Gender equality in Buddhism

Buddhist Teachings which Promote Gender Equality

Traditional Buddhist teaching naturally lends itself to the idea of gender equality. For instance, the idea of anatta (non-self) breaks down the divisions between male and female. Gender is often defined according to a fixed idea of what is considered masculine and feminine and as such male and female roles in society. These fixed ideas are often the cause of sexual stereotypes. However, if one has no fixed ‘self’ then such gender definitions become ambiguous (although this is not to say that there are no men and women!). In many respects the removal of divisions between men and women is also at the heart of Feminism which seeks to raise the status of women in a world which, according to them, has been shaped by men and male interests.

At the heart of Buddhism is the problem of dukkha (suffering). This is not only physical but also involves much emotional and psychological suffering caused through bad actions or attitudes. An example of how dukkha may arise in relation to women is if they are denied opportunities due to being discriminated against on the basis of their gender (E.g. Women should not be mechanics because that is a man’s job). Combined with this is the idea of compassion which is the promotion of respect and dignity for all living things. Clearly, if women are not being treated equally then compassion is not being demonstrated.

Although the third precept challenges the sexual relationships of men and women, once again it is the first precept which encourages the development of wholesome attitudes by men and women towards each other (‘I undertake not to take life’). This precept does not just involve the literal physical taking of life but anything which promotes attitudes that deny people a quality of life. Thus it is vital for Buddhists that society is seen to protect and promote equal opportunities for both men and women.

It should be remembered that despite these teachings traditional Buddhists believe that, although men and women are equal, they have different roles. They believe it is the role of the man (husband) to provide for the family whilst it is the role of the woman (wife) to care for it (for more on this see Buddhism, Marriage and Divorce). This attitude can also be seen in the separation of monks and nuns (also for reasons discussed earlier – and maybe the practical purpose of protecting both from breaking the third precept (‘I undertake to avoid sexual misconduct’)).

In Vajrayana Buddhism there are many female Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. The most well known is Green Tara whose name means ‘She who saves’. There is also the Bodhisattva Kuan Yin, whose name means ‘Compassion’ as well as Prajnaparamita who is known as the mother of all Buddha’s because she represents anicca (the fundamental truth of life). This shows that the truth of Buddhism can be represented to people in both male and female forms.

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