Gender discrimination (1).
I would like to thank SIS for inviting me to participate in this important gathering. I could share with you my positive experience with my Muslim friends who took good care of me at many conferences. When Zainah sent the invitation, I told her that I was scheduled for some other conference, but given a second thought, I decided to come to this one.
In order to focus on the given topic "Gender Discrimination from Buddhist Experience", I would like to provide you with a gist of what Buddhism is all about. We have 45 volumes of the Buddhist texts, but I promise not to indulge you in those voluminous texts.
1. Central teaching of Buddhism.
Buddhism started simply with a question: how can I be free from suffering of sickness, old age and death?
This spiritual quest which was an immediate concern for Prince Siddhartha (who later became the Buddha) happened to be also our concern. We can say it is existential in its nature. The Prince was 29 years old at that time, then the news came that a son was born to him. The Prince took it as an urgent message that he must decide to seek to end this suffering for himself and equally for his new born baby, and eventually humankind.
His search took him 6 years, and he discovered an answer which made him "The Buddha" the Fully Enlightened One.
After his enlightenment, he spent 45 years preaching his discovery and in that process created a community of Sangha, male and female mendicants who walked the path he had shown.
In one word, this enlightenment, the highest spiritual goal of Buddhists is accessible to all humankind, no limitation to caste, race or gender.
This enlightenment is a spiritual freedom which frees us from the binding of suffering. The suffering basically caused by holding on to, clinging to the false notion of permanent self.
We are confirmed that the core teaching of Buddhism provides no space for gender discrimination.
2. Packaging of Buddhism.
Buddhism did not come out of an empty space, it sprang from Indian social settings and was wrapped in Indian social values. But the Buddha made attempts again and again to lead us out of it. He denied the caste system which forced and limit spiritual growth of the people. He denied the excessive application of rituals which shrouded the essence of the teaching with empty forms. And when he accepted women to the Order, he uplift women to the social status higher than any religions of his time could admit. Women are recognized for their spiritual potentiality to be enlightened just like men. Barrier was, for the first time removed and by so doing, a new path was opened for women ... a spiritual path, a monastic lifestyle which prior to his time was limited only to men.
3. Textual heritage.
A word must be given to our sisters. In Theravada Buddhism there are the Tripitaka which is the collection of teaching from the Buddha and his immediate disciples. This is considered most sacred, but does not share the same level as the Quran, as the Quran is the word of God.
The Tripitaka was handed down by words of mouth through memories and was written down some 450 years after the Buddha passed away.
Reading Buddhist texts, one must take it with a grain of salt, realizing that it is loaded with Indian social values which was patriarchy in nature.
Then there are layers of commentaries, both upon the texts and upon the commentaries. This tradition becomes quite strong in forming Buddhist traditions and culture around Buddhist beliefs and practices. Sometimes commentaries even weigh heavier than the actual texts. This is where we find gender discrimination coming from teachers of later period, male teachers of course. Some of the explanations can go even against the actual texts.
Buddhist scholars interested in women's issue will find rich material to study how gender discrimination crept in Buddhist culture.
4. Knowing the Buddha (the Teacher) is to know Dhamma (his teaching).
During the Buddha's time, he made it clear when he established Buddhism, he expected the fourfold Buddhists namely the bhikkhus (monks), bhikkhunis (female monks), laymen and laywomen to study his teaching, put it into practice and be able to defend it.
There was a story of a monk who was infatuated by the beauty of the Buddha and followed him everyway. The Buddha told him very clearly that by holding on to the Buddha (person) will not lead him to Buddha (enlightenment) but to understand dhamma (teaching) that will get him to the Buddha (enlightenment).
Both men and women have access to this highest goal. Interestingly the word "Sangha" which usually means a group of monks (minimum 4) can be used for a single enlightened person, applicable to both men and women, ordained and lay.
5. Equal opportunity for Ordination as a religious lifestyle.
In Islam everyone is equal in the eyes of God, so there is no question of ordination in Islam. But monastic lifestyle in many other religions is usually limited to men. Buddhism was the first religion to officially establish and recognize monastic community for women. This is a highlight in Buddhist history. However, in the actual practice as the tradition is handed down through centuries, women are barred from this access in many Theravada countries, i.e. Sri Lanka, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos.
To share with you my personal encounter in my homeland. Thailand is supposed to be the country with highest percentage of Buddhists that is some 94% of the total population of 62 millions. But we do not have the complete fourfold Buddhists as the Buddha intended. The Ordained women are missing. There have been three waves of women wanting to establish this ordination started back some 70 years ago. My ordination, taken from Sri Lanka is considered already the third wave. Yet the Sangha, bhikkhu sangha kept quoting the requirement that ordination must be done by dual sanghas, bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. In the land where we never had bhikkhunis how can we start the ordination. By insisting upon s omething that is not available in our history is simply a polite way of denial.
But it is a denial to re-establish what the Buddha had given. Is this the way we pay respect to the Buddha?
Women must take it into their own hand to go back to the spirit of the Buddha, respect and follow his direction.
And that is what we are doing. With or without recognition from traditional male sangha, the bhikkhuni sangha is growing. Now there are some 40 that women ordained from Sri Lanka. And not for long, we will be able to start our own ordination in Thailand.
6. Recognition of Enlightened women.
The Buddhist texts provided ample examples of women who were successful in attaining the highest spiritual goal in Buddhism. The Buddha himself singled out and praised at least 13 ordained women, all enlightened for their special qualities, i.e, having supernatural power, having good preaching ability, etc. The Buddha's own aunt and step-mother was praised for being foremost in long-standing as bhikkhuni.
Through history we have a clear picture of how these ordained women worked side by side with their male counterparts to propagate Buddhism. Also through history of many lands, we witness the disappearance of monks and bhikkhunis together. There was not single evidence where we find that only the bhikkhunis disappear.
This proves that the common belief that women are weaker therefore they would not be able to endure hardship and eventually they will disappear.
7. Present situation.
With the turn of the new millennium women not only in Buddhism but also in Islam and Christianity start questioning the religious institutional structure which did not allow women's full participation.
Many interfaith conferences were organized, women of various faiths have come together and strengthened each other in their way of finding their role back into their own religious tradition. Sisters from various background learn that in order to cope with this lopsided situation, One key factor which has been confirmed in all traditions is that we must be armed with textual knowledge apart from our own commitment to follow the spirit of our spiritual leaders.
Within Buddhist communities, there is no supreme Pope, but in each country there are most senior monks of each school or sect with administration power over Buddhist community directly or indirectly.
In all Theravada countries, mostly in South East Asia, Buddhism is in the hands of these small elite group of senior monks.
With limitation of time, I can provide you with the context of Thailand where there are some 180,000 monks and male novices in the country. It is as late as 2001 when the movement of ordained women came into the horizon. The traditional sangha does not recognize the newly ordained women who had to seek ordination in Sri Lanka as the Thai monks were forbidden to give ordination to women (1928). But the number of ordained women kept growing.
In this IT world the women are connected and often conferences were held, educating and at the same time strengthening women, reaffirming that the spiritual path is equally theirs. In 2007 there was for the first time an International conference in Hamburg where H.H. the Dalai lama not only presided over, but also gave a financial support of Swiss Francs 50,000 to begin the project. Ordained Buddhist women of all traditions, Mahayana, Theravada and Vajrayana came together. There were more than 70 academic papers presented focusing on only the ordination issue for women.
Soon after, women in various countries are preparing for ordination.
In my own temple, for the first time we are organizing a contemporary female novice ordination in April 2009. This is to provide for the training and spiritual exposure for this group of women who will eventually become the strong foundation of Buddhism. Connection through the internet world is a great access to connect these movements in a more efficient manner.
Ordained life is only for the few, but those who can find meaning in this lifestyle can dedicate themselves as a role model for a happy society.
Women of all traditions and religions can come together to share one concern, how can women become the happy heart of the family. When women realize their potentiality and recognize their role, and work towards it, the world is simply in our hands.
(1) Presented to an International Muslim conference organized by Sisters of Islam in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Feb. 15, 2009.