In Misogyny, Misandry, and Misanthropy,* Professor R. Howard Bloch writes,
The ritual denunciation of women constitutes something on the order of a cultural constant, reaching back to the Old Testament as well as to Ancient Greece and extending through the fifteenth century. Found in Roman tradition, it dominates ecclesiastical writing, letters, sermons, theological tracts, discussions and compilations of canon law; scientific works, as part and parcel of biological, gynaecological, and medical knowledge; and philosophy. The discourse of misogyny runs like a rich vein throughout the breadth of medieval literature.”
It ran through the course of ancient and medieval life as well, not only in the West, but also the East, and until recently the position of women in society has improved only slightly. In Buddhism, for centuries woman, especially nuns, have endured the sufferings of discrimination and oppression, and this, too, has only recently began to turn around.
Regarding Buddhist literature, I don’t think we can say that it is dominated by misogyny, but it was certainly a frequent theme. Women represented sexual desire and therefore they were considered the “root of ruin” and the “destruction of destructions” and men were advised to “ever avoid women if he desires happiness for himself.” (Saddharmasmrtyupasthana Sutra) There are passages in the early Buddhist sutras that lean toward affirming the equality of women, like this from the Samyutta Nikaya, “Whoever practices this vehicle, whether woman or man, it is the only vehicle that can reach the shore of nibbana.” Yet many such passages are ambiguous and few and far between.
The prevailing attitude in traditional Buddhism was that a masculine body was better suited for enlightenment. In the sutras and commentaries, women are encouraged to pray to be reborn as a man, and certain sincere women believers were predicted never to born a man again. Even in the story of the Dragon King’s Daughter from the Lotus Sutra, often cited as example of Buddhism championing gender equality, the girl must take a man’s form before she can attain enlightenment.
That story is mythological, as are those of other female Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, such as Kuan Yin and Tara. However, there were some remarkable Buddhist women who were historical figures, and one of these was Yeshe Tsogyal (757-815). This woman, who was the wife of Indian master Padmasambhava, the de facto founder of Buddhism in Tibet, has left a legacy all her own, and it is for that reason, rather than her connection to the famous guru, Yeshe Tsogyal is often called the “mother of Tibetan Buddhism.”
In John Steven’s book, Lust for Enlightenment: Buddhism and Sex, Padmasambhava is quoted as saying to Yeshe Tsogyal
The basis for realizing enlightenment is a human body. Male or female, there is no great difference. But if she develops the mind bent on enlightenment the woman’s body is better.”
Elsewhere, Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, offers these final words to Yeshe Tsogyal:
In the supreme body of a woman
You have gained accomplishment;
Your mind itself is Lord . . .”
One Yeshe Tsogyal story has her entering into a meditation retreat for 9 years and emerging as a fully enlightened Buddha. This is almost certainly a mythological tale, but at least in this one, unlike the story of the Dragon King’s Daughter, she does not have to transform into a man before attaining enlightenment. This is significant, regardless of the story’s reliability, because it offers an example of a woman who realized Buddhahood with her present body (Jp. sokushin jobutsu), the “supreme” body of a woman.
Although I don’t believe notions of “supreme perfect enlightenment” (Skt. anuttara-samyak-sambodhi) or Final Nirvana are realistic or verifiable concepts, I do accept that rather high plateaus of wisdom and mindfulness are reachable over the course of the spiritual journey. Given this, we can assume that whatever Yeshe Tsogyal attained was authentic and acceptable as a historic truth. Gyalwa Changchub and Namkhai Nyingpo in their biography of Lady Tsogyal (see below) write, “The first Tibetan ever to attain complete enlightenment was in all probability the woman Yeshe Tsogyal . . .”
Yeshe Tsogyal’s name means “Victorious Ocean of Wisdom.” The details of her life vary, according to the source. In some accounts, her early life was harsh, and she suffered considerable abuse, including rape. In other accounts, those early years were happy and peaceful, and she was so popular that when she turned 13, a number of noblemen requested marriage with her, but her parents would not consent to any of their proposals. There are many legends, and most are quite epic in nature.
It’s said she lived a life that was independent of Padamsambhava. Although she compiled many of his teachings, she also authored works of her own, including an autobiography.
In Tibet, Yeshe Tsogyal is considered a female Buddha. Some Tibetan traditions regard her as a reincarnation of the Buddha’s own mother, Maya Devi, while the Nyingma tradition considers her an emanation of Samantabhadri, the primordial female Buddha.
Yeshe Tsogyal is one of a number of actual women and mythical female figures whose presence furthered the development of Tibetan Buddhism, and Tantric/Vajrayana Buddhism in general. While in what we call “traditional” Buddhism, women were viewed as impure beings, generators of desire, and their bodies unfit to serve as vessels of enlightened mind, the Vajrayana/Tantric branch of Buddhism, which is also traditional, had a different view.
Dr. Miranda E. Shaw, Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Richmond, argues that in Tantric Buddhism, enlightenment was not just for men, nor were women always marginalized and kept in a subservient position. In Passionate Enlightenment Women in Tantric Buddhism, she says that
Tantric biographies portray bold, outspoken, independent women. Tantric texts describe how women should be respected, served, and ritually worshipped. Tantric literature introduces practices performed solely by women and others performed by women and men together. Tantric theory advances an ideal of cooperative, mutually liberative relationships between women and men.”
Shaw says the founders of Tantric Buddhism included independent women who made a significant and valuable contribution to shaping a unique outlook on gender roles, attitudes, and interaction. Unfortunately, Tantric Buddhism is too often associated with physical sex, a largely mistaken notion, which causes many people to form a rather negative view of tantra. For others, Vajrayana may seem to contain too much mysticism for their liking. But regardless of whether Tantric Buddhism/Vajrayana is our cup of tea or not, Buddhists from every tradition would do well to try and capture this vision of gender relations, for in a world where women are still not fully equal, there is much more work to do, and in my opinion, Buddhists should lead the way in dismantling the parameters of inequality, not just for women, but for all people.
There is a growing corpus of research and literature on women in Buddhism, tantric and non-tantric. For those interested in learning more about Yeshe Tsogyal, here are two books worth taking a look at:
Other books of interest, including those cited in this post:
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