An Argument Against Gender Discrimination Within The Buddhist Sangha

by Anthony Burns
International Buddhist College, Thailand.

Mr. Anthony Burns is an Irish student in the Zen Tradition for well over 16 years now. He welcomes your feedback. He can be contacted at

The discrimination against women in Buddhism has its roots in Vedic society and is symptomatic of the patriarchal structure of human society since that time. However, Gender inequality can find no justification in core Buddhist teaching and is a blatant contradiction of that teaching. Although the Buddha did take some steps to address the issue of gender inequality, these were unavoidably restricted by the extreme cultural mind-set of his time. The Buddha was not a social reformer, his purpose was not to change society but only to change the hearts of the elements of society, human beings. When he argued against social injustice it was usually because a particular practice or belief was an obstacle to the spread of the Dharma. For instance, it is not accurate to claim that the Buddha attacked the caste system per se, what he did attack was the belief that caste was conditioned by hereditary factors rather than by Kamma. The historical Buddha was a pragmatist, he was fully aware of exactly how far he could go. If the success of the Dharma meant that he had to work within unjust social conditions, then that is what he did. A leader must lead from the front, but if he moves too far ahead, then he will lose his followers. To sacrifice the success of the Dharma merely to pursue some revolutionary social ideal would not have been the act of a fully enlightened Buddha. Use of skilful means which best suited both audience and cultural framework was always his preferred tactic. If he was teaching in present day society, it is reasonable to assume that he would use very different language and express his ideas according to 21st century understanding. That said, it must be immediately stressed that the one element which could and would not change, is the core teaching. If we were fortunate enough in this spiritual ice-age to see another Buddha born among us, we have no reason to believe that the core teachings would be fundamentally different than those taught by Sakyamuni. What then of the linguistic and sociocultural framework of the teachings? Would anyone seriously suggest that the coming Maitreya Buddha will present his teachings according to the socially acceptable mores of the Brahmanic society of 500 BC ? If this seems preposterous then we must face another question; why then in the 21st century do we still imprison the Dharma within those same primitive mores?

The fundamental nature of sentient beings is ignorance and delusion. The Buddha was teaching the Dharma of enlightenment to those who simply could not see it for themselves. Like the king who asked the blind men to describe an elephant (Udana 6.4), the enormity of the task should not be underestimated. This is one reason why the contents of the Suttas cannot be seen as wholly literal or direct teaching. Rather, they should be recognised as the employment of skilful means designed to lead beings in a particular direction according to their level of awareness. The many disputes, schisms, heresies, and sectarian splits which have marked the development of Buddhism are testament to this misunderstanding of skilful means. Just as in Aryan society, the society of today is bound by narrow and deluded thinking and behaviour. So much so, that we have continued to attach deluded thinking and behavior to the Buddha's teaching, as if that deluded behavior was somehow part of the teaching. This essay is an attempt to separate two contradictory elements which have somehow become joined. Fortunately, we can say that the cultural baggage of ancient Aryan society was mostly not carried over into Buddhist teaching. The one major exception to this is the gender inequality which also became a feature of later societies and so continued to be a feature of the Buddhist Sangha.

Buddha, being fully aware of the discriminatory nature of human delusion, did caution his disciples to check any suspect teaching, word for word, against the Suttas (DN 16). He repeated this warning to the Kalama people when he told them not to believe his teaching unless they had proved it by their own experience.(AN 3.65) If we are to avoid the great mistake of confusing human delusion and ignorance with the teaching of liberation, then we must make use of the method he has given to us.

Whenever the subject of gender is raised within the Buddhist monastic Sangha, inevitably the focus of attention is narrowed onto a particular document. This document, found in the Cullavagga of the Vinaya Pitaka, presents an account of the foundation of the Bhikkhuni order, the order of Buddhist nuns. It is not the purpose of this essay to enter into the debate as to the authenticity of that or any other document connected with it. Evidence for and against authenticity have been well rehearsed in previous writings.(7)(3)(4) As yet, no conclusive historical proof has been discovered to support either position. This essay will attempt to demonstrate that this debate about documentary evidence is quite simply a 'red herring'. Rather than concentrating our attention on finding a solution to a serious problem, it has caused us to look in the wrong direction, to miss the real point. If we wish to reach the truth of this matter, then it is not in the events of prehistory that we will find it. Rather it is toward the core teachings of the Buddha, tried and tested by generations of disciples, that we should look for our answer.

The historical milieu of the Buddha was dominated by the Brahmanical system of caste hierarchy. In early Aryan society, the position of women had been relatively less discriminatory. However, the rise of the Brahmana caste and the solidification of the caste system had reduced the status of women to one on a par with the lowest caste, the Sudra. The sole purpose of women was to serve men and produce male offspring. Women were denied any role in religious practice and their salvation was completely dependent on the degree of their devotion to their "god" husband. (1)(6) "No sacrifice, no vow, no fast must be performed by women apart from their husbands; if a wife obeys her husband, she will for that reason alone be exalted in heaven." (2)

Although formulated at a later time, the "Laws of Manu" which regulated Vedic society, provide a glimpse into the social and religious status of women at the time of Buddha. This incredible situation does of course highlight just how revolutionary it was for Buddha to establish the Bhikkhuni Sangha at this particular time. The impact which this step had on Brahmanic society cannot be underestimated. Yet, as this essay will demonstrate, it was an inevitable step for the Buddha to take, to deny ordination to women would have required him to contradict his own teachings. Such a contradiction would have brought many key elements of the Dharma into question. It is in the light of those key teachings that we must now examine the matter of gender discrimination.

Although it became a matter of controversy after the Buddha's death and even in more recent times, the teaching of Anatta is accepted as a core teaching by both the Theravada and Mahayana traditions. "These five aggregates are impermanent and devoid of self. This is the aspect of the doctrine that the Buddha stressed most of all."(5) It is specifically this teaching which marked the Buddha's Dharma as being distinct from Upanishadic or any other teaching of his time. When he declared that the human form contained no inherent self or soul, the Buddha struck at the very heart of the evolving Upanishadic and Sramana teaching of his time. In the Anatta-lakkhana Sutta the Buddha makes the unambiguous declaration that form is not self. We note that there is absolutely no distinction made between male and female form. In no human form can we find any inherent, permanent self or soul. "Form, monks, is not self. If form were the self, this form would not lend itself to dis-ease. It would be possible [to say] with regard to form, 'Let this form be thus. Let this form not be thus.' But precisely because form is not self, form lends itself to dis-ease. And it is not possible [to say] with regard to form, 'Let this form be thus. Let this form not be thus.' (SN 22.59) ) In the Satipatthana Sutta Buddha clearly states that the human form is nothing more than a temporary flux of four material elements. When referring to form he again makes no distinction between male and female. "Furthermore...just as a skilled butcher or his apprentice, having killed a cow, would sit at a crossroads cutting it up into pieces, the monk contemplates this very body ' however it stands, however it is disposed ' in terms of properties: 'In this body there is the earth property, the liquid property, the fire property, & the wind property.'(MN 10) In the 'Lesser Discourse on Emptiness' from the Majhima Nikaya, the Buddha advises Ananda on right perception based on awareness of emptiness, "The mode of perception" which is "empty of the perception of human being." When this mode of perception is used then "Whatever disturbances that would exist based on the perception of human being are not present."(MN.121) This point about the asexual nature and right perception of the aggregate of form by those who are actively following the Buddha's path, finds ample support within the Suttas. It is all the more disconcerting then when, inserted into a Sutta which is a rich source of that teaching, we come across the following passage;
" Then the Venerable Ananda said to the Blessed One: "How, Lord, should we conduct ourselves towards women?"

"Do not see them, Ananda."

"But, Lord, if we do see them?"

"Do not speak, Ananda."

"But, Lord, if they should speak to us?"

"Then, Ananda, you should establish mindfulness." (DN 16.23)

This passage comes from the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, in which the Buddha has earlier taught that the fourth of the eight liberations is gained by "Utterly transcending the perceptions of matter, by the disappearance of the perceptions of sense reaction."(DN 16.37)
This short conversation with Ananda appears quite out of context and sits uncomfortably in the surrounding text. A first reaction may be to dismiss it as an example of mischief making by some misogynist monk. After all, earlier in the same Sutta the Buddha had accepted a dinner invitation from a well known courtesan.(DN 17) Furthermore, accounts from other Suttas do not show either Buddha or Ananda behaving toward women in this way. Yet if we look more closely at these words, not in a purely literal way but in a way which looks for deeper meaning, then they can begin to make sense.

Taken in isolation, such words appear to reveal an uncharacteristic and unenlightened fear of 'women'. However, if viewed in the light of previous quotations regarding right perception of form, then they begin to make perfect sense. What the Buddha is actually saying to Ananda is that when he looks at or speaks to a woman (or any form), if he has right perception then the form before him is not a 'woman' or any other discriminating view of form, but rather the truth of Anatta, Anicca and dependent arising. If he looks at a woman (or any form) and conceives the form of a woman (or any other form) then his perception is distorted by the mind of self and other, 'I' and not-I, the mind which produces the dualistic reaction of craving or aversion. "Yours alone is the eye, Evil One. Yours are forms, yours is the sphere of consciousness of contact at the eye. Where no eye exists, no forms exist, no sphere of consciousness and contact at the eye exists: there, Evil One, you cannot go.(SN IV.19)

Seen in this way, the passage is not so out of place and is compatible with the core teaching. We do a great disservice to Buddha and Dharma if we blindly apply a literal and simplistic meaning to the Suttas without attempting to reconcile them with the core teaching. Just so when Ananda declared that the teaching of Paticcasamuppada was not difficult to understand, the Buddha admonished him for his blindness. If all that was required for attainment of Prajna was the mere reading of Suttas, then who would not be enlightened?
A Mahayana sutra records that the Buddha once said that if there was a second force as powerful as sexual desire, enlightenment would be impossible.(10) It appears that some monks saw women as the greatest threat to their practice, rather than their own polluted perception of female form. Perhaps it was easier to remove the outer source of temptation rather than the true source. The Buddha was certainly well aware of the inherent weakness of his monks and made every effort to protect them (AN I. I) However, it is a mistake to think that he was protecting them from women, it was their own desire that they needed protection from. The cause was the weakness of Bhikkhus when confronted with their own sexual desires, but it was the Bhikkhuni Sangha who suffered the consequences of that moral weakness. Ananda, the monk who seems most sympathetic to the plight of the Bhikkhunis, was not hampered by fear and insecurity when it came to sexual self-control. "Through a full 25 years, for as long as I have been in higher training, I have never had a thought of lust; See, how powerfully the Dhamma works." (Thag 17.3 (v.1039)
It is only in very recent times that Sangha members such as the present Dalai Lama along with a minority of monks in countries such as Sri Lanka, have finally begun to reach some understanding of the great wrong which has been perpetrated against Buddhist women (4) "While the Bhikshu ordination lineage still exists in almost all Buddhist countries today, the Bhikshuni ordination lineage exists only in some countries. For this reason, the four-fold Buddhist community (of Bhikshus, Bhikshunis, Upasakas, and Upasikas) is incomplete in the Tibetan tradition. If we can introduce the Bhikshuni ordination within Tibetan tradition, that would be excellent in order to have the four-fold Buddhist community complete."(9)
My conclusion to this essay is based on the wisdom of one of the great Bhikkhuni Arahants of the Therigathas, Soma. Mara told Soma that she was wasting her time in the Buddhist practice, due to her 'two finger' wisdom (limited to cooking rice). Soma replied that it was the one who discriminated between male and female that he should be talking to. For her there was no such discrimination, her bright awareness was neither male nor female and could see clearly through his deception (8)

Unfortunately for the Dharma, generations of Bhikkhus have not been able to see with the same non-dual eye as Soma. In our study and teaching of the Buddha's words we present the five Skandhas, three marks, eighteen Dhatus etc. as the great truths of his enlightenment. Yet, when it comes to the practical application of the core teachings, one cannot but suspect that some are seeing 5 male skandhas and 5 female skandhas, male Anatta and female Anatta. We must ask, do those who practice and promote gender based discrimination (or race, or any other form) within the Sangha really understand the full implications of these basic teachings?

Within other world religions such as Christianity, attempts to break the gender barrier have also met with little success. The doctrine of a male Godhead and his male son have meant that any advances in social thinking have not made any significant difference within male dominated structures such as the Catholic church. Within Buddhism however, the situation is very different. The absence of a godhead, of any gender, means that no male dominated priesthood of any kind is required, whether as intercessor or in the performance of unnecessary ritual. The 'Ariya Sangha' consists of four assemblies and not only one, as it might sometimes appear. The Buddha Dharma contains no duality, the existence of discrimination between male and female on any level is a contradiction of the teaching. The true Dharma does not reflect society but transcends it. To teach anatta and non-discrimination while acting in a discriminatory way is not to match words with actions. In our 'scientific' age, when religious teachings are frequently met with healthy scepticism or open hostility, any hint of hypocrisy is quickly seized upon as reason for rejection. It is true that the concept of gender equality was so alien to the society of the Buddha that for him to even attempt its explicit introduction would have failed. And yet, if the core teaching and particularly the teaching of Anatta are understood, gender equality is contained within that teaching and cannot be separated from it. If there has ever been any legitimate reason for inequality between Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni, it has long since lost all credibility.


* Sutta quotations from access to insight website. htp://

(1) Basham, A.L. 2000. The Wonder That Was India. Rupa & co. Delhi.
(pp. 137-182)

(2) Website (section V. 147,148,154,155)
Buhler, George. 1886. Sacred books of the East vol. 25, The Laws of Manu.
Sacred texts. (accessed 2/8/08)

(3) Horner, I.B. 1999. Women Under Primitive Buddhism. (pp.105-158)
Motilal Banarsidass Pub. Delhi.

(4) Website; The Revival of Bhikkhuni Ordination in the Theravada Tradition (accessed 2-9-08)

(5) Bhikkhu, Buddhadasa. 2006. The Truth Of Nature FAQ. Amarin Pub. Bangkok. Pg.61

(6) Chakravarti, Uma. 1996. The Social Dimensions of Early Buddhism. Munshiram Manoharlal pub. Ltd. (pp.32)

(7) Tsomo, Karma Lekshe. 1999. Buddhist Women Across Cultures. Sri Satguru Pub. Delhi. (pp. 4-30).

(8) Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans.1997. Discourses of the Ancient Nuns. Bodhi Leaves Publication no.143, B.P.S, Kandy, Sri Lanka.

(9) Statement of his holiness the Dalai Lama to the First International Congress on Buddhist Women's Role in the Sangha: Bhikshuni Vinaya and Ordination Lineages Hamburg University, Hamburg, Germany
(accessed 9/8/08).

(10) The Sutra of 42 Sections (24) DRBA,City of ten thousand Buddhas, U.S.A., (accessed 10/8/08)

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