Women and Mahayana Buddhism
The issue of how Mahayana Buddhist texts portray women is a complicated one. Because of the negativity associated with women and women’s bodies, it might be easy to assume that Mahayana Buddhism is sexist and exclusionary to women. But the issue is not that simple, as positive feminine images exist in Mahayana texts as well. So what does Mahayana Buddhism really have to say about women?
Mahayana doctrine holds that, ultimately, nothing is male or female. Mahayana Buddhism considers any bodies of either gender to be insubstantial and impermanent, empty of any intrinsic existence. However, Buddhist discourse generally deals with two levels of truth, either ultimate or conventional. It is on the level of conventional truth that gender does appear relevant.
On a conventional level, the qualities of insubstantiality and impermanence, along with many other negative qualities, are more often associated with women’s bodies than men’s. One of the main reasons for this negativity is the fact that women give birth. The act of giving birth was problematic for early Buddhists because it perpetuates the cycle of earthly existence. Mahayana texts are concerned with liberating all beings from the cycle of birth and death, but women bring new beings into the world.
Women are also associated with sensuality and seductiveness in Mahayana texts. Women’s bodies are often used as metaphors for desire. The story goes that the Buddha himself was tempted by women to turn his thoughts away from liberation and to sensual pleasures instead. In fact, the purest heavens in Mahayana Buddhism are only populated by males, suggesting that the absence of women means the absence of sex, as well as all of the negativity that Mahayana Buddhism believes comes from sex.
The fact that Mahayana texts contain these negative images of women and women’s bodies might lead some to conclude that Mahayana was not traditionally welcoming to women at all. But there are two sides to this issue. Mahayana scriptures often talk of spiritual attainments by nuns and lay women, and they also portray women in all of the roles more commonly assigned to men, such as laity, as monks, as bodhisattvas, and as gods. Important Mahayana scriptures even have examples of women teaching dharma and expounding great truths.
One of these scriptures is the Lotus Sutra, which contains the famous story of the Naga King’s eight-year old daughter. The young girl is said to have remarkable talents and wisdom, capable of embracing the storehouse of profound secrets preached by the Buddha. Though many beings are said to doubt her specifically because she is female, the Naga King’s daughter changes into a man, carries out all the practices of a bodhisattva, attains enlightenment, and expounds the dharmic law right before their eyes.
Another similar example can be found within The Holy Teaching of Vimalakirti, when a goddess appears and talks to the monk Sariputra. She expounds on the dharma and proceeds to transform herself into the form of Sariputra while transforming Sariputra into her form. She does this to show Sariputra that everything is empty of intrinsic existence or any inherent male-ness or female-ness. Vimalakirti, the main character in this sutra, tells Sariputra that this goddess has served billions of Buddhas and has attained the knowledge of the birthlessness of everything.
It is clear that positive images of women and of the feminine have existed since the earliest Mahayana texts were written. Mahayana texts contain within them some very misogynistic feminine images, while at the same time some of the most elevated, such as portrayals of women as wise, compassionate, and capable of enlightening others.
At the end of the day we must be willing to face both the good and the bad in order to figure out how these texts should relate to our lives today. There is no denying that contradictory views of women abound within Mahayana scripture. At the level of conventional truth there is a difference between men and women that is largely linked to a woman’s ability to give birth. However, we shouldn’t forget that in Buddhism there is ultimately no such thing as male or female, and that the core, liberating message of the Buddha was egalitarian and meant for all sentient beings.