Buddhist Women
One morning this summer I just happened to turn on the TV during my morning coffee. There on the Vision channel was a wonderful Buddhist nun, Kabilsingh Chatsumara. (Don’t worry; I can’t pronounce her name either!)  She had just finished a series of classes at a Christian Seminary. It had deepened her understanding of this religion, while at the same time deepening her commitment to Buddha Dharma.  She is a very popular nun in Thailand where evangelical missionaries are trying to convert the whole population. She made the first steps in developing a Buddhist response to this pressure. It is a proud moment to Buddhism in Thailand, for both women and men. She has that special aura of Dharma that makes it a deep experience to be in her presence. No wonder she is both popular and effective. 

It is interesting that in troubled times important women of Buddhism always come forth to lead the way. That was surely the case with Buddha’s mother who sacrificed her life that the Buddha could be born among us. Then Buddha’s stepmother was instrumental in starting the shakydhita— the “daughter’s of the Buddha” nun’s movement.  

In the case of our own Jodo Shinshu,
Shinran Shonin’s wife, Eshinni, supported Shinran in his work.  Without her or her daughters there may not have been a Hongwanji.  But in Buddhism there has developed the attitude that women are inferior to men. This is a widely held opinion in Asian countries. It was thought that the Pure Land was for men only, so that women had to be reborn as men first before they could be enlightened and attain nirvana and Buddhahood. This attitude did not originate with the historical Buddha.  We may be proud that we have dropped this from our liturgy and teachings in North America. Many other religions regard this attitude against women as Buddhism’s Achilles Heel. They use it to convert women and their children away from the Dharma. This is a great problem in the Buddhist countries in Southeast Asia.  

Rennyo and Shinran were great supporters of women in the Shin Buddhism. Rennyo frequently expressed his disgust that Buddhism had abandoned women and denied them entrance into nirvana. One of the great appeals of the Pure Land movement was the inclusion of women in the realization of enlightenment and nirvana through the Vow and the Nembutsu. In this way our Jodo Shinshu actually guided Buddhism back to the original intentions of the founder. Of course Shinran and Rennyo did not have access to modern research, but their insights into the workings of the Dharma brought Buddhism back on track to overcome deep prejudice against women in Asian culture. This was a great act of bravery on the part of our founders.  

In Edmonton, there was once a woman who owned a bookstore. She loved Buddhism and so turned her store into a Buddhist haven of information. It was a meeting place for anyone interested in Dharma. One day a group of visiting monks entered her shop. They were shocked that a woman was in charge. Upon leaving, they informed that of course she knew that women were inferior to men and had to go through at least one more lifetime as man before they could even hope to attain nirvana. My friend was shocked to hear this. She eventually closed the bookshop and left Buddhism, along with her family, in protest. The Buddha Dharma lost five people in that one event. I wonder how many other women have to leave Buddhism in bitter disappointment, along with children and spouses, before the Buddhist leaders wake up and shake off the dust of these ancient prejudices that were not originally a part of the presentation of the Dharma when Buddha was alive?  

In this, we may be proud of our leaders Shinran and Rennyo.  Rennyo’s comments about Buddhism abandoning women are heavy with emotion. Perhaps he was thinking about his wife and children, or the women who devotedly brought their husbands and children to otera? 

We have inherited beautiful wasan, poetry and chants. They tell us of how the Buddha Amida embraced every being with wisdom and compassion, not a single one is abandoned.  North Americans expect Buddhists to ‘walk the talk,” as they say.  Many more women like, Kabilsingh Chatsumara, will be coming forth around the Buddhist world to help us meet the challenges we face. Our future depends on them. Let us reflect on this with great courage and humility in light of the Nembutsu, called the Bodhi of Oneness!!!

Sensei Ulrich

September 21, 2008