Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context
Issue 15, May 2007

Karma Lekshe Tsomo

Buddhist Women and Social Justice:
Ideals, Challenges, and Achievements

Albany: SUNY series on Feminist Philosophy, 2004;
ISBN 0-7914-6254-4, pp. vi, 280.

reviewed by Judith Snodgrass

  1. Karma Lekshe Tsomo is the president of Sakyadhita (literally 'Daughters of the Buddha') an international organisation of Buddhist women formed in 1987. Sakyadhita, and the Jamyang Foundation of which she is director, has a strong program for the education and advancement of women in Asia through the teaching and practice of Buddhism and providing educational opportunities for women in developing countries. Tsomo is also an academic, teaching Buddhism, world religions and comparative ethics at the University of San Diego. She, and this book, are indicative of the new directions in studies of Buddhism that have emerged over the last two decades. It is a work of socially engaged Buddhism, written by scholars who are practicing Buddhists and social activists. A glance at the Notes on Contributors shows a fair balance of western academics, Western Buddhists activists-these are overlapping categories-and Asian Buddhist women, a number of whom also have degrees from American universities.
  2. The book itself explains and describes its project. It is divided into two parts. The first sets out the parameters of the problems and the theoretical foundations for Buddhist action from within Buddhist teachings. The second and longer section is a collection of papers giving case studies and histories of Buddhist women's movements throughout Asia.
  3. A central issue throughout this book, which is one in a series that derives from the regular international conferences organised by Sakydhita, is the question of female ordination, the revival of the order of nuns [bhikkhuni] in Theravada Buddhist countries. (Women's orders have persisted from earlist times to the present in East Asian traditions.)
  4. Ranjani de Silva's essay 'Reclaiming the Robe: Reviving the bhikkhuni Order in Sri Lanka' offers a thorough introduction to the history of the issue. There have been nuns in Buddhism since the time of the Buddha himself, but the texts that record this also associate the ordination of women with the decline of the dharma, and bear the legacy of the inferiority of nuns to monks. According to the Pali tradition for example, nuns, no matter how senior, are required by to show deference even to junior monks. This is only one of a number of rules for nuns that mark their inequality. De Silva traces the development of different female orders in Indian and in Chinese Buddhist traditions and explains the dissolution of the order in Sri Lanka, Thailand and Burma in the eleventh century. The movement for revival began in the nineteenth century as part of the modern reform movements, but it was not until the late twentieth century when increasing numbers of women in the West and in the Asian middle classes turned to Buddhism that it achieved much momentum. There are now more than one thousand fully ordained nuns in Sri Lanka, and numbers are increasing,[1] but the success is qualified: bhikkhunis still do not receive government recognition or the financial support that the male monks receive, and therefore are entirely dependant on the dana (giving) of the lay community (130).
  5. Other essays in the collection show how women in various parts of Asia have struggled to obtain the official recognition of full ordination, and explain the importance of female ordination as a recognition of the equality and value of women as social and spiritual beings.
  6. On a practical level, Buddhist women's groups, whether of clerics or lay people, provide a socially sanctioned path for women to engage in social action, particularly action for the benefit of women and children. Buddhism enables and legitimates the education and social activism for women in patriarchal societies. Sarah Levine's essay, for example, describes how a group of women in Hindu Nepal seized upon the opportunity that the newly introduced modern Theravada Buddhism offered them to set up schools for women and children. After training in Burma, they introduced basic literacy skills to women and children by reading stories of the Buddha in vernacular languages, and from this they established schools that produced more teachers, as well as health and community workers: women working at grass roots levels with sufficient education in targeted areas to significantly improve the lives of other women and children. Many of the case studies show similar patterns.
  7. In Korea and Taiwan, female ordination grew dramatically in the late decades of the twentieth century. Nuns and nunneries had always been a part of institutional Buddhism in East Asia, but the surge of interest in Buddhism of the late twentieth century was disproportionately among women. Access to the education that the monasteries provided was certainly among the attractions of ordination, but another important factor was that ordination offered an alternative to the social expectations of marriage and family obligations (see Elise Anne DeVido's chapter. 'The Infinite World's of Taiwan's Buddhist Nuns'). This is not quite the same as taking refuge in the 'divorce temples' of Tokugawa Japan (see chapter by Diana E. Wright), since many of the women who took ordination were young and unmarried, but ordination offered an alternate path to self fulfilment and personal achievement in an affluent society where education and the forces of global cultures produced women no longer content with the restricted opportunities offered by socially condoned gender roles.
  8. As DeVido explains, a Buddhist nun holds considerable social status and respect, even in the East Asian Confucian environment where taking vows is in conflict with family obligations. Taking the Bodhisattva path also sanctioned a path to self fulfilment beyond the family and household, for a generation of lay women who were still constrained by what it was socially acceptable for middle class women to do. Buddhist social work, from taking food and clothing to the local poor, to working in NGOs, most particularly for world peace and environmental protection, gave them an outlet, and an opportunity to participate in a wider social arena.
  9. The various chapters in the book cover a wide range of different social situations. Feminism and Buddhism are both global movements. Some of the chapters cover the application of Buddhist practice to Western problems. Paula Green, who is the founder and director of the Karuna Center for Peacekeeping, explores Buddhist teachings that illuminate social action (74), in particular the value of the idea of interdependence and the need for compassionate social engagement. (83). One major division is between the East Asian traditions in which female ordination persists, and those of the Theravada countries where it does not. The global movement for female ordination has formed bonds between them as women from Theravada countries take ordination in Taiwan and Korea. Global Buddhism is not simply an East-West interaction, but one with a strong intra-Asian element.
  10. Perhaps because of my own interest in Japanese history, I found Diana Wright's historical study ('Spiritual Piety, Social Activism, and Economic Realities: The Nuns of Mantokuji') one of the more interesting chapters of the book. Wright describes a community of women in a Mahayana order in Japan. These nuns were not subservient to male monastics, and indeed had considerable power at court and in government circles. Though they took vows of celibacy, they did not live in isolation from men, and like their male counterparts, they too performed the most important rituals for the preservation of the state. They nevertheless also performed a gender specific role, providing refuges for women in distress.[2] Since the rest of the book is so focused on the present, we need to ask what function this chapter serves here. Is it included to demonstrate the need for a female order to provide support and protection for women? Or is it to show the naturalness of the institution of ordained women even in a patriarchal society such as Tokugawa Japan? It was, after all, an accident of history that the bhikkhuni order died out in Theravada traditions, and a stubborn insistence on protocol on the part of the male order that continues to exclude it.
  11. If, as the various contributions make clear, the source of the problem for Asian women is culturally embedded in the patriarchal monastic institutions of the Theravada countries, then attempts at reform must be couched in terms of their legitimation—the sutras themselves. This is most admirably done in Karma Lekshe Tsomo's paper 'Is the Bhiksuni Vinaya sexist?' She opens with a string of authorities that have documented the patriarchal discrimination against women in Buddhism, and then asks: 'Are these undercurrents fundamental to Buddhism itself, or are they simply reflections of the cultural and social contexts within which Buddhism has evolved?' Is the discrimination in the texts, the monastic institutions that guard the truth, or in the social context in which Buddhism developed? (46). Her analysis allocates some responsibility to each. Yes, it is in the texts, but this is because the texts 'mirror the society in which they were formulated.' (52-3) 'A fresh look [at these texts] is therefore crucial to see what clues they might hold to help Buddhists model a truly equitable society' (67). In this way, Tsomo makes the argument for the restitution of the order of nuns in Theravada Buddhism from within the highest authority, the Pali texts and the words of the Buddha himself.
  12. The editor, Karma Lekshe Tsomo, lived fifteen years in a monastery, was ordained in a Tibetan lineage, and has obtained a doctorate in comparative philosophy at the University of Hawai'i (BA in Japanese, MA in Asian studies). She speaks with the authority of both the Western academy and an Asian Buddhist tradition. Her work is informed by the lived experience of Asia, and the philological arts of classic Buddhist studies are wielded as tools of social action. The book as a result, provides a highly informative image of Buddhism as a lived reality and as an agent for justice in a rapidly changing world.


    [1] See 'Bhikkhuni Ordination in Sri Lanka: A how to guide for women seeking full ordination in Sri Lanka,' Bhāvāna Society, 2006, online:, accessed 7 March 2007.

    [2] Mantokiji was not alone in this. See also Sachiko Kaneko Morrell and Robert E. Morell's book, Zen Sanctuary of Purple Robes: Japan's Tokeiji Convent since 1285, Albany: SUNY, 2006. The two nunneries have much in common in their social function.


This paper was originally published in Intersections: Gender, History and Culture in the Asian Context, with the assistance of Murdoch University.

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