Women played an important role in the early history of Buddhism, which dates back to the fifth century B.C.E. Buddha, who was also known as Siddhartha, Shakyamuni and the "Enlightened One", was influenced by his step-mother, Maha Prajâpati Gotami, who went to great efforts to become the first Bhikkhuni, a fully ordained female Buddhist monk.
There is distinct difference in emphasis on the role of women in the West, as opposed to the East. In Asia, women in Buddhism have limited opportunity both in their role and responsibility toward Buddhism. Religious writers believe this not only bars the participation of women in Buddhism but also prevents the natural growth of Buddhism as a whole. In the West, particularly in the United States, women are more involved in lay preaching. According to Dr. Richard Seager, a religious studies professor in New York, "the role of women as leaders and teachers is very significant here."
In terms of the history of women in Buddhism, once the order of Bhikkhunis was founded in the early years of the religion, a large number of distinguished women from various social backgrounds came to adorn this order. They were attracted by the power of Buddha's teaching and the freedom that the new order offered them. Many aspired to join the Bhikkhunis and to attain enlightenment, guided by the teachings of Buddha.
The best-known women involved in this part of Buddhist history are recorded in the Udâna (Buddhist scripture, part of the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism) and the Therigâthâ (Verses of the Elder Nuns). These figures include Gotami as an influential leader. Uppalavannâ and Khema were other important women who were traditionally regarded as "foremost of the Bhikkhunis".
The members of the order belonged to all walks of life. These women included former courtesans like Ambapâli, along with others of royal lineage including Sumeda and Sela. The actual numbers of women involved in Buddhism at this time is not known, although Patacâra is credited with having 500 personal followers.
Although women had an influential role in the Buddha's own day, once the charismatic presence of the Buddha ended with his death, the Bhikkhuni too entered into decline. Even without a Bhikkhuni order, there was ample scope for the participation of women in Dhamma work, the term given to the truth as taught by Buddha. The Buddha believed that enlightenment could come from beyond formal adherence to a monastic order, with both laymen and laywomen becoming arahants (spiritual practitioners).
The role of women in Buddhism in the West was first noted in 1875. At this time, American Col. Henry Steel Olcott co-founded the Theosophical Society with Helena Blavatsky for the study and propagation of esoteric religious knowledge. Women in the United States became interested in Buddhism when Americans first came across it during the Second World War through Japanese priest Ven. D.T. Suzuki.
The unique characteristic of Zen Buddhism fitted in well with the spiritual vacuum in the United States during a time when Americans became critical of the conservative church. Many American women in Buddhism found the Indian cultural baggage that tended to suppress women needed to be eradicated. American Buddhism is less doctrinal and ritualistic than in the East and tends to be more meditation oriented, less hierarchical and more democratic and egalitarian.
The fascination with the role of women in Buddhism led California-based filmmaker Heather Kessinger to make a film In the Shadow of Buddha, which is about Buddhist nuns. She explained her interest of the role of women in Buddhism was sparked by the lack of pictures of women in Buddhism at exhibitions. Kessinger said: "Westerners, often women, are very interested in Buddhism, but there was no place where one could understand a woman's perspective and role within the culture. I noticed that at each exhibition there was never a photograph of a woman, yet most of the receptions for the shows were filled with women. I found this odd and, after more investigation, realized that the ideal of Buddhism is always represented by a man (monk)."
Despite this ideal, in 2004 Cosmopolitan magazine launched a new section to examine modern faiths and discovered Buddhism was important to women in the West. Section editor Hannah Borno explained: "Young women seem not to be adopting Buddhism wholesale. But (they) are extracting aspects of it that suit their lifestyle, for example doing 15 minutes of meditation in the morning and evening."