Society’s perception of women’s role in Asian countries is still totally different from the western countries. The existing perception is very much influential on the practitioners and their opportunity to practise Buddhism.
Sri Lanka is one of the best examples of a Theravada Buddhist country. I would like to compare the Buddhist background for a woman in Sri Lanka with the status given for a woman in Vajrayana Buddhism.
According to Buddhist scriptures the order of Bhikkunis was first created by the Buddha at the specific request of his foster mother Mahaprajapathi Gothami who became the first ordained Bhikkuni.
The order of Bhikkuni was introduced to Sri Lanka in 3rd Century BC by Theri Sangamitta who was the daughter of Emperor Asoka about 2300 years ago. Bhikkhuni order then slowly moved east, from India through Sri Lanka, China, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Korea and Japan. And most recently, it has begun its move across the oceans to the western countries. With the fall of Anuradhapura to the Chola invaders in AD 1017, after another ten centuries the Bhikkhuni order disappeared and became non-operational.
The Bhikkhu Order also disappeared in Sri Lanka and there appeared white clad Ganinnanse, who were leading a lay life. Recent history shows that about 200 years ago the Bhikkhu Order was resurrected in Sri Lanka by bringing ordination from Thailand and Burma. But the Bhikkhuni Order was not resurrected and remained lost in Sri Lanka until now. Not only in Sri Lanka in some other Asian countries such as Thailand and Myanmar resistance to a revival of the Bhikkhuni Sangha is still strong. Theravada hierarchy in Sri Lanka is not ready to accept the ordination systems which are being practised in different Buddhist temples saying firmly that they have received Mahayana ordination. It is non argumentative that there was no Theravada or Mahayana during the time of Buddha and Buddha gave ordination to women by dual ordination which is what is being practised all over the world. Though an ideal Buddhist society consists of male and female monks and male and female lay people it has never been possible to receive the recognition and consent for the Bhikkhuni ordination in many Asian countries such as Thailand, Sri Lanka and Myanmar emphasizing on the loss of the lineage. And at the same time some of the Sangha in these countries are against the ordination of female monks and this has created a hostile environment where they face many difficulties and discriminations in surviving as Bhikkhunis. To survive as a Bhikkhuni, self-sustainability or external financial support have become essential in Sri Lanka.
This is followed by the educational background, family background, as well as courage and determination of the Bhikkhuni herself.
I argue that the traditional ordination was merely a custom which was introduced to encourage institutional stability. The Buddha preached only about the monastic life but had not detailed about the customs of ordination. This argument is not accepted and valid in Sri Lanka. So there are only two primary choices for Buddhist women in Sri Lanka either to live as a lay woman supporting the Bikkhus or to ordain as a ten preceptor (Dasa sil matha). In this social settlement the revival of the defunct Bhikkhuni order has become anathema to Sri Lanka.
The Bhikkhu Order also disappeared in Sri Lanka and there appeared white clad Ganinnanse, who were leading a lay life. Recent history shows that about 200 years ago the Bhikkhu Order was resurrected in Sri Lanka by bringing ordination from Thailand and Burma. But the Bhikkhuni Order was not resurrected and remained lost in Sri Lanka until now.
The doctrine of Vajrayana Buddhism held women in high esteem and the woman plays a special role in the recasting of women’s image in popular culture.
The story of ‘Tara’ in Tibetan Buddhism is an ideal example to depict the importance given to the role of the woman in Buddhism. ‘Tara’ a female Bodhisattva in Vajrayana Buddhism descended into the world and was reborn as a princess. She used to do offerings to the Buddha and generate the altruistic attitude of Bodhicitta always. She was urged by the Bhikkhus to pray continually according to the teachings that she would change her form to that of a man.
After several exchanges with the monks the princess announced that “ in this life there was no such distinction as male or female, neither of “self- identity” or a ‘person’ nor any perception (of such) and therefore attachment to the ideas of ‘ male’ or ‘female’ was quite worthless.
She then became enlightened. ‘Tara’ is both mythic confirmation and value of women’s achievement in Buddhist practice. Vajrayana Buddhism apart from other Buddhist traditions insists on its emphasis of the relationship between a notion of ultimate spiritual perfection known as Buddhahood and the feminine.
It highlights its total devotion to the ‘Thathagathagarbha’ or Buddha nature which is the vehicle for universal salvation. According to Vajrayana Buddhism each individual has the potential of Buddhahood within his or her mind regardless of his or her gender.
Tibetan Buddhism is replete with enlightenment of female figures. Princess Yeshe Dawa, who generated the great Bodhicitta, achieved the wisdom of the Dharmakaya and became ‘Tara’, an enlightened being in female form. Another respected female religious practitioner was Jigmed Surenjav from Khovd Province. She is regarded as ‘Green Tara’, a popular Bodhisattva associated with healing and protection who was one of twenty Taras in Tibetan Buddhism. Mother Tara Megjin Legzen was another Tara, who was recognized by a renowned Lama as an emanation of ‘White Tara’.
Many such examples of the feminine embodiment of wisdom exist in Buddhism and are a huge blow to the inherent gender bias attitude in Theravada Buddhism. ‘Tara’ is one such great example of a female Buddha who is being widely worshipped. ‘Chullavagga’ is one early Buddhist text of the ‘Vinaya Pitaka’ of the ‘Pali Canon’, contains statements from Gautama Buddha, speaking of the fact that a woman can attain enlightenment but in ‘Bahudhatuka – Sutta’ clearly states that there could never be a female Buddha. According to Theravada Buddhism, Bodhisattva can be a man, any animal or a serpent, but is never a woman. When the aspiration to Buddhahood has been made by a Buddha and confirms it, the particular living being would never be reborn as a female. According to Theravada Buddhism being born as a female is due to bad karma.
Tantra denotes esoteric traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism that developed together most likely in the middle of 1st millennium CE. Vajrayana, Mantra Yana, esoteric Buddhism and Tantric Buddhism refer to the various Buddhist traditions of Tantra. ‘Vajrayogini’ is a Tantric Buddhist female Buddha and a ‘Dakini’ which is a type of spirit in Vajrayana Buddhism appears in Buddhist refuge formula known as the ‘Three roots’.
Her essence is ‘Great Passion’ which is free from selfishness and illusion. Her spirit works for the wellbeing of others and for the destruction of ego clinging. Vajrayogini provides the way to transform people with strong passion into enlightened virtues. ‘Janana Dakini Simhamukha’ is a higher meditation deity who is both wrathful and female and concerned as the wisdom goddess.
She functions as a ‘Yidam’ or meditation deity who averts and repulses psychic attacks that may assault the practitioner. Tantric Buddhism embraces the relationship between a male divine principle and a female divine principle while Vajrayana Buddhism highlights its total devotion to the “Thathagatahagarbha” or Buddha nature.
The Vajrayana teachings practise gender equality or even prioritizes the status of women and also embrace every conceivable kind of lifestyle as a spiritual practice in itself.
Tantra denotes esoteric traditions of Hinduism and Buddhism that developed together most likely in the middle of 1st millennium CE.
It is not that the Buddha inaugurated a campaign for the liberation of womanhood. But he did succeed in creating a minor stir against Brahman dogma and superstition. He condemned the caste structure dominated by the Brahman, excessive ritualism and sacrifice.
He preached on salvation by one’s own effort, presupposes the spiritual equality of all beings, male and female. The whole community of Buddhist women lost a great man who had courage and rebellious spirit to declare a way of life that placed woman on a level of near equality to man which is totally against the exclusive supremacy of the male.