Struggle for gender equality in Buddhism ups global pitch

New Delhi : The struggle of Buddhist nuns to be at par with male monks intellectually and spiritually in the ranks of the 2,600-year-old faith will shift its battleground to India when the ‘Sakya Dita’ – daughters of the Buddha network – meets in Vaishali in Bihar for an international conclave in 2013.

“We will bring nuns from different Buddhist traditions for the international Sakya Dita conference in Vaishali…And we are looking at more nuns from India. The first Sakya Dita conference was held at Bodh Gaya – where it was constituted – in 1987,” Buddhist scholar Christie Yu-Ling Chang, a senior functionary of the Sakya Dita from Taiwan, said .

The Sakya Dita, an international network of Buddhist women with more than 2,000 members from 45 countries, is the most prominent feminist face of Buddhism. It meets every two years in a member country.

“The goals of the Sakya Dita is to promote the spiritual welfare of Buddhist women, preserve the faith for posterity, empower the nuns and allow faith-related dialogues. The Sakya Dita is working within the system to facilitate more ordination of women nuns – as full time masters – in the Therawada and Tibetan traditions,” Chang said.

The gender tussle is becoming more intense as the demand by Buddhist women scholars for recognition of nuns as “bhikshunis” ups its pitch in the Therawada and Tibetan schools of Buddhism, the preeminent folds among the Buddhist traditions that have flourished around the world.

In India, the land where Buddhism originated, nuns are fighting to be ordained as “bhikshunis”, which is still not ratified by the hierarchy. The nuns in India are being helped by Tibetan spiritual leader the Dalai Lama in their struggle for equal rights.

“Sri Lanka recently eased the curbs on ordination of women with the induction of 600 nuns into the fold, reviving the Bhikshuni Sangha,” gender activist Rekha Mody, who was recently elected as vice-president of the Mahabodhi Society, said .

Most of the women Buddhist masters are either ordained in the West or in the Southeastern and Far Eastern Asian Buddhist countries.

“The door has to be opened to women in India. I am fighting for it. Why is there no Indian ‘Bhikshuni’ in a tradition as old as Buddhism – the gap has to be addressed. We want more and more nunneries to come up in India,” Mody said.

To mark the contribution of women to Buddhism, Mody’s organisation Stree Shakti honoured Jetsun Pema, the sister of the Dalai Lama, last week for her work among the Tibetan Buddhist children.

At a recent global Buddhist congregation in the capital Nov 27-30, the spotlight turned on the women monks, who defended their rights and demanded equal status.

Buddhist master Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, an ordained nun of British origin, said: “The role of nuns have been neglected in Buddhism.”

“The emphasis has always been on the deeds of the monks. The nuns had a small part to play in the growth and the spread of Buddhism – take away the nuns, there would be no ‘dhamma’ centres,” said Palmo, one of the earliest women Buddhist masters to be ordained.

She said the earliest Buddhist stupa which was excavated in Vaishali had a nunnery in its complex.

Palmo manages the Dongyu Gatsal Ling Monastery with 73 nuns in Himachal Pradesh.

Bhikshuni Jampa Tsedroen, a German master of Tibetan Buddhism, said: “Nearly 2,600 years after the enlightenment of Buddha, the faith hosted very few ordained women.”

“It is very important to reflect what Buddha taught. We take it for granted, the equality in Buddhist tradition. But if you look at reality, there is not a woman on the stage. Buddha was more progressive…Women can carry the faith easily to society because of their compassionate and amiable temperament,” Tsedroen said.

The nun, who works at a Tibetan Buddhist Centre in Hamburg and travels around the world, said she learnt in Sri Lanka that bhiskhunis can counsel women in tackling domestic violence, social ills and spread of education.

Rough estimates by women scholars say Buddhism has nearly 300 million women followers – barring China and Korea. China reportedly has an equal number (300 million women).

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