By Helena Jordheim | February 21, 2020

Known as Shakyamuni Buddha or Siddhārtha Gautama, the Buddha lived during the 400s BCE, and in that lifetime reached enlightenment, or nirvana. But even before the Buddha attained this title, he lived hundreds of previous lives which were recorded as part of the Buddhist texts. In the Buddhist mythology, the Avadāna stories tell of the previous lives of the Buddha and can be used as guiding stories to help find the path to nirvana. In only a handful of the Avadāna stories is the Buddha depicted as a woman, paling in comparison to the hundreds of other previous lives in which the Buddha was depicted as male. Women are underrepresented within the mythology as beings equally capable of reaching nirvana. Where they are represented, the message of their story is not as straightforward as the message of similar stories about men. This gender differentiation among similar stories can be confusing and it influences the connotations about gender among the monastic community. Although Buddhism is a global religion which varies greatly by locality, there is still a basic pattern of men holding positions of authority. Buddhist representations of women in the mythology are translated into the treatment and advancement of women in the monastic community, where the pattern of male-privilege in religion persists, but these patterns are being challenged by progressive feminist Buddhist organizations around the world.

The Rūpāvatī Avadāna is one such example of the confusing connotations of gender in the mythology. In the story, which comes from the Divyāvadāna book of “Divine Stories,” there has been a famine in the “Northern Country” where Rūpāvatī is out walking. She meets a woman so desperately hungry that she intends to eat her newly born son. First, Rūpāvatī tries persuading her to alleviate her hunger with any food or drink hidden in her house. When the mother insists there is no food in the house, Rūpāvatī insists she wait a short while for her to bring food from her own house and give it to the mother, but again she refuses. Because of the intensity of the mother’s starvation, Rūpāvatī knows if she leaves the child with the mother, she will surely devour him, but if she takes the boy and leaves the mother, the mother will surely die. Rūpāvatī is faced with the dilemma of how to save them both, in what seems to be a hopeless situation. After deciding to give her body to save these two lives, Rūpāvatī cuts off her breasts to feed the woman. When the mother has eaten and comes back from the brink of starvation, Rūpāvatī tells her, “Sister, be informed that I have purchased your son with my own flesh and blood. I am leaving him with you in trust. By no means may you eat your son while I go back to my house to bring you some food.”

Having effectively purchased the baby with her body, Rūpāvatī has arguably not given her body as a true gift, but as a way to buy time to leave and retrieve proper food for the mother. She leaves the mother and baby and returns to her own home. When she arrives, her husband is at first alarmed at her injury. But after hearing her explanation, he is pleased by the virtue of his wife. He instructs her to prepare the food for the mother, which she had originally asked him to make, while he speaks some “words of truth” about her act of virtue. In other stories of bodily self-sacrifice, the one who has performed the sacrifice is the one who performs an Act of Truth, harnessing the moral force of honest words as a testament to their act. They proclaim what they have done and their body is restored as a reward for their selflessness. But in Rūpāvatī’s story, her husband performs the first Act of Truth that restores her body to how it was before. In response to this first Act, the god Sakra feels threatened by the virtue of this woman. He comes to her disguised as a brahmin, a member of the elite, to challenge her generous spirit. When he asks if she felt regret at the time of her sacrifice, she answers that her “mind felt no contrariness and no regret.” She demands that “by these true words of truth, may the bodily faculties of a woman disappear from me, and may I appear with the bodily faculties of a man!” which in fact, she does. Having transformed into a male body, Rūpāvatī is then given the name of Prince Rūpāvata, and so ends her tale as a woman.

Rūpāvatī’s story differs from other stories of bodily self-sacrifice in ways which have real repercussions for perceptions of gender. Rūpāvatī only began the day of her self-sacrifice on a “leisurely walk,” not seeking sacrifice, and when faced with the struggles of the mother, she first looked for other solutions before deciding to sacrifice part of her body for the mother and child to live. Her sacrifice was a pragmatic, temporary solution for the mother and a price for the purchase of the baby’s life, while she left to go find proper food. Rūpāvatī was not intentionally on a heroic journey, but acted with compassion mixed with genuine desperation, meaning her body was not freely and readily given as the first option. Regardless of the sexual transformation, the Buddhist construction of gender is heavily influenced by her bodily self-sacrifice being different from those of men, who often seek out sacrifice and give their whole bodies without question. Also, her subordinate role as a woman is reinforced when Rūpāvatī’s husband performs the first Act of Truth in the story, which superficially restores her body for her, instead of allowing her the first chance to speak her truth.

The sexual transformation at the end of Rūpāvatī’s story, and at the end of other similar stories of women’s self-sacrifice, occurs after a man has challenged or doubted her Act of Truth. Because of the cultural and historical norm of mistrusting women’s words and virtue, the transformation gives proof that the Act of Truth is in fact true. It proves gender does not define or limit a person’s aptitude for selflessness, which leads to enlightenment. However, the transformation is still seen as a mythological upgrade, conforming to the perception of the female body as temptation and imperfection and the male body as divine or enlightened. Had Rūpāvatī transformed back into her female body after proving her Act of Truth, the story would have recognized women’s ability to reach enlightenment far better than it does with its heteronormative ending. On one hand, sexual transformation is just the mythological means to prove the innate ability of all people, regardless of gender, to transcend the self (attā) and become a bodhisattva: one who is on the path to Buddhahood. Yet, the irrelevance of gender is shrouded by cultural and historical norms which represent women’s bodies as “bondage” and men’s as “freedom.” The “archetype of enlightenment” is decidedly male, and thus the positions of religious authority and aptitude for enlightenment are set aside for men.

In response to this basis for gender stereotypes in the mythology, women who aspire to be part of the monastic community, the sangha, are traditionally treated differently than men in the monastic hierarchy. Buddhism and the nature of the monastic communities are diverse depending on where they originate, but even within the sangha in some monastic lineages there are divisions based on gender. In some early texts, there are references to the fourfold sangha which places distinctions between monks (bhikkhus), nuns (bhikkhunīs), laymen (upāsaka), and laywomen (upāsikā). The simple fact that there is separation of monks and nuns indicates inequality within the monastic community, since separation never allows for full equity. But, just as Buddhism varies by tradition and location, the opportunities for nuns vary by tradition as well. For example, in Sri Lanka, women are able to attain full ordination into the monastic community, but in Taiwan, Korea, China, and Vietnam, while there may be thriving schools for nuns, women are only able to attain high, but not full, ordination. Yet, in Tibet, Thailand, Burma, and Cambodia, women are only considered as candidates for novice ordination.

These separations are not just rooted in historical practice, but in the stories of the words of the Buddha himself, according to the tenth chapter of the Cullavagga, a volume from the Pāli Canon’s vinaya. When the Buddha was approached by his foster mother, his aunt Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī, when she asked to be fully ordained into the monastic community with her 500 female followers, he refused her three times. Yet, when he finally agreed to allow female ordination, he did not allow nuns equal place as monks. She was only accepted and able to become a fully ordained nun on the condition of following eight extra rules (the guru-darhmas) which would subordinate her to the bhikkhus. These eight extra rules place them under the leadership of male monks, including “one rule [which] stipulates that even if a nun has been ordained 100 years, she must still bow to a monk ordained for only one day.” Because of such divisive rules, women who aspire to be or are ordained often “conform neither to the cultural role model of wife and mother nor to that of the fully ordained renunciant. However, their celibate life and visual appearance symbolize a religious ideal.” Meaning, they are often made to live in subordination to monks, even if they are living nearly identical lives. 

Because of the historic division between monks and nuns and women who are excluded from the monastic community, progressive feminist Buddhist organizations around the world are pushing for gender equality within the monastic community. Some say the advocacy of women in the monastic community puts too much emphasis on the self, the attā, the concept from which Buddhist philosophy attempts liberation. However, it can also be argued that the elevation of monks over nuns puts even more emphasis on self by dividing people based on how they were born, not what they aim to achieve. The Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women, established in 1987 in Bodhgaya, India, the supposed place of the Buddha’s enlightenment, connects Buddhist women from all over the world and provides a forum for research and advocacy. The organization aims to “support women and men from diverse traditions in their quest for greater acceptance of full ordination and improving levels of education and standards of living for Buddhist nuns and women in all countries.” Buddhism has spread and developed over time, as all religions do. Reformed versions of Buddhism have taken on new objectives, especially considering the global influences of feminism and civil rights. Stemming from globalization are different reform versions of Buddhism, such as modern Buddhism, which is defined as “a hybrid religious and cultural form that combines selected elements of Buddhism with the major Western discourses and practices of modernity.” After which, follows the idea of a post-modern Buddhism, emphasizing the interconnectedness of the East and West, the local and the global. Globalization melds Buddhism with other ideals that are conducive to the concepts of non-self, anattā, and the possibility for all beings to reach enlightenment. 

However, even though “international ties between Buddhists are real and important, Sanghas generally remain under the governance by national governments and monks and nuns remain citizens of particular nation-states.” The legitimization of bhikkhunī ordination comes down to the national religious authority, which currently lies with bhikkhus in most Buddhist nations. Global exchange of ideas must look to the local powers which can work to break down gender barriers from within Buddhist traditions. 

For women who follow the teachings of the Buddha, the attitudes about gender divisions are confusing. Not only do the specifics of monastic regulations and cultural gender norms come into play, but the connotations of the Buddhist mythology as well. The symbolism of gender in Buddhist texts, specifically “the transformation from female to male…symbolizing the transition from bondage to freedom,” plays a great part in attitudes toward women in Buddhist traditions. Throughout the near 2,500 year history of Buddhism, the monastic community has most commonly been segregated between men and women. Yet, while the separation of men and women has plagued the monastic community for centuries, contemporary organizations are making great strides for integration and inclusivity. With an extremely long history of separation and a fundamental mythology which supports it, change has been difficult to come by. But as in all areas, female empowerment is never a lost cause.

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