Why Don’t More Women Become Buddhist Monks?

Women Monks

(by Ninja) The systematic repression of women, by men, over the millennia has been an outgrowth of men’s fear, hatred, and misunderstanding. It has resulted in social, political, economic, and religious structures designed to preserve the dominant position of men in society. While the last hundred years have ushered in dramatic changes in some places, the undercurrents of manipulation, domination, and control remain strong even in “enlightened” countries like ours. How and why the situation came to be is clearly rendered in the audio tape from Rama [Dr. Frederick Lenz] from the Insights series entitled “Why Don’t More Women Attain Enlightenment?”. In this talk, Rama describes the dynamic forces at play, including the fear that men have of the innate power of women, the mind games that men have played to keep women in subservience, and the reaction by women to cultivate their “second attention” in order to secretly manipulate men for their own survival.

Organized religions, reflecting society at large, have also been infected with the same aberrant views of women. In most religions, men continue to occupy the majority of powerful positions and while significant progress has been made, many people still have trouble accepting women as spiritual leaders. Orthodox Judaism did not ordain its first female rabbi until 2009 and of course, Catholicism’s view of women is simply medieval.

What may be surprising for some is that Buddhism did not escape this fate, and many schools of Buddhism continue to openly discriminate against women. Thailand, which is 90% Buddhist, does not allow women to become fully ordained renunciates. In Burma, it is illegal for a woman to take Buddhist vows of ordination and don the ochre robe. Even most Tibetan Buddhist schools do not allow women to become fully ordained monks. They may enter nunneries or monasteries, essentially relegated to menial tasks, while the men receive the teachings and freely pursue their dreams of enlightenment, or whatever their goals might be. This is hard to reconcile with Tibetan Buddhist cosmology which recognizes that communion with dakinis, the goddesses of transformative wisdom and the removal of obstacles, is an essential component of the enlightenment process.

Of course, if there is an enlightened teacher running the show then all these ridiculous structures disappear in the fire of their clarity and integrity. Padmasambhava’s principal disciple with whom he traveled all over Tibet spreading the dharma was a woman, Yeshé Tsogyal, and she attained full enlightenment herself. Padmasambhava said that women are actually better equipped than men to pursue enlightenment, and many modern teachers have said similar things. The UK-born nun Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo who has vowed to reach enlightenment in this lifetime and at one time spent 12 years in seclusion meditating in a cave in the Himalayas, said in her book Reflections on a Mountain Lake: Teachings on Practical Buddhism, “Many lamas have said that women make superior practitioners because they are able to dive into meditation much more easily than males. This is because many males are afraid of dropping their intellect, especially monks who have been studying for a long time. To suddenly just let that go and be naked in the meditation experience is frightening for them, whereas women seem to be able to manage it naturally.”

Many women have attained enlightenment – complete Buddhahood – even if they were not allowed to run a monastery or to transmit the teachings. But pervasive repression of women via generations of mental conditioning and rigid societal structures has made it more difficult for women to attain enlightenment than men. Rama dedicated most of his teaching career to developing the pathway and supportive community needed for women to achieve enlightenment in a modern Western setting. Ultimately, there is no one philosophy in Buddhism about women, each school can pretty much do what they want to do based on the vision of the master in charge. While Tibetan Buddhism generally doesn’t accept women into the higher circles of lineage transmission, we are now starting to see women break that glass ceiling, finally. Lama Tsomo (Linda Pritzker) is a leader in this area. Other inspiring stories of women leading the way in the West are told in the book Dakini Power.

There are other very promising signs of progress. Decades of struggle resulted in the first-ever ordination of 142 Buddhist nuns to the status of fully ordained monks in the Tibetan tradition in Bhutan on June 21, 2021. On that day a rainbow was seen encircling the sun, there are remarkable photos of it online. One of the key agents of change in achieving this landmark was the Bhutan Nuns Foundation, an organization that supports several thousand nuns whether in spiritual retreat or serving the community. You can find out more about them, and even get involved if interested. 

Another remarkable nongovernmental agency that is supporting the ascension of women to positions of equality with men in Buddhism is the Tibetan Nuns Project – supporting, according to their website, “over 800 nuns and seven nunneries in northern India from all Tibetan Buddhist traditions, as well as nuns living on their own and in retreat.” What is especially cool about this organization is that they offer the opportunity to sponsor a nun. With a relatively nominal financial contribution, it is possible to pay for an entire year of expenses for a nun in the economy of northern India. With that sponsorship comes a personal connection, if you want that, such that the sponsored nun will initiate communication via mail a couple of times a year with her sponsor. You can respond or remain quietly in the background, per your preference, but what a great opportunity to give to the dharma.

The empowerment of Buddhist women worldwide is a rapidly expanding, positive, and hopeful process. While the status quo may resist this movement, it is difficult to imagine how they could hold such views and continue to convince themselves that they are following the dharma, i.e., the proper way, in their Buddhist practice. Equality, fairness, integrity, honesty, and clear seeing will ultimately prevail, simply because they are the natural outgrowths of the love, the commitment, and the power that women and men bring to the practice of Buddhism. As Rama says in  “Why Don’t More Women Attain Enlightenment?”, there is really no such thing as a man or a woman. These are ideas, illusions, and dualities perceived in limited states of mind. To become enlightened we must embrace and integrate both sides of our being, masculine and feminine.  “Ultimately there is no sex. The jiva or soul—the principle within us that is existence—is neither masculine nor feminine. It composes both.” But in the meantime, and on the way there, there is a quiet revolution occurring now, available for all of us to participate in, inwardly in our meditations and reflections, outwardly as action, or both.