Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Women in Religion: Buddhism

I have the feeling that women in Buddhism were treated far better than any other religion I have studied in this class. Women may have had a struggle to join in, but they were allowed with restrictions. The restrictions placed on them made it very difficult for nuns to be ordained. I found it interesting that Buddha named his son Rahula, meaning bondage just before leaving him for seven years. There are always sacrifices for religion it seems, but to give up a newly born son and wife for seven years seems harsh. I read several times of how Buddha declared that women have the capability of enlightenment and have the same spiritual potential as men. Buddha also set rules to prevent monks from using nuns as servants, for the women were to have equal rights. This is phenomenal after reading of the Hindu culture and their tradition of making their women slaves to their husband and in-laws.
Buddha was unable to reach his goal until women re-entered his life, and with the vision of his dead mother. It seems to take the wisdom of women for men of religion to understand the message of God, or the path to enlightenment in this case. I find this to be very significant in my mind, that men may not have been able to reach their goals without women’s assistance. According to Lalitavistara, his dead mother Mahamaya then came to him in a vision and urged him to try a middle path between this extreme asceticism and the princely life of pleasure (Fisher, 98).
It was not surprising that women wanted to join Buddha’s mendicant order, after learning what Buddhism is all about. Buddha refused three times before Ananda interceded for the women and pleaded their worthiness for the path, and then Buddha accepted with the condition of Eight Special Rules placed upon them. There is debate on why Buddha refused women. Was it because the Buddha wanted to protect the women from the harsh life of a mendicant? Or was he worried the women would distract the men from their path? Either way this was a big step for women in Buddhism. To allow them the freedom of moving through the countryside independently as wandering mendicants, forsaking any family responsibilities, was already such a revolutionary step that the restrictions were perhaps placed on them to make their new status more acceptable both to monks and to society at large (Fisher, 102). This statement makes sense but I don’t know if I believe that the Buddha would impose these rules on women just for the sake of others being accepting of the change of women’s status. Some of the Eight Rules were insulting to read such as: a nun should salute a monk and rise before him. This rule makes women visibly subordinate to men. It would be insulting to me if I were told I must salute and rise before my male peers.
Visakha, the intelligent, wealthy mother of a merchant family supported the Sangha financially and gave the Buddha advice about managing the lives of the monastic. I was surprised to learn of this woman, in a time when women were totally under men’s control and protection, was able to give advice to the Buddha, and have him listen. I was also interested in reading the following excerpt from Young’s text on page 311, “Dependence on others is the great suffering, self-dependence is the highest bliss; yet, when born in the race of Manu, all females are dependent on others.” Why are women dependent on others? Because they are forced to be or because of biological characteristics that cause them to be dependent?
Before this course I was not aware of most of the treatment of women, and roles of women in religion. It was not surprising to me to learn that women were and continue to be oppressed in religion because society views women as a lesser class of humans. I did gain encouragement from the special women I read of in each religion that were able to push through the boundaries and limits placed on them and become an inspiration to other women. It seems women were given a great injustice by being labeled as sinful, or impure, or lesser because of Eve, or possibly because of one “bad” woman in history. Despite all the negative information I read on women in religion, I am proud to be a women. Through all the religions we have studied one main theme took place and that was that women are the source of wisdom, fertility, and the back bone of all religions. That is my opinion after all I learned in this course.