Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Right View, Red Rust, and White Bones: A Reexamination of Buddhist Teachings on Female Inferiority

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Right View, Red Rust, and White Bones: A Reexamination of Buddhist Teachings on Female Inferiority

Article excerpt


In speaking of Sakyamuni Buddha's insistence that all spiritual teachings and practices must be closely investigated and tested, not blindly accepted, the Dalai Lama has often stated that if some dharma (4) has been scientifically proven to be incorrect, the Buddhist belief would have to be abandoned. "There is no doubt," he said on one such occasion, "that we must accept the results of scientific research.... When we investigate certain descriptions as they exist in our own texts, we find they do not correspond to reality. In such a case, we must accept the reality and not the literal scriptural explanation" (Piburn 60-62). Elsewhere, he has further cautioned, "If as spiritual practitioners we ignore the discoveries of science, our practice is impoverished, as this mind-set can lead to fundamentalism" (Universe 13).

The Dalai Lama's statements are based on a number of teaching s in the Tripitaka and later sutras in which Sakyamuni Buddha establishes standards for evaluating spiritual teachings and practices--including his own--before one accepts them. In the Tripitaka, the Buddha repeatedly makes clear that his teachings are often misremembered, misrepresented, or misunderstood. This is one of his main reasons for outlining terms for investigating spiritual doctrine. He also states that false and inaccurate teachings and rules are among the causes and conditions that will lead to the decline and disappearance of the Dharma. (5) According to the canonical literature, the criteria and methods for testing spiritual doctrine and practices that the Buddha proposes in such passages are those he hopes Buddhists will use in assessing Buddhist and other spiritual teachings. These methodologies will enable practitioners to determine whether spiritual teachings are true and therefore should be accepted and followed, or whether they are false and therefore should be abandoned.

The application of these standards to one of the most controversial issues in Buddhism today--teachings that women have more negative karma, and are inferior to men, and rules that limit women's authority, rights, activities, and status within Buddhist institutions--has profound consequences for the religion. In evaluating the validity of these teachings and rules, one determines the most important practical aspects of Right View and The Middle Path (6)--how the Dharma should be put into practice in day-to-day life, and how one should cultivate and conduct "body, speech, and mind" as one interacts with all human beings. Thus, one defines Buddhism itself.

Present-Day Buddhist Views and Treatment of Women

At present, the vast majority of Buddhist orders throughout Asia teach that women are inferior to men and have more weaknesses and karmic obstructions. These organizations also discriminate against women in rituals and policies, and so, through their words and actions, teach their followers and cultures to do the same. This is true even in the most liberal Buddhist sects in Taiwan and Korea, where nuns generally enjoy higher standing and better opportunities than in other Asian countries. (7)

Women's educational levels and status have risen significantly in both countries over the past century, and nuns and laywomen now play an important day-to-day role in Buddhist orders, as teachers and practitioners. However, in monastic orders that accept members of both both genders in these countries, nuns generally cannot apply for, or hold, the highest-ranking positions of authority. They are also officially required to cede the positions they are allowed whenever a monk is present. Laywomen and nuns are routinely made to eat after men have eaten (that is, to eat their leftovers); to speak after men have spoken; to sit, walk, and stand behind monks and laymen in ceremonies, rituals, classes, and retreats; and to chant, study, and teach sutras that contain disparaging messages about women. In Dharma classes, and in books written by Buddhist leaders, it is taught that women have more negative qualities and heavier karmic burdens/obstructions ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) than men, and therefore that they cannot become Buddhas. …

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