In several previous posts, I have mentioned the story of the Dragon King’s Daughter (aka The Naga Princess) from the Lotus Sutra, often cited as example of Buddhism championing gender equality. I have never quite understood how that holds up because the girl must take a man’s form before she can attain enlightenment. To me, the story still reinforces the notion of the male form as superior.
I think a better example of promoting the equality of women and men can be found in the Vimalakirti Sutra. First, a little background:
Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra (“Instructions of Vimalakirti) is a Mahayana Buddhist sutra most likely composed in India approximately 100 CE and rendered into Chinese in 406 CE by the famous translator Kumarajiva. It concerns Vimalakirti, a wealthy lay practitioner and bodhisattva whose wisdom is equal to that of the Buddha. Because Vimalakirti is a layperson, the sutra emphasizes the equality of lay practitioners and ordained practitioners, and in the passage I am sharing with you, it also stresses the equality between men and women.
Vimalakirti pretends to be sick so that other followers and bodhisattvas will gather around him and he will have an opportunity to instruct them on some finer points of the dharma. It just so happens that a goddess lives in his house, and when she appears, Shariputra, one of the Buddha’s foremost disciples, starts to question her. Here is one of their exchanges that I have adapted from the translations by Robert Thurman and Burton Watson:
Shariputra: Goddess, Why don’t you change out of your female body?
[Poor Shariputra sure seems dense in some these sutras. Here he assumes that any woman would naturally want to change into a man if she could, since Buddhism at that time often put forth the notion that woman could not become enlightened.]
Goddess: For the past twelve years, I have been trying to take on female form, but with no luck. What is there to change? If a magician were to make a woman by magic, would you ask her, “Why don’t you change out of your female body?”
Shariputra: No! She would not real, so what would there be to change?
Goddess: Yes, all things are unreal. So why have you asked me to change my unreal female body?
Then with her mystical power, she transformed herself into Shariputra and turned Shariputra into her. The goddess asked Shariputra if he could change back to his own form.
Shariputra, now transformed into the goddess, said: I do not know why I have turned into a goddess. I do not know what to transform!
Goddess: Shariputra, if you can change out of this female body, then all women should also be able to turn into men. Shariputra, who is not a woman, appears in a woman’s body. And the same is true of all women, although they appear in women’s bodies, they are not women. Therefore the Buddha teaches that all things are neither male nor female.”
The goddess changed Shariputra back to his original male body, and she returned to her original form.
Goddess: Shariputra, where is your female body now?
Shariputra: The form of a woman neither exists nor is non-existent.
Goddess: Well, now you understand. All things are fundamentally neither existing nor non-existent, and that which neither exists nor is non-existent is the teaching of the Buddha.
Before the rise of Mahayana, all the Buddhist schools held that neither lay people nor women could achieve awakening. Even within the Mahayana branch, while there was a significant focus on lay practitioners, there were still instances of misogyny that remain unabated. However, it was inevitable that there would be a move away from that attitude, for the Mahayana’s concept of emptiness destroyed all concepts, all views. It only makes sense that empiness destroys gender, too. Gender differences belong to the relative world.
So, we have this example where the Vimalakirti teaches not only equality between lay people and ‘clergy’, but also emphasizes that within emptiness there is equality of women and men.
Shariputra cannot yet see the full truth because he still clings to relative distinctions.
Another way to look at it is that emptiness does not destroy things as much as it renders them conditional and relative. According to Nagarjuna in his Treatise on the Transcendent Wisdom Sutra, to see things in this way is to extend our vision, use our eye of wisdom. He called it the teaching of the emptiness of beginninglessness.
But then in The Precious Garland Nagarjuna said “may all women be reborn as males.”
Which may, or may not, be the reason why Ray Davies said,
Girls will be boys and boys will be girls
It’s a mixed up muddled up shook up world except for Lola
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“extending the eye business” from Jack Kerouac, The Subterraneans, Grove Press edition 1981, p. 95
image: Vimalakirti Bodhisattva debating Manjusri Bodhisattva. Dunhuang, Mogao Caves, China, Tang Dynasty.