The Traditional Buddhist View of Women: Feminists Beware

Buddhism is one of the few religions which somehow escapes the wrath of the liberal world.

In fact, a “New Atheist” as rabid and virulent as Sam Harris recommends some practices affiliated with Buddhism (namely, Dzogchen from the Tibetan tradition).

We can easily guess why: Buddhism has often been perceived as atheistic, or at least non-theistic, some even saying nihilistic.

So the liberal world has no problem with a “religion” which isn’t actually one.

RELATED: Atheism’s Appalling Persistence Problem

We’ll not look at Buddhism as a whole, in this article at least, but at just one aspect which triggers liberals, especially feminists, when it comes to Islam: The traditional view on women.

Diana Paul, herself a Buddhist scholar, wrote a book, Women in Buddhism, which she begins as such, p.3:

Traditional Buddhist attitudes toward woman as inferior reflect a view of woman as temptress or evil incarnate. The lustful woman is seen with unrestrained sensuality, perhaps irrevocably so. She has an animalistic nature associated with innate sexual drives not found in the nature of the male. Buddhist literature implies that woman is biologically determined to be sexually uncontrollable. By despising her own nature, woman can perhaps deny her biological destiny of depravity.

Women as animalistic, unrestrained, and evil incarnate?

She then goes on to quote traditional sacred texts from Buddhism.

We can’t bring all the sources here, but this is what we get in “The Tale of King Udayana of Vatsa” from the Mahāratnakūṭa Sūtra, an influential collection of canonical texts that she quotes in pp. 41-42:

Just as a fire in a deep pit
Can cause fire damage without smoking.
A woman also can be
Cruel without pity.

As the filth and decay
Of a dead dog or dead snake
Are burned away,
So all men should burn filth
And detest evil.

The dead snake and dog
Are detestable,
But women are even more
Detestable than they are.

Women will appreciate the poetry! Especially the parts about being more detestable than dogs and dead snakes.

RELATED: What Do Jewish Scriptures Say About Women? A Brief Look

Let’s also bring the Andabhuta Jātaka.

Jatakas are basically a set of fictional literature about the “previous births” of the historical Buddha.

Andabhuta Jātaka is the number 62 of such fairy-tales.

We read:

A sex composed of wickedness and guile,
Unknowable; uncertain as the path
Of fishes in the water,—womankind
Hold truth for falsehood, falsehood for the truth!
As greedily as cows seek pastures new,
Women, unsated, yearn for mate on mate.
As sand unstable, cruel as the snake,
Women know all things; naught from them is hid!

What’s up with Buddha — in all his “incarnations” — comparing women with snakes?!

We could multiply these “verses” denigrating women as being the very embodiment of evil.

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But how did the followers themselves interpret such texts?

Let’s take Shinran, a 12th century Japanese monk.

He’s the founder of the “True Pure Land Buddhism” branch of the “Pure Land Buddhism” school.

To not get too technical, just think of it as the most followed Buddhist sub-sect in Japan, Japan itself having the third highest numbers of Buddhists (after China and Thailand), and, in the West at least, Buddhism is often seen through the Japanese experience.

So, what did one of the most influential Japanese-Buddhist monks think of women?

We read in The Essential Shinran: A Buddhist Path of True Entrusting, p. 186:

So profound is Amida’s great compassion
That, manifesting inconceivable Buddha-wisdom,
The Buddha established the Vow of transformation into men,
Thereby vowing to enable women to attain Buddhahood.

So women can reach “Buddha-hood” (their notion of “enlightenment”) by… becoming men.

Imagine if the Qur’an said that women can only reach Paradise by becoming men.

I hope Western liberals will make it their mission to liberate these oppressed Buddhist women!

And perhaps feminists will now accept the Talibans’ destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan?

After all, he was such a vile misogynist!

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Talha khan

Jazakallah khair. Agree that this is one religion that escapes the wrath of liberals and the reason could be that the facade of Buddhism is not yet dismantled.

Ng Xin Zhao

One has to look into the context. And the application.

  1. Monks are celibate, it’s one of the core precepts. Any monks having sex is auto disrobe offences. And the Buddha is mostly taught to the monks. In such a situation, it could be helpful to have monks acknowledge the dangers of sex, especially on seeing women. The opposite can be said of men if the Buddha was teaching the nuns. Yes, Buddha is a radical feminist for establishing a female monastic order in the society where other religions don’t allow females to join in any practice of religion. If Buddha were to teach the nuns, he would have talked about men being lustful even when old, cause there’s no menopause for men. Men are less responsible for sex for they don’t have to bear the burden of pregnancy, don’t fall for their sweet words, etc. See, the situation can be gender-reversed, so the issue here is not against gender, but against lust.
  2. Any texts above which you quoted are meant to reduce lust, not to denigrate or subjugate women. So in practice, you don’t see Buddhists as a whole preventing women from having education, from having drivers license, etc.
  3. Buddhahood is the far goal, one cannot become a Buddha in this lifetime, because there’s already a Buddha, and only one Buddha appears in each Buddha period, which is when the Dhamma is still in the world. So the goal for enlightenment is via arahanthood for those wishing to attain it in this lifetime. And arahanthood can be attain by any gender. Given the Buddhahood is the far goal, over many rebirths, there’s no attachments to gender, and gender can be easily gone to become male, if the society then is pactriacy, which allows for the teachings of the Buddha to spread far and wide, instead of having to battle pactriacy as an additional barrier to propagate the teachings.
Iskander Zhao

In Pure Land Buddhism, people will all become men if they enter the Western Heavens. This implies that women are inferior creatures that lack the perfection of the male. Feminists would have a field day with this, yet they don’t.

But indeed, it is as you say, gender is meaningless when people reach a certain level in Buddhism, such as how Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara is both male and female.

In practice, men go before women in Buddhist services (just as in Islam).

So, the point of this article, as far as I can understand, is that westerners attack Islam, which professes equality in value between men and women but not some sects of Buddhism, which says women are ultimately flawed compared to the man. The point is to point out the double standards or hypocricy, and perhaps not actually to criticise Buddhism.