There are many examples of enlightened women in Buddhist history, including the nuns of the Therigatha and Yeshe Tsogyal in Tibet. Yeshe Tsogyal was a real person who overcame tremendous obstacles: an unwanted marriage, kidnapping, rape, beatings to become one of the great meditation masters of Himalayan Buddhism. In spite of a long history of patriarchy where women’s spiritual histories have gone largely unrecorded, and female practitioners have too often been exploited or ignored, the community is changing. Since the 1970’s many Western Buddhist teachers have taught and written about the patriarchal lineages and legacy in Buddhism. Female authors have worked to transform the tradition through bringing to light the stories of awakened women like the first Buddhist nuns and Yeshe Tsogyal. Tsultrim Allione’s pioneering 1984 book, Women of Wisdom, Susan Murcott’s First Buddhist Women, Rita Gross’s classic Buddhism After Patriarchy are examples. Today, many women are teachers and leaders in their own right.
I never perceived Buddhism to be patriarchal. My first teachers, who introduced me to the teachings and practices that enriched and transformed my life were women: Sharon Salzberg, Trudy Goodman, and others. But as I studied longer and looked deeper, I began to see a misogyny that was familiar and disturbing. But is this really the essence of the Buddha’s teachings? The Buddha teaches that our sense of “self” is comprised of form, sensations, perceptions, mental constructs and consciousness each of which is in a constant state of change, and that clinging to any of them as fixed and unchanging leads to suffering. “Gender” is a mental construct. Regarding it as fixed and unchanging, and then elevating one gender over another, is not only delusional, leading to harm and suffering, it is inconsistent with what the Buddha was really teaching. Unlike other spiritual leaders of the world, the Buddha was consistently clear about women’s equal capacity to embody the highest spiritual truth and awakening. People from all castes and walks of life were welcome to join the community of practitioners gathered around the Buddha.
As Buddhism has interfaced with movements for social justice and sexual equality, notions of male supremacy are being questioned, just as white supremacy is. While gender may be a construct (like race), women and men bring different perspectives and energies. All of us have both masculine and feminine qualities, in ever-shifting proportions. Offering equal recognition to the contribution and energies that women bring to the dharma offers to all of us the promise of freedom I sensed from those first teachers of mine. However fluid or unquestioned your gender identity or sexual orientation or expression may be, your ability to awaken depends on your desire to learn, your dedication to practice and determination to keep going. All of us, no matter how we identify and express our humanity, can be respected followers of the Buddha’s path to mindfulness, self-compassion and loving awareness.
P.S. Please join Diana in a multi-media presentation of her recent trip exploring the feminine in Himalayan Buddhism in Nepal and Tibet.