Are there male nuns?

Feminist BuddhismBuddha's daughters - on an equal footing with the men

The foster mother of Buddha - Mahaprajapati, is the first woman to ask the Buddha to establish an order of nuns. The Buddha refuses her request three times. Even when Buddha's favorite disciple Ananda asks the Buddha, he sticks to his refusal - so it is in the Palikanon, the oldest Buddhist tradition. Finally, Ananda asks if the women are capable of ultimate awakening.

And the Buddha replies: "Yes, Ānanda, woman is capable of that." Finally he agrees that the women can be ordained as nuns.

"Of course women can attain enlightenment or liberation," says the Tibetan nun Bhikshuni Jampa Tsedroen, alias Carola Roloff, lecturer at the University of Hamburg: "That means, we saw it canonically in very early stories."

The equality of women has been a controversial issue in the Buddhist community from the beginning and it continues to the present day. Because women are still fighting for participation, at least in Asia. Even in ancient India, women were socially and familially subordinate to men, although there were always exceptions. Wandering women were generally accepted, but nuns were viewed with skepticism.

The patriarchal view dominates

According to a legend, however, the Buddha was given a derogatory prophecy. It says that the Dharma, i.e. his teaching, will only last 500 years instead of 1000 years because of the admission of women to the order of nuns.

Carola Roloff: "Then there are the eight difficult rules that he imposed on the nuns. There is a parable in the Tibetan version that we have, where these eight rules act like a dam, and that they do it prevent any difficulties from occurring. That is, these eight rules, where the nuns are subordinated to the monastic order, are supposed to ensure, so to speak, that the teaching continues anyway. "

These eight additional nun rules are very strict. They mean a complete subordination of the order of nuns to the order of monks. For example, a nun has to bow to a monk. Even if she is old and ordained for 100 years and the monk has just become a novice. The traditional stories on which the teaching is based were written down by monks for monks. The patriarchal view dominates.

In Asia the high Buddhist offices are held by men. (imago / ZUMA Press)

Carola Roloff reports on another story. Namely that Mahaprajapati asked the Buddha himself to change this rule. She wanted it to be decisive who was longer in the order.

In that sense she was actually the first Buddhist feminist that we can canonically prove, 500 years before Christ. And the Buddha replied: That doesn't work because the other traditions don't accept that women are on an equal footing with men.

Stricter rules for women

One could start with that today, says Roloff: "Today the social context is completely different and it is exactly the other way round. And isn't that a clear sign that the Buddha did not issue this rule contextually. And because the context is different changed, this rule could also be changed today in order to maintain the original purpose of this rule, namely to protect women in order to maintain it ".

Carola Roloff found out that for a while many more nuns wanted to follow the Buddha than monks. As nuns, women were able to escape the life of wives and mothers, meditate, and care for spiritual growth.

Carola Roloff: "And there must have been a certain run that there are so many nuns and so few monks - that the whole thing tips into an imbalance".

Hence the stricter rules - as a deterrent for women. Nuns also have to adhere to another 100 rules more than monks. The consequences of these rules were sometimes drastic for the nuns.

Carola Roloff: "... then, because of these rules, they also had problems getting their livelihood, that is their food and clothing. Because then it was suddenly considered more profitable to donate to the monks than to donate to the nuns. And then you have the lay people also support them less. And then the nuns are finally extinct in India. "

To this day, Tibetan women pray to be born again as men

This example from Tibet shows how ambivalent the narratives about women in Buddhism are. There we know two stories about the origin of the green Tara - an important meditation goddess in Tibetan Buddhism.

The patriarchal version says that Tara emerged from the tears of Avalokiteshvara. The Bodhisattva Avalokiteshavara is considered to be an embodiment of compassion. When he wept over the suffering of the world ...

Sylvia Wetzel: "... the tears rolled down his head. A tear from his right eye became the green Tara. The left eye became a tear that became the white Tara. Then he had two assistants to help him."

Those who helped him to eradicate the suffering of the world, says Sylvia Wetzel. She is a feminist and a Buddhist teacher from the Tibetan tradition. She tells another version of the making of Tara. According to this, there once lived a princess named Yeshaedawa, a practicing Buddhist.

Monks and nuns pray in front of an Avalokiteshvara statue. (picture alliance / dpa / Julian Stratenschulte)

Sylvia Wetzel: "And she has reached the point in her spiritual development that she could choose and determine her future incarnations herself. So not being thrown by the winds of karma into any family, class and so on. That became known and Then a number of monks came to her and congratulated her on this great insight. And said: 'Now you can finally become a man and then really wake up in your next life'. "

To this day, Tibetan women pray to be born again as men in order to attain Buddhahood.
Sylvia Wetzel: "Then this Princess Yeshedawa - Moon-like says: 'I thank you. But have you ever heard anything about emptiness. In emptiness there is neither woman nor man. And I now pledge, I now take a vow: Me from now on until awakening I will always incarnate as a woman and awaken as a woman. As an inspiration for women and also as an indication for men that it is possible. ' - That's an incredible story. It has been told in Tibet for 1000 years. "

Wakes up as a green Tara

Every now and then, strong female teachers appear in the Buddhist narratives. It wasn't just women's submission to religion.

Sylvia Wetzel: "The role of women in Buddhism corresponds to the role of women in the respective societies and it was historically the same. In the south of India, for example, in the story: 300 AD a Queen Sri Mala appeared. The one important one Text commented. Why? Her husband was Hindu. She had the freedom to practice whatever she wanted. She practiced Buddhism, she supported the Buddhists. She argued with the monks and was assigned a sutra. "

If the woman's role was strong, if she could exert influence, then she appeared in the Buddhist narratives.

Sylvia Wetzel: "In China, in southern China there are still women's rights structures, in Mosua, for example, the women have a vow from Amitabha: 'May all women be reborn as men' - they simply did not recite it. Because they could inherit, they could Doing business, they held a position in society. "

Back once more to the story of Yeshedawa, who only wanted to be reborn as a woman - until she woke up as a green Tara.

Sylvia Wetzel: "There must have been a window of time, sometime at the end of the first millennium in India, the story comes from India, where women had more social power, that such stories turn out to be a longing, as an expression of a social movement - that such stories have arisen.
For me, all myths, stories and legends are expressions of movements. And it came about and of course it takes a while. I mean, how long did it take in Germany before married women were allowed to go to work without their husbands consent? So that is also taking place in the West: 300 years after the Enlightenment, 500 years after the Reformation. "

As a reminder: it was not until the 1970s that women were allowed to go to work in the Federal Republic of Germany or obtain a driver's license - without asking their husbands for permission.

"An unbelievable spirit of optimism"

Carola Roloff has been researching the ordination of nuns for 30 years, including in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition of the Gelupgas. A movement was founded 30 years ago that connects women of all Buddhist traditions, nuns and lay women. "Sakyadhita" is the official name of this Buddhist women's conference. "Sakyadhita" means "daughters of the Buddha" - that sounds very self-confident.

Carola Roloff is a founding member, as is Sylvia Wetzel. The next conference will take place in Hong Kong in June 2017 - always in Asian countries. The first Buddhist women's conference started very small, Wetzel recalls. But:

Sylvia Wetzel: "It was an incredible atmosphere of optimism. Tibet. Nuns, the ten vow nuns from Sri Lanka and Burma and from Thailand and lay women. And of the 150 or so people who were there, maybe another ten percent Men and the Dalai Lama opened it. That was an unbelievable inspiration and a departure - women from all traditions and an unbelievable way of meeting each other. There were women from Asia, women from the West - about half, half, Taiwanese nuns. Incredible. "

The first meeting was still the focus of the nuns' ordination - this was already changed at the second meeting. And now there are more than 1000 participants, says Carola Roloff.

Carola Roloff: "It has become very professional. In the beginning you didn't have a budget for it. It was all very poor. And it was then always deliberately designed so that these conferences, even if they were international, were not held in five Star hotels have taken place, but always low-budget - so that local nuns can also afford it, and women and locals in general. "

The "Daughters of Buddha" want to make a difference in their countries, recognize women's commitment and encourage them to break new ground.

Carola Roloff: "And there is always an uncanny boost in the country in which the conference takes place, an impetus for the women's issue. So the local media are always very present and report in advance. A discourse is initiated within the Society, how is it with us with women. "

The main thing is harmony

In the meantime, the extinct women's ordination in Sri Lanka has been revived. More than 1000 women are now fully-fledged nuns there - they are a good bit further on the way to equality with the monks. As fully ordained nuns, you have the opportunity to study religious law and to take on spiritual offices. Your social recognition increases significantly. But there are also hurdles for women to overcome.

Carola Roloff: "In Asia you generally need a lot of harmony and don't really want to do anything that annoys you somewhere. That leads to them saying: well we can also achieve enlightenment like this. We don't necessarily have to have the appropriate official recognition for this us women. We then do it more in silence, so to speak, in secret. And I also believe that this is a misunderstood conception of Buddhism if you understand harmony in the sense that you think that the social conditions are just like that and she doesn't try to change it to keep the peace. It's a real problem. "

The conferences do not simulate permanent harmony. There is controversial discussion about whether one should even mess with the monastic orders and representatives in the respective countries. Hardly any man or monk there voluntarily gives up his privileges.

The Dalai Lama supports the "daughters of the Buddha" in their endeavors for equality. (dpa / Sanjay Baid)

The lay women, as well as the nuns, had to learn to argue and find allies among the monks for full-fledged nun ordination. One supporter is the Dalai Lama, who also likes to call himself a feminist Buddhist. He already said that he could be born again as a woman. - With the structures in his own tradition that could be difficult, because it has so far been strongly geared towards men. So far, no search has been made for a female incarnation.

A milestone, however, is that in December, Tibetan nuns obtained the Geshema title for the first time - a kind of doctorate in Buddhist philosophy.

Carola Roloff: "Of course I am happy about it, because it is a real asset for tradition. Because it is comparable to the whole discussion about whether women can be ordained deacons in the Catholic Church or can be ordained as priestesses. Now they have the somewhat smaller level, so to speak. But they have the highest level, this ordination not yet. And that's where things have to go, right? "

Teaching Zen Priestesses and Zen Masters

Ursula Richard, publisher and editor-in-chief of "Buddhismus Aktuell", the magazine of the umbrella organization of the German Buddhist Union, sees at least in the West largely eye level between Buddhist women and men.

Ursula Richard: "Buddhism comes from very patriarchal structured countries in Asia and has brought this legacy with them to the West. A lot has happened. But that we would be as far as the gender-equitable or gender-equitable Bible, that I do not see with us yet. "

In Zen Buddhism, at least in addition to the patriarchal, feminine structures have formed through the traditions that came to Germany and Europe via the USA. For example, there are Zen priestesses, Zen masters, who teach.

Ursula Richard: "That the priesthood in Catholicism and the priesthood in Zen ... are not necessarily completely comparable. In Japan, however, from which this tradition also came to us, there are also Zen nuns or priestesses who have temples, but In principle, it is traditionally always the case that the temple has passed from father to son. But on the one hand there are problems with young people in Japan, on the other hand times have changed so that more women are visible step forward. "

The great Buddha statue at the Kotoku-in Temple in Kamakura (Japan). This is where Zen Buddhism first flourished. (picture alliance / dpa / Toru Kawata)

The publisher Ursula Richard has been practicing Zen for 30 years. She believes that in Zen women have a more critical view of the hierarchies with regard to the martial and patriarchal culture of the samurai.

Ursula Richard: "But here in the West Western psychology and the like came along and enriched the whole thing. And with Pinoniere like Shunryu Suzuki and Mesumi Roshi, who then brought Zen to the West, completely new developments were possible. have picked up women who at the time had a completely different relationship to hierarchies - often to patriarchal teachings. Something interesting and exciting is happening there. "

Ursula Richard sees great ballast in the lines of tradition of the Buddhist schools - she makes it clear with the example of Zen.

Ursula Richard: "In Zen, the transference from master to student is a very important thing. And ultimately these lines of tradition are traced back to the Buddha. And they are purely male. And research has shown that these teaching traditions are fictional, so not real correspond to historical development and that women were definitely in these lines as carriers of the doctrine, but were thrown out again. "

Such corrections or interpolations can be found in all religions and all traditions, Richard believes.
"And Zen still has to do with this ballast. There have been attempts by women in the USA and also by men to introduce female lines and to recite them. But that has also led to some resistance. But at the moment there is in Many centers in the US at least recite both the traditional line that contains only men - and a female line that contains only women - which is exactly fictitiously natural. And maybe there will be something like a common line of ancestry. "

Gender roles are hardly questioned

Women in Thailand and Tibet also fight with these ordination lines. In both countries nuns try to establish full ordination with the support of some monks and other religious brothers and sisters from East and West. A fight against windmills. Sylvia Wetzel says that it is apparently very difficult for men and women of all traditions to understand that the term emptiness has no gender.And consequently the preference for men in the traditions discriminates against women.

Sylvia Wetzel: "But who understands that gender roles are attributions. And as long as there are gender roles and I do not recognize them as attributions, it is necessary that I have role models in my own gender."

Gender roles are much older than cultural roles. They have become so in the flesh and blood that they are hardly ever questioned.
Chatsurman Kabilsingh is such a role model in Thailand. After starting a family and working as a philosophy professor at the university, she became a Buddhist nun. She makes sure that women can become full Buddhist nuns. With the help of lawyers, nuns from other traditions and many more.

Resistance also comes from society. It would be all the more important that monks were role models here. Carola Roloff, who is a regular guest at Asian forums, is frustrated by the unreflective role models.

Carola Roloff: "In Buddhism I can say that women always sit behind men at religious events. That such a gender segregation is carried out. In ceremonies, the monks always go first. The nuns after. And the man goes through them first Open the door and the woman only afterwards. Oh yes, those are Buddhist conventions (...). "

The nun says that there is no awareness. The place of women in tradition is at the very back. If women sit down in front, they would be viewed crookedly.

"At universities it is like that, the women are now doing a degree in Buddhist philosophy, but then they cannot find a job. Because in the institutes there are also monks in the classes. Monks should not be taught by women or by nuns, so it will entire Buddhist philosophy taught only by men. The female perspective is not taken into account at eye level. That runs through the whole system. "

Being a woman is a real exclusion criterion for positions in the Tibetan traditions. The heads are therefore all men. At conferences with the Tibetans, Roloff experiences that men are always carefully listened to ...

Carola Roloff: "Often it is really like that, at the moment when the woman speaks up, the men just start talking to each other about other things and don't even listen to what she is saying because they just believe so firmly that what a woman has to say cannot bring her any additional profit. I have seen it again and again. Especially when there were hearings on questions of nun ordination. The monks presented and everyone listened, asked questions and so on. Then suddenly ne comes Nuns from Taiwan and speaks. Highly educated, a professor from a university and suddenly they all start talking to each other and nobody listens anymore. I found that so impudent. And that is obviously not reflected at all, there is so much mindfulness in Buddhism spoken and then when it comes to such a point, then you have the feeling that you are not very attentive as you actually listen to the other attentively. "

Not being overheard has obvious consequences. Women who do not have a role in their tradition are gradually leaving their Buddhist communities. You go to universities and earn internationally recognized titles. You are in the fast lane in Asia. For the Buddhist Sangha, that is, the Buddhist community, they are lost.