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The Status of Female Practitioners in Tibetan Buddhism

The status of women is always an issue that attracts attention. Maybe it’s because it reflects in some way the social, economic and psychological development of a nation. What can we learn by discussing the status of women in a spiritual tradition? In this talk Khenpo Sodargye discusses the status of women within Buddhism as seen through the eyes of a Buddhist scholar and practitioner. He pays particular attention to how it relates to Tibetan Buddhism.


“In Tibetan Buddhism, or Buddhism in general, each individual chooses different Dharma practices based on his or her disposition, capacity and inclination. Everyone has the right and freedom to choose his or her own practices.”

Speech by Khenpo Sodargye

The Status of Women in Different Religions

Opening speech

Hello everyone. Thanks for coming. Before beginning I would like to express my gratitude to all those who made today’s talk possible. First and foremost, I want to thank Khenpo Sodargye’s team for organizing this European lecture tour. I also wish to thank Francoise Wang-Toutain, Director of the Institute for Tibetan Studies  for the warm welcome we have received at the College de France.  This talk has been jointly-organized by the Center for Himalayan Studies, a part of CNRS and supported by the National Institute of Oriental Languages and Civilizations. The director of the Tibetan section of this organization has also been very helpful. So once again, thank you everyone.

And now, a few words about our guest. Khenpo Sodargye hails from Larung Gar, also known as the Larung Five Sciences Buddhist Academy. This institution was founded in 1980 by His Holiness  Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche. His Holiness was a Nyingma lama and a great teacher in the Dzogchen tradition in eastern Tibet. His crusade against the slaughter of animals exerted a remarkable impact upon Tibetan society, and, thanks to his influence, is still going on today. H. H.  passed into Nirvana in 2004 but his legacy lives on in Larung Gar which now plays host to a great many monks, nuns and lay disciples, both Tibetan and Chinese.

Khenpo Sodargye comes from the Drakgo region in Kham. He was ordained in 1985 and has been a monk for thirty years. He was appointed by H. H. Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche to act as chief interpreter and teacher to Chinese disciples. Today he is recognized as one of the most important masters within this great institution. Among his other accomplishes is the translation of numerous religious texts from Tibetan into Chinese.  He has given a great many talks and been invited to speak at a number of universities, both at home and abroad. He is presently embarked on a lecture tour of Western universities. Less well known, perhaps, is Khenpo’s practice of teaching Buddhism in Chinese prisons. He also shares a special interest in the status of women in Tibetan Buddhism, which is the theme of today’s talk.

Why this theme? Because women hold a unique position in Tibetan Buddhism. Although the traditional hierarchy in some sources appears to be chiefly male,  other sources present a more egalitarian picture. Recent decades have witnessed a phenomenal rise in the number of female monastics in Tibetan Buddhism. This is particularly evident in the Kham. It’s a topic as interesting as it is relevant and one we are anxious to hear. So please welcome our honored guest, Khenpo Sodargye.

The status of women in different religions

I’m very happy to have been invited to speak to all of you, both research students and faculty, here at the Center for Himalayan Studies. Back in 2013, I received an invitation from the Center but unfortunately, for different reasons, I wasn’t able to accept. Now that I’ve been given the opportunity to speak to you again, I think we can learn much about each other, especially during the Q&A session at the end of my lecture. Yesterday I spoke with some of your teachers, research students and PhD candidates without a translator since they spoke very good Tibetan. We discussed a number of topics including Tibetan culture and Tibetan Buddhism. It was an excellent exchange and I am grateful for having been part of it.

My talk today is about the role and status of female practitioners within Buddhism, and specifically, Tibetan Buddhism. I didn’t really need to research this topic a great deal in preparation for this talk. And that is because since 1987, I have been in charge of education of the Han Chinese students, both monastic and lay practitioners. There are lots of female practitioners in the Chinese sangha. I have had many opportunities to get to know them and understand their challenges—perhaps more than most khenpos whose time and energy is directed toward teaching, debating and writing commentaries on topics in the Five Great Treatises of Tibetan Buddhism.

Personally, I don’t think female practitioners are being treated condescendingly or bullied in Tibetan Buddhism, or for that matter, Buddhism in general. But at the same time it must be recognized that when the Buddha taught the parimoksha vows, as found in the Vinaya, he warned monks of the danger of being in too close a proximity to females. In order to preserve the precepts of purity, he exhorted his ordained disciples to keep their distance from them.

In some western religions, women are less likely to ascend to positions of leadership. A woman, for example, cannot be elected Pope. And many of the important ceremonies and functions within the church are undertaken by men. In Islamic regions, such as Gansu province in China, there are female imams. Historical documents also attest that there were female imams in the past. But in many orthodox Muslim communities this is not the case. The dominant hierarchy is male. This situation doesn’t exist in Tibetan Buddhism.

In India, there is a huge gender gap. This doubtless has its roots, in their cultural and religious doctrines. In the past, tradition upheld that when a husband died, his wife was to be buried alive or burned to death along with his corpse. Although this practice was later banned, there are still wayward pockets and remote villages in which it still takes place, as we sometimes see from newspaper and TV news reports. It is still common in Indian society to place a premium on a male child. If a woman gives birth to a son everyone in the family rejoices. If a girl is born, they are disappointed, since she is only seen as a burden.

In Mahayana tradition, all beings, whether male or female, are equally benefited, with the wish for happiness, freedom from suffering, and a goal of obtaining temporary happiness and ultimate bliss.

Women in Shravakayana and Mahayana Buddhism

Women in Tibetan history and histories of other countries

If you are familiar with the Tibetan regions you will notice that most great Tibetan masters are male. At our academy, we have a new research group called Arya Tare’ that was founded four years ago. It consists mainly of Khenmos and female scholars. Over the course of four years they have edited and published only 16 biographies of past female mahasiddahs. Only a few were Indian, most were Tibetan. If, on the other hand, they were to edit the biographies of male mahasiddahs,  there would be a ton of them.

So why are there so few Tibetan female masters? It is because in the Tibetan regions monasteries and nunneries are seen as schools and there are very few nunneries. In my home town of Drakgo, a small community of about 50,000, there are 23 monasteries but only three nunneries. So in terms of educational opportunities, there were many places for men to attend but few for women.

At present, there is a relatively high number of nuns living and studying at Yarchen Gar as well as Larung Gar. But this only started happening after the late 1980’s. Before then, many nuns were looked down upon or slandered in the Tibetan regions.

However, if we look at history, we can’t categorically say that women were treated unequally. In certain respects, women have proved more capable than men. A woman, for example, will instinctively feel sympathy and want to alleviate the suffering of any living creature she finds in pain. In the Buddhist sutras, it is stated that it’s easier for a woman to feel compassion towards sentient beings than a man. Indeed, women are endowed with many special qualities. But it is also true that they have been universally and unfairly  discriminated against. It was not until 1920, for example, that women in the USA were allowed to vote, whereas men were given that right in 1789. Similarly, only in 1945 were women were granted the vote in France, and in 1947, China.

As society evolved, women’s rights and freedoms gradually began to be addressed, both in the east and the west.

Women in Shravakayana and Mahayana Buddhism

What about the status of female practitioners in Buddhism? I’d like to show you how I see it as a Buddhist scholar.

There are three Yanas in Buddhism: Shravakayana, Mahayana and Trantrayana. In Shravakayana or Southern Buddhism, monks are taught that women are the root of afflictions. This is done to maintain the purity of precepts. They are forbidden to look at or have any physical contact with women. In Shravakayana teachings, the impurity of the female body is emphasized. We are told it comprises 36 impure substances including blood, puss, flesh and bones. This is taught to benefit the monks. With respect to nuns the teaching focuses on the impurity of the male body. It too is the root of afflictions and the source of faults. Such teachings are also found in Mahayana Buddhist scriptures like Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland.

Some think the mistreatment of women is justified by these scriptures. But this is to misunderstand the message of Buddhism. You will find blood, puss, flesh and bone beneath the skin of any man or woman, If you examine the human body closely you won’t find anything joyful or delightful about it. All Buddhism is doing is pointing this out.

Men and women have different personalities. Women tend to be more sensitive and yielding. When I arrived in Paris yesterday I learned there is a saying that a woman’s mind changes as swiftly as the Parisian sky. Tibetans say that a woman’s mind is like the sky in spring. But I have to be careful about what I say or I might offend the ladies here.

It’s very important that we understand the differences found in different Buddhist traditions. In countries where Southern Buddhism is practiced, such as Thailand, Sri Lanka and Burma, women are required to keep their distance from ordained monks. When Chinese female Buddhists want to take photos with monks in Thailand, the latter are so embarrassed they often run away. Yet in Han or Tibetan regions, it is common for women to take photos with male Dharma teachers.

In Thailand, by tradition, a woman cannot be ordained as a novice or nun nor can she receive the full ordination of a Bhikkhuni. In the Han regions, this same tradition has been preserved up until the present time. Although it is also the case in the Tibetan regions, we have documentary evidence that during the time of King Trisong sanghas of both Bhikkhu and Bhikkhuni existed. And the tradition of ordaining Bhikkhuni was still extant during the time of Lama Tsongkhapa. In the biography of Rigpe’ Senge’, one of the five sages of Minyak, it is written that Bhikkhuni  Tashi Den had taught over 200 bhikkhunis. She taught then Dharma teachings such as The Way of the Bodhisattva and Vinaya while instructing them in the preliminary practices. It’s puzzling to know why and when it was interrupted.

In Shravakayana, we see that women are treated equally given that everyone has equal opportunity to receive teachings and take vows.

In the Mahayana tradition too, both men and women equally benefit from the wish for happiness, freedom from suffering as well as the goal of obtaining temporary happiness and ultimate bliss. So gender inequality doesn’t exist in this tradition either.

In Vajrayana Buddhism, we recognize the Three Roots. The Lama is the root of blessing, the Yidam is the root of accomplishments, the Khandro or Dakini is the root of activity.

Female Practitioners in Vajrayana Buddhism

Female practitioners in Vajrayana Buddhism

Vajrayana Buddhism, which originated in India, is practiced extensively in the Tibetan regions. In the Han Chinese regions it is not so widespread. In this tradition women are held in high regard, especially in the practice of the Path of Skillful Means.

This is an advanced topic so it’s necessary for me to give you some background in order to gain a better understanding of the status of women in Tibetan Buddhism.

We recognize Three Roots in Vajrayana Buddhism. The Lama is the root of blessing, the Yidam is the route of accomplishments, the Khandro or Dakini is the root of activity. They are essential to one’s Dharma practice and every serious Vajrayana follower will recite the mantras. One’s Yidam can also be a Khandroma,  Tara, Vajrayogini, Kurukulla and Saravasti, all female yidams and the root of activity.

If, by transcending normal passion, a practitioner has advanced to a high level of realization, he may need the support of a karma mudra or female consort, in order to go beyond his present state. This is what is meant by the Practice of Skillful Means. Lord Nagarjuna said, ‘Among all illusions, the female is the most supreme’. It means although all things are illusory and devoid of true existence, some of them can be of great help in our Dharma practice such as the karma mudra, sacred objects and mantras and female consort or the karma mudra is the most supreme among all.

According to some Buddhist scriptures The Practice of Skillful Means can lead to liberation. This is especially the case with monks who must suppress desire and remain celibate. In Vajrayana Buddhism the Anuttarayoga Tantra states, “A yogi can obtain accomplishments through the supreme Path of Skillful Means, without the need to abandon desire or remain celibate.” A lot of Vajrayana practitioners have realized the nature of desire by following this path and have obtained accomplishments without eradicating attachment, hatred or the craving for women.

We see this in the example of King Indrabodhi of Oddiyana who had many wives and concubines. He was told that in order to gain liberation and obtain accomplishments he must become a Buddhist monk. He replied, “I can rely on the Vagrayana and I will not leave my wives.” The he added:

The garden of Jambudvipa is so pleasant.

I would rather be a fox in it.

I do not desire the Buddhahood attained by Shakyamuni.

But I want to attain liberation from desire.

What the King meant was if liberation was only possible if he left his wife and retinue, he would not do it. In the end, he, and all of his wives and concubines, obtained accomplishments through the Vajrayana path. This story, as recorded in Buddhist history, underlines the superiority of Vajrayana and the role of women in its practice.

Additionally, in the root downfalls of Vajrayana, it states: “To disparage one woman or all women, either openly or secretly, is the fourteenth downfall.” One who disparages women breaks this downfall because the nature of the female is wisdom. I think this serves to stress why the female is especially respected in Vajrayana Buddhism.

If this seems difficult to understand, think about it in terms of French law. Accordingly, men and women must receive equal pay for the same job. But in fact, this is not always the case, as a woman typically earns a lower wage for equal work than her male counterpart. In the same way, those with ordinary perception may be hampered by worldly views rather than the law or scripture.

Khenmo and Geshema in Tibetan Buddhism

Charges of discriminatory treatment of women in the Tibetan regions are not entirely true. In Tibetan Buddhist history we find there were titles assigned to female practitioners. One of these was Geshema. Some say there were actual Geshemas in the past, others doubt this. Now nuns can receive the Geshema title in certain places by successfully following through the program and passing the examinations.

Khenmos also appear in Tibetan history, though in fewer numbers. The title of Khenmo in Tibetan Buddhism is equivalent to a doctoral degree. At Larung Gar, H. H. Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche awarded the tile of Khenmo to six nuns in 1988, including our present chancellor Venerable Dakini Muntso Rinpoche, Pakdron, and Rikje’. They were the first group of Khenmos at Larung Gar, although they were not provided with certificates or diplomas. The second group of Khenmos at Larung Gar was selected in February 1992. At that time more than a dozen nuns received the title. Among them were two Han Chinese practitioners.

To date, there are fifty Khenmos at Larung Gar. They administer various departments and give Dharma teachings to the female monastic students. Topics include The Great Five Treatises such as Madhyamika and Valid Cognition.  Khenpos carry out the same duties and there is no difference between the two.

The supreme activities in Buddhism—the essence of Tibetan culture—is teaching and the giving of empowerments. These are the activities of Vajra masters which include some female instructors.

Regardless of gender, every person is different in terms of experience, wisdom and skillful means. In Tibetan Buddhism—and Buddhism in general—each person is able to choose Dharma practices in line with their inclinations, character and capability. Everyone is free—and has the right—to choose his or her own practice. This speaks volumes about the status of female practitioners.

It is vitally important that we adopt an impartial and objective attitude when observing Buddhism, science and cultures different from our own. I cannot stress this enough. It is meaningless if Christians and Buddhists falsely claim to have virtues and qualities they don’t possess, or conceal their shortcomings. An objective outlook when evaluating anything is crucial.

Question and Answer Session

How to Improve the Current Status of Tibetan Women?

Are there courses for female practitioners at Larung Gar?

Question #1:

Thank you very much Rinpoche. I was wondering if at Larung Gar you offer the same courses to female practitioners as you do to males. Has the result been worthwhile? And does it contribute in a positive way to the status of women in the lay community?

Khenpo Sodargye:

Larung Five Sciences Academy offers many opportunities apart from providing education to female practitioners. It’s not our aim to increase the number of Sangha members. Larung Gar has its own prerequisites for those who would like to stay there, including upholding pure precepts, studying diligently and having a good character.

At Larung Gar we attach great importance to education. Some of the Khenpos trained there are appointed to local monasteries and lay communities where they give Dharma teachings but also touch on secular issues such as Tibetan history and culture, environmental responsibility and ways to protect the environment in their vicinity. These undertakings will provide great benefit to many people, including female practitioners.

By and large, a school that focuses on quality education can improve people’s lives. If, for some reason, it doesn’t, it would be due to someone’s inappropriate actions.

 How to improve the status of Tibetan women?

Question #2:

Our topic today is about women’s rights.  In some underdeveloped countries in Asia, the status of women is very low. And while it’s true that in the Tibetan regions the status of women in certain places like U-Tsang is relatively high, in other areas like Amdo and Kham, it’s very low indeed. It’s difficult for women, in many places across the country to pursue successful careers, and many end up in  low level jobs or menial employment like manual labour.

Khenpo Sodargye:

Not only in Tibet but in many other places around the world, women are held in low esteem. Compared to some ethnic communities, women in the Tibetan regions enjoy a relatively elevated status when it comes to rights and many have proven more capable than men. In any case, the future of women’s rights is very much tied into societal development.

It is difficult for women to compete equally with men in the workplace. Take the role of leadership. Nearly 70 to 80 percent of the world’s leaders are men. It’s hard to change this situation. Gender inequality is an unfortunate fact of life. In those societies where women are reduced to taking menial jobs, like domestic service, the situation will not improve until society changes. The best way to effect this is through education.

Why does Vajrayana practice require a female consort?

Question #3:

For people like me, Buddhist teachings are very hard to comprehend. Vajarayana contends that a practitioner needs to rely upon a female consort. I was wondering what the reason is behind this.

Khenpo Sodargye:

In Vajrayana it talks about practicing with a female consort. But this is only useful when one has relinquished all sexual desire for a woman. If not, the female consort will be of no help in obtaining accomplishments.

In the Samata Tantra it says: ‘To eradicate desire with desire.  The state that is free from desire is liberation.’ It means that if one has realized the nature of desire, one will know it has no intrinsic existence of its own. Instead, desire is transformed into Mirror-like Wisdom. Through Wisdom, the practitioner will understand the nature of afflictions. With such realization, he will no longer be bound by cravings for meat, alcohol or sexual relations with a woman. Without this realization, ordinary beings can never attain accomplishments. Only practitioners who have reached an advanced level are capable of this kind of practice. In many tantras such as the Guhyagarbha Tantra it explains the reasons for a female consort as well as for a yogi. (Please note these scriptures were written from a male perspective but the same would apply to females.)

About the Revival of the Tibetan Bhikkhuni Ordination

About the revival of the Tibetan bhikkhuni ordination

Question #4:

We are delighted to learn that females have the same opportunity to study as do males. Does this mean that there will be more and more women choosing to become Tibetan Buddhist nuns? I’m curious to know your thoughts about women becoming nuns. And do you think s it is possible to revive Bhikkhuni ordination in Tibetan Buddhism?

Khenpo Sodargye:

A professor from Harvard University once said to me that it would be wonderful if Bhikkhuni ordination could be revived at Larung Gar. But I told her this was not as easy as it sounds. It’s always been a problem thoughout Tibetan history. It’s not easy to change the current status quo.

In Larung Gar, for example, H. H. Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche was never forthcoming about the need to revive Bhikkuni ordination. But some Khenpos at our academy feel positive about it and have written papers and held discussions addressing this topic. Bhikkhuni ordination involves many rituals and material that would have to be borrowed from other lineages like Han Buddhism.  All the lineages are different. Han Buddhism follows the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, Sri Lankan Buddhism follows the Thervada Vinaya and Tibetan Buddhism follows the Mulasarvastavadin Vinaya. If we were to introduce Bhikkhuni ordination according the ritual of other vinaya traditions then activities like Uposatha and Vassa should similarly follow these traditions. But it’s difficult to engage in them without full understanding. Many Khenpos have shown interest in this but it’s nevertheless difficult to effect. In India, Taiwan and America masters and scholars have engaged in discussions about reviving the Tibetan ordination of Bhikkhunis but, as yet, haven’t reached a consensus. Nobody knows what will happen in the future.

Pratimoksha vows are different from Bodhisattva vows. Nuns keep the precepts according to the types of vows they have taken and the titles of these differ. But we are, together with Taiwan and America, thinking seriously about reviving the Bhikkhuni Order, even though it still presents difficulties. There are many Chinese Bhikkhuni at our academy but we’re not able to bestow them with full ordination through the  Chinese Vinaya tradition. About 100 Han Chinese novice nuns at Larung Dar this year took their Bhikkhuni vows in a Han monastery. There were also some Tibetan nuns who are able to speak Chinese who took their vows along with them. Beginning in 2017 we hope to be able to bestow Bhikkhuni ordination at our academy following Chinese Vinaya.

How many Han Chinese are Buddhist followers?

Question #5:

Question # 5

Tashi Delek! I intended to ask a question about Bhikkhuni ordination but you already answered it, thank you. From Tibetans living abroad we hear that Buddhism is flourishing in mainland China now. Could you tell us your thoughts on this? Not just about those who follow Tibetan Buddhism but Buddhists of all traditions, as well as the present number of Han Chinese Buddhists?

Khenpo Sodargye:

There are a great number of Han Chinese people following Buddhism, a large proportion of which is made up of Tibetan Buddhists. Most of them are well-educated. Many were born during the 1980’s and 1990’s. At the universities where I’ve spoken almost all the questions asked, by both teachers and students, relate to Tibetan Buddhism.

Today it’s easy to learn about Buddhism through the Internet. The number of people studying it online is undoubtedly very large, although it’s hard to say exactly how many. According to one government finding published in 2009, there are about 100 million Han Chinese who are Buddhists. Others sources speculate the number is even higher—200 to 300 million. I don’t know which of these is correct. We don’t know the number of Han Chinese who don’t follow Buddhism, so we have nothing to go by. Anyway, many young people are becoming interested in Buddhism, which is different than before.

Can females do the same practices as males?

Question #6:

Just now you talked about nuns studying philosophy, sutras and shastras.  I’m wondering if they can engage in higher level practice like that found in Vajrayana, especially the generation and completion stages. As far as I know, all these are centered on male physiology. Do they suit females? Is there any treatise about how to adapt these practices to female physiology?

Khenpo Sodargye:

Every year at our academy we hold a fifteen-day retreat in the ninth month of the Tibetan calendar. When H. H. Jigme Phuntsok Rinpoche was with us, he taught the Tsa Lung practice to all his students, including nuns. But so far we have yet to introduce a Tsa Lung practice specifically for nuns. I can’t say for certain we will have it the future.

How to prove the existence of previous lives?

Question #7:

I have some doubts about reincarnation. Even very religious, virtuous people often fall victim to serious illness and other unforeseen disasters. Are these experiences caused by what they did in their previous lives? How can you prove the existence of previous lives?

Khenpo Sodargye:

I totally believe in the existence of previous lives. Why? Many people who want to become rich and do everything they can to make money, fail to do so. This is because without the merit accumulated during previous lives, they don’t have enough wisdom, ability or good connections to be successful. So it’s difficult for them to live an affluent life-style. Other people, neither born rich nor having the right social connections, end up making a fortune. It’s difficult to explain this without allowing for the merit one has accumulated in previous lives. The difference between these two situations argues strongly for the existence of previous lives. I could give a more detailed explanation of reincarnation but we don’t have time. My apologies.

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