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Women in Buddhism is a topic that can be approached from varied perspectives including those of theology, history, anthropology and feminism. As in other religions, the experiences of Buddhist women have varied considerably.

There are six MAJOR POINTS to remember from the start, based upon the early Buddhist scriptures as preserved by the Theravada branch of Buddhism:

(1) Despite ancient and contemporary sectarian doctrinal debates, it is undoubtedly clear that the Buddha affirmed the ability of women to attain complete spiritual development.

(2) In fact, the scriptural records of the earliest traditions reveal a numerous amount of Bhikkhuni (female monks) as having attained complete enlightenment ("Arahata-phala") during the Buddha's lifetime and afterward.

(3)(a) the Buddhist Monastic Community (the Sangha) is the longest lasting, continuously functioning human institution in history and, further, (b) was the first of its sort to explicitly include women. Thus, it (c) is the first (and oldest) human institution to give large throngs of women status higher than that of men in the general population - higher, even, than royalty.

(4) Though tradition holds that the Buddha hesitated to "ordain" women as "monks" we must realize that the word translated as "monk" is the Pali word Bhikkhu (Sanskrit form, "Bhiksu") which literally means "beggar". These "monks" lived, slept, ate, and meditated alone or in small groups in the woods (later, in sheltered abodes - "Vihara" in Pali) with no weapons, having to beg alms-food going door to door in towns and villages, almost on continuous pilgrimage traveling on highways and through the wilderness from place to place on foot - again, alone or in small groups. In thinking of the various forms of horrific victimization that women living such a lifestyle would suffer in contemporary society (even with its barbed-wire, police forces, etc.), we can perhaps more easily identify with the Buddha's hesitation to permit and encourage women to undertake this lifestyle of a "beggar" ('Bhikkhu', male; 'Bhikkhuni', female). Further, we can more easily understand his regulations requiring that there be an on-going connection, or attachment, of the female-monk community (Bhikkhuni-Sangha) to male-monks (Bhikkhu)(the regulations referred to are the eight Garudhammas, mentioned below).

(5) That the apparent inequality between the male and female monks seem to have been to both provide the females some sort of security from victimization and to "legitimize" the females' standing in the eyes of ancient Hindu Indian society at large (which was, of course patriarchal). Even if neither of these is accepted by the reader as revealing a 'de facto' equality between male and female monks in the Sangha (remember that the term for each is the same, just gendered, i.e. Bhikkhu & Bhikkhuni, rather than widely divergent roles and statuses both effecting and effected by a difference of terms, such as the pair "priest" vs. "nun" or even "monk" vs. "nun".), we ought to realize that in the very least the female monks ("Bhikkhuni") have, merely by being such, higher status, as it were, over ALL unordained men - quite a progressive and advanced position for women five centuries B.C.E.

(6) Whereas the above five points concern the Buddha's ordination of female Bhikkhu (i.e., Bhikkhuni), there also exists a not scarce amount of the Buddha both implicitly and explicitly countering patriarchal tendencies in society at large. For example, in the Sigalaka Sutta (from the Digha Nikaya portion of the Sutta Pitaka - also known as the Sigalovada Sutta) the Buddha lists, among other social duties, five basic duties of a man to his wife. These include being faithful to her and - much more interestingly - ceding authority to her. The first is interesting enough in that polygamy was still quite widespread at the time; but the Buddha's exhortation to husbands to cede authority to their wives was nearly unheard of again for nearly twenty-four centuries.

Scholars such as Faure and Miranda Shaw are in agreement that Buddhist Studies is in its infancy in terms of addressing gender issues. Shaw gave an overview of the situation in 1994:

In the case of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, some progress has been made in the areas of women in early Buddhism, monasticism, and Māhayāna Buddhism. Two articles have seriously broached the topic of women in Indian Tantric Buddhism, while somewhat more attention has been devoted to Tibetan nuns and lay yoginis.[1]

However Khandro Rinpoche, a rare female lama in Tibetan Buddhism has pointed out:

When there is a talk about women and Buddhism, I have noticed that people often regard the topic as something new and different. They believe that women in Buddhism has become an important topic because we live in modern times and so many women are practicing the Dharma now. However, this is not the case. The female sangha has been here for centuries. We are not bringing something new into a twenty-five hundred-year-old tradition. The roots are there, and we are simply re-energizing them.[2]

Women in Early Buddhism


Pali Canon
Gandharan texts

1st Council
2nd Council
3rd Council
4th Council

First Sangha

The founder of the religion, Gautama Buddha, permitted women to join his monastic community and fully participate in it, although there were certain provisos or garudhammas. As Susan Murcott comments, "The nun's sangha was a radical experiment for its time"[3] Dr. Mettanando Bhikkhu says of the First Buddhist council: "Perhaps Mahakassappa and the bhikkhus of that time were jealous of the bhikkhunis being more popular and doing more teaching and social work than the bhikkhus. Their anti-women prejudice became institutionalized at that time with the eight garudhammas, the eight weighty restrictions. We must discontinue that prejudice. There is no anti-women prejudice in Jainism and they survived in India; whereas Buddhism had prejudice and did not survive in India".[4]Although it must be said that this is factually incorrect, because there are jain sects like the Digambara sect, which believes that women are capable of spiritual progress, but must be reborn male, in order to attain final spiritual liberation.[5] It is also highly doubtful that the garudhammas, were motivated by Mahakaasapa being jealous, since he's said to be an enlightened one and one of the principle disciples of the Buddha.[6] Furthermore there's no support within canon, to suggest that the bhikkunis were more popular,taught more or that they did more social work than Bhikkhus.

According to Ajahn Sujato, the early texts state that the most severe of the garudhammas, which states that every nun must bow to every monk, was instituted by the Buddha because of the customs of the time, and modern scholars doubt that the rule even goes back to the Buddha at all.[7] Furthermore, an identical rule is found in Jainism.[8]

According to Diana Paul, the traditional view of women in Early Buddhism is that they are inferior.[9] Rita Gross agrees that "a misogynist strain is found in early Indian Buddhism. But the presence of some clearly misogynist doctrines does not mean that the whole of ancient Indian Buddhism was misogynist".[10] The mix of positive attitudes to femininity with blatantly negative sentiment has led many writers to characterise early Buddhism's attitude to women as deeply ambivalent.[11]

Some commentators on the Aganna-Sutta from the Pali Canon, a record of the teachings of Gautama Buddha, interpret it as showing women as responsible for the downfall of the human race. However, Buddhist interpretation is generally that it shows lust in general, rather than women, as causing the downfall.[12]

However, despite some less positive images of women in Early Buddhism, there are also examples in the Pali Canon demonstrating that from earliest times Buddhist philosophy represented clinging to beliefs based on gender as a hindrance to attaining nirvana, or enlightenment. For example, in the Bhikkhuni-samyutta, found in the Sagatha-vagga of the Samyutta Nikaya, gender discrimination is stated to be the work of Mara, a personification of temptation from the Buddhist spiritual path. In the Soma Sutta, the bhikkhuni Soma states: "Anyone who thinks 'I'm a woman' or 'a man' or 'Am I anything at all?' — that's who Mara's fit to address",[13] linking gender neutrality to the Buddhist concept of anatta, or "not-self", a strategy the Buddha taught for release from suffering.[14] In a sutta titled "Bondage", the Buddha states that when either a man or a woman clings to gender identity, that person is in bondage.[15]

Women's Spiritual Attainment

The various schools and traditions within Buddhism hold different views as to the possibilities of women's spiritual attainments.[16] Feminist scholars have also noted than even when a woman's potential for spiritual attainment is acknowledged, records of such achievements may not be kept - or may be obscured by gender-neutral language or mis-translation of original sources by Western scholars.

Limitations on Women's Attainments in Buddhism

According to Bernard Faure, "Like most clerical discourses, Buddhism is indeed relentlessly misogynist, but as far as misogynist discourses go, it is one of the most flexible and open to multiplicity and contradiction."[17]

In the Buddhist tradition, positions of apparently worldly power are often a reflection of the spiritual achievements of the individual. For example, any gods are living in higher realms than a human being and therefore have a certain level of spiritual attainment. Cakravartins and Buddhas are also more spiritual advanced than an ordinary human being. However, as Zen nun Heng-Ching Shih states, women in Buddhism are said to have five obstacles, namely being incapable of becoming a Brahma King, `Sakra` , King `Mara` , Cakravartin or Buddha.[16] This is based on the statement of Gautama Buddha in the Bahudhātuka-sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya in the Pali Canon that it is impossible that a woman should be "the perfectly rightfully Enlightened One'", "the Universal Monarch", "the King of Gods", "the King of Death" or "Brahmaa'".[18]

Women and Buddhahood

Although early Buddhist texts such as the Cullavagga section of the Vinaya Pitaka of the Pali Canon contain statements from Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, that a woman can attain enlightenment,[19] it is also clearly stated in the Bahudhātuka-sutta that there could never be a female Buddha. As Prof. Heng-Ching Shih[20] states, women in Buddhism are said to have five obstacles, namely being incapable of becoming a Brahma King, `Sakra` , King `Mara` , Cakravartin or Buddha.[16] This is based on the statement of Gautama Buddha in the Bahudhātuka-sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya in the Pali Canon that it is impossible that a woman should be "the perfectly rightfully Enlightened One'", "the Universal Monarch", "the King of Gods", "the King of Death" or "Brahmaa'".[18]

In Theravada Buddhism, the modern school based on the Buddhist philosophy of the earliest dated texts, Buddhahood is a rare event, happening only once in eons. The focus of practice is primarily on attaining Arhatship and the Pali Canon has examples of both male and female Arhats who attained nirvana. Yashodhara, the former wife of Buddha Shakyamuni, mother of his son Rahula, is said to have become an arhat after having joined the Bhikkhuni order of Buddhist nuns. In Mahayana schools, Buddhahood is the universal goal for Mahayana practitioners. The Mahayana sutras, like the Pali Canon literature, maintain that a woman can become enlightened, only not in female form. For example, the Bodhisattvabhūmi, dated to the 4th Century, states that a woman about to attain enlightenment will be reborn in the male form. According to Miranda Shaw, "this belief had negative implications for women insofar as it communicated the insufficiency of the female body as a locus of enlightenment".[21]

However, in the tantric iconography of the Vajrayana practice path of Buddhism, female Buddhas do appear. Sometimes they are the consorts of the main yidam of a meditation mandala but Buddhas such as Vajrayogini, Tara and Simhamukha appear as the central figures of tantric sadhana in their own right.[21] Vajrayana Buddhism also recognizes many female yogini practitioners as achieving the full enlightenment of a Buddha, Miranda Shaw as an example cites sources referring to "Among the students of the adept Naropa, reportedly two hundred men and one thousand women attained complete enlightenment".[21] Yeshe Tsogyal, one of the five tantric consorts[22] of Padmasambhava is an example of a woman (Yogini) recognized as a female Buddha in the Vajrayana tradition. According to Karmapa lineage however Tsogyel has attained Buddhahood in that very life. On the website of the Karmapa, the head of the Karma Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, it is stated that Yeshe Tsogyal - some thirty years before transcending worldly existence - finally emerged from an isolated meditation retreat, (c.796-805 AD), as "a fully enlightened Buddha"[23](samyak-saṃbuddha).

There are predictions from Sakyamuni Buddha to be found in the thirteenth chapter of the Mahayana Lotus Sutra,[24] referring to future attainments of Mahapajapati and Yasodhara.

In the 20th Century Tenzin Palmo, a Tibetan Buddhist nun in the Drukpa Lineage of the Kagyu school, stated "I have made a vow to attain Enlightenment in the female form - no matter how many lifetimes it takes".[25]

Female Tulku Lineages

In the fifteenth century CE, Princess Chokyi-dronme (Wylie:Chos-kyi sgron-me) was recognized as the embodiment of the meditation deity and female Buddha in the Vajrayana tradition, Vajravarahi. Chokyi-dronme became known as Samding Dorje Pagmo (Wylie: bSam-lding rDo-rje phag-mo) and began a line of female tulkus, reincarnate lamas. At present, the twelfth of this line lives in Tibet.

Another female tulku lineage, that of Shugseb Jetsun Rinpoche (Wylie: Shug-gseb rJe-btsun Rin-po-che) (c. 1865–1951),[26] began in the late nineteenth century CE.[27] While she received teachings of all the Tibetan schools, Shugseb Jetsun Rinpoche was particularly known for holding a lineage of Chöd, the meditation practice of offering one's own body for the benefit of others.[28] At the start of the twentieth century, Shugsheb Jetsun Rinpoche - also called Ani Lochen Chönyi Zangmo - founded the Shuksep or Shugsep (Wylie:shug gseb) nunnery located thirty miles from Lhasa on the slopes of Mount Gangri Thökar.[29][30] It became one of the largest and most famous nunneries in Tibet.[26]

Shugsep Nunnery, part of the Nyingma school of Tibetan Buddhism, has been re-established in Gambhir Ganj, India. In exile in India, the nuns of Shugsep are now determined to maintain the identity and traditions of their nunnery, and they continue the practices for which they were famous, particularly those of Longchen Nyingtig and Chöd.[28]

Buddhist Ordination of Women

Gautama Buddha first ordained women as nuns five years after his enlightenment and five years after first ordaining men into the sangha. The first Buddhist nun was his aunt and foster mother Mahapajapati Gotami. Bhikkhunis have to follow the eight rules of respect, which are vows called The Eight Garudhammas. According to Peter Harvey "The Buddha's apparent hesitation on this matter is reminiscent of his hesitation on whether to teach at all", something he only does after persuasion from various devas.[31]

Family Life in Buddhism

According to Diana Paul, Buddhism inherited a view of women whereby if they are not represented as mothers then they are portrayed as either lustful temptresses or as evil incarnate.[9]


The status of motherhood in Buddhism has also traditionally reflected the Buddhist perspective that dukkha, or suffering, is a major characteristic of human existence. In her book on the Therigatha collection of stories of women arhats from the Pali Canon, Susan Murcott states: "Though this chapter is about motherhood, all of the stories and poems share another theme - grief. The mothers of this chapter were motivated to become Buddhist nuns by grief over the death of their children."[32]

However, motherhood in Early Buddhism could also be a valued activity in its own right. Queen Maya, the mother of Gautama Buddha, the founder of Buddhism, had a certain following, especially in Lumbini, where she gave birth to him.[33] Since Maya died some days after his birth, Gautama Buddha was brought up by a fostermother, his mother's sister Mahapajapati, who also had two children of her own. She become the first Buddhist nun. Both of her children, her son Nanda and her daughter Sundari Nanda joined the Buddhist sangha of monastics. The wife of Gautama Buddha, Yasodhara, was the mother of one son named Rahula, meaning "fetter", who became a Buddhist monk at the age of seven and Yasodhara also eventually became a nun.

One of the attractions for women in Vajrayana Buddhism of following the path of a yogini rather than that of a bhikkhuni nun was the opportunity to practice amidst family life with a husband or spiritual consort and possibly have children. Also Yoginis -unlike nuns- were not obliged to shave their hair. Machig Labdrön followed such a path, living in a monastery for a while but later leaving to unite with Topabhadra as her consort. According to Machig's namthar he cared for the children whilst she practiced and taught. Some of Machig's children followed her on the spiritual path, becoming accomplished yogins themselves. Tsultrim Allione, a recognised emanation of Machig Labdron, herself was a nun for four years but left to marry and have children. She has spoken of the contribution motherhood has made to her practice: Buddhism the image of the mother as the embodiment of compassion is used a lot. She'll do anything for the children. As a mother I felt that depth of love and commitment and having somebody who I really would give my own life for - it was very powerful to have that kind of relationship. I also felt that I didn't really grow up until I had my children. There were ways that maturity was demanded of me and having children brought forth that maturity. So I wouldn't say my children were an inspiration in the sense of what I thought would have been a spiritual inspiration before I had children. More so I think meeting the challenges of motherhood with what I had learned made my practice very rich.[34]

Love, Sexual Conduct and Marriage

In general, "While Buddhism regards the celibate monastic life as the higher ideal, it also recognizes the importance of marriage as a social institution".[35] Some guidelines for marriage are offered. Although Buddhist practice varies considerably amongst its various schools, marriage is one of the few concepts specifically mentioned in the context of Śīla, the Buddhist formulation of core facets of spiritual discipline. The fundamental code of Buddhist ethics, The Five Precepts contains an admonishment against sexual misconduct, although what constitutes misconduct from the perspective of a particular school of Buddhism varies widely depending on the local culture.

In Early Buddhism, the Sigalovada Sutta of the Digha Nikaya in the Pali Canon describes the respect that one is expected to give to one's spouse. However, since the ideal of Early Buddhism is renunciation, it can be seen from examples such as the story of the monk Nanda and his wife Janapada Kalyāni that striving for the bliss of Nirvana is valued above love and marriage. Despite having married her just that day, encouraged by his cousin Gautama Buddha, Nanda left his wife to become a bhikkhu in the Buddhist Sangha. In stories like this from the Pali Canon, love is generally perceived as part of attachment to samsara, the endless cycle of rebirth.[36] Susan Murcott has pointed out that Early Buddhist attitudes to love and marriage generally reflect the Brahmanic ideals of India at the time... including the recent rise of the renunciate ideal and the associated decline in the status of love and marriage.[37]

In Vajrayana Buddhism, a sexual relationship with a consort is seen in a technical way as being a spiritual practice in anuttarayoga tantra intended to allow the practitioners to attain realizations and attain enlightenment. The union of tantric consorts is depicted in the yab-yum iconography of meditation deities.

In Buddhism the concept of love or metta is connected to the Buddha to come Maitreya.


June Campbell writes in her book Traveller in space that Chandra Das in his Tibetan English Dictionary[38] describes twenty synonyms for woman. The words used most often are kyemen (tibetan: skye.dman) meaning inferior birth and pumo (tibetan: meaning female human being. There are others like tsamdenma (tibetan:, chingchema (tibetan:, dodenma (tibetan:, gaweshi (tibetan: dgah.wabi.gshi.) and tobmema (tibetan:[39]

Throughout the Mahāyāna world, Avalokiteśvara, who takes on both male and female form e.g., Guan Yin, and Tara, a female Vajrayana yidam, are bodhisattvas who embody karuṇā, and Prajnaparamita is a female buddha who embodies wisdom.

His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama

Warfare has traditionally been carried out primarily by men, since they seem better physically equipped for aggressive behavior. Women, on the other hand, tend to be more caring and more sensitive to others’ discomfort and pain. Although men and women have the same potentials for aggression and warm-heartedness, they differ in which of the two more easily manifests. Thus, if the majority of world leaders were women, perhaps there would be less danger of war and more cooperation on the basis of global concern – although, of course, some women can be difficult! I sympathize with feminists, but they must not merely shout. They must exert efforts to make positive contributions to society.

Well-known Female Buddhists


Tina Turner

Tibetan Buddhist Tulkus and Emanations

See also


  1. Shaw, Miranda (1994). Passionate Enlightenment::Women in Tantric Buddhism. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. pp. 27. ISBN 0-691-01090-0. 
  2. Rinpoche, Khandro; Thubten Chodron, Sylvia Boorstein (1999). Thubten Chodron, Sylvia Boorstein. ed. Blossoms of the Dharma: Living as a Buddhist Nun. North Atlantic Books. pp. 171. ISBN 9781556433252. 
  3. Murcott, Susan (1991). The First Buddhist Women:Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha. Parallax Press. pp. 4. ISBN 0-938077-42-2. 
  4. “The First Council and Suppression of the Bhikkhuni Order”
  7. Ajahn Sujato, Bhikkhuni FAQ.
  8. Ajahn Sujato, A Painful Ambiguity. [1].
  9. 9.0 9.1 Diana Y. Paul, Frances Wilson (1985). "Traditional Views of Women". Women in Buddhism:Images of the Feminine in Mahāyāna Tradition. University of California Press. ISBN 0520054288. 
  10. Gross, Rita M. (1992). Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis and Reconstruction of Buddhism. State University of New York Press. pp. 43. ISBN 0791414035.,M1. 
  11. José Ignacio Cabezón (1992). Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender. pp. 3. ISBN 0791407586. 
  12. "Aggana Sutta: On Knowledge of Beginnings of Human Kind" (PDF). Retrieved 2008-07-07. 
  13. Sister Soma, Translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
  14. Bikkhu, Thanissaro (1993). "The Not-self Strategy". Access to Insight. Retrieved 2009-02-26. 
  15. Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, [2].
  16. 16.0 16.1 16.2 Women in Zen Buddhism: Chinese Bhiksunis in the Ch'an Tradition by Heng-Ching Shih
  17. Bernard Faure (2003). "Introduction". The Power of Denial: Buddhism, Purity, and Gender. Princeton University Press. pp. 3. ISBN 0691091714. 
  18. 18.0 18.1 Majjhima Nikaya III III. 2. 5. Bahudhaatukasutta.m-(115) The Discourse on Many Elements
  19. Murcott, Susan (1991). The First Buddhist Women:Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha. Parallax Press. pp. 16. ISBN 0-938077-42-2. 
  20. see: Advisors
  21. 21.0 21.1 21.2 Shaw, Miranda (1994). Passionate Enlightenment:Women in Tantric Buddhism. New Jersey: Princeton University Press. pp. 27. ISBN 0-691-01090-0. 
  22. The Five Consorts
  23. Yeshe Tsogyal, Princess Of Karchen
  24. Lotus sutra including chapter thirteenTranslated by The Buddhist Text Translation Society in USA)
  25. Mackenzie, Vicki (1998). Cave in the Snow. Great Britain: Bloomsbury. pp. 5. ISBN 0-7475-4389-5. 
  26. 26.0 26.1 Lochen(c. 1865–1951) Ani Lochen(c. 1865–1951)
  27. Berzin Archives, Summary Report
  28. 28.0 28.1 WAiB Pages Resources on Women's Ordination
  29. Shuksep Nunnery
  30. Lochen Chönyi Zangmo
  31. Harvey, Peter (2000). An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. Cambridge University Press. pp. 384. ISBN 9780521556408. 
  32. Murcott, Susan (1991). The First Buddhist Women:Translations and Commentary on the ' 'Therigatha' '. Parallax Press. pp. 74. ISBN 0-938077-42-2. 
  33. Temple of Mahadevi at Lumbini
  34. "On Mothering: An Interview with Tsultrim Allione". Retrieved 2008-11-28. 
  35. A Dictionary of Buddhism. Oxford University Press US. 2003. pp. 174. ISBN 9780198605607. 
  36. Great Male Disciples - Part B / 15. Nanda by Radhika Abeysekera
  37. Murcott, Susan (1991). The First Buddhist Women:Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha. Parallax Press. pp. 95. ISBN 0-938077-42-2. 
  38. Chandra Das, Tibetan-English Dictionary (Rinsen Book Company, 1979). page 872 (see Campbell p. 285
  39. June Campbell in Göttinnen, Dakinis und ganz normale Frauen, Theseus 1997, page 69
  40. [3]
  41. History/Female Masters Within the Mindrolling Tradition

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