Monday, April 1, 2013

Buddhist Women Awaken

by Tenzin Palmo

Recently a busload of nuns from the Dongyu Gatsal Ling nunnery went off to Dharamsala to participate in the One Billion Rising candlelight procession protesting violence against women. It was an encouraging sign that many men joined alongside carrying banners proclaiming their support. The One Billion Rising demonstration had celebration as an integral part of its expression. The "rising" is joyful because it is bringing the energies of the world into balance.

Unfortunately, religions have traditionally done little to uphold the rights and dignity of their female followers. This belittlement of women includes Buddhism, which through the centuries has habitually ignored or derided the female half of their adherents despite doctrinally sanctioning that Buddha nature is beyond gender.

It is only in relatively modern times that females worldwide have begun to receive an education on a par with the male population and thereby proved to themselves and others their natural intelligence and abilities. In Asia finally, Buddhism is also forced to give more attention to its female adherents and in particular to its nun population.

Throughout the millennia in all Buddhist countries the role of nuns and laywomen has been often overlooked and downgraded. The texts—written by men (usually monks) for other men—habitually denigrate women as unintelligent, lustful and spiritually inferior, incapable of enlightenment. Nowadays as more educated women study these texts, they either believe the myth of their inherent inferiority—after all if it is written in the Dharma books it must be true—or else they start to question the whole structure of misogyny as it has been traditionally understood.

So what can we do to change this conventional view of the feminine which still pervades so much of contemporary thinking? Well, the first step towards a solution is to acknowledge that there is a problem! As long as we close our eyes to inequity it will continue to flourish unchallenged. So we need to create more awareness and introduce more opportunities for development.

But in particular, women need to provide more support and respect mutually, rather than criticizing and belittling each other. If throughout history women have usually played inferior roles in the world's drama it is because they have (often unconsciously) agreed to hand over the starring parts to the males and jealously prevented other women from aspiring upwards. The best that the eighth-century scholar Shantideva can wish for nuns is: “May all their wants be supplied and may quarreling and vindictiveness be strange to them…."

Women are needed to create harmony in a world of conflict and discord. Therein lies one of our most important contributions: to bring the message and the example of strength through patience, understanding and compassion, the eternal qualities of a mother, of the feminine. But along with these nurturing qualities, women need to appreciate just how strong they are. They have survived through centuries of neglect and abuse to emerge inwardly tough and resilient and now ready to stand up for their rights as one half of the human race—but without rancor or bitterness. Our strength lies in our compassion and humor—and in our unity.

The world has seen enough of violence and brutality. It is time for a change. It is time that the chaotic energies of the world come into balance. In this way Sakyadhita has had an important role to play by creating a safe stage for international Buddhist women of all traditions to express their genuine concerns, challenges, and achievements. Buddhist women can show an example to the world of how to overcome centuries of inequity without rancor but with dignity and friendly determination. In the Sakyadhita movement, which includes local groups that anyone can join, there is much to celebrate as Buddhist women awaken to their opportunity to see that this vital balance is achieved for the benefit of all the world.

Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

Ven. Tenzin Palmo spent 18 years practicing in the remote Himalayan region of Lahaul. In 1973, she traveled to Hong Kong to receive the bhiksuni ordination. She is the founder of Dongyu Gatsal Ling, a monastery for the training of togdenmas (female yogic practitioners) near the community of Tashi Jong in northern India. Her story has been documented in A Cave in the Snow. She is the author of Reflections On A Mountain Lake: Teachings on Practical Buddhism. Visit Ven. Tenzin Palmo's website to learn more about her life, work, and Dongyu Gatsal Ling.

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