While Mahayana Zen Buddhism has been around for a long time, its doctrines may still be relevant in today’s society. Some of these teachings can also focus on important global problems, such as gender equality, which is one of them. What is Mahayana Buddhism’s take on women’s immaturity? Is it pro-imparity or anti-imparity? This research paper will review the literature on Mahayana Buddhism’s claims in relation to the topic of gender disparity. It will also address the evidence for gender disparity contributing to women’s impoverishment in contemporary Mahayana-majority regions and other parts of the world. The discussion part will focus on the teachings of Mahayana Buddhism related to gender equality and their relevance in the contemporary society.
“If belief in God in this sense is the essence of religion, then Buddhism cannot be a religion. Buddhism holds no such belief and on the contrary, denies the existence of a creator god” (Keown 5). The author further described that “some have suggested that a new category—that of the non-theistic religion—is needed to encompass Buddhism” (5).
On the contrary, Peter Harvey said, “Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam are the three great missionary religions of the world, for each has sought actively to spread its message and practice beyond the culture where it originated” (Harvey 3).
“Amongst the languages important for an understanding of Buddhism, probably the two key ones are Pali and Sanskrit, two closely related languages.” The author said that Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana texts were recorded before they were translated into Tibetan or Chinese (Harvey 2).
“Mahayana is not, and never was an overall single unitary phenomenon. It is not a sect or school but rather perhaps a spiritual movement…it developed over a number of centuries as an alternative and distinctive view of what Buddhism should ultimately be” (Williams 3).
“Mahayana Buddhism is equally famous for its elaboration of the ‘bodhisattva’ ideal …to achieve ‘complete perfect enlightenment’ for the sake of all beings, over the course of many lifetimes rather than to rest content, achieving only her own freedom from cyclic existence” (Harvey 212).
Women in Mahayana Buddhism
Peter Harvey cited an example of women’s participation in Mahayana Buddhism in the following story:
We may use the story of the Naga Princess in the Lotus Sutra as a good example of this genre. The eight-year-old Naga Princess is praised by Manjusri, the bodhisattva of wisdom as ‘superior in knowledge and understanding’. Another bodhisattva objects to his judgment, stating that because of the amount of time it takes to attain the bodhisattva way, such a young girl would not have been able to acquire so much wisdom. Suddenly the Naga Princess appears and proclaims that she will teach the Dharma, which liberates from suffering. Sariputra…objects that she cannot accomplish that goal because a female cannot attain the ‘five stations’…In that instant, her ‘female organ’ disappeared and the ‘male organ’ became visible. She appeared instantly as a bodhisattva. (214)
“The worth of these texts lies in their revelation of permutations of two central themes found cross-culturally:”
The first is the notion that the feminine is mysterious, sensual, destructive, elusive, and closer to nature. Association with this nether world may be polluting to the world and deadly for the male and therefore must be suppressed, controlled, and conquered by the male in the name of culture, society, and religion….the second theme is the notion that the feminine is wise, maternal, creative, gentle, and compassionate. Association with this affective, emotional, transcendent realm is necessary for the male’s fulfillment of his religious goals and for his release from suffering. Sexuality may be either controlled or denied in the feminine as sacred. (Paul xxiv-xxv)
Another example of women’s participation in Mahayana Buddhism is the following story:
A great female Buddhist teacher, who simply, and with great authority, teaches advanced Buddhist doctrine. She is the heroine of the Srimala-Devi Sutra, a laywoman, and queen of her people…no one challenges her in any way, nor her female gender even discussed. At the end of the sutra, everyone in her realm converts to Mahayana Buddhism, beginning with the women, who are followed by her husband, and then finally by the rest of the men.
Mahayana Buddhism and Gender Inequality
“All of us are becoming increasingly aware of assumptions made about women and how these assumptions affect women and men” (Paul, ix).
“Modern commentators on the participation of women in Buddhism are likely to focus into two broad generalizations.” Peter Harvey added that the first observation follows that Buddha’s teachings apply to all sentient beings, making the religion gender-neutral and the second observation is women and men have not been expected to have the same status and accomplishments (Harvey 205).
“Scholars who have studied this period extensively conclude that, at the time of the Buddha, the situation of women was relatively good, compared with other possibilities in patriarchal studies.” These scholars further conclude that “there has been a slow change in the way women were treated during the ancient Indian Buddhism” (Gross 33).
The story of the Naga Princess became famous and was used several times in literature concerning religion and gender equality. The story clearly depicts a young woman wishing to attain what male leaders have reached. There were objections, and when the Naga Princess tried to proof her worth, she was turned into a man before her goal was accomplished. It is a clear picture of how people that time regarded women as inferior to their male counterparts. But as Harvey recalled, Mahayana Buddhism is ‘gender-neutral’. There was no male and female, all sentient beings are gender-free. But the culture that time was not practicing such equality where patriarchal was common in all aspects of living.
Mahayana Buddhism cited incidences where women were not favored because of their gender or sexuality but there are some stories that will tell us otherwise. The great female leader’s story is one good example. There is no gender discrimination, and the women’s rule is uplifted by gaining the trust of other women, and men as well. She is an example of a woman who wants to lead the way regardless of her femininity. Vast literature concerning gender equality today is available. Occurrences of this issue will surely make the news and prove that it still exists in the present world.
Gender Inequality in the Contemporary World with Mahayana Majorities
In China, book editors Wang, et al., said: “gender inequality leaves women with marginalized voices and less decision-making power in political life” (48). Furthermore, they said, “social customs in China assume that political and economic decision-making are men’s prerogatives and that female leaders have long hair but are short on experience” (Wang, et al. 48).
An analysis of resolution-making ability among married and unmarried women in India by Jan and Akhtar reveals that:
There is no significant difference between married and unmarried women regarding their decision-making power. However, highly significant differences are observed, between married and unmarried women, related to their empowerment. Women generally possess low decision-making power and are mainly dependent on masculine and/or familial decision making. (43)
The website for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan says that “At the United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister Abe emphasized Japan’s intention to enhance cooperation with the international community and its assistance to developing countries for women’s empowerment and gender equality, as part of its effort to address global agenda.”
An article on Women’s autonomy in household decision-making: a demographic study in Nepal by Acharya, Bell, and Regmi reads that:
In Nepal, as in most parts of South Asia, females naturally have less competence and autonomy than males in making resolutions about their own health care. Additionally, women usually have different access to food, study, and health care, limited freedom to earn living, restricted access to productive resources, and hardly any competent legal rights.
Nepalese women are further disadvantaged by a lack of knowledge of opportunities and their legal rights. Their small social position has been classified as a barricade towards national health and population policy advance in Nepal. Gender fairness gives females both increased decision-making power and more modern reproductive outcomes such as to reduce the desire for more children, increase contraceptive use and lower the level of ‘unmet need’ for this.
A Nepal Demographic Health Survey (NDHS) shows that females are mostly less educated than males. The survey reveals that 37% of currently married women engaged in all four of the important household decisions that were investigated their own health care, major household investments, purchases of daily needs, and visits to her family or friends while 31% did not participate in any of these resolutions.
Gender Inequality in Global Context
“Despite over two decades of awareness of gender issues, evidence of gender inequality remains prevalent throughout the world. Even in advanced industrial nations, women’s share of the labor force is lower and their unemployment rate is higher than for men” (Rives and Yousefi 1).
Rebecca Sun reported in an online news portal the “lack of parity for women-behind the camera, in the front office, on the payroll, long has been one of Hollywood’s intractable obstacles.”
Cecilia Ridgeway supported this by publishing, “we can think of gender inequality as an ordinal hierarchy between men and women in material resources, power, and status…this has persisted in the United States despite major transformations” (3). She further said, “gender, like race, is a categorical form of inequality in that it is based on a person’s membership in a particular social group of category, in this case, the categories of females and males” (4).
Peace Corps Organization claimed, “Globally, women have fewer opportunities for economic participation than men, less access to basic and higher education, greater health and safety risks, and political representation.”
By studying the literature above, I have come to conclude that despite opposing stories about the role of women in this religion, Mahayana Buddhism does not intend to promote discrimination against women nor make their roles smaller and lower than their male counterparts. If Mahayana Buddhism promoted gender inequality against women, stories about great women leaders in the Buddhist traditions would never be told. Culture may have an impact on the religion but in order for us to avoid biased conclusions, we must always refer to many literature sources.
The story of the Naga Princess and the great female teacher are two contradicting views on how Buddhism depicts women. This has no difference with our society today. We treasure women who make a difference in this world and appreciate their contributions. But there are some regions in the world where women are still treated unkindly and not fairly well. Yemen, Pakistan, and Syria have been dubbed by the ‘The Telegraph’ as three of the world’s worst countries for gender equality (Haines). Southeast Asian countries where Mahayana Buddhism spread have evidently inconsistent development regarding women empowerment leading to gender inequality. As decision makers, women in these regions have a lot to improve even at the domestic level before creating an impact in politics or any other public issues. Mahayana Buddhism still reflects how women are treated today: praised, and yet ridiculed, honored, but then trampled upon. Gender equality is a question in the yesteryears, an issue until today, and will still be monitored in the future.
Acharya, Dev R et al. “Women’s Autonomy in Household Decision-Making: A Demographic Study in Nepal.” Reproductive Health 7 (2010): 15. PMC. Web. 2 Apr. 2017.
Gross, Rita. Buddhism After Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction. State University of New York Press, 1993.
Haines, Gavin. “Mapped: The Best and Worst Countries for Gender Equality.” The Telegraph, 3 Nov. 2016. www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/maps-and-graphics/mapped-the-best-and-worst-countries-for-gender-equality/. Accessed 23 Feb 2017.
Harvey, Peter, editor. Buddhism. Continuum, 2001.
Jan, Muzamil, et al. An Analysis of Decision-Making Power among Married and Unmarried Women. Kamla-Raj, 2008.
Japan’s Initiative regarding Women’s Empowerment and Gender Equality (Toward a society in which all women shine), Sep 2003, http://www.mofa.go.jp/files/000016518.pdf. Accessed 01 Apr 2017.
Keown, Damien. Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford UP, 2013.
Paul, Diana. Women in Buddhism: Images of the Feminine in Mahayana Tradition. University of California Press, 1985.
Peace Corps. Global Issues: Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, n.d. www.peacecorps.gov/educators/resources/global-issues-gender-equality-and-womens-empowerment/. Accessed 22 Feb 2017.
Ridgeway, Cecilia. Framed by Gender: How Gender Inequality Persists in the Modern World. Oxford UP, 2011.
Rives, Janet, and Yousefi Mahmood. Economic Dimensions of Gender Inequality: A Global Perspective. Westport: Praeger, 1997.
Sun, Rebecca. “Paul Feig, Nina Jacobson and 50 A-Listers Reveal New Campaign to Tackle Hollywood Gender Inequality.” The Hollywood Reporter, 22 Feb. 2017. www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/frame-campaign-will-tackle-gender-inequality-hollywood-977555. Accessed 23 Feb 2017.
Wang, QI, et al. Revisiting Gender Inequality: Perspectives from the People’s Republic of China. Palgrave MacMillan, 2016.
Williams, Paul. Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, 2nd edition. Routledge, 2009.