In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Women in Buddhism

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Anthologies
  • Women and the Buddha
  • Women and the Vinaya
  • Women and the Therigatha
  • Decline of the Nuns’ Order
  • Early Buddhism
  • Mahayana Women in China
  • Mahayana Women in Japan
  • Women in Tantric Buddhism
  • Contemporary Women in Southeast Asia
  • Contemporary Women in East Asia
  • Contemporary Women in the Himalayas and Tibet
  • Contemporary Women in North America
  • Buddhist Feminism and Social Justice

Buddhism Women in Buddhism
Kim Gutschow
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 April 2012
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 April 2012
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0081


The very existence of a “Women and Buddhism” entry but no “Men in Buddhism” entry implies a set of methodological lacunae in Buddhist studies. On the one hand, Buddhist studies have often proceeded as if the history of men in Buddhism stands in for Buddhist history, with little effort made to mention or recover the significance of women. On the other hand, systematic methodological choices, such as the discounting of feminist analysis and the privileging of text over other sources of knowledge, have exacerbated the tendency to elide the role of women in Buddhism. This elision of women, or their marginalization, in Buddhist analyses where “man” or “male” is assumed to represent “human” has prompted a countersurge of analyses. These latter analyses have found ample evidence for the centrality of gender and women in shaping Buddhist society and soteriology. Although works are now available that cover the role of women and gender in most Buddhist eras or societies, these have only scratched the surface of an extraordinarily rich set of material and questions. It remains to be seen how well Buddhist scholarship can give gender and women their proper place in developing its central concerns.

General Overviews

Relatively few single-authored sources attempt to cover the role of women across the wide span of Buddhist history and traditions. Given the depth and breadth required, many scholars have sought a narrower scope. Barnes 1987 provides a broad overview of women’s social and symbolic roles in a range of Buddhist historical periods and literatures. Barnes 1994 analyzes the role of Buddhist women across Asia today and addresses the most significant social shifts that women have brought about in their individual traditions. In addition to Barnes, Gross 1993 surveys the largest set of texts, although the author deploys feminist theory and methods to critique Buddhist attitudes toward women in texts and practice in her search for a “usable Buddhism.” The latter half of the book reenvisions and recuperates the aspects of Buddhist traditions that are most useful for advancing the cause of women and feminists today. Kajiyama 1982 offers a more limited exploration of mostly Mahayana and some early Indian texts on the question of whether women can attain buddhahood. Willis 1985 surveys the major attitudes toward women and the feminine from the Buddha’s day through Vajrayana Buddhism, which the author argues represents the most liberating for women.

  • Barnes, Nancy J. “Buddhism.” In Women in World Religions. Edited by Arvind Sharma, 105–134. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987.

    A formidable overview of the role of women in Buddhist literatures and societies from the Buddha’s day onward. Traces the shifting role of women from early to later Buddhist societies but elides the internal debates on these issues.

  • Barnes, Nancy J. “Women in Buddhism.” In Today’s Woman in World Religions. Edited by Arvind Sharma, 137–170. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994.

    Concentrates on the shifting roles of women in contemporary Buddhist societies, including recent initiatives such as the move to reinstate full ordination for nuns in societies in which it has lapsed and women’s participation in lay movements such as the Japanese new religions, Theravada meditation groups, and movements for social justice and peaceful change in Tibet and Sri Lanka.

  • Gross, Rita M. Buddhism after Patriarchy: Feminist History, Analysis, and Reconstruction of Buddhism. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993.

    Offers a sweeping feminist revalorization of Buddhism by tracing the numerous discourses that have structured the status of women in Buddhism across Asia and across history. Provides a conceptual overview of the symbolic and substantive issues that have led to the subordination and valorization of women.

  • Kajiyama, Yuichi. “Women in Buddhism.” Eastern Buddhist 15.2 (1982): 53–70.

    Surveys Mahayana and Indian Buddhist texts to conclude that, although early Indian Buddhism did not discriminate against women on spiritual grounds, early Mahayana texts denied women buddhahood, a discrimination further developed in Pure Land sutras and sutras in which women changed sex in order to gain buddhahood.

  • Willis, Jan. “Nuns and Benefactresses: The Role of Women in the Development of Buddhism.” In Women, Religion, and Social Change. Edited by Yvonne Haddad and Ellison Banks Findly, 59–85. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1985.

    Discusses the critical role that women have played in Buddhist literature, distinguishing major attitudes in early Indian, Mahayana, and later Vajrayana texts. Finds evidence for both egalitarian and somewhat misogynist views in every era, although concludes that the Vajrayana is most conducive to female liberation.

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