Monday, May 19, 2014

Women’s Contributions to Buddhism

Nona Sarana Olivia

Birth of the Buddha, Pakistan (Gandhara) second century A.D.

The Sati Journal is a publication of the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies. The center supports the study of Buddhist teachings with a perspective that balances scholarly inquiry with serious meditation practice. Believing that study and practice work together to deepen one’s practice and aid in awakening, the Sati Center's goal is to help participants explore original Buddhist texts and appreciate the richness of the tradition and lineage.

In the fall of 2011, I was delighted when Gil Fronsdal and Jeff Hardin asked me to be the guest editor for an issue devoted to women in Buddhism. Below is an excerpt from my introduction to this issue. In choosing writings, I decided to approach the topic of women in Buddhism through the lens of three overlapping themes: early Buddhist scholars, symbolic representations of gender, and inspiring contemporary leaders. This issue contains essays by Rita Gross, Noa Ronkin, Dawn Neal, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Ajahn Amaro, and Analayo Bhikkhu.

Nona Sarana with young nuns at
Dongyu Gatsal Ling
I dedicated this issue of Sati Journal in honor of the mother of the historical Buddha, Māyā Devī, who died seven days after his birth. Although she appears to be a footnote in the annals of Buddhist history, without her, Buddhism would not exist. For this reason we have chosen an image of her for the cover of this volume.

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Historically and culturally up to today, women are usually the first responders to the needs of their families, communities, and jobs. It is humbling to see women meet all their daily demands and still be able to engage in creative projects. It is relevant to the theme of this issue to reflect on how much women accomplish and how many people they aspire to serve whether or not they receive any recognition for their efforts.

Until recently, anyone who enquired into the history of Buddhism soon realized how difficult it is to find information about the lives and contributions of Buddhist women. Although some schools of Buddhism celebrate female goddesses, the “divine feminine,” and the consorts of male teachers, ordinary women have generally been overlooked. What else but the demands of daily life might have overshadowed women’s contributions to Buddhism?

In Vaishaili with Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo

One factor is that in many cultures, it is considered unseemly for women to draw attention to themselves or their accomplishments. Buddhists, even those training in mindfulness and compassion, both in the past and present, are quick to rebuke as egotistic or “reifying a sense of self” a woman (not necessarily a man) who seeks acknowledgment for her work. Scholars and practitioners investigating the history of women in Buddhism have noticed this lacuna and over the past few decades, and momentum for studying the lives of eminent women in Buddhism has been growing.

Over the past thirty years especially, there has been a slow but steady increase of interest in recognizing and supporting the struggles and accomplishments of Buddhist women. In the 1970s scholars such as Diana Paul, Nancy Auer Falk, Bhikkhunī Dhammanandā (Chatsumarn Kabilsingh), and Rita Gross began to examine the history of women in Buddhism, laying the foundation of methodologies with which to study those omitted from history. Monastic women such as Ayya Khemā, Karma Lekshe Tsomo, and Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo began examining the inequalities, cultural impediments, and the often dire living conditions of Buddhist nuns—revelations that fueled growing interest and support. Lay Buddhist women in the West, notably Ruth Denison, Sharon Salzburg, Joan Halifax, and Christina Feldman put their efforts into teaching and building community practice centers. Happily, these women have inspired many others, both women and men. A new generation of women, full of enthusiasm for Dharma study and practice, enjoys opportunities that will ensure the continuity of these important advances.

Ajanta Caves
Still, there are some for whom the issue of gender and women’s contributions to Buddhism seems irrelevant. These detractors believe that Buddhists need only focus on meditation and argue that the issue of gender is a distraction from the goal of reaching enlightenment. To these detractors we may respond by pointing out what we’ve learned from civil rights scholars and activists—that those who enjoy privilege, recognition, and support for their endeavors are often blind to the needs and struggles of others. In this issue, Rita Gross makes a stunningly simple observation: If gender is not an issue, as many Buddhist teachers claim, then discussing it should be no problem.

A link to a PDF of the entire journal is at: http://www.sati.org/sati-journal/ with the option of ordering a print version through Amazon. 

Nona Sarana Olivia: Ordained Buddhist Minister

Nona Sarana Olivia is a mother with two sons and two grandchildren. She has been a student of Buddhism and a meditation practitioner for many decades and is an ordained Buddhist minister. With a PhD from Brown University, she has taught at various universities, including most recently the University of Colorado in Boulder. Nona is a frequently invited speaker on her area of expertise, the role of women in ancient religious traditions. She is a hospice volunteer and a pro bono editor for Buddhist authors. She combines her passions for travel and teaching by spending time with the young nuns at Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo's nunnery, Dongyu Gatsal Ling, organizing their library and training them in library systems.  

Photo one: Birth of the Buddha. Pakistan (ancient region of Gandhara, probably Takht-i-Bahi), 1987.417.1 in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art,
2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1987.417.1. October 2006; OASC, www.metmuseum.org
Photo two by Nancy Porter; courtesy of Nona Sarana Olivia
Photo three by Aileen Berry; courtesy of Nona Sarana Olivia
Photo four by Cristina Cesa; courtesy of Nona Sarana Olivia


  1. Yes, historically women's contribution have been ignored compared to men's because of patriarchal influence - definitely true.

    But that being said, there *are* indeed a number of women mentioned in the Tipitaka and in the commentaries as well. I don't think we can talk about this subject without mentioning them. What about the great Bhikkhunis in the Therigāthā? What about Dhammadinnā in the Culla-Vedalla Sutta - one of the most profound discourses in the canon? What about Vishakā, the great lay supporter? What about Bhaddakaccānā, so accomplished in iddhi? What about Sumanā, daughter of Anāthapiṇdika who surpassed her father in attainment? And Patācāra, Gōtami, Kuṇdalakēsī, Uppalavannā? Sanghamittā, who brought a sapping of the Bō-tree (under which the Buddha attained awakening) to Sri Lanka, a tree which exists to this day? And the Bhikkhunis who took ordination to China from Sri Lanka? And let's not forget modern day non-Western teachers such as Dipā Mā (widely considered to have attained Anāgāmi) and Sujin Boriharnwanaket and Ajāhn Naeb.

  2. Dr. Olivia's observation that those who talk about the "irrelevance" of gender seem to be the ones who conveniently benefit the most from it is critical. Buddhism has never been and can never be completely separated from the social and cultural contexts of this world. This in itself is a reification of a movement bound in history, space and time. The Buddha is beyond time and timelessness. Buddhism is not.