Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, born in England, has devoted her life to attaining enlightenment in a female form — at one stage spending years isolated in a cave in the Himalayas to follow the rigorous path of the most devoted yogis. She later founded a nunnery in India focused on giving women in Tibetan Buddhism some of the same opportunities reserved for monks.
Venerable Dhammananda renounced her family life and a prestigious academic career in Thailand to follow the path of the Buddha. She then defied her homeland’s unequal status of women in Buddhist practice by traveling to Sri Lanka to become Thailand’s first fully ordained nun in Theravada, one of the oldest forms of Buddhism.
Born a world apart, they’re among a group of respected female monastics or “bhikkhunis,” lay persons and academics who have challenged longstanding patriarchal traditions. They have blazed a path of progress in recent decades for Buddhist women — from education through advanced degrees and the creation of nunneries to seeking full ordination.
Across branches, though, many at the movement's forefront say more needs to be accomplished so women can have equal opportunities.
“It’s shifting because now there’s so much more interest in the feminine. Not just in Buddhism, but worldwide, why have women been so neglected and overlooked for millennia?" said Palmo. About 100 nuns live and study at her Dongyu Gatsal Ling nunnery in India.
This story is part of a series by The Associated Press and Religion News Service on women’s roles in male-led religions.
Women were included in Buddhism since its earliest years, and their monastic ordination dates back more than 2,500 years, said Judith Simmer-Brown, emeritus professor of contemplative and religious studies at Colorado’s Naropa University, a liberal arts school associated with Buddhism. But as monasticism spread from India to other countries, there often were extra requirements to become ordained in those patriarchal societies.
“Full ordination for women has been very difficult," Simmer-Brown said about some branches. "Even though Buddhist teachings always say that women have equal ability to become enlightened and may even be better suited for enlightenment than men.”
In the past 25 years, as Buddhism has grown in the West and Asian Buddhist societies have been influenced by feminism, there’s more awareness of the importance of women’s leadership, she said.
In Buddhism, women’s status varies across countries and branches that follow different traditions and practices. Women can be ordained as the equivalent of monks in China, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam, mostly dominated by the Mahayana school of Buddhism. Female ordination is not available in the Tibetan tradition nor in Cambodia, Laos or Myanmar.
Women are also banned from becoming monks in Thailand, where over 90% of the population is Buddhist. Historically, women could only become white-cloaked nuns often treated as glorified temple housekeepers. But dozens have traveled to Sri Lanka to receive full ordination.
Dhammananda, the pioneering Thai nun, was a respected Buddhist scholar and television personality before her ordination. One day she looked in a mirror and heard an inner voice asking: “How long must I do this?” She took vows of celibacy and decided to live apart from her three sons, traveling to Sri Lanka for her novice ordination in 2001.
When she returned to Thailand with a shaved head and wearing the saffron robes reserved for men, she faced criticism for defying the Buddhist male-led hierarchy. They’d say: “Imagine a woman putting on the robe, she must be crazy,” said Dhammananda, who was fully ordained in 2003.
Two decades later, she said, people on the street no longer “look at you with puzzled eyes” because Thailand now has over 280 fully ordained women nationwide, though they and their monasteries aren’t legally recognized and don’t receive state funding.
Dhammananda contends that Buddha built the religion as a four-legged stool — monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen.
“We are on the right side of history,” she said.
The women live simple lifestyles and are governed by 311 precepts, including celibacy. Their ranks and those of hundreds of aspirants include a former Google executive, a Harvard graduate, journalists and doctors, as well as village noodle vendors.
Buddhist Thai women have been playing more important roles, said Kritsana Raksachom, a nun and lecturer at Bangkok’s Maha Chulalongkorn Rajavidyalaya University. They increasingly lead meditation courses with both male and female followers, teach Buddhism and Pali languages to monks and novices in public Buddhist universities, and run charities.
In Sri Lanka, the bhikkhuni order was established in the 3rd century B.C. following Buddhism’s introduction from India but later disappeared due to foreign invasions and other factors. It wasn’t until the late ’80s and ’90s when the first Sri Lankan nuns in more than a millennium received their higher ordination.
Peradeniye Dhammashanti, a nun at the Paramita International Buddhist Meditation Center in Sri Lanka, said lay women and bhikkhunis have made significant progress. But she regrets they still lack adequate education and places to meditate.
Buddhist women in Japan focus on caring for the bereaved, mentally ill, elders and families, said Paula Arai, a religious studies professor at Louisiana State University. The ranks of male and female monastics are the same, and women “have this ‘chutzpah’ because when the tradition was introduced in Japan in the sixth century, women were the first to be fully ordained, Arai said.
In Tibetan Buddhism, nuns have achieved many of the privileges historically reserved for monks. They include studying for the geshema, the tradition’s highest and most demanding degree, which was denied to them for centuries.
“The balance is shifting because now, certainly in Tibetan Buddhism, the nuns are highly educated and have the same degrees as the monks,” Palmo said. “They are also teaching, and so their confidence level has risen enormously.”
Still, she laments that in the Tibetan tradition, women can only become novice nuns and not fully ordained.
“They’re sort of standing in the doorway, but they’re not entering,” said Palmo. “It’s sad that there is such resistance.”
After witnessing unequal opportunities for women, Venerable Karma Lekshe Tsomo made it her lifelong mission to address the imbalance.
Born in California, she grew up surfing and traveled to Asia in the 1950s when it was hard to find teachers, monasteries and Buddhism books. She studied with masters of Tibetan Buddhism and, in the late ’80s, organized a pioneering international conference of Buddhist women in the same village where the Buddha became awakened. She went on to create the Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women and an education project for women that runs schools in Bangladesh, Laos and the Himalayas.
“To achieve that highest level, women need the same tools to work with, the same opportunities that men have,” said Tsomo, who is a professor of Buddhist Studies at the University of San Diego.
Author and journalist Michaela Haas praised Tsomo, Palmo and other women profiled in her book “Dakini Power: Twelve Extraordinary Women Shaping the Transmission of Tibetan Buddhism in the West.” But she’s disappointed by the lack of progress.
“We should be further along, and despite these great women teachers, the tradition hasn’t changed that much,” she said.
“They have to work extra hard and do double the work and be super, super qualified.” Meanwhile in some monasteries, she said, women, even nuns, are tasked with cooking and laundry, “so it’s still an old-fashioned understanding of gender roles.”
Venerable Thubten Chodron, who first traveled to India in the 1970s to study under the Dalai Lama and other Tibetan Buddhism masters, said she has seen “enormous” positive change for nuns since then. In 2003 she opened Sravasti Abbey, in Washington state, the only Tibetan Buddhist training monastery for Western monks and nuns in America.
The day starts before dawn with teachings and meditation followed by chanting sessions.
“I’m training all those people who will come who have a sincere motivation and want to follow the discipline that we keep here,” said Chodron, who has written books with the Dalai Lama and also authored “Buddhism for Beginners.”
One of her students is Thubten Damcho, 38. Born in Singapore, she was introduced to Buddhism at Princeton University. After graduation she met Chodron, received her novice ordination at Sravasti Abbey and was fully ordained in Taiwan.
“It was some time in my ordination before I understood, ‘Oh, this ordination is not available to all women,’” Damcho said. “I’m living in a time where this is possible again, and how rare and amazing that is.”
AP journalists Bharatha Mallawarachi in Colombo, Sri Lanka, and Grant Peck and Chalida Ekvitthayavechnukul in Bangkok contributed to this report.
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