Gender no bar

By Giri Bahadur Sunar | Republica

ON THE WEB, 9 June 2013

There are various traditions and schools of thought in Buddhism with varying opinions on the topic of women’s enlightenment. Some believe that women need to be reincarnated as men to gain Enlightenment, and others say there could never be a female Buddha. But as far as my knowledge goes, no tool has been developed to measure the quality and quantity of Enlightenment. For me, Buddha is a quality of a higher consciousness, beyond ego, beyond personal spheres and beyond narcissistic self-concern; it has nothing to do with gender.

Gautam Buddha was the first revolutionary master to have ordinated women in his Sangha, and given them the freedom of practicing a spiritual life. That step was a most revolutionary one in his time, when the social attitude towards women was not favourable. The code of law formulated by Manu was anti-women. Sudras, slaves, and women were prohibited from reading holy books like Vedas. Manu said, “all women are sinful and prone to evil, and not inclined to shame, nor decorum, nor honesty, nor timidity.”

At first, even Gautam Buddha did not dare to initiate women into his Sangha because of his upbringing in conservative Hindu culture. Buddha’s foster mother Maha Prajapati Gotami wanted to join the Sangha, but Buddha said, “Gotami, it is hard to live a monastic life, please do not get interested in such things.” Maha Prajapati asked thrice again for permission to take up the holy life. Buddha refused, telling her that it was not yet time for women to become nuns. Prajapati shaved her head; put on the orange robes of monk, and with fifty other women, went again to the Buddha. The incident forced Buddha to reconsider his word and agree to ordain women. Credit must be given to the Ananda, Buddha’s cousin, who was able to convince him to initiate women in the Sangha after five years of Buddha’s enlightenment. Maha Prajapati Gotami, Buddha’s foster mother who raised him after the death of his mother Mayadevi, was the first Nun ordinated by the Buddha.

Other women, like Buddha’s wife Yasodhara, Maha Prajapati Gotami’s daughter Sundari, Goldsmith girl named Sukha, Patacara, and many more, also joined it. The question of female Buddha-hood (enlightenment) is still very controversial. The Thirteen chapters of Mahayan Lotus Sutra depict the prediction of Buddha referring to future attainment of enlightenment by Mahaprajapati and Yashodhara. The Cullavagga section of the Vinaya Pitaka, a Buddhist text of the Pali Canon, contains statements by the Buddha to the effect that women can attain enlightenment. But texts like Bahudhatuka-sutta discourage women practitioners, stating that there could never be a female Buddha. Specifically, “It is impossible that a woman would be the anutarra samma sambuddha” [self-attainment]. Boddhisattavabhumi of the 4th century claims that women about to attain enlightenment need to be reborn in the form of men. Though it is the first religion to assimilate women into a Sangha, it continues to dominate and discriminate against nuns. For example, nuns are supposed to bow to monks.

There are different sects in Buddhism like Hinayan, Mahayan, and Vajrayan. The Indian tantric masters Padmasambhava and Guru Rinpoche introduced Vajrayana to Tibet. Vajarayana Tantric practitioners claim that females who are known as Tara, Vajarayogni, and Simhamukha have attained enlightenment. According to Yeshe Tsogyal of Karmapa lineage, one of the five tantric consorts of Padmasambhava was Yogini, recognised as a Female Buddha in the Vajarayan tradition.

Osho, controversial 21st century mystic, accorded great respect to women. He had initiated a female named Ma Anada Madhu as his first sannyasin. Presently she is living in isolation at Haridwar, North India. Being a professor and a lady from a renowned family, she took a bold step in accepting the controversial Osho as her master. Yog Laxmi, a former India secretary of Osho commune, Puna, is another enlightened female. Some enlightened females feature prominently in Osho discourse, namely Sahajo, Meera, Daya, Lalla, and Rabiya Al Adabiya. On Meera, Osho says: “perhaps she is the most significant of all the women who have become enlightened. Each word of her songs is pure gold, they come from the very source of enlightenment.” Osho believes that if the whole world has feminine qualities and the quality of Buddha, only then can war disappear.

Buddhism has a tradition of 2,500 years. It believes in celibate monastic life as a higher ideal. The goal of each spiritual quest is Nirvana, or salvation. Gender should not hinder the path of enlightenment. Buddha-hood has nothing to do with biology; spiritual attainment is inner and abstract in quality. Enlightenment of each individual is possible; it has nothing to do with sexuality, caste, or colour. It is a question of right life, passion, and regular spiritual practice. In fact, we are all enlightened; the seed of enlightenment is within us. It is only a matter of consciousness and awareness. Spiritual evolution is possible, males and females have an equal capacity for Buddha-hood.

Tenzin Palmo, a Tibetan nun in the Drukpa lineage of the Kagyu School, has stated recently: “I have made a vow to attain enlightenment in the female form — no matter how many lifetimes it takes.”

About the author

The author is a meditation practitioner and Sociologist by profession, and can be contacted at: girithejorba(a)

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