The Enlightenment of Women in Buddhism


Traditional Buddhism, based on teachings preceding the Lotus Sutra, regards birth of a female child as unfortunate.  Although the Buddha accepted women followers as nuns, the Buddhist tradition was dominated by a system of monks and priests, who alienated women from spiritual practice for various reasons. 

Theravada’s interpretation of “desire” as the cause of suffering led the tradition to exclude women from being able to experience enlightenment: because of women’s desire for motherhood (being their natural function in life). 

    “There are more rules for nuns (bhikkunis) than monks (bhikkus), 331 for women as against 227 for men, because while everyone has to control their desires, women have the additional burden of not “arousing the desires of men.”  (Source: Theravada Misogynistic aspect)

Mahayana traditions (except the Lotus schools) are also misogynistic, and that it is unfortunate to be born as a female child.  As Tibetan nun Tenzin Palmo stated:

        “The monks were kind, and I had no problems of sexual harassment or troubles of that sort, but of course I was unfortunately within a female form.  They actually told me that they prayed that in my next life I would have the good fortune to be born as a male so that I could join in all the monastery’s activities.”  Page 155 of book Cave in the Snow

Although Mahayana essentially teaches that all people possess the potential for attaining enlightenment (Buddhanature) – limiting this potential to male gender is contradictory to the meaning of Buddhanature.  The Buddhanature is a genderless state of wisdom, compassion and courage.  Denying the possibility of enlightenment of women means a belief that women are spiritually inferior, and that the female body is an obstacle before enlightenment.  This gender-biased view of the nature of Enlightenment is what the Buddha abolished in his final teaching: the Lotus Sutra.

Based on the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren Buddhism is the only school of Buddhism, which declares that any individual, man or woman, can experience enlightenment in one’s present body in this lifetime. 

The concept of Female Buddha is exclusive to Nichiren school of Buddhism:

-“You are a Buddha in your present body – how wonderful, how wonderful”.  Reply to lay Nun Konichi

-“Since I have realised that only the Lotus Sutra teaches the attainment of Buddhahood by women, and that only the lotus is the sutra of true requital for repaying the kindness of our mothers, in order to repay my debt to my mother, I have vowed to enable all women to chant the Daimoku of this Sutra”.  The Sutra of True Requital

The practice of chanting the Daimoku, the phrase that encapsulates the teachings of the Lotus Sutra - is the most practical way of spiritual practice available to all people:

- “I have offered prayers to the mandala Gohonzon of MyohoReggeKyo. Though this mandala has but five or seven characters, it is the teacher of all Buddhas and the seal that guarantees the enlightenment of all women”. On Offering Prayers

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The Lotus Sutra’s teaching on

Attaining Enlightenment in one’s current body

According to Nichiren:

“... among the teachings of the Lotus Sutra, that of women attaining Buddhahood is foremost.”

This conclusion is derived from the metaphoric story introduced in chapter 12 (Devadatta) of the Sutra – known as “The Dragon’s King’s Daughter”.

The metaphor starts with male Bodhisattvas exchanging their traditional views that women cannot attain enlightenment “Because a woman’s body is soiled and defiled, not a vessel for the Law” – the words of Shariputra. Another Bodhisattva, called Wisdom Accumulated, conveyed, however, his experience of witnessing a young girl, daughter to a dragon king at the lowest level of an ocean, attain enlightenment.  Just upon calling her name, the Dragon King’s daughter appeared and declared that she has attained enlightenment :

    “I have attained enlightenment—

    the Buddha alone can bear witness to this.

    I unfold the doctrines of the great vehicle

    to rescue living beings from suffering.  (L.S. Ch 12)

Then she asked the Buddha to confirm her attainment of Buddhahood, by presenting him with a jewel of great cosmic worth as the merit of her enlightenment:

    “At that time the dragon girl had a precious jewel worth as much as the major world system, which she presented to the Buddha. The Buddha immediately accepted it. The dragon girl said to Bodhisattva Wisdom Accumulated and to the venerable one, Shariputra, “I presented the precious jewel and the world-honored one accepted it”.

She declared in the presence of the Buddha to the gathering male Bodhsiattvas that the Buddha confirmed her Buddhahood in her present body, being a Female Buddha.

Nichiren makes no doubt that women are able to attain Buddha-state in their female body:

-“Now here is a woman who, longing for the Lotus Sutra, will surely become a Buddha.” Letter to the Mother of Oto

Buddhaood as a genderless state

To further convince male Bodhisattvas that the state of Buddhahood is beyond gender, the female Buddha used her supernatural powers to transform her physical appearance from female to male, signifying that Buddhahood is genderless. 

Being already a Buddha, if she had transformed herself into a female form, then no extraordinary transformation would have occurred, as her current Buddhahood would continue again in a female form.  

The metaphor that Buddhahood is genderless required that she transforms herself into a male form.

The profound concept of Transformation

The transformation of a female Buddha into a male Bodhisattva was to show the power of Buddhahood being a state beyond gender.  It was also a significant lesson to the Bodhisattvas that a male Bodhisattva (she turned into) was a female Buddha in the past. 

While the process of transformation mentioned in the Lotus Sutra has a metaphorical meaning, of neutrality of enlightenment towards both genders - the lotus flower itself is a physical manifestation of the same principle of transformation.  The lotus in a pond starts flowering with female features, attracting pollinators by aromatic scent, warmth, and nectar, and after its seeds become pollinated, the flower turns from female into male at the final stage of its life.

Through using metaphors, the Lotus Sutra offered an atmosphere of shared humanism – where all categories of discrimination were abolished.  The text of the sutra can be regarded as the first document on the human right of all people to attain the enlightened state in their  current lifetime. 

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Author: Safwan Darshams

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