Gender equality: it’s time to wake up!

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

Statue of Maha Pajapati, Upaya Zen Center, Santa Fe, New Mexico. Photo by Melissa J. White

Shakaymuni Buddha is considered the model of enlightened thinking. This can lead us to forget that he, too, needed to be educated about how his worldview was limited and conditioned by his culture, especially regarding gender. The decisions he made as the leader of a spiritual community were not infallible. Compared to other Indian religions of the time, the Buddha's view of women's spiritual capacity was revolutionary. He claimed that women are as capable of arousal as men. However, he only made this recognition after a skillful confrontation on the part of his beloved servant, Ananda.

According to the story, Mahapajapati Gotami, who was the Buddha's aunt as well as his mother-in-law, approached the Buddha to request the ordination of hundreds of women who were dedicated to the practice of enlightenment, including her -even. The Buddha refused. She asked him twice more. Each time, he refused.

Mahapajapati was a strong and persevering woman. She and her sangha of women went ahead, shaved their heads and wore patchwork robes, just as the monks did, and embarked on a long journey in search of the Buddha. When they finally arrived at the place where he and his monks had stopped, they were completely exhausted. As she sat at the gates of the monastery, Mahapajapati burst into tears. Ananda saw her and asked her what had happened. When she told him the story of the Buddha's request for ordination which had been refused, Ananda promised that he too would request it on behalf of the women. He kept his word but received the same response from the Buddha.

Ananda then stepped back and asked the Buddha if women were capable of achieving nirvana. When the Buddha said yes, Ananda encouraged him to ordain women and admit them into the monastic sangha. Eventually the Buddha acquiesced, but only after stipulating eight rules that continued to reinforce the submission of women to men in the sangha.

I share this story because it reminds us that spiritual leaders and communities are just as likely to be complicit in systemic oppression – in this case, sexism – as any other group. There is no free pass just because one is a spiritual teacher.

Some scholars theorize that the Buddha took this stance in order to protect the sangha as a whole – lest he alienate his followers – as well as women, who would be subject to ridicule and violence. Whatever his intention, Shakyamuni Buddha's initial rejections did not affirm or empower the women of the sangha, and his conditioning on the decision to ordain them to the Eight Garudhammas set in motion a chain of karma that continues to this day. 'today.

This story happened over 2 years ago. Although progress toward gender equality has been made on several fronts in Buddhist communities and society at large, the devastating effects of sexism continue today.

As Venerable Lekshe Tsomo noted in her 2015 article “Attention Buddhist Women! It's time to wake up! » the majority of work in the world is done by women and yet their work is not valued in the same way as that of men. In the United States, three million more women than men lived below the poverty line in 2022.* Worldwide, 247 million women aged 15 and older live on less than US$1,90 per day , compared to 236 million men.**

Lekshe Tsomo's essay is a call for women to step forward toward awakening in a world that needs our voice, our presence, and our skillful actions. It’s also a call for men to wake up and take an active role in exploring how sexism can manifest in our communities, often unconsciously.

I also want to elevate the words of Satya Robyn, a psychotherapist and Buddhist teacher who founded Bright Earth Temple in Malvern, UK, with her partner Kaspa (they/them):

At the current rate of change, it will take 131 years for women to earn the same wages as men.

This simple fact speaks to the lived experience of being a woman.

The times when the man in authority or the man in service speaks to my spouse and not to me. The regular underestimation of my intellect and resilience. The condescending tone. The valorization of “masculine” structures and ways of being over “feminine” structures.

It's hard to REALLY know what it means to be a woman in this world unless you live like one. And patriarchy, like all oppressive systems, serves none of us. . . . Let’s take a hammer – all of us – and smash it into pieces. Let's recycle it back into the earth and grow something new, wild and beautiful.

I love my brothers and sisters of all genders. We are better than that. We will continue to rise again.

(Underpile, adapted with permission)

I appreciate Satya's words because they show that what is called for is not just a change in numbers and statistics, but also a qualitative change in what our culture defines as important. We may wonder why the work that women often do in caring and compassion is valued so much less than other types of work. We can look at our own sanghas and note how many, if any, leadership positions are held by women. If there is an absence, can we come to a deeper understanding of why and explore ways to remedy it? Does our sangha value emotional expression and connection as much as effectiveness? Do we recognize the process as important as the product? And we can recognize the intersectionality of oppression to ensure we raise the voices of people of color, those who identify as transgender, those with fewer economic resources, and those who are physically able and psychological differences.

In these troubled and complicated times, our humanity needs the diversity of our gifts to be manifested, those that come from different ways of seeing and being in the world. To me, “healing” means bringing previously fragmented things back into wholeness. I remember a line from “Bread and Roses,” a poem by a man, James Oppenheim, set to music by a woman, Mimi Farina: “The rising of women means the rising of all of us.” »

How can we, like Mahapajapati, have faith in our Buddha nature and speak our truth to power. . . and rely on power with rather than on power? How can we, like Ananda, keep our eyes open to injustice and use the privilege of our positions to advocate for fairness? How can we, like the Buddha, accept that others reflect our own blind spots and be open to change? How can we all wake up together?

*Number of people living below the poverty line in the United States from 1990 to 2022, by gender (Statista)

**Global gender poverty gaps in 2020 and 2021 (forecast to 2030), by sex (Statista)

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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