Ask A Buddhist: Patriarchy

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By Ven. Thubten Chonyi

Is Buddhism patriarchal?

This is a tough question, as any answer depends on the perspective of the person responding and no answer is definitive. An easy out is to say that Buddha and his teachings were not patriarchal but Buddhist institutions were and many still are. But this is too simple.

First let’s agree on our definition. Merriam-Webster online gives this:

Definition of patriarchy

1social organization marked by the supremacy of the father in the clan or family, the legal dependence of wives and children, and the reckoning of descent and inheritance in the male line
broadly control by men of a disproportionately large share of power

2a society or institution organized according to the principles or practices of patriarchy

How does this apply to Buddhism?

In the culture of ancient India, women were under the power of men from birth to death—from father to husband to son. In such a patriarchal environment, the Buddha declared emphatically that women have the same capacity as men to attain liberation and full awakening, the final aims of Buddhist practice. Further, in his first words after attaining awakening, the Buddha declared his intent to establish a four-fold sangha—a community of fully ordained monks and nuns and male and female lay practitioners.

The Buddha established the nuns’ order with training and discipline modeled on the previously founded monks’ order. In early Buddhist scriptures, it is clear that nuns attained significant spiritual realizations and the Buddha acknowledged and appreciated them for it. Scriptures also tell of laywomen practitioners and patrons who were key members of the Buddha’s huge following. In these ways, Buddha was revolutionary in his support for creating conditions for women’s spiritual development.

Still, Buddhism blossomed in a thoroughly patriarchal society, and after the Buddha’s passing—and even during his life—it was obvious that other Buddhist leaders didn’t share his view of women.

Buddhist scriptures also contain many passages that, by today’s terms, are blatantly sexist if not misogynistic. Certain contemporary scholars suggest that some of the strongest sexist language came into the teachings after the Buddha’s passing, but we’ll never know for sure. That language has certainly influenced Buddhist institutions for hundreds of years.

Over time, Buddhism spread from patriarchal India through patriarchal cultures in Asia and as far north as parts of Russia. Each culture influenced Buddhist practice, just as Buddhism influences the cultures where it takes hold. If the culture is patriarchal, the Buddhist institutions will be so too. So from the point of view of a modern, well-educated feminist, yes, Buddhism is patriarchal.

But here’s the complicated part: Buddha really meant that women have equal capability to realize every aspect of the path to awakening, and women practitioners know it. So they have practiced, achieved much, and dealt with the confines of patriarchy as best they could.

As we know, when women receive higher levels of education, their status improves in all ways, including their place in religious institutions. Today Buddhist women have more opportunities than they have in the past. Progress is slow but steady.

One sign of progress is that full ordination for women has been introduced or re-introduced in countries where it had died out or never spread. Another significant advance is that Tibetan nuns now can study to gain the prestigious geshe degree—comparable to a Ph.D.—and many have. Buddhist women worldwide meet and work together to help each other, as witnessed by Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women—formed in 1987 to benefit Buddhist women, to reduce gender injustice, and awaken women to their potential for awakening the world.

If you do a search for “women in Buddhism,” you’ll find a lot has been written about this. For a quick look, check out the Sakyadhita website. There’s also information about Buddhist nuns on my teacher’s website, ThubtenChodron.org.

Today, there are a number of books about women in Buddhism and books about Buddhism written by women. Things are definitely changing!

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