Women in Buddhism
Like most of recorded history, the early years of Buddhism report few stories of women. The Buddha's mother is mentioned, but she died soon after Siddhartha was born. He was then raised by his aunt, his mother's sister, Prajapati. In fact, it was Prajapati who, after the Buddha's enlightenment, went to Shakyamuni and asked him if women could also join the sangha. She was refused by Shakyamuni but persisted, asking a second time, and then a third. But the Buddha was unmovable and denied his good aunt's request.
Prajapati cut off her hair and donned the yellow robes of the mendicant monks. She followed the Buddha and pleaded with him to allow women to become members of the sangha. It wasn't until Ananda interfered on Prajapati's behalf that the Buddha finally relented. The Buddha believed women were equal to men as regards the ability to attain enlightenment, but practical matters, such as not offending the sangha's wealthy patrons, kept him from agreeing that it was a good idea to allow them into the community. However, he did finally say yes and women were subsequently permitted to give up their worldly lives and enter as members of the sangha. Five hundred women joined Prajapati, including Yasodhara, the Buddha's abandoned wife. However, the women were given eight rules they had to follow that separated them from the monks and made them subordinate to their male counterparts. Monks and nuns are segregated in Asia and are discouraged from having physical contact.
There is the traditional story of two monks who are walking down the road. They come to a small stream and there is a frail woman waiting at the water's edge. One monk offers to carry the woman across the water and does so and puts her down on the other side of the stream. The monks walk on for miles and the other monk says, “I can't believe you touched that woman; it is forbidden.” The monk laughed and said, “I put her down miles ago, why are you still carrying her?”
The Mahayana texts support the Buddha's statement that men and women were equally equipped for enlightenment, and most traditions in Buddhism have included nuns (bhikkunis). But Buddhist literature portrays the difficulties that men had accepting the women as part of monastic life. Women were portrayed as seductresses and unclean creatures — most likely due to men's unfulfilled sexual drives and inability to stave off lust and desire.
But women struggled in Buddhism as they have struggled in most other religions. For many years and in many traditions in Buddhist history, women were proclaimed to be equal in theory but were in fact subordinate in practice. As late as 1979, Irish-American Maureen “Soshin” O'Halloran wrote home to America to tell her family that she was the first woman ever admitted to Toshoji Temple in Japan.
In the West today a great percentage of the teachers of Buddhism are women. Teachers such as Pema Chödrön, Tara Brach, Charlotte Joko Beck, Sharon Salzberg, Silvia Boorstein, Joanna Macy, Narayan Liebenson, Grace Schireson, and many others have strengthened the dharma with their wise teaching.
In Zen Women: Beyond Tea Ladies, Iron Maidens and Macho Masters, Grace Schireson tells the untold story of women in Zen. The unfortunate truth is that the history of Buddhism is not one of gender equality. While the Buddha did finally relent after persistent pressure from his aunt Prajapati to admit women into the sangha against the norms of the time, admittance has not translated to equivalence of opportunity. She tells the story of a male Zen master who responds to a female student's question, “How many women teachers were at the conference?” (a North American Zen conference). The Zen master replied, “We were all women.” Huh? His answer speaks to the unity beyond the gender duality of male and female and the apparent lack of need to worry about gender discrepancies. We are all women; we are all men.
But this begs the question of why the male version of Oneness (since the conference was predominately male). Empowered by writing about the forgotten histories of women in Zen, Grace would now reply to this Zen master, “How many of you women used the ladies room at the Zen conference?”
Grace Schireson is a dharma teacher in the lineage of Suzuki Roshi and received her empowerment from Sojun Mel Weitsman Roshi, abbot of Berkeley Zen Center. She has also been empowered to teach koans by Keido Fukushima Roshi, chief abbot of Tofukuji Monastery in Kyoto Japan. Grace is the head teacher of Central Valley Zen Foundation and has founded and leads three Zen Groups, including Empty Nest Zendo.
In Zen Women, Schireson has “moved beyond the question of why and how female Zen ancestors had been erased from Zen history. I have sought to identify these erased women and put them back in the Zen practice I loved.”