‘The Changing Perception of Women in Buddhism’ (1988)

Written by Rob Hogendoorn

2 minutes

The Tibetan Lama Dagyab Rinpoche has lived in Germany since the late 1960s. Between 1966 and 2004, he worked as a researcher at the Institute for Central Asian Studies of the University of Bonn. In 1988, Dagyab Rinpoche published the article ‘The Changing Perception of Women in Buddhism’ in Tibetan Review.

Having introduced both the authority of tradition and the traditional subordination of women, he writes:

“In the past centuries, the rules which were no longer contemporary were silently passed over—a typical Asian solution. Corresponding solutions could be thinkable in the West, for example, the sitting order during a teaching. Up to now, nuns were always seated behind monks without any consideration of their ordination grade. Today it would possibly be more acceptabie to seat nuns and monks in separate blocks, but next to each other. A different sequence, based on ordination grade, could also be introduced for other occasions, for example, file pasts and guards of honour. Such improvements are good, but it is more important to improve the opportunities for nucs with respect to study and practice. His Holiness the Dalai Lama has at every opportunity, encouraged nuns to work towards a change in their circumstances, for example, to attach greater importance to studying philosophy.

So much for the living and working conditions of nuns. What does this mean for women Dharma practitioners in the West where only a small percentage are nuns? It cannot be claimed that the patriarchy has completely disappeared in the West. There are, however, signs of structural changes taking place. If we wish to establish and integrate Buddhist philosophy and psychology here, we must either take into account these changes or we will be unable to communicate with people and therefore be doomed to failure.

I am not advocating that we give Buddhism a pro-feminist cloak because we would not otherwise be able to ‘sell’ it. I would just like to investigate what the Buddha taught on this subject. There is no difference between men and women in Buddhist practice. There are no techniques which are suitable only for men. The same spiritual development is available for all practitioners, otherwise there would have been no yoginis and dakinis.

In Tantra, there are also no differences in the aims and realizations. Male and female deities exist next to each other. According to legend, the Green Tara had in an uninterrupted series of existences, come in contract with the Dharma, Bodhicitta and finally realized Buddhahood. When she had reached a level where she could determine her future existence at free-will she chose without exception to be reborn as a woman. AS far as rebirths in general are concerned there are also female lamas and tulkus. But why so few? The previously-mentioned cultural traditions and role definitions, which were also valid in Tibet, had something to do with tulkus choosing to be reborn as men.

Despite the difficult circumstances, there have always been women who have achieved high spiritual realizations. Once cultural and social obstructions cease, there is no reason, from the Buddhist teachings, why women should be less successful in their practice than men. This may possibly be proved in the com ing decades. His Holiness the Dalai Lama gave the following answer to a similar question posed in Amsterdam: ‘500 years ago when Buddha lived in India he gave preference to men. Had he lived today in Europe as a blond male he would have perhaps given his preference to women.’

One essential point which appears to me is that bitter war between men and women should not break out, but instead they should work together in harmony and mutual respect. Such a development would be desirable so that people in the West would be able to acquaint themselves with Buddhism as a teaching which lives with them and with which they can live.”

Dagyab Rinpoche - The Changing Perception of Women in Buddhism (Tibetan Review 23 (3) March 1988 pp. 16-17)

About the author

Rob Hogendoorn

Investigative reporter and academic researcher Rob Hogendoorn (b. 1964) began researching the reception of Buddhism in Western society and culture in the early 1990s. His modus operandi remained the same ever since: independent, inquisitive and provocative.