We can no longer afford to squander half of our precious human resources
by ignoring or devaluing women's spiritual potential.
Nowhere do the Buddhist texts say that teachers need to be male.
The future of humanity relies on the procreative power of women, since the future of the human species literally depends on women's special power to give birth to children. Yet women's procreative potential is not the only reason to believe that women hold the key to the future. In addition to our biological gifts, we women have many other skills and talents to offer humanity. And Buddhist women have unique strengths and potential to succor our crisis-ridden planet.
In recent decades, attention to the topic of women in Buddhism has expanded dramatically. Since the 1960s, interest in Buddhism has grown exponentially throughout the world, facilitated by great Buddhist teachers, new research and publications on Buddhism in modern languages, the Internet, the growth of outstanding Buddhist educational centers, and an abundance of vibrant Buddhist social service activities. Especially in Western countries, the Buddha's teachings on peace, compassion, ethics, and human psychology have had a significant impact. Buddhist thought and culture have permeated Western culture to a remarkable degree, from religion to politics, the arts, and the marketplace. This new wave of interest in Buddhism has coincided with new educational and professional opportunities for women and an increasing awareness of women's capabilities and potential. Yet, unfortunately, women do not always have access to Buddhist education, nor are they equally represented in Buddhist institutions. Although the Buddha taught a path to liberation for the benefit of all beings, full recognition and equal opportunity do not extend to women in many Buddhist traditions. If the Buddha's teachings are liberating, shouldn't they be equally liberating for both women and men?
The answer to this question is fairly obvious. The Buddhist teachings speak about the nature of the mind and how to purify the mind of the delusions that cloud it in order to achieve lasting peace and happiness. The nature of the mind, which is pure awareness, is identical for women and men. The human potential to dispel delusion and realize perfect happiness is also identical for women and men. This means that the Buddha's teachings are equally liberating for both women and men. So why is it that most of the stories of realized beings in Buddhist history speak about men? If all human beings can practice the Buddha's teachings and become free of greed, hatred, and ignorance, why don't we have more stories about realized women? If all living beings have the potential to become free from suffering, why don't we hear more about women achieving liberation?
In recent years, these questions have led to serious reflection and research among Buddhist scholars and practitioners about women's roles and potential in Buddhism. Many new books have appeared about women in Buddhist history and in contemporary Buddhist traditions. Many books have been written by women authors about their practice and insight into the teachings of the Buddha. The American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, one of the most popular Buddhist writers today, has been featured in a wide range of media, from Newsweek magazine to The Oprah Winfrey Show on television. Her books have become influential among people of all religious backgrounds and no religious background. Many studies document how women are taking new roles in Buddhist organizations and becoming highly respected as Buddhist teachers, especially in Western countries. The only remaining question is: What is holding Buddhist women back?
Before we tackle that question, perhaps we need to locate the question within present global realities. As the world becomes more advanced scientifically and technologically, it is painfully obvious that many areas of human development have not kept pace. We can now communicate to any precise point on the planet in a fraction of a second and disseminate information to millions of people with the click of a mouse, yet human beings are still enslaved to the same old negative emotions that have plagued humanity for millions of years. Wars and corruption continue to rage. Greed and hatred spin out brutish strategies to control others and their resources. Sadly, we have become more skilled at killing and cheating greater numbers of people with far less effort than ever before. Today, more human beings live in slavery than ever in human history. Children as young as six years old are sold into the sex trade, including many Buddhist children. Shortages of basic necessities like food and water affect millions of people, while a tiny fraction amass obscene wealth. Even in the so-called developed countries, our food, air, and water have become contaminated to a frightening degree. Virtues like loving-kindness and compassion seem to be in short supply.
For thoughtful Buddhists, the answer is easy. As the Buddha taught, we need to recognize and eliminate the sources of human suffering: greed, hatred, and ignorance. If we can address the root causes of these problems, both as individuals and as a society, we have a good chance of transforming the world and changing the course of human history. But greed, hatred, and ignorance will not go away without effort. That means that we need to study and practice the Buddhist teachings sincerely and intensively in order to really change things. We need the teachings and we need teachers to explain them, but perhaps more important, we need living examples of people who model Buddhist values and can serve as sources of inspiration to others. We need qualified Buddhist teachers who have developed a heart of compassion, sufficient wisdom, and skillful teaching methods to motivate others on the path. Sad to say, there seems to be a shortage of inspiring teachers in the world today.
The Buddha set a great example and continues to inspire millions of people even today. By leaving his luxurious life in the palace and setting off to discover the meaning of human existence, he demonstrated the importance of making life meaningful. Making a living and taking care of our young are very important, but they are not the ultimate purpose of human existence. Other animals - even ants and honeybees - also make a living and take care of their young, and some seem to do a better job of it than human animals do. What sets human beings apart from other animals is our higher intelligence and our special capacity for spiritual practice. We have the capacity to unlock the secret and discover the meaning of life. By avoiding unwholesome actions and doing good deeds, we can achieve happiness in this life, higher rebirth in the next, or, if we really get to work, even perfect enlightenment. But we need teachers and we need role models to help us on the path.
This is where Buddhist women come in. If humanity is going to survive, we need all the help we can get. We can no longer afford to squander half of our precious human resources by ignoring or devaluing women's spiritual potential. Nowhere do the Buddhist texts say that teachers need to be male. Nowhere does the Buddha say that being a woman is the result of bad karma, though this rumor continues to circulate in Buddhist societies. In fact, when King Pasanadi bemoaned the birth of a daughter, the Buddha said that a girl child may turn out to be better than a son. When the Buddha's stepmother asked to join the Buddhist order, he confirmed that women have equal potential to achieve the fruits of the path, including liberation. Therefore, there should be nothing stopping women from practicing the Buddha's teachings, achieving realizations, and becoming the inspiring role models that humanity so badly needs. In fact, if a woman sets her mind to it, she may turn out to be a better practitioner than a man. By practicing the Six Perfections - generosity, ethical conduct, patience, joyful effort, concentration, and wisdom - women can proceed directly to buddhahood. By developing loving-kindness, compassion, and wisdom, women can awaken and help lead sentient beings out of suffering.
Since women make up half the world's population, we need to do our part to help address the serious problems that affect humanity today. Women already do more than our share in raising ethical, compassionate children, which is the key to humanity's future. Whatever gender we may happen to be in this lifetime, we need to set aside any misconceptions we may have about women's capabilities and encourage women to become the role models we wish to see in the world. We need to cut through any false thinking we may have about women's limitations and realize that all human beings have equal potential for awakening. Spiritually speaking, there are really no limitations. If we set our mind to it, we can purify the delusions that make us unhappy and, in their place, generate limitless love for all living beings. In a mind of pure love, no darkness can exist. If we cultivate patience, lovingkindness, contentment, and wisdom, then anger, hatred, greed, jealousy, attachment, pride, and negativity can no longer afflict us. A heart of pure compassion is happy, contented, and a source of happiness for others.
Of course, we cannot purify the mind all at once. We need to be constantly alert and mindful, moment to moment. With daily practice, conflicting emotions will have less and less power over us, freeing up tremendous energy that we can use to help alleviate the sufferings of living beings. A person with a pure and loving mind can bring limitless good to our suffering world. As half the population here on planet Earth, women share the responsibility for global transformation equally with men. With full access to the Buddha's liberating teachings, women can shoulder our responsibility and work to benefit the world by embodying the values of peace and love that he taught. There is no aspect of contemporary life that would not benefit from Buddhist values.
If Buddhist women understand the logic of this proposition, then we must take our responsibility seriously. To work toward liberation for the benefit of the world is the highest meaning we can give our lives. The bodhisattva commitment to work toward becoming a perfectly enlightened being in order to liberate all beings from suffering is called bodhicitta. Once we generate this pure and perfect aspiration, we begin working step-by-step toward the goal of buddhahood. According to the Mahayana teachings, all sentient beings have this excellent potential. Women and men alike have the seed of awakening within, waiting to take root. Not only can all sentient beings become perfectly enlightened, they definitely will realize their potential and become buddhas; it is just a matter of time. One of my Tibetan teachers said: "The only difference between us and Buddha Shakyamuni is that we are lazy." Isn't it time for us to get down to the hard work of purifying our minds and realizing that potential?
The first step toward freeing ourselves is to disengage from fruitless activities and eliminate the conflicting emotions that are causing us problems and sapping our energy. We can accomplish this by being vigilant in recognizing and dispelling negative emotions as soon as they arise. Destructive emotions are our worst enemies, more dangerous than any external enemy. For example, when anger arises, there is a danger that we may act on it, speak hurtful words, or do something to harm ourselves or others. If we allow anger to rage unchecked, we may lose control and strike out or even kill someone. We need to stay alert and catch anger as it arises. Even anger's subtler cousin, irritation, can be remedied with the application of patience.
To take another example, when desire arises, there is a danger that we may act on it. We may wish to buy consumer items that we do not need, contributing to the depletion of the earth's resources and cluttering up our homes and our minds. Attraction to physical beauty and the enchantment of desire may get us into some sticky situations. It can lead us into unsuitable partnerships, causing great confusion and suffering to ourselves and others. We need to be mindful and catch desire as it arises. By recognizing the mind's tricks, we can avoid getting ensnared in unwholesome, complicated situations. As the Buddha said, "Contentment is the greatest wealth."
The second step toward freeing ourselves is to put the Buddha's teachings into action in our everyday lives. Reciting the sutras and reflecting on loving-kindness are no longer enough. Isn't it time to actively engage in relieving the sufferings of the world? This begins in our own family, neighborhood, and workplace and gradually extends to benefiting needy beings wherever they may be. Buddhist social activism can take many forms, from family counseling to international relief work. We may volunteer in a hospice, a hospital ward, or a prison ward. We may make contributions to education projects or hurricane relief. Whatever forms our activism may take, it is clear that Buddhists need to become more socially engaged in alleviating the daunting problems that beset the human family today. We can practice the virtue of generosity by giving our time and resources and also enhance our minds through the practice of compassion. This is a win-win situation.
Do women have greater potential for the inner work of purifying the mind and a greater responsibility for the outer work of compassionate social action? I believe that all human beings have equal potential and share equal responsibility. Yet women seem to work especially hard. The United Nations has documented that 60 percent of the world's work is done by women, though they are often not compensated. History has shown that women are exemplary caretakers for beings in need, yet their loving-kindness and generosity are often undervalued. Many women skillfully alleviate the day-to-day sufferings of those who are ill, weak, or unable to take care of themselves, yet their compassionate contributions may be overlooked or overshadowed by other people's wishes and expectations. Women often set aside their own spiritual development in order to care for others, leaving little time for formal Dharma practice. How do we resolve this dilemma?
One solution is to transform caregiving into a bodhisattva practice. If we are able to generate the bodhisattva attitude, every compassionate action can become a bodhisattva practice. But caring for others does not mean that we need to put our spiritual development on hold. We need to balance our time between spiritual practice and service. Understanding when, where, how, and how much to practice and how to serve requires wisdom, personal honesty, and sometimes courage. Developing wisdom requires educating ourselves to continually deepen our understanding of the Buddha's teachings.
The Buddha's teachings are a treasure trove. They are not simply to be chanted. We need to put them into action. Women are developing the confidence to learn and apply these teachings here and now. We have a special responsibility to awaken our wisdom and compassion and apply these priceless values. We can take inspiration from great practitioners, past and present, both women and men. Today a global movement, led by the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women, is inspiring and encouraging Buddhist women to work together and optimize our potential for enlightenment.
Human life is precious and fleeting. By making the most of every moment and working together, the future can be very bright. Women definitely have the power to transform the world.
Karma Lekshe Tsomo is an associate professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego. She has a PhD in comparative philosophy from the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. Her primary academic interests include women in Buddhism, and Buddhism and bioethics. She integrates scholarship and social activism through the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women and Jamyang Foundation, an innovative education project for women in developing countries.