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Buddhadharma : Winter 2007
winter 2007| 34 |buddhadharma thus perverting the purpose of Buddhist study and practice. But if this were the case, women should definitely be the dharma teachers because their attainments would be more genuine! I argue that the institutional arrangements that have been dominant in most Buddhist cultures for most of Buddhist history make it difficult, if not impossible, for women to become highly respected dharma teachers, and that this does in fact harm women, in at least five ways. First, there is sheer practicality. It has been argued that even though nuns’ hierarchal subor- dination to monks does not limit their practice and attainment, that subordination may well explain the demise of the nuns’ order in many parts of the Buddhist world. The immediate cause of the decline of the nuns’ order was economic; nuns sim- ply didn’t receive much economic support, which made it difficult for them to survive. Throughout the traditional Buddhist world, the merit earned by making donations was thought to depend on the worth of the recipient; therefore, lay donors preferred to support the most presti- gious teachers—all of whom, because of monastic rules regarding seniority, were monks. So even an excellent woman teacher simply could not gain the same kind of following as a monk, and, con- sequently, she would attract less economic support for herself and her nunnery. This was a large part of the downward spiral that doomed the nuns’ order in some parts of the Buddhist world. Second, the cultural beliefs about women’s intellectual and spiritual inferiority, combined with the fact that women were not going to be dharma teachers anyway, led to the view that women didn’t really need to receive much train- ing. For example, Tibetan Buddhist nuns were usually not taught philosophy and debate or how to draw sand mandalas, on the grounds that they wouldn’t be using those skills anyway. Recently, Tibetan nuns have received training in such skills, but I know of no instance of women being taught the lama dances for which Tibetan Buddhism is so famous. This logic for not even teaching women repre- sents not a downward spiral but rather a vicious circle: because women are thought to be intellec- tually and spiritually inferior, it is said that they don’t need to be trained. Their lack of attainments, due to their lack of training, is then used as jus- tification for not giving women high teachings or advanced practices. Third, given the lack of economic support and the common prejudice that women—non-teachers by definition—did not need to be well educated, it is not surprising that the option of becoming a nun was not very attractive, and traditionally nuns had little prestige. A family might well be embarrassed to have a daughter become a nun, whereas when a son became a monk, he brought great honor to the family. As a result, women were often discouraged from becoming nuns or taking on serious spiritual discipline. By and large, it seems clear that most Buddhists preferred women to become wives and mothers rather than nuns or even lay retreatants practicing solitary renunciation. This was true even in the Buddha’s time. Glowing praises of gen- erous female lay donors contrast significantly with the reluctance with which the Buddha is reported to have allowed women to become nuns. Thus women who had a genuine spiritual vocation often found no support for their calling. The fourth way in which the lack of women dharma teachers harms women is particularly devastating: women practitioners have no role models. I have often been told that because the dharma is beyond gender, such issues are irrel- evant. I have also been told that since the dharma is the same whether it is taught by a woman or a man, it couldn’t possibly make any difference if there are no women dharma teachers. And I have been told that it is trivial and undignified to even bring up such concerns. My reply is that if the dharma is truly beyond gender, then there should be no disparity between the number of women and men teachers. I also believe that if the dharma is genuinely gender free and gender neutral, the reason there have been so few women teachers historically lies elsewhere. It lies with the Buddhist tendency to uncritically buy into whatever social arrangements it finds in the surrounding culture. It is impossible to argue that role models who look like oneself make no difference. From the point of view of absolute truth, of course, role models who look like oneself are irrelevant. But students do not begin at the level of absolute truth. We begin at a very confused level of rela- tive truth—not even accurate relative truth, but at the level of simple mistakes, thinking that the rope is a snake. It is very easy to see Buddhism as a snake that is not helpful to women when most or all of the teachers are men. An intelligent and perceptive student would naturally ask if people like her benefit from this particular path. Is it worthwhile to become deeply involved in Buddhist study and practice if one is told that one has little chance of success because of one’s gen- der? With the lack of role models who look like oneself in Buddhism’s most valued roles, one won- ders why women should take Buddhism seriously. I’ve certainly experienced this dilemma myself. Buddhists are much less defensive regarding most other basic questions about the path, and they show great concern for finding the most effective skillful means for helping people to see that the supposed snake is really a rope—and that the rope itself is illusory. But when it comes to gender, as I’ve said, people like myself are often There are valid reasons why so many non- Buddhists regard Buddhism as a highly patriarchal religion that is quite disadvantageous to women, and we should be familiar with our own dark side. holGeRGRoss