Is there gender discrimination in Buddhism?

If we looked into the Vinaya Pitaka (rule books for the monks and nuns), it is easy to notice that there are 311 precepts (rules) for the nuns but 250 precepts (rules) for the monks. Out of these, eight rules for the nuns belongs to the category of Parajika rules where expulsion is the punishment. This is double the rules (and thus double the chance of expulsion) for monks. Other categories of rules such as Sanghadisesa rules, Suddha-pacittiya rules and Patidesaniya rules all have more rules for nuns.

When Buddha accepted the female Sangha after pleads from Ananda, the “Eight Garudhammas” was added to the bhikkhunis Vinaya. These rules imposed extra duties on nuns and are therefore gender discriminatory in nature. For example, monks can question nuns, a nun (even after being ordained for 100 years) must rise from her seat and show proper homage / full respect to monk, etc.

In the teaching of Bodhisattva, one condition is that the practitioner must be a male before he has a chance to attain enlightenment. Further, one of the five great sacrifices that must be made by Bodhisattva path follower is the giving up of one’s wife. Thus, gender orientated.

In many current rituals, male and female devotees need to be separated and seated in different sections/sectors. Priority are given to male devotees in offering of food and robes. Female devotees have to follow behind male devotees.

With the contemporary women awareness / movement, such overwhelming evident and apparent different gender orientated practices / rules are indeed gender discrimination. This may however not so from the perspective of Buddhism for the following reasons:

1) Biological differences and emotional inclination
The differences between genders are not only in biological structure but also in emotional inclination. From this perspective, precepts have to gender orientated to better fit each situation and circumstances.

2) Social circumstances and cultural expectations
Famous philosophers such Confucius have been accused of gender discrimination. This however must not be the whole truth considering the need to fit social circumstances and cultural expectation of that era. Even in contemporary times, it is not uncommon for other religions such as Muslim, Cathodic and Christian to observe gender orientated practices in rituals.

The intention of such practices may not be gender discrimination in intention. Rather it may be originated on the ground of mutual respects i.e. mutual respects of the philosophy with the local culture / social behaviour or between individuals. E.g. in some culture, it is unacceptable for unmarried male and female to be seen mixing together even in public events, thus the need to separate devotees of different gender.

It can also have originated on ground of mutual respects between gender. E.g. husband is expected to take care of the family and wife to educate and look after the children. The husband (in classical Confucianism) should never quarrel with, let alone abuse, women.

3) Overall balances
Although males appear to be dominant or advantageously treated in public, females may not be the fairer gender as they can have dominancy domestically or able to exercise influences on the behaviours / decisions made by the males from other perspectives – directly or indirectly. Thus, achieving an overall balance of power distribution. E.g. females may be the fairer gender in some society but the males are expected to carry heavy luggage and exercise ladies first. The males may get to be served with home cook food but are expected to do the dishes. Most of the board directors may be male but many of the decisions are influenced by their wives opinions.

Most people unfortunately suffer the five aggregates. Non-Buddhist will see the form (Rupa) of rules / practices in Buddhism, then feel (Vedana) and perceive (Sunkhara) with the current global women movement requesting for gender equality, to reach the formation (Vinnana) that there is gender discrimination. Once this is done, they then have the consciousness (Sanna) that Buddhism is not a religion for female. Assuming that half the world’s population is female, this will hinder the spread of Buddhism to areas where gender equality is a culture norm.

For more people to understand Buddhism and be free from the five aggregates, they must first be willing to accept or at least listen to the teaching of Buddha. In order to do so, will it therefore be wiser to repackage Buddhism by looking into how the rules / practices are less gender orientated? Especially when Buddhists are practising to be freed from the ten fetters (no. 3 being rituals) and Buddha himself had further emphasis the need for all unimportant precepts to be changed according to time and circumstances.

Alejandro Cardeinte's picture

not only in Buddhism

This is a very interesting topic to discuss because not only in Buddhism people are discussing about this but also in Christian religions. But I think some of the Christian churches think it is very cultural thing. But some Christian churches treat this as doctrinal thing like Catholic church. Many leadership roles in some organized churches have been prohibited to women. In the Roman Catholic and may be other churches as well, only men may serve as priests or deacons and only males serve in senior leadership positions such as pope, patriarch, and bishop. Although, many women made very significant contributions in the history of Christianity.