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Essay Paper on Women in Buddhism and Shamanism

This essay is going to examine the role of women in Buddhism and Shamanism. Despite the fact that these religions are traditionally perceived as exclusively “male”, women occupy a steady niche in their beliefs and rituals.

Let us start with discussing the role of females in the development of Buddhism. The first major unit in Buddhist history is normally represented by the first five hundred years of Buddhism. By the end of this period, Buddhism was undergoing its first major renovation, or corruption, depending on one’s point of view.

Discovering an accurate and usable past concerning women during this period of Buddhist history involves a focus upon two conflicting bodies of literature, both concerning the nuns of early Buddhism. ‘The well-known story of the Buddha’s reluctant permission to found the nuns’ order contrasts significantly and starkly with the less well-known record of early nuns’ success, as recorded in the Therigatha. This literature demonstrates that, from its beginnings, Buddhists advocated both that there is some problem with women and that women are just as capable as men of achieving Buddhism’s goals. From the beginning, the Buddhist position is unclear and ambiguous. By quoting only part of the record, one could easily paint a portrait of Buddhism as hopelessly negative to women or as very egalitarian in its treatment of men and women. Included in this literature are many stories of many women for whom Buddhism was deeply liberating and satisfying, women who manifest that women are highly capable of achieving Buddhism’s goals, women who can still inspire their spiritual daughters. We also find many stories, including many elements of the Buddha’s own story, that do not indicate an auspicious or positive relationship between women and early Indian Buddhism.
Perhaps because Western scholarship on Buddhism is androcentric, the story of the Buddha’s reluctance to ordain women receives much more attention than the achievements of the nuns. Perhaps this imbalance also stems from the long-term failure of the nuns’ order; because it did not fare well historically, it is easier to explain its poor record if the Buddha’s reluctance, rather than the strengths of the early order, is emphasized. However, if one reads the literature of this period using androgynous methods, one cannot fail to be impressed by the dignity, strength, and size of the women’s order, as portrayed in the Therigatha. One wonders why these stories are not more strongly emphasized, more frequently recounted. Certainly if they were, our stereotypical impressions of women in early Indian Buddhism would be significantly changed. My own reaction, on first reading them, was to wonder how, with such a strong record of women’s achievements in early Buddhism, so much male-dominance came to characterize the tradition and to seem, to most observers, to be the norm for Buddhism.

Five years after his enlightenment experience and the founding of both the renunciate order for men and the lay sangha, the Buddha received a visit from his aunt, also his foster-mother, Prajapati, accompanied by a large group of women. Three times they asked to be admitted into the monastic order, but each time were told, “Enough, O Gotami, let it not please thee that women should be allowed to do so.” The women left weeping, but they persisted. They cut off their hair, put on saffron renunciates’ robes, and travelling on foot, went on to the Buddha’s next stopping place…

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