Buddhism begins with the insight of a man called Siddhartha Gautama, who resided in the northeastern region of the Indian subcontinent for about five centuries prior to the Common Era. Currently, as the perception given to women in the society globally becomes a problem, it is important to consider how women are viewed from the Buddhist perspective. Historically, Buddhism has its enterprise dominated by the male in terms of views of its classical texts and the leadership from males and orientations of its foundations. According to the past scholars, women served definitive roles in the history of Buddhism. The Scholars ranked Buddhism as emancipatory for women as compared to the viewed severity of culture of Brahman from where it began. The developments of Brahman and the status of advancement and representation of women never got scholarly attention during the Buddhism initiation period. Buddhism was considered emancipating for women and integrally democratic since it permitted women to renounce the subordinate, socially related roles and assume the monastic gender-free spiritual path. Therefore, women in Buddhism have faced varied views from different schools of Buddhism and such opinions have changed over time. This paper discusses the perception that women in Buddhism received generally and from schools such as Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana.
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One of the key concerns in Buddhism entails the need for women to abandon the home and go forth into the monastic life. Going forth involved the physical, psychological and ontological abandonment of home. Buddhist texts voice worried about the relevance of women leaving the world and doubt concerning the chances of women developing fairness and serenity. Furthermore, the spiritual capability of the women is recognized and women are seen as equal to men ontologically in matters concerning Dharma. The Buddha allowed women into the monastic order, recognizing their ability to attain the top Buddhist goal of liberation. Early Buddhist literature encourages the capability of women in getting nirvana. The view of women renouncement is limited by the proclamation of Buddha the formation of the order of nuns will intensely accelerate the fall of his teachings globally. Past texts discuss the ability of women to get the arhat status. However, they were more uncertain about other spiritual achievements. Unquestionable declaration of the ability of women to get nirvana probably apprehended much greater importance than the prohibition of women from Buddhahood as past sources of Buddhist maintained enlightenment to be the only reasonable goal. A well-known Buddhist belief seen in the past texts is being born a woman is due to a bad karma. Buddha texts shows female manifestation afflictions like abandoning relatives to live with a man. However, as women always show the wishful to be reborn as men, the men Buddhist folklore never showed the desire to be reborn as women. Such attitudes can still be seen in some Buddhist culture up to date. The philosophy of the subservience of female has greatly interfered with the order of nuns all through the history. Since nuns are seen as limited merit fields, lay donors to provide alms to monks to accumulate more merit. However, findings suggest being existing improved conditions for Buddhist renouncing women, including improved institutional support and higher appreciation to be valuable religious individuals by monks and Laity.
In the perception of Theravada Buddhism, a woman could not be allowed to be a bodhisattva, which is an individual on their way to Buddhahood. A serpent or go could be used as a sign of Bodhisattva, but a woman was avoided. The need for women to become awakened was never limited in Theravada. However, women were not allowed to be the leader of Buddhist community. If the aspiration to Buddhahood was performed and the Buddha of the time agrees, it is not easy to be reborn in form of a woman. The correct aim is for women to hope to be reborn as a male. In Theravada, there are eight garudhammas, which are considered to be evidence of the wish of Buddha to degrade women and keep the dominance of male even in the Order. Form the beginning of these rules; bhikkhunis were removed from leadership and influential positions, which affected the women position in the Asian societies. Furthermore, the Buddha is believed to have declared that his prediction of the teachings to be lasting 1000 years would be reduced to half if women were allowed to command. Even though the prediction is understood as a condemnation of women, logically it would also be as well as targeting men or rather a real evaluation of the nature of human by a huge pragmatist. Furthermore, due to belief in Theravada that birth of a female is as a result of a less favorable karma as compared to the male birth, which persists up to date, it shows that Bodhisattva is stopping to be reborn as females even before reborn occurring as male animals. Women in Theravada are encouraged to pray to have male births in the future, which are considered to be a societal problem other than being founded on Canon mentioned earlier. The justification of such belief is limited as at the time of Buddha, the lives of women were full of sufferings as compared to the men’s lives. The sufferings are linked to biological and societal factors and they can even be viewed today where there is termination of huge numbers of female embryos and girls being denied education, pushed into early marriages and barriers they face in the labor market and minimal wages. The real social issue is the way the idea of karma was used in the male-controlled societies.
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Mahayana Buddhism that started approximately 500 years ago after the Buddha developed the past Buddhist canons and represented fresh thoughts concerning women and gender philosophy. The wide array of perceptions towards women in the past Buddhism still exists in future Mahayana customs. It is believed that Mahayana revalorized the feminine gender and the universal salvation religious morals and undiscerning wisdom signified greater sincerity to women and a more balanced sociopolitical order. In Mahayana texts, women are linked to sensuality and seductiveness. The bodies of women are always used to represent desire. As per the past stories, Buddha almost diverted its thoughts away from liberation through temptations by a woman, to put them to sensual pleasure. The purest heaven in Mahayana Buddhism had only males showing the absence of women. It means there were no sex and all the bad feelings of relating Mahayana Buddhism to sex. A conclusion was made of Mahayana traditionally not welcoming women completely. It was due to the issue of the scripture in Mahayana containing bad images concerning the bodies of women, portraying women to be inferior. One, the scriptures of Mahayana always discusses spiritual achievements by nuns and laywomen. Second, the scripture exhibits women in all the roles meant for men such as monks, gods, and bodhisattvas. Significant scripture of Mahayana had instances of dharma teachings and great truths clarifications. Moreover, according to some Mahayana texts, womanhood and Buddhahood are viewed to be equally exclusive. It means that Buddha will never come in female form and female will never be Buddha. The Lotus Sutra is the most powerful Mahayana texts. It has Sariputra words to a young woman on her inability to get her goal Supreme, perfect enlightenment. The reason she is given is her lack of realization of the five forms of status such as permanent Bodhisattva status. The probable female Buddha is obviously a worrying problem. In connection to female Buddha, there is no one mentioned openly. Nevertheless, the tradition of Mahayana shows females Bodhisattvas of the highest order such as Kuan-yin and Tara. Both of them are items of major worship and adoration cults. Queen Srimal appears next to an implicit female Buddhahood image. Queen Srimala is believed to put many into Buddhism and is celebrated for her wisdom and compassion and predicts that she will be a Buddha. The level of Bodhisattvahood which she stands for formed the topic of most successive commentaries.
Mahayana texts do not come to conclusions on the level of Bodhisattvashood that a woman is required to get in female form. Some sutras do not allow women to enter Buddha lands, while others welcome women as Bodhisattvas of the lower stage. However, there are others that take women as advanced Bodhisattvas and looming Buddha. For instance, as per the pure land sutra, one was required to be male to be born in Amitabha land. Therefore, a woman could only wait fro another period of man existence to resume Bodhisattva path. In comparison, most Mahayana sutras define worthy and skillful women who can be Bodhisattvas and even Buddha in recent lives that were started as females. Applying the “Transformation of Sex” narrative, the texts bring up the chances of a woman being getting Buddhahood in the life through sexual change. In some sex sutras transformation, female protagonists are involved in lively delusion exhibition and ceased to change her sex founded on such discrepancies being illusionary and void of any intrinsic reality.
The art and practices in Vajrayana Buddhism constitute of outstanding female images showing women of enlightenment. Female gods were seen as the key figure in thangkas such as Vajrayogini and Tara. The Tantric practice of Vajrayogini applies sexual imagery, understood metaphorically in the current day, to produce the power of energy in a competent way and guide the practitioner to complete enlightenment. Dakinis always referred to as sky-dancers are the most multifarious and powerful symbols of females in Buddhism. Dakinis was viewed as an assistant in the times of challenges since it was a force of feminine energy that protected and preserved the secret teachings in tantric Buddhism. In Vajrayana, the participation of women was vital in the development of Buddhism. Tibetan woman was known to be the founder of Chod tradition. Chod practice unifies the opinion of Prajnaparamita literature with Tantra methodology. A female Buddha was found in Tantric iconography. It exited in Vajrayana path of Buddhism practice. At times, they are the ensembles of the key vidam of a conciliation mandala, but Buddha such as Tara and Vajrayogini comes out to be the core figures of tantric sadhana in their individual right. Furthermore, Vajrayana appreciates their functions of most female yogini practitioners in their achievement of Buddha full enlightenment.
Understanding the perception given to women in Buddhism is significant in the identification of the context and roles of women in Buddhism. It is clear that women are viewed different across three major schools of Buddhism namely, Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana. Through the three schools, it is understood that women play different roles and receive varied attitude as depicted by various scriptures. However, one common perception that compares across all schools is the consideration of woman to be Bodhisattva. As Theravada maintains that a woman cannot be a Bodhisattva completely, Mahayana scriptures try to come to terms with the level of Bodhisattvahood that a woman can achieve. However, in general, the approach given to women is not the same across the schools of Buddhism.
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