Every time Buddhism migrated from its place of origin in India to other countries, whether Sri Lanka, Burma, Japan, China or Tibet, the philosophy, customs and rituals transformed as well. Not surprisingly, Buddhism’s relocation to the West comes with a sea change of emphasis and culture. In Tibet, revered masters might isolate themselves in remote caves, sometimes for decades, in deep meditation. In the West, teachers reach thousands instantly by streaming their wisdom on podcasts. Throughout Asia, women rarely had equal access to education. In the West, women demand to be acknowledged in the many leadership roles they assume. In many Asian Buddhist communities, open dissent is unthinkable, while in academia, critical discourse is crucial.
Of all these changes that we are watching Buddhism undergo in the West, the most momentous may be that women are insisting on playing an equal role. More and more Buddhist women are now rising as teachers in their own right who understand their responsibility: to invigorate and bolster women to hold up “half the sky” as spiritual seekers and teachers. As feminist Buddhist scholar Rita Gross points out in her book “Buddhism After Patriarchy,” “The single biggest difference between the practice of Buddhism in Asia and the practice of Buddhism in the West is the full and complete participation of women in Western Buddhism.” The 14th Dalai Lama has acknowledged this by pointing out that his next incarnation could be a woman. “I call myself a feminist,” he said. “Isn’t that what you call someone who fights for women’s rights?” Despite the complex historical, religious and political factors surrounding the selection of incarnate masters in the exiled Tibetan tradition, the Dalai Lama is open to change. Why not? What’s the big deal?
“The lamas can’t ignore this any longer,” says Western nun Karma Lekshe Tsomo, the founder of the most important international organization for Buddhist women, Sakyadhita (“Daughters of the Buddha”). “In most Buddhist centers, look into the kitchen—all women. Look into the offices, who does the administration? Mostly women. Who does the driving and organizing, the cleaning and the correspondence, the shopping and managing? Mostly women.” That women then also become teachers, abbesses and even Dalai Lamas is only a natural evolution.
The current transformation of Buddhism in the 21st century is stunning on so many levels, and women play a role in this endeavor as prime agents. The Buddha was the first religious founder after the Jains who allowed women into the ranks of his order – a revolutionary decision at the time, more than 2,500 years ago. The historical Buddha clearly encouraged lay women and nuns along with men to be the pillars of his community. But while iconic archetypes of feminine enlightenment were erected on shrines, few women were actually emboldened to follow in their footsteps. Despite an encouraging quote of Padmasambhava, the 8th century pioneer of Tibetan Buddhism, that women’s potential to attain liberation is supreme, most Buddhist cultures throughout the centuries perceived women as lesser beings. The few encouraging statements are outnumbered by plenty of passages in the writings attributed to Padmasambhava and other masters that lament the hardships of womanhood. Commonly used Tibetan words for woman, lümen or kyemen, literally mean “inferior being” or “lesser birth.” Some orthodox masters doubt to this day if women can attain realization at all, and age-old liturgies have women pray for a better rebirth in a male body.
“There were certainly many great female practitioners in Tibet,” British nun and abbess Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo writes in her book “Reflections on a Mountain Lake.” “But because they lacked a background of philosophical training, they could not aspire to write books, gather disciples, go on Dharma tours, and give talks. When we read the histories, we will notice that nuns are distinguished by their absence. But this doesn’t mean they weren’t there.” To this day nunneries in Asia usually lack the resources the monasteries get, and full ordination for women is currently not a possibility in the Tibetan tradition, though many monks and nuns, including the Dalai Lama, are working towards a change.
The Dalai Lama has spoken out many times about the need for resolving the issue. “Two thousand five hundred years ago, the Buddha was preaching in a male-dominated society,” he stated in an interview. “If he stressed feminist viewpoints, nobody would have listened to him. The important thing is that now, for the past thirty years, we have worked to change that.”
This is a challenge all religions in the 21st century face in one form or another. Watching the change in the Vatican, many hope that the new pope will be a little more inclusive, especially when it comes to women’s issues and questions concerning sexuality and contraception. More than 70 percent of American Catholics want the next pope to ordain women, approve the use of contraception, and let priests get married. But we know Catholics won’t get a female pope or female priests any time soon. Women are the only group categorically excluded, and Pope Francis has not made encouraging statements in the past. But any organization that excludes 50 percent of their brightest and most capable members from leadership won’t be able to escape change forever. The papacy won’t be a mamacy any time soon, but at least we know that Her Holiness is an option.
Michaela Haas, PhD, is an international reporter, lecturer, and consultant. She is the author of “Dakini Power: Twelve Extraordinary Women Changing the Transmission of Tibetan Buddhism in the West,” which will be published by Snow Lion/Shambhala this April. With a Ph.D. in Asian Studies, she is currently a visiting scholar in Religious Studies at the University of California Santa Barbara. She has been studying and practicing Buddhism for almost twenty years. She is the founding owner of HAAS live!, an international coaching company which combines her experience in media with mindfulness training. Since the age of sixteen, she has worked as a writer and interviewer for major nationwide German newspapers, magazines and TV stations.