In the lore of the early Buddhist canon, the Tipitaka, Sujata is known as the woman who offered sustenance to Siddhartha Gautama. This simple act of kindness on her part saved his life because he was about to faint from the extreme asceticism he had been practicing for six years. In this sense we could recognize Sujata as the first lay disciple of Shakyamuni Buddha, even though formally it was the merchants Trapusha and Bhallika who first took refuge under the newly enlightened Buddha. Sujata was already a devotee of Siddhartha Gautama before he was enlightened, as she had heard of him while he was in the area. Their meeting was a turning point for Sujata’s life and for Gautama, who was practicing asceticism at the time. Her offering marked a new approach to realization that led the mendicant to attain enlightenment and become the Blessed One.
Sujata, who effectively saved the Buddha’s life and ensured the transmission of Buddhism into this world, did not receive her due recognition. Were she a man, she might have been revered as a Bodhisattva. Many women like her have walked a similar path throughout history, unnoticed.
The presence of women in Buddhism deserves to be reviewed and rescued. From Mahaprajapati, Siddhartha’s aunt (who brought him up and became the first nun) to Yeshe Tsogyal and Magig Labdron; from Alexandra David-Néel (the first Westerner to be ordained) to Khandro Tsering Chödron—along with Jetsum Kushok, Pema Chödrön, Tenzin Palmo, Charlotte Joko Beck, and many other great teachers—we must seriously re-examine the yoginis and practitioners of past and present, in both East and West.
In Tibetan Buddhism there are many personifications of female wisdom. Among the most acclaimed is Arya Tara, the princess who watches over and protects all practitioners. She was advised by a master to pray for a male rebirth, for as a man she could attain Buddhahood, a state thought inaccessible to beings of female bodies. She refused to do this, vowing to manifest and become a Buddha in a female body. As Jennifer Watts wrote: “Throughout history, women have strived to fulfill their spiritual goals. Women practicing Buddhism were forced to overcome traditional negative stereotypes of women in order to practice the Dharma and continue on the path to salvation.” (UIdaho)
The system of patriarchy as the real obstacle
Abuse of power has always been a major human problem, and patriarchy is rife with abuse of power. But one of the most violent aspects of patriarchal power is men’s automatic and assumed power over women. Although one wants to guard against and be wary of abuse of power, a totally egalitarian society in which no one has more influence or prestige, or even wealth, than anyone else, seems quite impossible. The issue is not abolishing social hierarchy, which is realistically impossible, but establishing a humane system in which hierarchy is mitigated and the genders relate to each other as equals.
Because the deeply ingrained system of patriarchy already puts men in a place of power in society (before they even step into an institutional position of power, whether in business, government, religion, or the media), this is not an easy call to make. Privileged groups do not relinquish power easily, and indeed may psychologically and instinctively recoil from such a proposition. That being said, if we look closely at many of the abuses in these systems, they happened after a teacher reached a certain level of popularity that made them feel utterly invincible. And the people and structures around them—colleagues, followers, publishers, and now social media channels—help to maintain that illusion.
It is not enough to be born with a woman’s body to realize the power of our feminine wisdom.
Bringing back the “Sacred Feminine” aspect to contemporary times
The concept of the “Sacred Feminine” values the feminine principle (along with that of the masculine) as co-equal and fundamental aspects of the transcendent. This paradigm focuses on the woman’s body, her emotional, physical, and psychological cycles, and provides guidance on how women can re-harmonize and integrate with nature and the spiritual plane. The Sacred Feminine seeks to re-discover a natural and ancient wisdom that incorporates into everyday life the values of the archetypal feminine in the social, personal, religious, cultural, and educational fields, among many more.
The movement of the Sacred Feminine has, in recent years, gained momentum due to a growing sense of urgency for change. For too long our experience of the world has been colored by men-only voices and, because of the exclusion and repression of the feminine, we ended up experiencing a “masculine negative.” This exclusive, dogmatic obsession with unleashing masculinity and repressing femininity has led to the collapse of values related to care, integrated health, education, relationships, community, union, ecology, art, and natural spirituality. An overwhelming priority was accorded to concerns about the economy, external power, war and imperialism, discord, competition, and the exploitation of people and nature. Humanity became focused on the exterior, on the material and physical, while forgetting the interior, the inner life, and most tragically, the spiritual conscience.
I believe that modern society can only move forward when women living in society are seen as truly human—full human beings with a range of desires, hopes, shortcomings, and contributions to offer. Furthermore, women appear in three forms that men cannot: daughter, wife, and mother. Women create and sustain communities, support religions and communities of faith, and are the ones to literally create the family unit by giving birth. It is the woman who keeps an infant in her body for nine months and, after giving birth, becomes the child’s first teacher or mentor. The reality is that despite this being common knowledge, women continue in various degrees to be denied full equality and rights.
Like many other major religions, Buddhism has been quite disadvantageous to women, and yet Buddhism can provide freedom, dignity, and peace to women. It all depends on how Buddhism is practiced and much of that depends on the initiative, courage, and imagination of women practitioners, especially those who pioneer a gender-neutral and gender-free way of understanding and practicing Buddhism.
Women in Contemporary Buddhism: A Challenge for the 21st Century - Original article published in Buddhistdoor Global in 2019 Women in Contemporary Buddhism: A Challenge for the 21st Century
The very notion of gender equality entails the belief that injustice is associated with the concept’s very definition. It is imperative that we reflect deeply on this association. Injustice arises as an inability of society to accept an obvious fact that, naturally, men and women should be equal.
The realization that sustainable development is not possible without equality between men and women is a relatively recent finding and directly linked to sustainability issues.
I propose that a holistic, comprehensive approach to sustainability is one of the most important ways to support and maintain gender justice and equality. The world needs, as a matter of urgency, to define the issues of social responsibility, so that the major themes related to the human being can be shared among all genders. It is very important to take care of our increasingly volatile planet, but more importantly, it is to take care of the people who live on it.
Defending equality between men and women, or boys and girls, is as important as combating domestic violence, or empowering low-income populations. Teaching that rights should be equal, as well as opportunities and performance, are mandatory themes on this important day, reminding us that the road to true equality is still long.
The importance of rectifying gender injustice and restoring women’s dignity in many parts of the world is unquestionable. As many of us know, gender equality is the third Millennium Development Goal of the United Nations, “gender equality and women’s empowerment.” Indeed, the importance of women in the sustainable development of society is so much more than just a theoretical or intellectual discussion. It is an urgent campaign or cause that unites women from all over the world in the awareness of their fundamental role for this sustainable development to be achieved.
Women actively contribute in all sectors of productive activity, side by side with men, seeking equality based on respect and recognition of their role in society. However, their rights continue to be denied and their contribution to the sustainability of society are stunted or overlooked.
Women’s roles should be increasingly valued as an active presence within the family with responsibilities, whether in the world of work, communities, or just as mothers. Their contribution is indispensable to the existence of a sustainable society, since their participation has become a strong example of social inclusion and feminine empowerment. These women are businesswomen, decision makers, workers and leaders.
For many women this recognition and appreciation of their abilities are part of their day-to-day life. Tragically, most women aren’t recognized in any sense that would empower them. It is a serious, crippling and psychologically debilitating problem. Most women earn less than men in the same professional roles, are victims of discrimination, struggle with double shift at work and home and are often still the targets of aggression and sexual harassment.
How, then, can one imagine sustainable development without the potential of women, which has not been supported enough the world over so far?
We need to create the necessary mechanisms for new ideas to be considered in a serious and responsible way. There are many obstacles along the road to true equality.
And why not start taking some simple but effective steps?
There is an urgent need to fund more women’s service centers where they can report violence and have psychological counseling.
We should encourage women to seek independence and not be afraid to consider alternatives that can generate multiple income streams.
Parents need to educate sons and daughters so that they respect each other and are willing to share domestic work.
Boys need to be taught not to reproduce expressions such as “This is a woman’s thing,” or denigrate certain professions or activities. Such discourse violates the dignity of women who give decades of their lives doing thankless and often unpaid or low-paid work taken for granted, often by men.
Finally, we all have a moral responsibility to report cases of violence, abuse and sexual exploitation against children and adolescents.
There is always more we can do. When women uplift themselves (and we uplifted other women and men), men and children benefit. Let’s create a world where women – and men – can realize their full potential.
Sónia Gomes *
Article published in TeaHouse - BuddhistDoor International on 8 March 2018
"I hope that the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha can be fully clarified and used in our lives without gender distinctions – enlightened beings being respected and honored both men and women, whether young or old, whatever their nationality, ethnicity, skin colour, social and economic status and so on. A world without prejudice discrimination, but rather with peaceful and harmonious societies. And for this to happen, a new paradigm must implicate the appreciation of the feminine principle."