In the mid-1960s there only were a few sentences about nuns and about the songs of the female elders (Therīgāthā) in a few of the books students of Buddhism then read on the religion, but there were no other references to or content about women or anything else pertaining to gender. By 2012, books and articles pertaining to Buddhism and gender had become too numerous to count, and no one scholar can be an expert on all topics pertaining to Buddhism and gender. What intervened to change this situation so drastically was the second wave of feminism and the paradigm shift in models of humanity that it engendered. Androcentric, single-sex models of humanity and scholarship in the generic masculine are no longer acceptable, though the battle for these changes was not easy. Now, newer scholarship routinely includes information about what women do and think religiously, and many books and articles specifically focus on women’s roles and lives in all areas of the Buddhist world, ancient and modern, Asian and Western. Scholarship exploring masculinity—what men do and think specifically as men rather than as humans—has lagged behind significantly in Buddhist studies as in all other fields. Additionally, scholarship about less dominant sexual orientations is sparse. As a result, there is considerable overlap and confusion between the categories “women” and “gender,” and many assume that anything having to do with “gender” will in fact be about women. Many scholars now prefer the term “gender,” because everyone is gendered, whereas the term “women” denotes only one group of gendered human beings. Nevertheless, much research on gender still focuses on women. When women are in focus, closely related topics such as sexuality and parenting also receive more attention. Even though men are also sexual beings and parents, scholarship that does not focus specifically on gender or women tends to ignore these important topics. Because women’s roles in societies are rapidly changing, there are also many calls for changes in their roles in Buddhism. Historically, Buddhism has been quite male dominated; much of its classical literature is highly androcentric, having little to say about women, and almost none of it is in women’s voices. Modern Buddhists, both Western and Asian, are critical of this heritage. But as in every religion, traditionalists push back, resisting more-equal and equitable roles for women and more recognition of sexual minorities.
The Pioneering Literature
Forty-nine years intervened between the publication of Horner 1989, originally published in 1930, and Paul 1979. Though some articles were published in the 1970s, no other books on Buddhism and gender appeared between 1930 and 1979. This was a period of social retrenchment during which women’s participation in public life diminished significantly. Horner 1989 remains a classic long after its original publication. Paul 1979 remains the only anthology of classical texts pertaining to women and gender. Falk 2001 is still the single most insightful analysis of why the nuns’ higher ordination was lost in so many parts of the Buddhist world. Kajiyama 1982 first argued that some of the most troubling stereotypes about women in Buddhist literature, often attributed to the Buddha, are probably interpolations into older texts rather than statements made by the Buddha. Boucher 1993 is an important portrait of American women Buddhist leaders in their earlier years. Tsomo 1988 is the result of the first conference of the Sakyadhita International Organization of Buddhist Women and the first of many books edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo coming out of this series of conferences. Cabezón 1992, edited by a male Buddhist scholar who has pioneered gender studies in Buddhism, contains many important early articles, including ones on abortion and on homosexuality. Gross 1993 is the most comprehensive survey about women in Buddhism.
Boucher, Sandy. Turning the Wheel: American Women Creating the New Buddhism. Updated ed. Boston: Beacon, 1993.
This semipopular book is still interesting for its portrait of Western Buddhism at a creative, forward-looking moment. Most of the women interviewed in this book have gone on to become widely recognized Buddhist leaders and teachers. Originally published in 1988.
Cabezón, José Ignacio, ed. Buddhism, Sexuality, and Gender. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992.
Contains articles on topics such as abortion and homosexuality and many important articles on various aspects of Buddhism and gender.
Falk, Nancy Auer. “The Case of the Vanishing Nuns: The Fruits of Ambivalence in Ancient Indian Buddhism.” In Unspoken Worlds: Women’s Religious Lives. 3d ed. Edited by Nancy Auer Falk and Rita M. Gross, 196–206. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2001.
Skillfully traces the decline and loss of the nuns’ communities to economic disparities between monks and nuns, which are in turn due to monastic rules limiting women’s possibilities to become renowned teachers. Originally published in 1980.
Gross, Rita M. Buddhism after Patriarchy: A Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.
This book’s title describes its contents well. It contains a strong analysis of the incompatibility between Buddhism’s most basic teachings and its male-dominant practices, along with a thorough discussion of needed changes in Buddhism.
Horner, I. B. Women under Primitive Buddhism: Laywomen and Almswomen. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1989.
Valuable for its many citations of classic Buddhist texts, this is the most thorough presentation about women in early Indian Buddhism. Originally published in 1930.
Kajiyama, Yuichi. “Women in Buddhism.” Eastern Buddhist n.s. 15.2 (1982): 53–70.
This groundbreaking early article on Buddhism and gender claims that some of the early Buddhist statements most negative about women do not date from the time of the Buddha but are later interpolations into older Pali texts.
Paul, Diana Y. Women in Buddhism: Images of the Feminine in Mahāyāna Tradition. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1979.
A very valuable collection of texts, mainly from the Mahayana tradition, with very helpful analytic introductions.
Tsomo, Karma Lekshe, ed. Sakyadhītā: Daughters of the Buddha. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion, 1988.
This remains an invaluable handbook of information about Buddhist nuns in all parts of the Buddhist world.
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