There is no hope for a female pope, but there might be one for a female Buddhist leader.
When Pope Francis washed the feet of two young women during Easter, this provoked the criticism of conservative Catholics who pointed out that the liturgies only allow men’s feet to be washed, and cheers of progressives who saw it as an omen for a change in the Church’s stance toward women. Many hope that the new pope will be a little more inclusive, especially when it comes to women’s issues and questions concerning sexuality and contraception. More than 70 percent of American Catholics want the new pope to ordain women, approve the use of contraception and let priests get married. The Bible demands that the pontiff has “clean hands and a pure heart.” Theoretically, any Catholic male can be elected pope, but women are the only group categorically excluded. I happen to have been born in a Bavarian village not far from Pope Benedict XVI’s. In my elementary school a crucified Jesus adorned every classroom, and I am intimately familiar with the reasoning why Catholic bishops think allowing women into their ordained ranks will forever remain impossible. The statements about women were, in fact, one of the reasons I left the Catholic Church as a young women when my world views clashed with the rules I learned from my local priest.
When I became a Buddhist almost 20 years ago, I was initially enthusiastic to learn that the Buddha was the first religious founder after the Jains who allowed women into the ranks of his order — a revolutionary decision at the time, more than 2.500 years ago. The historical Buddha clearly encouraged nuns and lay women along with men to be the pillars of his community. But practically speaking, over the centuries, women were not allowed to participate equally there either. For instance, throughout Asia, women rarely had equal access to education. After studying Buddhism for a decade in India and Nepal I couldn’t fail to notice that all my teachers were men. Where were all the women? If Buddhism is based on the equality of all beings and gender didn’t matter, why then was there such a huge imbalance? I started to seek out female Buddhist teachers and found myself in the middle of a sea change.
Every time Buddhism migrated from its place of origin in India to other countries, whether Sri Lanka, Burma, Japan, China or Tibet, the philosophy, customs and rituals transformed as well. Not surprisingly, Buddhism’s relocation to the West comes with a sea change of emphasis and culture. In Tibet, revered masters might isolate themselves in remote caves, sometimes for decades, in deep meditation. In the West, teachers reach thousands instantly by streaming their wisdom on podcasts. In many Asian Buddhist communities, open dissent is unthinkable, while in academia, critical discourse is crucial.
Of all these changes that we are watching Buddhism undergo in the West, the most momentous may be that women are playing an equal role. As I describe in my new book, “Dakini Power,” more and more Buddhist women are now rising as teachers in their own right who understand their responsibility: to invigorate and bolster women to hold up “half the sky” as spiritual seekers and teachers. Just as in business and politics, religious women demand to be acknowledged in the many leadership roles they assume. Feminist Buddhist scholar Rita Gross points out in her book Buddhism After Patriarchy, “The single biggest difference between the practice of Buddhism in Asia and the practice of Buddhism in the West is the full and complete participation of women in Western Buddhism.” The 14th Dalai Lama has acknowledged this by pointing out that his next incarnation could be a woman. “I call myself a feminist,” he said. “Isn’t that what you call someone who fights for women’s rights?” Despite the complex historical, religious and political factors surrounding the selection of incarnate masters in the exiled Tibetan tradition, the Dalai Lama is open to change. Why not? What’s the big deal?
“The lamas can’t ignore this any longer,” says Western nun Karma Lekshe Tsomo, the founder of the most important international organization for Buddhist women, Sakyadhita (“Daughters of the Buddha”).
“In most Buddhist centers, look into the kitchen — all women. Look into the offices, who does the administration? Mostly women. Who does the driving and organizing, the cleaning and the correspondence, the shopping and managing? Mostly women.”
That women then also become teachers, abbesses and even Dalai Lamas is only a natural evolution.
The current transformation of Buddhism in the 21st century is stunning on so many levels, and women play a role in this endeavor as prime agents. The Himalayas were always a nursery for accomplished female practitioners and to some extent still are. “There were certainly many great female practitioners in Tibet,” British nun and abbess Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo writes in her book “Reflections on a Mountain Lake.”
“But because they lacked a background of philosophical training, they could not aspire to write books, gather disciples, go on Dharma tours, and give talks. When we read the histories, we will notice that nuns are distinguished by their absence. But this doesn’t mean they weren’t there.”
While iconic archetypes of feminine enlightenment were erected on shrines, few women in Tibet were actually emboldened to follow in their footsteps. Despite an encouraging quote of Padmasambhava, the eighth century pioneer of Tibetan Buddhism, that women’s potential to attain liberation is supreme, most Buddhist cultures throughout the centuries perceived women as lesser beings. The few encouraging statements are outnumbered by plenty of passages that lament the hardships of womanhood. Commonly used Tibetan words for woman, lümen or kyemen, literally mean “inferior being” or “lesser birth.” Some orthodox masters doubt to this day if women can attain realization at all, and age-old liturgies have women pray for a better rebirth in a male body. To this day nunneries in Asia usually lack the resources the monasteries get, and full ordination for women is currently not a possibility in the Tibetan tradition, though many monks and nuns, including the Dalai Lama, are working toward a change.
The Dalai Lama has spoken out many times about the need for resolving the issue. “Two thousand five hundred years ago, the Buddha was preaching in a male-dominated society,” he stated in an interview. “If he stressed feminist viewpoints, nobody would have listened to him. The important thing is that now, for the past thirty years, we have worked to change that.”
This is a challenge all religions in the 21st century face in one form or another. Any organization that categorically excludes 50 percent of their brightest, most capable and compassionate people from its leadership suffers and won’t be able to escape change forever. The papacy won’t be a mamacy any time soon, but at least we know that Her Holiness is an option.