An important part of this story is an old one: sexism. Sexism reared its ugly head in the time of the Buddha. India, like most societies at the time (about 2,500 years ago) was a male-dominated society. Women appear to have been treated as equals in ancient times in India. They were educated, had a say in family matters, made decsisions for themselves, and were free to marry whomever they pleased.
There was no tradition of child brides and arranged marriages. But over time this changed. Women lost the right to engage in political discourse. Polygamy increased, and the institution of child marriage became popular. Female children were often relegated to doing household chores. Widows were not allowed to remarry. Instead, they were seen as a disgrace to their family and forced to dress in plain clothes with shorn hair.
The ordination of women is said to have originated when the Buddha’s stepmother and aunt, Maha Pajapati Gotami, sister of the Buddha’s mother, Maya, who died a few days after his birth, asked to join the Sangha as a nun. At first the Buddha refused, but eventually he relented. However, he placed certain restrictions on women that he did not place on men. While the Buddha acknowledged that women had the same chance of attaining enlightenment that men did, he apparently foresaw that allowing women to be ordained would cause problems in the male-dominated society of the day. Indeed, he is said to have prophesized that his teachings would survive only half as long if he agreed to ordain women, 500 years as opposed to 1,000. Whether the Buddha actually made this prediction or not is doubtful. Fortunately it did not come true.
Ordaining women was a revolutionary act. No other religions of the time in India had such a provision. He may have added so many restrictions to protect women who would be seen by society as living outside of the protection of a father or husband. The end result, however, was that nuns were seen as inferior to monks, mirroring their status in society. This situation unfortunately persisted. When the orders of Theravadan Buddhist nuns eventually died out in India and Sri Lanka, conservative monks refused to allow new orders to form, citing the rules calling for ordained nuns to be present at nuns’ ordinations. This Catch-22 situation persisted until only recently when some Theravadan nun orders were allowed to form. However, the ordination lineage for nuns in Theravadan Buddhism has been broken.
The situation in the other schools of Buddhism varies. The ordination lineage of nuns in Mahayana Buddhism is generally strong and appears to be unbroken from the time of the Buddha. The Mahayana tradition tends to be more liberal in their interpretation of the ordination vows, mainly because of the Bodhisattva vow of compassion for all other sentient beings, which is held to be a higher vow. Zen Buddhism,which technically is Mahayana, is something of a sp ecial case. In 19th Century Meiji Japan, there was a big push to Westernize the country. As part of this rush to modernization, celibacy rules for Zen Buddhist monks was abandoned, although there is a long history of Zen monks and priests marrying prior to this. This situation continues to the present day, although in some Zen centers in the United States, the vow of celibacy has been reinstated. In Vajrayana Buddhism, the lineage of ordination for women was broken early on during the reign of King Langdarma, who persecuted Buddhism in Tibet. Virtually all Buddhist nuns in Tibet were killed or driven underground (as were their male counterparts), with the result that the lineage of full ordination was lost. The Dalai Lama, however, is of the opinion that full ordination of women never existed in Tibet, and there is no known written record of full ordination ever existing there.[i]
Full ordination of women in schools of Buddhism that do not now have an established lineage of full ordination is being reestablished by having nuns take ordination from existing lineages, such as Chinese Mahayana lineages, even if the lineage belongs to a different school. Several senior Buddhist teachers have supported this effort, including the Dalai Lama and Karmapas XVI and XVII in Tibetan Buddhism and Ven. Hawanpola Ratanasara in the Theravadan tradition,[i] but the main impetus has been the arrival of Buddhism in the West.
In the United States, Canada and Western Europe in particular, women’s status in society has been undergoing great changes in the last century. Feminism has introduced an often controversial and revolutionary dialogue into Western societies. It is only natural that this dialogue would be extended to Buddhism as it became more and more popular in the West. The drive towards equality for women has created some tension between traditional Buddhists in Asia and their counterparts in the West.[i] It has also met some resistance from Western Buddhist men who retain traditional views of women and resent any hint of feminism.
Such has been the story with the recognition of Jetsunma Ahkön Lhamo as a tulku. His HolinessPenor Rinpoche has been criticized by some Westerners for his recognition of Jetsunma since the day he formally announced it. He later recognized Steven Seagal, the Hollywood actor best known for starring in hyperviolent martial art movies, as a tulku as well. This recognition added to the heat of the criticism, some implying that he only recognized Seagal in return for a substantial contribution. The difference in the two recognitions is that only Jetsunma was formally enthroned, giving her the authority to teach.
There were others who complained that Jetsunma continued to wear Western clothing, painted her nails, did her hair, and was not ordained. The fact is that when His Holiness recognized her in India, she asked if she should get ordained, and his response was no, that she would attract more students as a lay teacher.
Some students who have come to hear her teachings have been put off because she is Western and a woman and not ordained. People tend to have an idea in their head of what a Buddhist teacher looks like and how they should act. Typically that reconception takes the form of an Asian man in robes. But the practice of Guru Yoga teaches us that our root teacher, the one with whom we make a strong heart connection, is in reality a reflection of our own Buddhanature. We are taught that we have yearned for such a teacher for lifetimes in order to escape the suffering of samsara. The teacher appears in the form that the student will best relate to. As it is said, there is only one teacher and one teaching. What the teacher looks like is irrelevant.
However, sexism and misogyny run deep in certain segments of Western society. Discrimination against women is particularly strong in those who subscribe to the tenets of patriarchy, a social system in which the role of the male as the primary authority is central to social organization. Feminism regards patriarchy as unjust and oppressive to women. Certain religions, such as Islam and Mormonism as well as any Asian Buddhists, are very patriarchal in their teachings. Therefore someone with a patriarchal leaning would most likely find a spiritual teacher who is a woman threatening and offensive.
When Jetsunma began to use social networking as a means of reaching out to the greater world to bring the Dharma to the maximum number of people, sexist attacks on her began in earnest. It is difficult to imagine the same criticisms directed against a male teacher. It is indeed a sad comment on our society to see so much hate directed against one who has no other desire than to teach love and compassion for all sentient beings. In spite of retreating in hiding, out of fear for her safety, she continues to teach through her blog and other social media venues. The recent court ruling allowing her stalker to go free is yet another example of how women are continued to be treated differently.
Prospects for a Bhikkhuni Sangha in Tibetan Buddhism”, by Judith Simmer-Brown,
in Buddhist Studies from India to America,
Damien Keown, editor, Routledge, 2006, p. 54.