Emptiness and the Female Form

Feminist groups around the world are gearing up – protesting, campaigning, marching, lobbying politicians, donating time and money, and saying NO very loudly to sexist attitudes; it’s happening globally. Even if we are not yet seeing the results we want, women, and allies of equality in all of its forms, are being heard. I hope change is coming.

Buddhism too, is not without need of reform when it comes to equality.

I’ve read several articles recently chastising Buddhist institutions and some traditions for their prevailing sexist attitudes. It’s true – sexism and misogyny has been rife within Buddhist lineages for centuries.

There are stories that go back to the time of the Buddha and suggest he himself taught that women were ‘lesser’, although I take that with a pinch of salt. The Buddha was also recorded as saying that women and men were equally intelligent, and equally capable of realising enlightenment, so which is it? And we know he ordained 1000’s, or who knows maybe 10,000’s of women to his order. Personally I think it’s likely that the ‘women will be the cause of the dissolution of Buddhism’ stories are just made up by a bunch of bigots many years after the Buddha’s death to maintain a boys club. Because how can you vow to save ‘all sentient beings’ yet scorn half of them? But that’s just my view.

Anyway, it’s undeniable that some Buddhist traditions, particularly the monastic traditions, are still frightfully sexist. Ordained women rarely have the same status or respect as ordained males, and women are considered such a danger/distraction to the monk’s devoted practise that they are actually not allowed to be alone in the company of a woman.

Against this backdrop of deep-rooted sexism, I was happy come across some teachings from Zen Master Dōgen which revealed his deeply feminist views. By the 1200’s, sexism in some Buddhist institutions must have been already rampant, else why would Dōgen feel the need for such a long and impassioned lecture?! In a teaching* he wrote in 1240 he more or less rants for several pages about the ‘bunch of idiots’ who ‘insult the dharma’ with their misogynistic views. Here are some of his choice words;

Why should men be higher? Emptiness is emptiness. The elements are the elements. Men and women are both able to attain the highest truth. Everyone who attains the truth deserves to be revered. Don’t worry about whether they are male or female…

These days really stupid people think of women only as the objects of sexual greed. Disciples of the Buddha must not be like this. If anything that someone could possibly lust after should be hated, then men should be hated too…

Those who exclude women from places of practise are a bunch of idiots. Yet in such places as these, any man, even if he’s a total douche-bag, can just randomly turn up and hang out. What sense is there in that?

Who are the men who made up this garbage?…

Shakyamuni Buddha established our tradition, and he admitted both men and women into his order. So what kind of so-called Buddhist order has no women in it? There have been women who were as fully enlightened as anyone else, so what kind of place could exist that enlightened women should be banned from just because they are women?

Reading this chapter yesterday made me feel so much better. It’s fortifying to be associated with a lineage that has a strongly feminist founder, and yet…



The world renown teacher Ajahn Brahm, a wonderful British born monk in the Theravadan tradition, has been a hero in leading the charge for gender equality within that order. In 2009, as abbot of AjahnBrahm_1one of the Thai Forest Tradition branch monasteries in Australia, he ordained four women as ‘monks’ giving them equal status and opportunities. It caused a huge ruckus back in Thailand, and he was expelled from his own lineage as a result! Unapologetically, he is still abbot of his own monastery, heads up the largest Buddhist organization in Australia and is one of the most influential, loved and respected monks and teachers globally – I could write paragraph after paragraph about his contributions, teachings and service but instead I offer you this link – do check him out!

Even at Eihei-ji, the temple in Japan that Dōgen established, there is now an all male order. Maybe there’s a nunnery up the road, I don’t know, but I suspect not. In Dogen’s rant about how women in some traditions are excluded and/or denigrated, he wrote; these wrong customs have been with us so long that people don’t even know how ludicrous it is. You could split a gut laughing at how absurd it is. So why is it still happening??!!

It’s not just about sexism of course. It’s about equality across race, gender and social strata. I was so impressed to hear that latest cohort of teacher-trainees at the Insight Meditation Society in the US consists of 75% people of colour. This is a 4 year programme, and IMS have said: This program is a major IMS initiative, and the culmination of several years of discussion and planning. It represents a significant milestone in our efforts to foster a more diverse and inclusive community of retreat teachers and meditators.


How wonderful is that! Maybe the way to change things is not from inside these old Asian institutions, but rather to find or establish new ones. I find it really interesting that HH HHDLDalai Lama has said “There is no guarantee that some stupid Dalai Lama won’t come next, who will disgrace himself or herself,” he said. “That would be very sad.” Better, he says, that the centuries old tradition of the Dalai Lama simple ceases. It’s such a bold statement. He has also said that if there is a 15th Dalai Lama then the child will be born outside of Tibet, and that the next Dalai Lama could be female. So whatever happens, he’s foretelling a BIG step change. I love that he is bold enough to throw these thoughts out there. He is teaching us that whatever bad judgements may have been made in the past, change can happen in a moment.

Kia Kaha!


*Taken from the essay titled Raihai Tokuzui, within Dogen’s seminal work the Shōbōgenzō Translation by Zen Monk, Brad Warner. Check out Brad’s book, called Don’t Be A Jerk And Other Practical Advice From Zen Master Dogen.











One thought on “Emptiness and the Female Form

  1. Love this post Jenny! Good on you for daring to speak up on something which is obviously bonkers – if monks and supposed spiritual ‘masters / teachers’ show anger or prejudice towards anyone – particularly 50% of the world’s population, then it’s obvious that they really havent even begun to grasp basic buddhist concepts.


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