shows that about 200 years ago the Bhikkhu Order was resurrected in
Sri Lanka by bringing ordination from Thailand and Burma. But
the Bhikkhuni Order was not resurrected and remained lost in Sri Lanka until now.
Ever since, the word Bhikkhuni was heard in Sri Lanka and all over the world of Theravada Buddhists a great controversy was aroused and the newspapers started flashing headlines about the revival of Bhikkhuni order in Sri Lanka.
The ordination ceremony held in1998 in Bodhgaya led to regular ordination ceremonies in Sri Lanka. As a result now we have hundreds of Bhikkhunis (who are still being called ‘Dasa Sil Matha’) who were ordained from Korea and Taiwan as well from Sri Lankan Bhikkhunis.
It is with regret we have to state that all these ordination ceremonies were being organized without receiving any official recognition from either Mahanayaka Theros or the Sri Lankan Government. Not only in Sri Lanka in some other Asian countries such as Thailand and Myanmar resistance to a revival of the Bhikkhuni Sangha is still strong. Theravada hierarchy in Sri Lanka is not ready to accept the new ordination saying firmly that we
have received Mahayana ordination. It is non argumentative that there was no Theravada or Mahayana during the time of Buddha and Buddha gave ordination to women by dual ordination which is what is being practiced all over the world. Though an ideal Buddhist society consists of male and female monks and male and female lay people it has never been possible to receive the recognition and consent for the Bhikkhuni ordination in many Asian countries such as Thailand Sri Lanka and Myanmar emphasizing on the loss of the lineage. And at the same time the Sangha in these countries are against the ordination of female monks and this has created a hostile environment where they face many difficulties and discriminations in surviving as Bhikkhunis. To survive as a Bhikkhuni, self-sustainability or external financial support have become essential in Sri Lanka.
This is followed by the educational background, family background, as well courage and determination of the females. Improper Bhikkhuni training, absence of a Bhikkhuni community, absence of respect and support from the laity as well as from the monk’s community has brought the situation from bad to worse. The Buddhist nuns in Sri Lanka are concerned as Dasa Sil Matha which means Ten Preceptors. Since these women have observed only ten Precepts and they are called the Ten Preceptors, people do not see a big difference between them and the Ten Preceptors because even the laypeople used to observe the Ten Precepts on full moon poya days. And laity believe that they gain much merit by donating to ordained monastic monks rather than donating to the ten preceptors or laypeople.
In this life there is no such distinction as male or female, neither of “self-identity” or a ‘person’ nor any perception (of such) and therefore attachment to the ideas of “male” or “female” is quite worthless.
Therefore the laity do not feel that they have a strong religious reason to help these ten preceptors. So it is obvious that the Ten Preceptors find a very difficult situation in sustaining and surviving. Chullavagga Pali states how the Buddha invited the monks alone to give ordination before the dual ordination was proclaimed. Later when Bhikkhunis were able to perform the ceremony alone, they were allowed to do so and as a courtesy, they have to go before the monks for a second time in a similar way. We know that there is a first time for everything. That is how Bhikkhuni order was placed in the Buddhist world. Now there are many organizations who believe and trust the Theravada Bhikkhuni order which is prevailing in some other countries in Asia and has already given the higher ordination in Sri Lanka. At this point a reasonable question arise. If there are many Bhikkhus who support the resurrection of Bhikkhuni order why can’t the whole community of Sangha come to one place to declare the Bhikkhuni order in Sri Lanka? And I argue that the traditional ordination was merely a custom which was introduced to encourage institutional stability.
The Buddha preached only about the monastic life but he did not detailed about the customs of ordination. This argument is not accepted as valid in Sri Lanka. So there are only two primary choices for Buddhist women in Sri Lanka either to live as a laywoman supporting the Bhikkhus or to ordain as a ten preceptor. In this social settlement, the revival of the defunct Bhikkhuni order has become anathema to Sri Lanka.
The doctrine of Vajrayana Buddhism hold women in high esteem and the woman play a special role in the recasting of women’s image in popular culture. The story of ‘Tara’
in Tibetan Buddhism is an ideal example to depict the importance given to the role of the woman
in Buddhism. ‘Tara’ a female Bodhisattva in Vajrayana Buddhism descended into the world and was reborn as a princess. She used to do offerings to the Buddha and generate the altruistic attitude of Bodhicitta always. She was urged by the Bhikkhus to pray continuously according to the teachings that she would change her form to that of a man. After several exchanges with the monks, the princess announced that “ in this life, there is no such distinction as to male or female, neither of “self- identity” or a ‘person’ nor any perception (of such) and therefore attachment to the ideas of ‘ male’ or ‘female’ is quite worthless. She then became enlightened. ‘
Tara’ is both mythic confirmation and value of women’s achievement in Buddhist practice. Vajrayana Buddhism apart from other Buddhist traditions on its emphasis on the relationship between a notion of ultimate spiritual perfection known as Buddhahood and the feminine. It highlights its total devotion to the ‘Thathagathagarbha’ or Buddha nature which is the vehicle for universal salvation. According to Vajrayana Buddhism, each individual has the potential of Buddhahood within his or her mind regardless of their gender.
Tibetan Buddhism is replete with enlightenment female figures. Princess YesheDawa, who generated the great Bodhicitta, achieved the wisdom of the Dharmakaya and became ‘Tara’, an enlightened being in female form. Another respected female religious practitioner is Jigmed Surenjav from Khovd Province. She is regarded as ‘Green Tara’, a popular Bodhisattva associated with healing and protection who is one of twenty of Taras in Tibetan Buddhism. Mother Tara Megjin Legzen is another Tara, who was recognized by a renowned Lama as an emanation of ‘White Tara’.
Many such examples of the feminine embodiment of wisdom exist in Buddhism are a huge blow to the inherent gender bias attitude in Theravada Buddhism. ‘Tara’ is one such great example of a female Buddha who is being widely worshipped. ‘Chullavagga’ is one early Buddhist text of the ‘Vinaya Pitaka’ of the ‘Pali Canon’, contains statements from Gautama Buddha, speaking to the fact that a woman can attain enlightenment but in ‘Bahudhatuka– Sutta’ clearly states that there could never be a female Buddha. According to Theravada Buddhism Bodhisattva can be a man, any animal or a serpent, but is never a woman. When the aspiration to Buddhahood has been made by a Buddha and confirms it, the particular living being will never reborn as a female.
According to Theravada Buddhism being born as a female is due to bad karma. Tantra denotes esoteric traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism that developed together most likely in the middle of 1st millennium CE. Vajrayana, Mantra Yana, esoteric Buddhism and Tantric Buddhism refer to the various Buddhist traditions of Tantra. ‘Vajrayogini’ is a Tantric Buddhist female Buddha and a ‘Dakini’ which is a type of spirit in Vajrayana Buddhism appears in Buddhist refuge formula known as the ‘Three roots’. Her essence is ‘Great Passion’ which is Tantric Buddhism embraces the free from selfishness and illusion. relationship between a male divine Her spirit works for the wellbeing principle and a female divine of others and for the destruction principle while Vajrayana Buddhism of ego clinging. Vajrayogini highlights its total devotion to the provides the way to transform “Thathagatahagarbha” or Buddha in creating a minor stir against Brahman dogma and superstition. He condemned the caste structure dominated by the Brahman, excessive ritualism and sacrifice. He preached on salvation by one’s own effort, presupposes the spiritual equality of all beings, male and female. The whole community of Buddhist women lost a great man who had courage and rebellious spirit to declare a way of life that placed woman on a level of near equality to man which is totally against the exclusive supremacy of the male.people with strong passion into enlightened virtues. ‘Janana Dakini Simhamukha’ is a higher meditation deity who is both wrathful and female and concerned as the wisdom goddess. She functions as a ‘Yidam’ or meditation deity who avert and repulse psychic attacks that may assault the practitioner nature. The Vajrayana teachings practice gender equality or even prioritize the status of women and also embrace every conceivable kind of lifestyle as spiritual practice in itself.
It is not that the Buddha inaugurated a campaign for the liberation of womanhood. But he did succeed in creating a minor stir against Brahman dogma and superstition. He condemned the caste structure dominated by the Brahman, excessive ritualism and sacrifice. He preached on salvation by one’s own effort, presupposes the spiritual equality of all beings, male and female. The whole community of Buddhist women lost a great man who had courage and rebellious spirit to declare a way of life that placed woman on a level of near equality to man which is totally against the exclusive supremacy of the male.