On Buddhism and Feminism

By Sonam Choden

I have been a devout follower of Tibetan Buddhism and I love it as much as any Tibetan Buddhist would. Yet, there is something unsettling within the religion that does not bode well with me: Nuns! Yes, our nuns following Tibetan Buddhism.

The ideas of feminism have made me realize that there is a certain section of our society whose voices have not received much importance or exposure for that matter. That’s when it struck me. Patriarchy runs deep! I have spent a considerable amount of time with the nuns in the western and eastern part of a small Himalayan state called Sikkim to learn about their experiences of being a nun in an all male-dominated club. Trust me, it was one of the most enriching personal experiences I’ve ever had.

According to a Buddhist theologian and author named Rita Gross, Buddhism has tremendous potential for gender deconstruction if we go by the philosophies laid down by the Buddha. The conditions of the nuns are bound to remain stagnant if they are relegated to silence because things have been running quite smoothly under the current system since the ages, many would claim. The nuns, however, are able to recognize the disparity. That is why the age-old conventions should be questioned. There is a great deal of internalized misogyny that is deeply-rooted within our culture and which has made male dominance seem like a natural and accepted reality. Discrimination in terms of gender serves as a setback for the nuns and keeps them from practicing Buddhism when they are made to feel inferior and taught to wish for a male rebirth.

I personally have had the crushing experience of someone close to me telling me to wish for a male rebirth. How ridiculous is this? I have come to realize, however, that the nuns themselves have long since accepted the idea that they are inferior. A great deal of positive change is required for the nuns to develop both spiritually and intellectually. They just need to realize their potential.

If we try to find the root cause of this inferior gender-based treatment, it could be a result of how a woman’s body and sexuality is perceived altogether. Their bodies are considered to be ‘impure’ and female sexuality is perceived as more profound. Most of the nuns I interacted with wanted to go on spiritual retreats, but almost all of them had major safety concerns as women. According to one of the nuns with whom I spoke

There are small centers built for the nuns to spend their time in solitude near the monasteries, but what about the ones who would want to meditate in the caves? There are also a lesser number of female Buddhist teachers. There are great female teachers like Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo and Khandro Rimpoche who have students from all over the world. However, it is still rare to see women teachers giving teachings and empowerments. Many nuns did not have an answer for why this is the case, probably because they have never given proper thought to it since,  again, things have allegedly been going on quite smoothly for centuries without being questioned. The social conditioning has been done in such a way that makes us believe that we are inferior beings since birth. A lot of deconstruction and unlearning is thus required to undo this thinking.

I truly wish for more power to the nuns! To women!

According to what a  certain high monk once told me:

Another explanation I once received:,

These statements reflect the gender attitude towards nuns and women in our religion. The perception of women being much more sex-driven than men is pervasive. They thus feel that women need many and more specific rules about controlling their sexuality than men do.

These days, however, economic resources are booming for the nuns and it is serving as a major catalyst for change. The nunneries should no longer be a second tier institution as they have been treated since time immemorial. The nuns have begun to receive full education on Buddhist philosophies and history. In spite of denial by many, I feel the gender issue in Tibetan Buddhism has also grown in the similar socio-cultural context which favors men over women.

Buddhism is all about being ‘awakened’ and unpacking our potential to generate compassion and wisdom to the fullest. Being either a man or a woman is just a small fraction of what really makes us whole or a complete human being. However, to hold onto archaic beliefs about women being inferior is a great illusion created by the age-old patriarchal norms which unfortunately still exist to this day.

Comments 1

  1. Great piece of disillusionment for those scholars who now and then says that Buddhism has openness of gender equality. As a student of Buddhism, who did MA in Thearvada who wrote a thesis on status of Theravada nuns, it piece has lots of information to look at the things from Tibetan Buddhism perspective. Thanks.

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