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Lions Roar : November 2019
eventually will achieve enlightenment by overcoming delusion and perfecting ethical conduct, meditative absorption, and realization of the nature of reality. This dramatic vision is certainly at odds with the skepticism of modern philosophy and the materialism of the natural and social sciences, according to which our knowledge is always limited, there is no life after death, and spiritual perfection is a chimera. Accordingly, many modern Buddhists have interpreted tradi- tional doctrines symbolically, psychologically, or existentially. For instance, they may see rebirth as a symbol of the various experiences we undergo in a single life and regard so-called enlightened beings as human exemplars of ethical and intellectual virtue, but not as perfect beings. This allows us, as moderns, to reshape the dharma in terms that are meaningful within our own frame of reference. Caveats: Taking traditional Buddhist cosmology and metaphys- ics solely in symbolic, psychological, or existential terms deprives it of much of its magnificence and urgency, and threatens to reduce it to an exotic form of secular humanism. As a wise Buddhist nun once asked me, “If there’s no rebirth and no traditional buddha- hood, why are we going to all the trouble of being bodhisattvas?” Also, we must recall that our current knowledge of reality is simply a replacement for earlier understandings of reality, and is itself certain to be superseded in time, and in ways we can’t now imagine. Indeed, while some details of Buddhist physical science don’t stand up to scrutiny, the overall cosmic vision of Buddhism has thus far neither been proven nor disproven, nor is it likely to be anytime soon. We do best, I think, to modestly recall Hamlet’s remark to Horatio: “There are more things in heaven and Earth... / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” Women Are Not Second-Class Buddhists VEN. KARMA LEKSHE TSOMO calls for an end to the inferior status of Buddhist nuns, and of Buddhist women generally. GENDER INEQUALITY is difficult to rationalize in a tradition that supposedly proclaims enlightenment for all. When questioned by his faith- ful attendant Ananda, the Buddha assured him that women have equal potential to achieve the fruits of the path, including liberation, the ultimate realization. This definitive statement should have been suf- ficient to clear the path for women’s equality, but social realities rarely match theoretical ideals. Even though countless women have reportedly achieved the ultimate goal of liberation—becoming arhats—women’s status has consistently been subordinate in Buddhist societies. Being born male automatically elevates a boy to first-class status, while being born female universally relegates a girl to second- class status. Wealth, aristocratic birth, or opportune marriage may mitigate the circumstances, but the general pattern of social status remains in full view. Although Buddhist societies may have overall been more gender egalitarian than many oth- ers, stark gender discrimination persists even today. Nowhere is the subordination of women more evident than in the Buddhist sangha, the monastic community. After some hesitation, possibly based on his concern for women’s safety, the Buddha gave women the opportunity to live a renunciant life- style. According to the story, however, it was not on equal terms with the monks. It is taught that the Buddha’s foster mother Mahapajapati, who became the first bhikkhuni, or fully ordained nun, was required to observe eight weighty rules that continue to this day to make the nuns dependent upon the monks. Although the language of the texts shows that these passages were added much later, nuns’ subordinate status, and a predic- tion that the nuns’ admission would decrease the lifespan of the Buddha’s teachings, have contributed to the perception of women’s inferiority. The teachings have far outlived the prediction (which was adjusted over time!), but the misconception has endured. The situation of nuns today varies by tradition. In the Thera- vada traditions of South and Southeast Asia, the lineage of full ordination for women came to an end around the eleventh century, and many followers believe that it cannot be revived. Women who renounce household life observe eight, nine, or ten precepts, including celibacy, yet they are not considered part of the monastic sangha. Until recently they received far less educa- tion and support than monks. In the Mahayana traditions of East Asia, the bhikkhuni lin- eage of full ordination was brought from Sri Lanka to China in the fifth century and flourishes today in China, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, and the Chinese diaspora. In these traditions, nuns are well supported by the lay community and have opportuni- ties for education roughly equal to the monks. The bhikkhuni lineage was never established in the Vajrayana tradition of Inner Asia, but women may receive novice ordina- tion from monks and are considered part of the monastic sangha. In the last three decades, nuns have worked hard to improve their living conditions and educational opportunities. Many of them hope that the Dalai Lama will find a way to establish a lineage of full ordination for women in the Tibetan tradition. Ideas about how to redress the gender imbalance, both for monastics and lay women, widely differ depending on the situ- ation. For those Buddhist women in remote areas of Asia, better nutrition, health care, and education are top priority, while for those in urban areas the concerns are about gender parity VEN. KARMA LEKSHE TSOMO is a Buddhist nun and professor of Buddhist studies at the University of San Diego. She is a founder of Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women and director of Jamyang Foundation, which supports educational programs for Buddhist women and girls. LION’S ROAR | NOVEMBER 2019 64