A Western Buddhist's Travels

Sightseeing & detours on the path of enlightenment

2600 years since the start of women’s liberation?

If we look at the Buddhist perspective on women’s position in the circle of life, we need to start at the beginning. When the Buddha was alive women were defined by their relationship to the men in their lives. She was the daughter of, then the wife of, finally the mother of, even more so if it was the mother of a son. This comes from the early Hindu Law of Mau. Even today many Indian women feel the need to marry, and have a son; other Asian cultures share this aspiration to some degree. It now has resulted in an overabundance of males in China, or a shortage of females. This was due to the aborting of female fetuses under the 1 child policy, to try again with hopes for a son. Before the Buddha attained enlightenment, the only path for women to attain liberation or moksha was through her husband. Buddha at first was not willing to have women as members of the Sangha; in fact he had turned his mother in-law down three times about the establishment of an order for nuns. It was Ananda the Buddha’s personal servant who upon finding the Buddha’s mother in-law weeping listened to her, then feeling compassion, took up her cause. He went to ask the Buddha to reconsider, again the Buddha said no. Ananda then asked the Buddha a question: “Are women capable of leading the holy life and attaining liberation?” The Buddha replied yes they were. Then Ananda then asked why “So why are you creating an obstacle for them?” Then the Buddha in the only recorded occasion, changed his mind, and said that there would be an order for nuns. All of the nuns since have been grateful to Ananda, and even during the Buddha’s time there were many nuns who were praised by the Buddha. He praised them wisdom, their learning, and their skills in teaching as well as their attainment of liberation. Some are mentioned and praised by the Buddha in early sutras and mantras. This was very revolutionary in its time, definitely not evolutionary. In the earliest Mahayana texts transcendental wisdom is portrayed as a female, as the mother of all Buddhas, as Perfection in Wisdom, she was called Prajnaparamita, also referred to as the Bodhisattva of Wisdom. In Chinese Mahayana she has come to be represented by a female version of the Bodhisattva  Avilokakiteshvara  know as Quan Lin, Kwan Lin or various other spellings.

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