Since the mid-sixties, I have practiced Buddhism. From my point of view, Buddhism is more of a philosophy and, as well, a method to train the mind and heart. At its base, there should be no gender bias in Buddhism, if we examine Buddhism’s basic tenets. But in fact there is, as we learn that female monastics observing the full nun’s Patimokkha (around 348 rules), or precept body (the Vinaya), are subject to eight precepts that favor their brother monks, precepts that imply nuns are less worthy than individuals of the opposite sex. These are called “the eight heavy rules” and were reputedly crafted by the Buddha, who resisted ordaining women until he was persuaded otherwise by his cousin Ananda and the power of the presence of his step mother and her women associates.
These rules were created some 2,500 years ago, and though faithfully observed by women monastics for centuries, are now being examined in the light of the 21st Century, with the intent to honor the equal rights and capacity for awakening of both men and women.
Although it has not been typical for women to have positions of authority within traditional Buddhism, in our time, we are seeing a dramatic and positive change for women in all Buddhist orders. For example, I believe there are more women roshis (Zen masters) in the United States than there are in Japan. In the United States, more and more women find themselves head of monasteries and Buddhist institutions. And women are setting policies in place that guarantee practitioners ethical treatment, honor families, insure democratic processes in their organizations, and are dedicated to environmental justice and social engagement.
This means that Buddhism is not only good for women, but good for the world, and much of this has arisen as a result of women being empowered in various Buddhist schools in our time. For this, we must thank not only women but men as well, as the transmission process for the most part, has come from them. In this regard, I look at my own lineage chart, and there are 81 men’s names, names of ancestors, from the Buddha on, and my own living teacher, until the 82nd name, which is my own, the first woman’s name on the lineage chart, except for Prajnaparamita, the so-called Mother of all Buddhas, whose large circle at the top of the chart is the womb from which all Buddhas flow. And still, the historical and social significance that this lineage chart reveals can’t go unnoticed.
That women are receiving transmission in our era is an extraordinary shift away from a patriarchal religion toward a religion that honors gender parity, and practices what it preaches about inclusivity. This bodes well for Buddhism and all religions, as women have much to contribute to the psycho-social body of religion, as well as the philosophy, ethics, and practices that ground religious institutions.
As a Western woman and a Buddhist, my own work is not only in the West but in the East as well. I, like some of my sister practitioners, return to Asia, year after year. We go as ordained Buddhist priests, practitioners, and nuns to share with Asian men and women the relevance of Engaged Buddhism in our world today. I do not take for granted the responsibility that my sisters and I have in carrying the dharma into diverse and fairly inaccessible worlds, from remote hospices and clinics in India and Nepal, to refugee communities in Thailand and the Americas. We also find ourselves invited to such places as the United Nations, the World Economic Forum, and renowned Buddhist universities in Asia and the Americas to present our views regarding modern Buddhism, a Buddhism that is grounded in the essential teachings of the Buddha, but one that is socially engaged, systems-based, and environmentally active.
Buddha said, “My dharma is against the stream.” I believe that we women who have been given the opportunity to teach in countries other than their own have had the wonderful chance to push the river of gender parity in the right direction, toward women’s rights, including the right to fully ordain and to be fully authorized at the highest level by their schools of Buddhism. We also have been given the opportunity to challenge the relevance of Buddhism as it relates to modern life in our profoundly imperiled world, and to set in place educational programs, policies and projects that are focused on social as well as personal transformation, places like Upaya Zen Center in New Mexico or the International Women’s Partnership for Peace and Justice and its BEST program in Buddhist Education in Social Transformation.
I want to share one intimate experience I had in Thailand some years ago. For many years, it was against the law for a woman to do alms round in Thailand. In this practice, a monastic walks silently with an alms bowl in the hands and receives food from lay people as an expression of respect. I was fortunate to have met Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh (now known as Bhikkhuni Dhammananda), a scholar of the Bhikkhuni Patimokkha, who was the first Thai woman to take full bhikkhuni ordination, which was, at this time, also against Thai law.
Kabilsingh, a mother of two, had made a commitment to fully ordain. She received full Bhikkhuhini vows in Sri Lanka on February 28, 2003 in the Dharmaguptaka Lineage. Shortly after her ordination, I had the privilege of staying in her nunnery, Wat Songkhammakalayani, some distance outside of Bangkok in the city of Nakhon Pathom.
Though she was subjected to death threats at this time as a result of choosing to be ordained as a nun, she invited me to join her in her daily alms round. With bare feet and her in her russet robes, and me in my black Zen robes, we made our way through the neighborhood adjacent to the nunnery. As we slowly walked in the heat of an early Thai morning, some households closed their doors tightly as we neared them. Others opened their doors, and men and women brought food to us. Though my eyes were cast down, I became aware that some of the women wept, as they stood before us. I saw men with their hands shaking as they put rice into our begging bowls.
At the time, I had no idea how radical an act this was. I only knew that my head was bare to the sun, my feet were bare to the road, and my heart was bare as I received food from these lay women and men. Later, I realized that we had not only broken the law, but we had broken open the door that separates women practitioners from being who they really are in that country.
There are no photographs of these hot morning walks on the stinging pavement of Nakhon Pathom. But the sense that the rights of women to practice as they see fit were being established in some small way as we made our way down the old roads of this neighborhood is now strongly in my bones.
I believe that we are experiencing a powerful phase shift in the world religions today, where gender parity is being deeply acknowledged and valued. The empowerment of women, the protection of children, the cultivation of ethics-based organizations, and the rights of all species is a vision whose time has come. And it is women who are contributing significantly to this vision and actualizing it in our world today, as their role in religious communities is acknowledged and strengthened.
Joan Halifax Roshi is a Buddhist teacher, Zen priest, anthropologist, and author. She is Founder, Abbot, and Head Teacher of Upaya Zen Center, a Buddhist monastery in Santa Fe, New Mexico