In Buddhism, we have a problem with gender discrimination, especially in circles that place a lot of emphasis on the early texts. Some of our texts in the sutta pitaka are sexist and misogynistic, but the real problem is the vinaya and the power dynamics it creates within the sangha. This is used to justify discriminatory attitudes towards women in general, in dhamma groups and in society at large. The vinaya is not just some ancient text, it has real impact on real people, and causes massive suffering and obstacles for practice.
The Buddha set up full ordination for men and women, but that doesn’t mean that a bhikkhu and a bhikkhuni have equal status. Bhikkhus have control over bhikkhunis in many ways. They have a say in who gets ordained, thus controlling access to the female sangha. They have a say in who gets reinstated after being on probation for breaking major rules, thus controlling the status and punishments in the female sangha. Bhikkhunis have to ask them for feedback on their behavior, thus putting them in a position of supervision of bhikkhunis. Bhikkhunis have to regularly ask them for teachings, even though the early sangha had highly qualified female teachers, thus disempowering women and erasing their voices. And most of all, bhikkhunis, no matter their seniority, have to pay respect to the most junior monks.
This unequal status has strongly impacted laypeople’s attitudes towards bhikkhunis. And it’s used as a justification to see women in general as inferior. As the bhikkhuni sangha is thus much less respected, they struggle to survive and get barely enough support to get by. It’s very common that even the four requisites, the basic necessities of monastic life, are not provided.
When a man takes bhikkhu ordination, it is a day of great joy. Finally he is able to live the life of freedom for the eradication of all suffering, as the Buddha laid it down. His mind is greatly uplifted and it is a huge inspiration for his further dhamma practice.
When a woman takes bhikkhuni ordination, a part of her also feels that way. But there are so many doubts: How could the Buddha, an awakened being, treat women as second class, when he clearly stated that both men and women are equally capable of attaining awakening? Are these practices really the Buddha’s instruction, or are we doing something contrary to dhamma? And if this is contrary to dhamma, how can a serious practitioner participate in this in good conscience? How can a modern women, who enjoys equality in lay life, join a misogynistic order? How can she voluntarily subject herself to such treatment? Why create this much suffering for herself? Is she really doing the right thing?
Her mind is filled with questions and her joy is greatly dampened. There’s no inspiration to carry her dhamma practice forward. On the contrary, she is constantly torn between wanting to practice as the Buddha taught, and not wanting to be part of and enabling a discriminatory system. Rather than this being a path of freedom, it is a path of bondage for her. The day she ordains, she becomes an inferior human being.
After ordination, bhikkhunis live with these doubts every day. Are we doing the right thing? As sangha, it is our sacred duty to uphold the dhamma-vinaya, but the vinaya treats us so badly. We actively participate in the subordination and discrimination of women, and by our example, we encourage others to do the same. We constantly harm ourselves. Surely, it isn’t dhamma to deliberately create more suffering?
And this is only for women who are inspired enough—or masochistic enough—to go through with ordination. A huge number of women who are sincere practitioners and could be great and inspiring nuns, turn away from ordination, or even turn away from dhamma altogether, after they have looked into the matter and understood what kind of life would await them as bhikkhunis. They can’t bring themselves to live under such a system.
It is hearbreaking to think about the implications. These are people who have found the dhamma, and want to give their entire life solely in pursuit of the Buddha’s message. They have the potential to fulfill his teaching and truly end suffering once and for all. This is an opportunity that is so rare it may not come again for millions of future lives. It is the most important thing they could possibly do with their life. Something that truly makes a difference. Imagine what kind of kamma someone creates who puts up an obstacle for such practitioners.
So then why do our texts put up so many obstacles for women?
The stream of tears that women have shed because of gender discrimination in the sangha is more than the water in the four great oceans.