Buddhist Women Still Have a Long Way to Go to Claim their place as Daughters of the Buddha
I was never a feminist until I became a Buddhist nun. That was because previous generations of women had fought hard for the right to vote, the right to be considered a person and not a man’s property, the right to own land etc (yes these were all things we had to fight for!). I took it for granted that women were equal to men. At least that’s what my father told me.
As I got older and my father, a kind and wonderful man died, I became a homeless street kid. I realised men and women were in fact different, and women were biologically more vulnerable to rape and male violence (this is not to say that women are immune to being abusive). Sometimes when I was homeless older men would prey on me and I often felt pressured by the need to fit in, the need for warmth and accommodation (living on a very small amount of money left me often unable to pay rent). In many ways at 15 or 16 years old, I still did not have a firm sense of who I was, and was more easy to dominate. Men as old as 35 or 40 would try to sleep with me. I was 15. I could have easily been pushed into the sex trade just because of lack of education and a proper paying job. None of these men wanted to love me as a person, or care for me, but rather to use my body for their own pleasure. It was only my firm determination to seek the meaning of life that stopped me being pulled into these situations.
As I got older, I became more street wise. I was able to engage as a confident woman and my relationships with men improved because I chose better and could defend myself. I enjoyed loving relationships and put many ghosts to rest.
Ordaining as a Buddhist nun however, I suddenly became aware that I was stepping into unhealthy gender dynamics. I started to understand why women invented the term ‘glass ceiling’… Because it is an invisible limit put on the freedom or rights of women that stops them progressing or reaching their potential.
I hit that ceiling practicing in a Tibetan Buddhist Centre. I thought I would ordain and receive the same training and support that any tibetan monastic would receive. But that was not to be the case. From the day I ordained I was told that unlike my Tibetan male teacher, I was not going to be supported, but was to take off my robes in the day and go to work. The centre I ordained in charged me rent, although it did not charge Tibetan monks. The Centre benefited from the free labour of Western monastics, but treated them differently. I even found people regarded the Tibetans as the ‘real’ practitioners and westerners as ‘fake’ interlopers.
As time went on, our teacher did was so busy teaching the lay community, that he did not have the time to teach the Western monastics. We had neither the freedom of being a lay person nor the training and beneficial spiritual and physical support to be monastics.
A visiting Lama told me that women could not become Buddhas and that I should pray to reborn as a man. I questioned him and gave him many examples of female Buddhas such as Yeshe Tsogyal, Machig Lapdron and Jomo Menmo. None of the women from the Baby boomer generation in the room questioned this.
I was burnt out from helping the Centre for so many years, giving so much, but as a nun not being supported for that. I was quite depressed. When I bought up the issue with my Lama he just dismissed it and more or less said my negative emotions were my problem. But if I was in a situation where my aspiration, vows and work were not valued, how was that the fault of my negative emotions? Other practitioners in the Centre showed complete apathy to our situation. Some people said it was our karma. Others had not read the suttas, the Vinaya and had not been taught the value of monastics and how they cannot exist without the four requisites, which it is a teachers responsibility to give – food, shelter, robes and medicine. So according to the Vinaya our teacher was failing in his duty, but it was hard for him as the mostly Caucasian community had more interest in saving for their own retreats than supporting monastics to train and carry on the tradition in its rich entirety. This is another problem Buddhism has encountered in coming to the west – the ‘me’ philosophy – Western practitioners do not approach Buddhism with a wish to build spiritual community, preserve Buddhism or practice generosity (not at least in the beginning). We come as individuals to feel good, to use Buddhism as a therapy to deal with stress and the vicissitudes of a meaningless and stressful post modern world. Our approach is about ourselves and that is how we practice.
In the end I lost my job and could no longer afford the rent the centre charged. 7 Western monastics moved through that centre and were disillusioned. Most of them disrobed (it is estimated that 75% of non Himalayan monastics disrobe due to lack of support). Tibetans also have high disrobing rates, but not due to lack of support. When I asked my centre if I could place a brochure for western monastics on their board they said no. They then raised $40,000 Aud for some metal statues.’ Looks like they dont want Australian Buddhas of flesh.’ I thought to myself.
I decided I would live on faith and set forth wandering wherever I found support. Most often in Theravada Centres, on friends couches and in garden sheds. I found because Western Theravadins had the example of ethnic Buddhists who valued the monastic community, they in turn were happy to offer basic support, although this often meant I never had a place of my own to stay for very long.
As I went through many different communities and talked about my dream of building a place supportive to women, full ordination etc many people told me ‘ Cant you find a Lama to support you in this?’ The truth was most Lamas (although some are kind and very accomplished) were traumatised refugees who came to the West to raise money to support their own Tibetan community, who they saw as the ‘real’ practitioners and their first priority, was to perpetuate their cultural traditions, usually with male monasteries first.
Travelling in India and other Buddhist countries and seeing that nunneries were usually less well supported and nuns less highly regarded than monks, I started to see that feelings of my own lack of worth that I had internalised because ‘I had bad karma’ or ‘ I was not Tibetan’ were not just my problem, they were a result of patriarchy and structural violence – systems that are set up to keep the status quo and keep the powerful in power and the powerless down on themselves and each other.
Being told repeatedly ‘ Let go, let go’, this is your karma, These are your negative emotions’… Was a form of subtle oppression and violence against those who were oppressed and intended to keep them in their place. I remember one day sitting behind a pile of stinking shoes shut outside the door of a temple with some poorly educated nuns from the only Tibetan nunnery my small lineage of tibetan Buddhism has. Inside monks overflowed, there were ornate statues painted with gold and Lamas in lustrous brocade robes, and I wondered for a minute why we never question why it is always men who sit on thrones and women who keep them there. Why is it that women police other women who get ‘too far put of line’. Sadly women maintain oppression as much as men because they have internalised structural violence. This does not mean that I am ready to have a revolution or that I wish to destroy my tradition, as many people fear feminists will do. It means I still see so much of value to preserve, but that I can no longer live under the domination of inequality that I see has nothing to do with Buddhism, compassion or freeing the heart.
Another example of nuns internalising structural violence are the Western Nuns of Amravati, a nunnery run by Westerners in England. Many years ago, a split occurred in the community and many women disrobed or left and started their own communities. For many years the nuns had not flourished as much as the monks. They occupied smaller accommodation, had limited places, many new centres that opened up for men did not want nuns staying. As Western egalitarian values clashed with the conservative Thai values that were to some extent imbued in the way the community was running, a conflict was almost in evitable.
The teacher of the community, Ajahn Sumedho, had already tried to improve the lot of nuns by elevating them from being maechees, which is a kind of ordination of 8 or 10 precepts which has been invented since the full ordination of women died out. Maechees are not regarded as ‘ Monastic sangha’ and are often made to sit behind lay men in South East Asia. Amravati developed a system of training for nuns called ‘Siladhara’, whereby nuns kept half of the Bhikkhuni (fully ordained nuns) vows. But over time, the nuns started to push for more equal leadership, and being Bhikkhunis, the fully ordained counterparts of monks set down by the Buddha seemed a natural progression.
The monks were not ready to accept this and issued five points of submission against the nuns:
1. The structural relationship, as indicated by the Vinaya, of the Bhikkhu Sangha to the Siladhara Sangha is one of seniority, such that the most junior bhikkhu is “senior”� to the most senior siladhara. As this relationship of seniority is defined by the Vinaya, it is not considered something we can change.
2. In line with this, leadership in ritual situations where there are both bhikkhus and siladhara–such as giving the anumodana [blessings to the lay community] or precepts, leading the chanting or giving a talk–is presumed to rest with the senior bhikkhu present. He may invite a siladhara to lead; if this becomes a regular invitation it does not imply a new standard of shared leadership.
.3. The Bhikkhu Sangha will be responsible for the siladhara pabbajja [ordination] the way Luang Por Sumedho [Ajahn Sumedho] was in the past. The siladhara should look to the Bhikkhu Sangha for ordination and guidance rather than exclusively to Luang Por. A candidate for siladhara pabbajja should receive acceptance from the Siladhara Sangha, and should then receive approval by the Bhikkhu Sangha as represented by those bhikkhus who sit on the Elders’ Council
.4. The formal ritual of giving pavarana [invitation for feedback] by the Siladhara Sangha to the Bhikkhu Sangha should take place at the end of the Vassa as it has in our communities traditionally, in keeping with the structure of the Vinaya.
5. The siladhara training is considered to be a vehicle fully suitable for the realization of liberation, and is respected as such within our tradition. It is offered as a complete training as it stands, and not as a step in the evolution towards a different form, such as bhikkhuni ordination.
After these points were made, many nuns left, heartbroken.
One ex nun said :
‘But, in this hierarchical structure one has to really be alert and align the Heart with Love and Compassion so as to relate to each individual, not in accordance with hierarchy, but as a fellow human Being, trying to resonate with the pains of others and cultivate ahimsa. Otherwise, one can easily get conditioned to relate to the world and fellow human beings from this position of hierarchy.
After living in monastic mixed communities for almost 16 years I have come to the understanding that in order to flourish and grow, monastic women have to live separately. This is mainly because of the lack of equality for the female samanas in the mixed communities.
Even though the majority of the monks on the personal level could be friendly and supportive – being real brothers – the Theravada monastic system itself, which is based on hierarchy and patriarchy (in its essence) is very undermining, and lacking in respect for the Feminine or female samana. I share this based on my personal experience.
The longer one is living in this system being a female samana the more one faces these challenges. On the individual level, one could practice with it for a while and keep letting go and keep releasing the pain/dukkha of it, but in the long term , in order to grow and unfold to our true beautiful human potential, we all need an environment which is nourishing and caring, based on mutual respect, Love and equality — despite gender, years of monastic life, and the number of precepts one keeps.’ Ven Titamedha
For me what these nuns went through, and what non Himalayan monastics have gone through with structural violence are very similar. Although the tradition may have evolved over thousands of years to keep women in an inferior position, does not make it right or healthy. And to talk about that does not mean that nuns are trying to rip apart hallowed traditions or to destroy Buddhism.
We are part of the fourfold Sangha – Bhikkhus, Bhikkhunis, Lay women and lay men. We are 50 % of the poulation and we need a place in the sangha were we can live in equality and wellbeing. We joined the Sangha with hearts filled with inspiration, seeking liberation. But to turn the teachings against us and use small portions of the teachings as reasons why women cannot progress on the path, are a blight on the sangha and stop it flourishing. (‘Black snakes, red rot are some euphamisms used in the sutras) to describe women is clearly turning medicine into poison. These quotes clearly to contradict the main body of the Teachings which talk about non violence, compassion and liberation. Surely it is our own lust we should be wary of, not projecting it onto women as agents of vice and lust? Have we not evolved beyond these Biblical ideas about women? If not, why dont we throw a stoning for adultery? Even if communities stay separately which is often appropriate, certain monks said to me ‘ Why should monks support nuns?’ Another educated Burmese woman said to me ‘ If nuns fully ordain who will serve the monks?’ Monks are the main recipients of the Buddhas teachings currently. They are mainly supported by women giving birth to them and women giving them alms food. Men have hard the larger share of resources for thousands of years and have become powerful often at the disadvantage of women. Women do 60% of the worlds work and own 1 % of its land. All these and compassion seem like good reason to me why men/ monks should help train and support the female sangha.
If Western women and men and anyone who cares about the wellbeing of women – fathers, mothers, brothers and wives – if you wish to see the fourfold sangha flourish, with women able to access equal training and support please help women (as well as men), support our sanghas, especially in the West. If we have no places to stay, no autonomy over our own lives, if we are subjugated by outdated cultural norms, the Sangha will not flourish, and nor will the Triple Gem. Nuns who take full ordination are stepping out on a limb, thwy are extremly vulnerable and have few places to stay.
Recently several Bhikkhunis in Thailand were not able to get certificates for their studies in Pali because their ordination was not recognised. A nun was forcefully disrobed in Burma for ‘ the crime of being a Bhikkhuni’. It is sad that such abhorations still exist in Buddhism.
Western countries are not immune to structural violence. There are only two centres in the world that support Western non himalayan nuns. Most work in lay jobs and are marginalised and un appreciated. People even question the revelance of the monastic sangha in the modern world and the beautiful simplicity that is exemplified in the way the Buddha chose to live. The Buddha predicted Buddhists themselves would destroy Buddhism. The Buddha said when no one practiced the Dharma Vinaya (i.e monastics), that Buddhiam would quickly dissappear.
This is a call to action for Buddhist to create a more just, equal and compassionate four fold Sangha. Please help us empower Buddhist women, especially nuns who have been marginalised for thousands of years. With scholarships, monasteries to stay in (what Kalyanamitra is working towards), seminars, teaching invitations, articles, and by opening up dialogue with traditional temples that still refuse to offer women a place to stay that affords them dignity, human rights and kindness.
Acc no 120204128
Swift code: BENDAU
Bendigo Bank, strathfield branch, the boulevarde, Strathfield NSW Australia
To support other organisations for nuns please google:
Sharavasti Abbey, Alliance for Bhikkhunis, Sakyadhita, Thosamling Nunnery, Alliance for Non Himalayan Nuns