Embracing the Feminine in Buddhism


Embracing the Feminine in Buddhism

Processing to the Retreat Hall

I am seated at Spirit Rock with two of the new generation of American nuns, delightfully wise and courageous and funny and incredibly dedicated and inspiring. Ayya Anandabodhi and Ayya Santacitta trained for 20 years in the lineage of Ajahn Chah and now run a small and wonderful nunnery, Aloka Vihara in San Francisco. They talk about the joy of having nothing, the commitment to mindful and loving simplicity, the mystery of living on faith in the Dharma without money or even cooking food for themselves. And how satisfying this life is for them, even though it is also wildly challenging to live this way in the midst of modern consumer society. They are part of a magnificent 2,500 year old tradition of Nuns, women who have taken robes to live a life fully devoted to the Buddha’s way.

Taking Vows

The Songs of the Sisters are old texts and poems that describe the enlightenments of the first generation of these Sisters. But nuns are accorded second and third class status in most of Buddhist Asia. (See story below..) And so it was a particular and profound happiness last fall for Spirit Rock to host one of the first full ordinations of Bikkhunis in the west. The preceptor, Ven. Ayya Tathaaloka set up the sacred ordination ground in a circle of

flowers in the center of the main hall at Spirit Rock. Inside were senior nuns and monks from many traditions, Thailand, Sri Lanka, Tibet, China. And surrounding them were hundreds of celebratory lay supporters. And now Ayya Anandabodhi and Ajyya Santacitta, both ordained in that ceremony, returned to Spirit Rock to lead a retreat and inspire everyone by their joy and dedication. We are fortunate to have the spirit of awakening and the power of the feminine flowering together with them and in many of Spirit Rock’s programs and offerings.

The world needs to be reminded of stillness, virtue, lovingkindness and inner freedom. Lay teachers and nuns, men and women, it is essential that the wise feminine and the wise masculine join together in this uncertain hour.

Teaching from the Feminine
Since the early 1990’s, I have been involved in convening a succession of gatherings for Buddhist teachers, several hosted by the Dalai Lama at his Dharamsala palace. Here Western and Asian teachers gathered to discuss the ways Buddhist practice might be of help in the modern world, and also to address the difficulties we encountered.

One of my favorite moments was when Sylvia Wetzel, a Buddhist teacher from Germany, talked to the gathered teachers about how hard it was for women and feminine wisdom to be fully included in the Buddhist community. They are excluded from opportunities to receive many teachings, poorly supported financially, badly respected and often used more to support the monks than practice their own. Most significantly, men are seen as higher than women. To get the monks to understand, Sylvia pointed to the many golden Buddhas and exquisite Tibetan paintings surrounding our room, noting they were all depicting males.

Then she instructed the Dalai Lama and the other lamas and masters to close their eyes and meditate with her, to imagine that they were entering the room and that it had been transformed so that they bowed to the fourteenth female incarnation of the Dalai Lama. With her were many advisors who had always been female, and surrounding them were images of Buddhas and saints, all naturally in women’s bodies because it is the best form for becoming liberated. Of course, it is never taught that there is anything lesser about being a man. Despite that, these men were asked to sit in the back, be silent, and after meeting to help with the cooking.

At the end of her meditation, the eyes of every man in the room reopened, slightly astonished, maybe even slightly more enlightened.

  • Nathalie

    I really enjoyed your article. This issue needs to be addressed as it is very detrimenting. Thank you.

  • Maria

    Why ask for something that is not given? Why teaching monks about the worth of wOman? Why joining a spiritual community that does not value women?

  • Lorein Cipriano

    Amazing and uplifting story!

  • Diane

    i am not interested in hearing about the”feminine” in buddhism, a vague and sexist term with who knows what meaning. I am interested in gender equality in buddhism, and without it there won’t really be a modern Western global buddhism at all. So we need a modern language to work on this. “The Feminine” is not a modern view of anything. And i am trying to find out– so far unsuccessfully, if, when HHDL gifted the monks with some monies from the Templeton prize to further their exposure to Western science, did he also gift the nuns? Since it is easy to confuse the word “monk” and the word “monastic”, what did he mean, and which word applies? If you can possibly address this question i would appreciate it. This query is coming not from some “feminine” anything or some “masculine” anyone, just a human being. Thank you.

    • Ani Chimey Lhatso

      Consonant with His Holiness the Dalai Lamas vision, over the years, Western scientists have taught more than 220 monks and nuns about physics, quantum mechanics, cosmology, biology, neuroscience, and mathematics, all with a strong emphasis on scientific inquiry.

  • http://www.saranaloka.org santacitta b

    dear jack,

    thank you so much for this wonderful and supportive article – much gratitude for your good work and great wisdom.
    may all beings be free!
    santacitta b

  • Leonore Alaniz

    Yes, it is true. I was told just a ew years ago sternly by the leading monk of a Korean temple in New England, USA, that nuns had to bow, recite, learn, serve, hundreds of times more often than monks. And that they reach nirvana much slower than monks. He actually believed and practiced what he said.

  • Ettianne

    This is wonderful but not a first. Ajhan Brahm was excommunicated from Thailand for ordaining women in Australia. Also Ajhan Sujhato faced a similar fate in a Oz. May all be well & I wish the new Sisters great happiness on the path. _()_

  • http://gyalten-sangpo.blogspot.in/ Gyälten Sangpo (Thubten Chöje Nyima)

    I SO rejoice my dear sisters that you’ve attained full Bhikshuni ordination as you’ve aspired and sacrificed to do. Much heartfelt congratulations!!!

    Arya Chittamani Tara is the consort and disciple of Amoghasiddhi, Her root guru. Chenrezig is also another important guru of Her’s, and this maintains a particular connection in service to this world system at His(-Her) direction.

    When she became a bodhisattva (in another world system), many of the males encouraged her to take a rebirth as a male and elaborated on many of the so-called benefits of doing so. She vehemently declined declaring “I will ALWAYS take female form to help them” so long as there are beings in Samsara.

    She emanated as an older woman giving pith guidance and direction to Nagarjuna. She also appeared giving the same to Lama Atisha, also of Nalanda Monastic University.

    She, and other like dakinis are very active in this world helping and benefiting us. The are all around, (and among yourselves).

    In my tradition, it is taught that all who manifest female form in this world system are lineage descendants of dakinis. I can’t help but notice how many nation’s leaders are women now, all over the globe. Germany, Brazil, Ukraine, Argentina, Burma, Thailand, and elsewhere.

    So I rejoice in Ms Wetzel’s meditation. In such more esoteric dakini practices in my tradition, it is taught to view all sentient beings, men and women as (female) dakini emanations. The female in general represents the Wisdom (of the nature of reality) wing of things.

    Infinite blessings to you!

    -Sangpo (Nyima)

  • Elizabeth Yancey

    How beautiful, how joyful and timely. Thank you Jack Kornfield for the courage to support these brave women in opening the door to greater love, appreciation and peace for women everywhere.

    I am deeply grateful for your writing and your example to all.
    Many blessings.

  • Shabkar

    Yes, I remember seeing that video very clearly. Her image of a male student struggling in an environment of only female teachers, only female deities (the opposite is not really the case in the Vajrayana), and all things female caused a tear to run down from behnd the Dalai Lama’s tinted lenses. He said simply, “Makes tear.” But, as iconic radio anchorman Paul Harvey used to say, “the rest of the story,” is that she ended by saying, “We’ve got to stop male ego rising.” And HHDL said softly, “I think female ego rising too.” I agree that because of our conditioning we have 84000 constitutions. And all of them bloom as audiences and teachers. But never forget the goal is to go beyond conditioning, not identify with it.

  • stuartsovatsky

    more and more and more monastics of all genders will so so uplift the Living Dharma in the West, all honored equally of course

  • http://www.seek2know.net Susmita Barua

    May the wounded feminine within the masculine and the wounded masculine within the feminine heal gracefully. With mindfulness may both energies of yin and yang come to complete balance, peace and harmony for the well being of our whole self and all living beings in the planet.

    May we joyfully aspire to embody the four immeasurables in the impermanent world of temporary measures. By bowing three times to the triple gem I acknowledge the sacred presence and complementary nature of both emotional energies within self, society and cosmos…

  • http://www.buddhasoup.com Michael

    Once again, Dr. Kornfield opens our eyes to an important issue.

    It can certainly be helpful to recall that the Buddha, Gautama, ordained women into his Sangha. Keep in mind this was during a time where station in life and caste meant everything, and in the face of such subordination in Indian society, the Buddha, after some encouragement, ordained women as full renunciants.

    It’s only been in the hundreds of years since the Buddha’s passing that women were returned to subordinate status. In Thailand, the Bhikkunis apparently died out, and the male-centric Thai sangha refused to allow women to ordain. This approach was all about control and domination, and nothing about Dhamma.

    When we celebrate the ordination of women, we renew Buddhavacana…how then, as true Buddhists, can we do any differently?

  • Ellen

    Hi jack.

    I am wondering about something… I read about this in one of your books, although I have forgotten which one–sorry. :) I was profoundly moved by Sylvia’s actions. As a woman, I have raised to accept that I am less relevant, will be less included, am less holy, am less intelligent, etc. And I consider myself to be aware and working on being awake… Sylvia’s visualization was so perfect because it was about waking up to reality. Things are changing but there is such a long way to go. When I study the 60′s, I am blown away by how too little has changed. I know these things take time. I guess I am wondering if you know what HHTDL’s actions were? I remember there were vows made that the issue would be addressed. Since that time, has it been addressed? What actions were taken?

    Women don’t need a token place in the Buddhist community. We need to be seen AS the Buddha also, just as fluidly as a male representation. I think that, when we have achieved that fluidity in our spiritual centers, we will then be on the true path to enlightenment. In the meantime, I just consider a lot of what is going on simply counting beads.

    If you have any information, I would appreciate knowing about it.

    Thank you for your practice, wisdom, and dedication,


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