WOMEN IN BUDDHISM
The magnificent personality of Bhagwan Gautama Buddha and his brilliance of teaching created such a stir in the country that it attracted a massive following, which included a large number of women from all walks of life. Here is a recount of a few incidents described in the Buddhist scriptures.
- Bhikkhuni Sangha: Women held a position of subservience and were excluded from worldly occupation or religious education. The establishment of the Order of Buddhist Nuns gave women an opportunity for spiritual practice and enfoldment. And this opportunity was eagerly taken advantage of, often with remarkable success.
- Law of Karma: Women were always in fear of the condemnation they would face if their child happened to be a girl. Woman’s role as a mother commanded veneration, but society generally expected her to give birth to a son, so that he could perform rituals for the salvation of his ancestors. So the women engaged themselves in hectic prayers and rituals like going round the trees with a hope to be blessed with a male child. The Law of Karma, ‘’as you sow, so shall you reap’ was made the main issue of the teaching of the Great Gautama Buddha, and this refuted the efficacy of the rituals. It declared that the ancestors fare according to their desire, and not due to the performance of rituals by the sons. Many were relieved of the anxiety about the birth of a baby. It also said that family lineage could continue through daughters too. King Pasenadi was disappointed when Queen Mallika gave birth to a daughter. The Buddha said, Ä woman child, O King, may prove even a better offspring than a male. For she may grow up wise and virtuous. The child she may bear may do great deeds, and rule great realms yea, such a son of a noble wife becomes his country’s guide’’.
- Unmarried women: Some women seeking freedom from the drudgery and meaninglessness of life, and desiring to gain higher spiritual experience preferred to remain unmarried. But an unmarried woman has always been looked down upon by society. The Order of Buddhist Nuns was a boon to such women. It was thus that Subha became a nun.
- Bhaddha Kundalakesi: She was so intelligent that she was able to hold a meaningful debate with the Buddhas’s chief disciple, the Venerable Sariputta. Subsequently, she heard a discourse given by the Buddha, and that was sufficient to affect her enlightenment. Hers was a rare case of one becoming an Arahat before being ordained in the Order.
- Prakati: Besides being a woman, she suffered the handicap of caste. When the Venerable Ananda approached her at a well and asked for water to drink, she was taken aback. “How can I give you water, sir? I am a Matanga”. To this the Venerable Ananda replied, Ï asked for water, sister. I am not curious about your caste”. Being accustomed to being treated as an outcaste, it was a noble experience for Prakati to be treated as a human being. It is no wonder that she took refuge in the Buddha.
- Family prosperity: Women might bring prosperity to a family. “All families that have attained great possessions have done so far one of the following reasons: they search for what is lost, repair what is dilapidated, eat and drink in moderation, and place in authority a virtuous man or woman”.
- Women in general: Regarding most women it is said, “A woman’s goal is man, her ambition is for adornment, her resolve is for a child, her desire is to be without a rival, her fulfillment is authority”.
- Happy Married Life: The Great Buddha liked marriages to be happy If husband and wife share the same beliefs, ethical behavior generosity and wisdom, they will have a happy marriage.
“Therefore girls, train yourselves thus: To whatever husband our parents shall give us for him we will rise up early, be the last to retire, be willing workers, order all things sweetly and speak affectionately.”
“And in this way too, girls: we will honour and respect all whom our husbands honour and respect, whether mother or father, a recluse or a respectable person, and on their arrival offer them water and a seat.”
“And in this way too, girls, we will deft and nimble at our husband’s home crafts, whether they be of wool or cotton, making it our business to understand the work so as to do it and get it done. Train yourselves thus, girls. And in this way too, girls, whatever our husband’s households consist of –servants and messenger and work people-we will know the work of each one of them, what has been done, and their remissions by way of what has not been done: we will know the strengths and weaknesses of the sick; we will portion out the food fairly. And Train yourselves thus, girls. And in this way too, girls, the treasure, grain, silver and gold that our husbands bring home, we will keep safely, acting as no robber or spendthrift in regard to it. Train yourselves thus, girls”.
If all goes well, then the wife is called the ‘’comrade supreme’ and a number of devoted couples are mentioned in the Pali Canon.
One ideally matched pair was Nakula-Pita and Nakula-Mata. Neither is aware of having transgressed against the other in thought, much less in person, and each expresses the longing to be together not only here and now but in the future state also. The Bhagwan Buddha reassures them on this point, and gives the reason that both of them are on the same level in regard to; their belief, their ethical conduct, their generosity and wisdom. In these respects, therefore, a woman may be the equal of a man.
- The power of the Vajjians: King Pasenadi of Kosala had planned a military campaign against the Vijjian Republic, and he went to the Buddha to seek his blessings. In the presence of the King the Buddha put several questions to Ananda and he answered all them in the affirmative. Then, in each case the Buddha pronounced the Truth. One such question referred to women. “Do the Vijjians treat their women with honour, O Lord?” was the question. The Buddha then declared, “The men who do not maltreat their women, but treat them with respect will have better lives and not decline”. What the Buddha tried to impress on the king was that the noble quality which Vijjians possessed constituted an invincible power. The King gave up the idea of attacking the Vajjians.
Buddhism did not indicate inequality; on the contrary it treated women at a par with men for all practical purposes, except for those differences which were caused by nature. It allowed women to participate in religious discourses and also allowed them to deliver religious discourses. Some more citation can be noted here which are best guides from the Pali Canon:-
- When we hold consultations about the status of women, it means that their present status is not good enough. They are unhappy. So, improving their status means making them happy. The highest form of happiness is Nibbana, and this is the happiness Buddha gave to his disciples. Can we too give our women this happiness? There may be some women who would very much like to get away from it all-even from a preferred status.
- Most women seek worldly happiness only and not Nibbana. So let it be clearly understood that worldly happiness can never be unalloyed. In the world of phenomenal existence, women (and also men) have always suffered, suffer now, and will suffer in the future. But even in this dismal state, there is room for well-meaning people to act and effect a modicum of improvement in the status of women. And this has to be done.
- “First Comprehension”: It is the clear comprehension of the goal. For this, one has to be very clear about the satisfactoriness of the status of women, and what is desired to be achieved. The attainment of the goal may be in phases, with intermediate goals. All human problems are inter-linked in some way. The problems have a tendency to gang-up frustrate solution. So the problems of the women should be broken up into minute parts and each one should be tackled separately.
- “Second Comprehension”: There should be a clear comprehension about the method to be adopted for achieving the goal. There may be several methods but the best one has to be selected. The right method is the one that has no adverse side-effects and produces lasting results.
- An effort to improve the status of woman should not degenerate into a fight for equality with men, for it will only lead to confrontation, rivalry and competition. Despite equality, it must be remembered that, women are fundamentally different from men. The Buddha lays great stress on the complementary nature of their personalities, which forms a beautiful human relationship. A powerful weapon in the women’s armory is her feminity, and this should not be jeopardized.
- Internal-External: The deficiency in the status of women may have internal or external causes. That is to say, women themselves are responsible for some of their miseries. These areas should be identified and corrected first.
- Sila or morally upright behavior is the foundation of all spiritual endeavour. A truly high status can be gained by a woman only when her character is of a high quality.
- Harmonious development is necessary. The baby may need a wash, but the baby should not be thrown away with the bath-water.
- Causes: Every problem has some cause behind it. Wisdom lies in correctly identifying and eliminating this cause. With the cause gone the problem goes. If a remedial action does not touch the cause, the so called remedial action is just a ritual.
- The blind cannot lead the blind. One who is going to lead women to a higher status must herself/ himself possess a status to do so. There should be no discrepancy between what the leader says, does and thinks. One having a discrepancy is a hypocrite. The motivation factor should be compassion.
- All women are not equally amenable to uplift. A wise farmer will choose the most fertile field for cultivation. Similarly, it may be advisable to determine priorities in selecting areas of action for the advancement of women.
- Decay is the law of nature. Everything decays including a success in the uplift of women. Unless what is gained is consolidated and maintained by constant vigilance the gain will soon be lost.
Buddha allowed women to use robes meant for monks. During those days, the status of the monk was the highest possible social privilege. It was approved and accepted by the then existing society. This was because of the acceptance of the higher social status of woman in Buddhism and the equal treatment they were given with men. Sopaka, Angulimals, Sokpal, Asang and Sujatha were the Buddhist priests. The Buddha once compared his teaching to a great Ocean. “As the great Ocean has but one taste; the taste of salt, so has this Dhamma but one taste, that of freedom”. The freedom is called Nibbana-freedom from suffering immortality. Nibbana is the ultimate focal point of topics dealt with in the Tripitaka.
An entire book of the scriptures, the Therigatha (The Psalm of the Sisters) refers to such worthy women. This Buddhist literature of Therigatha (verse 4.01) describes the story of the rape of Uppalavanna which possibly let Buddha to prohibit forests as a dwelling place of alms women. Buddha probably realized the undesirability of a solitary forest life for women when some alms women were sexually abused by men in the forests. The definite omission of a rule for alms women, while it continued to be allowed for alms men, could not have been made solely o;;n account of any hypothetical occurrence, but more probably as the result of some particular happenings. Before the rape of Uppalavanna it was not forbidden for women to dwell in the forest. So Uppalavanna went to live in the dark forest, built herself a hut, set up a bed in her hut and hung curtains on her doors and windows. One day a previous lover of hers, who was also her kinsman, came to the forest in search of her. He found the hut and hid under the bed. When Uppalavanna, who had gone out, returned to the hut she was overpowered by him. The man raped her and left. Thereupon she narrated her woe to other alms women who told the alms men who, further, told Buddha about it. The incident gave rise to a great deal of discussion and Buddha, the Blessed one, praised in his verses the flawless character of Uppalavanna, her innocence and her restraints in relation to the pleasures of the senses. However, least the situation led to further awkward conditions, Buddha summoned the King of Kosala and said to him: ”Your Majesty, in this religion young women of family, as well as young men of family, renounce many kinsfolk and much wealth, and retire from the world, and take up residence in the forest. In case women reside in the forest, it is possible that evil minded men inflamed by passion may conduct themselves towards them with disrespect and arrogance, do them violence and bring their religious life to naught. Therefore, a place of residence for the community of alms women should be erected on one side of the city”. It is recorded that since then the alms women stayed only within the city or just outside the city walls. Similarly, women were instructed not to go about singly. When Dhammadinna asked her teachers if she might go into retreat in a village abode, she was allowed to go, but accompanied. She had a companion even when she returned back. Such precautions were thought to be necessary for the safety of the weaker sex.
WOMEN IN TAOISM
A positive attitude toward women, or feminine qualities, has been characteristic of Taoism from the beginning. The first chapter of the Taode jing and several other chapters refer to Tao as “the Mother of all things.” “To play the feminine part” (Ch. 10) is a constant theme of the text. Chapter 28 opens with the lines, “Know the masculine/Keep to the feminine.” The rationale for assuming a feminine role is made clear in passages like this one from Chapter 61: “The Feminine always conquers the Masculine by her quietness, by lowering herself through her quietness./ Hence, if a great country can lower itself before a small country, it will win over the small country . . . ”
The idea of balancing male and female energies is fundamental to Taoism, and applies to women as well as to men. One early practice was ritual s exual inter course between men and women who were not married to one another. These rituals followed strict guidelines, and the goal was the union of yin and yang energies. The act of intercourse was not motivated by lust or desire, men and women were equal partners, the experience was not centered in the genitals, and s exual climax was not the end or goal. Climax would be a way of squandering, rather than retaining, vital energies.
More frequently practiced were forms of internal alchemy that involved uniting yin and yang energies within an individual’s body. Divine marriages with deities were one very ancient version of this practice. Another form of internal s exual alchemy involved cultivating the ability to direct the circulation of several types of body energy, then refining those energies within an internal “crucible,” and directing the refined energy toward the brain. A special kind of saliva was created, which was then swallowed and again directed appropriately such that a divine embryo was created; this was then gradually nurtured until one’s individual energy had merged entirely with one’s original nature, creating an immortal being.
Equality of men and women was an essential tenet of the early Way of the Celestial Masters movement. Women could become priests and assume any rank. In the 2nd century C.E., the mother of the third Celestial Master, also the wife of the second Celestial Master, was an influential leader in the movement. In the 4th century C.E., a Celestial Masters priestess who had received several scriptures and instructions from divine beings during her lifetime became after her death one of the sources of the Shangqing revelations. She was only one of a number of female deities who revealed these scriptures to Yang Xi.
Sun Buer (1119-1182) was a key figure in the Quanzhen Taoist movement, one of the “Seven Perfected” who was initiated by the founder, Wang Chongyang, to spread the movement after his death. She was also a famous poet who left fourteen short poems about internal alchemy as well as several “secret” texts on the topic.
These are just a few of the many women who achieved fame within the Taoist tradition. Women became Taoist priests or nuns for a variety of reasons. Some were widows or former concubines seeking a way to live independent lives, some were women who wanted to avoid marriage, and some wanted an education that might otherwise not be available to them.
In addition, there are a large number of female divine beings associated with Taoism including Xiwangmu, the Queen Mother of the West; Doumu, the Dipper Mother; and He Xiangu, the only female member of the famed eight immortals of popular culture. Of these Xiwangmu is perhaps the most prominent, and her reach extends far beyond Taoism. Like all female deities, she is available to both men and women, but for women these deities are both sources of spiritual sustenance and role models.
Interestingly, women have never appealed to Xiwangmu for children, as women did to the popular Buddhist deity Guanyin, nor have they asked Xiwangmu to make them better wives or mothers. Taoist women have been more interested in spiritual techniques, power, and the ability to live independent lives. Perhaps this is one reason that issues surrounding gender and sexuality that are prominent in other religions—issues such as divorce, abortion, and homosexuality—do not play a significant role in the Taoist tradition.
From the beginning, the goal in Taoism has been to unite male and female energies. Just as men were encouraged to be more like women, women were encouraged (at least theoretically and doctrinally) to be more like men. Under the influence of culture and other religious traditions there are notable exceptions, and far more men than women became leaders within the tradition. Equality was an ideal, rather than the norm, and Taoism was certainly not able to transform the lives of Chinese women as a whole. Nonetheless, Taoist organizations were, like Buddhist monasteries, an essential outlet for women who wished to live more independent lives than the culture in general afforded them.
Since 1949, the government of the People’s Republic of China has actively promoted the cultural, social, economic and political roles of women in order to improve women’s liberation. The new government of the People’s Republic made a commitment to achieve equality between women and men. While advancing towards equality among men and women, the efforts met resistance in a traditionally Confucian society of male superiority.
Although equality amongst men and women has been a long term goal of the People’s Republic of China, the dramatic reformations that followed the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) have inconsistently affected women’s empowerment and status in China. Studies show that Chinese women experienced rapid progress in terms of gender equality during the Cultural Revolution. When the People’s Republic of China was established, employed women accounted for only 7 percent of the workforce; whereas in 1992 women’s participation in the workforce had increased to account for 38 percent. Women’s representation in higher educational institutions has also increased since the establishment of the People’s Republic of China. Reports of female infanticide following the execution of the One-child policy indicated the persistence of women’s low status in China
Gender discrimination has contributed to the millions of missing women of China. Amartya Sen, the Noble Prize-winning economist, asserts that, over 100 million women are missing globally, with 50 million women missing from China alone. According to Sen, the current deficit in the number of women in Asia is due to many factors including, sex-selective abortion, the One-child policy, female infanticide, abortion of female fetus, and inadequate nutrition for girls. This trend of missing women contradicts biological research, which suggests that men are more susceptible to certain illnesses than women, resulting in lower male survival rates.
Marriage and family planning
Traditional marriage in prerevolutionary China was a contract between families rather than between two individuals. The parents of the soon-to-be groom and bride arrange the marriage with an emphasis on the alliance between the two families. Spouse selection was based on family needs and the socioeconomic status of the potential mate, rather than love or attraction. Although the woman’s role varied slightly depending on the social status of the husband, typically her main duty was to provide a son in order to continue the family name. An arranged marriage was accomplished by a matchmaker who acted as a link between two families. The arrangement of a marriage involved the negotiation of a bride price, gifts to be bestowed to the bride’s family, and occasionally a dowry of clothing, furniture, or jewelry from the family of the bride for use in her new home. The exchange of monetary compensation for a woman’s hand in marriage was also utilized in purchase marriages in which women were seen as property that could be sold and traded at the husband’s whim.
John Engel, a professor of Family Resources at the University of Hawaii, argues that in order to redistribute wealth and achieve a classless society, the People’s Republic of China established the Marriage Law of 1950. The law “was in-tended to cause … fundamental changes aimed at family revolution by destroying all former patterns and building up new relation-ships on the basis of new law and new ethics.” Xiaorong Li, a researcher at the Institute for Philosophy and Public Policy at the University of Maryland, asserts that the Marriage Law of 1950 not only banned the most extreme forms of female subordination and oppression, but also gave women the right to make their own marital decisions. The Marriage Law specifically prohibited concubinage and marriages when one party was sexually powerless, suffered from a venereal disease, leprosy, or a mental disorder.
Article 2 of the 1980 Marriage law directly states, “the lawful rights and interests of women, children and the aged are protected. Family planning is practiced”. Adults, both men and women, gained the right to lawful divorce. In a vigilant effort to fight the tenacity of tradition, Article 3 of the 1980 marriage law continued the ban of concubinage, polygamy, and bigamy. The Marriage Law of 1980, Article 3, forbid mercenary marriages in which a bride price or dowry is paid. Although the law also generally prohibited the exaction of money or gifts in connection with any marriage arrangements, bride price and dowries were still practiced customs. According to Li, the traditional business of selling women in exchange for marriage returned after the law gave women to right to select their husbands. In 1990, 18,692 cases were investigated by Chinese authorities Bride price payments are still common in rural areas, whereas dowries have not only have become smaller but less common. Similarly in urban areas, the dowry custom has nearly disappeared; however, the bride price custom has transformed into providing gifts for the bride or her family. Article 4 of the marriage law banned the usage of compulsion or the interference of third parties, stating, “marriage must be based upon the complete willingness of the two parties,” As Engel argues, the law also encouraged sexual equality by making daughters just as valuable as sons, particularly in regards to potential for old age insurance. Article 8 of the 1980 Marriage Law states, “after a marriage has been registered, the woman may become a member of the man’s family, or the man may become a member of the woman’s family, according to the agreed wishes of the two parties.”
The phenomenon of de facto polygamy, or so-called “second wives” has reemerged in recent years. There are many villages in southern part of China where predominantly such women live. This situation has created many social and legal issues. Unlike previous generation of forced or purchased women to become rich often older men for status symbol, the modern polygamy is voluntary. Some modern women also take advantage of the opportunity to have another lover when the live-in is away.
In 1956, the Chinese government publicly announced its goal to control the exponentially increasing population size. The government planned to use education and publicity as their main modes of increasing awareness. Zhou Enlai launched the first program for smaller families under the guidance of Madame Li Teh-chuan, the Minister of Health at the time. During this time, family planning and contraceptive usage were highly publicized and encouraged. The One-child policy, initiated in 1978 and first applied in 1979, mandated that each married couple may bear only one child, except in the case of special circumstances. These conditions included, “the birth of a first child who has developed a non-hereditary disability that will make it difficult to perform productive labour later in life, the fact that both husband and wife are themselves single children, a misdiagnosis of barrenness in the wife combined with a passage of more than five years after the adoption of a child, a remarrying husband and wife who have between them only one child.”
However, other Asian regions also have higher than average ratios, including Taiwan (110:100), which does not have a family planning policy. Many studies have explored the reason for the gender-based birthrate disparity in China as well as other countries. A study in 1990 attributed the high preponderance of reported male births in mainland China to four main causes: diseases which affect females more severely than males; the result of widespread under-reporting of female births; the illegal practice of sex-selective abortion made possible by the widespread availability of ultrasound; and finally, acts of child abandonment and infanticide.
Women migrant workers outnumber males 2:1. In the Nanshan district of Shenzhen, 80 percent of the migrant workers were women. A preference for younger women over older women, has led to a predominantly young population of migrant workers. Married women have more restrictions on mobility due to duties to the family, whereas younger women are more likely to not be married. Also, younger rural women are less likely to become pregnant, possess nimble fingers, more able to work longer hours, and are less knowledgeable about their statutory rights. For the women who are able to gain employment, they then face the possibility of being forced to sign a contract prohibiting them from getting pregnant or married during their period of employment.
Women in politics
Women in China have low participation rates as political leaders. Women’s disadvantage is most evident in their severe underrepresentation in the more powerful, political, positions. At the top level of decision making, no woman has ever been among the nine members of the Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo. Just 3 of 27 government ministers are women, and importantly, since 1997, China has fallen to 53rd place from 16th in the world in terms of female representation at its parliament, the National People’s Congress, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The trend will likely continue due to a low proportion of women heads in villagers’ committees.
Young women and girls are kidnapped from their homes and sold to gangs who traffick women, often displacing the women by great distances. In order to ensure that the women do not run away, the men who purchase them do not allow the women to leave the house. Oftentimes the documentation and papers are taken from the trafficked women. Many women become pregnant and have children, and are burdened to provide for their family. In the 1950s, Mao Zedong, the first Chairman of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, launched a campaign to eradicate prostitution throughout China. The campaign made the act of trafficking women severely punishable by law. A major component of the campaign was the rehabilitation program in which prostitutes and trafficked women were provided “medical treatment, thought reform, job training, and family reintegration.” Since the economic reform in 1979, sex trafficking and other social vices have revived.
Shortly after taking power in 1949, the Communist Party of China embarked upon a series of campaigns that purportedly eradicated prostitution from mainland China by the early 1960s. However, since the loosening of government controls over society in the early 1980s, prostitution in mainland China not only has become more visible, but also can now be found throughout both urban and rural areas. In spite of government efforts, prostitution has now developed to the extent that it comprises an industry, one that involves a great number of people and produces a considerable economic output. Prostitution has also become associated with a number of problems, including organized crime, government corruption and sexually transmitted diseases. As the Chinese favor a son more than girls in the family, there is a disproportional larger marriageable aged man with no prospects for finding enough women, they also turn to prostitutes. This is accentuated many married men and wives do not live in one city together and they turn “consultants” for help.