Chapter Two
Women of Buddhism

© Copyright 1991, 2017 by Timothy Conway, PhD

That amazingly insightful, compassionate Indian sage, Siddhartha Gautama (c.563-483 BCE), the Buddha, or “Awake One,” established a tremendously powerful new movement based on the complete eradication of desire and ignorance through a liberating path of virtue, meditation, and insight.  In setting down the guidelines for this movement, Gautama considerably improved the status of his female followers in comparison to the status of orthodox Hindu women of his day. 

Nalinaksha Dutt has pointed out that 1) the Buddha clearly emphasized that one must depend on one’s own acts in one’s spiritual process; hence, the Buddha undermined an idea pervasive in the Indian brahmanical society of that time that a son could help his parents reach heaven through his prayers—an idea which predictably led to the undervaluing of daughters; 2) the Buddha discarded the brahmanical rituals as irrelevant in his straight-forward spiritual approach—and such rituals had begun to discriminate against women, especially barren, unmarried, or widowed women; 3) the Buddha made no distinction between men or women regarding their capacity for realizing nibbāna/nirvāṇa (Pali/Sanskrit: the great “release” from the shackles of egocentric misery), and becoming arahats/arhats, or perfected ones; 4) he founded an order of nuns which was open to married or unmarried women, barren or widowed; and 5) the education given to female novices and nuns was not to be different from that provided for males (as we have seen, Hindu brahmanical education came to be almost exclusively given to young men, and without an education women were thereby relegated to lower social status). [1]  


I would add that the Buddha did not consider daughters to be inferior to sons, he did not disapprove of women traveling to hear him preach, and, last but not least, he considered the Hindu pantheon (dominated by male gods in his time) to be largely irrelevant in one’s spiritual awakening process.  Thus he did much to brush aside the disproportionately male archetypes of power conditioning the minds of the people. 


On this last point we do well to remember (especially those religionists who dismiss Buddhism as “atheistic”) that the Buddha’s teaching was clearly process-oriented.  He refused to reify (“thing-ify”) a Supreme Deity.  He only would point out the way by which one could become entirely free of this egocentric illusion of “oneself” and all its limitations.  Such total freedom is, verily, nibbāna/nirvāṇa—the unborn, undying, uncompounded, “unconditioned Release” of pure bliss, peace, awareness, and spiritual radiance, beyond the dichotomy of being/non-being.  Thus we will find no goddesses or a feminine aspect of a personal God in Buddhism.  Yet later Buddhist developments in the form of the Mahāyāna movement (1st century CE) and the Vajrayāna movement (7th century) would see the emergence of feminine bodhisattvas (superhuman enlightening beings), ḍākinīs and yidams (Tibetan Buddhist tutelary deities), and the feminizing of the principle of transcendental wisdom into a quasi-goddess (Prajñā Pāramitā).


Dr. Hellmuth Hecker observes that in the language of Middle India of the Buddha’s day, there were two expressions found to denote the female:  the neutral term itthi, woman, and the rather discriminating term, matugama, the “village mother,” with its connotation of a “primitive” female who thinks no further than her village horizon, a woman who has no higher ideal than motherhood.  Every matugama is an itthi, but not every itthi is a matugama.  Whenever Buddhist scriptures speak of “primitive women” and “female vicissitudes,” the term matugama is in use.  But the Buddha clearly taught that a woman (itthi) could have nobler aspirations and could in fact attain to the highest levels of spiritual realization—nibbāna. [2]


The Buddha saw many laywomen among his disciples in the earliest period of his mission.  Five years after his enlightenment he then instituted an order of female renunciates at the insistence of certain women—led by his aunt and foster mother, Mahāpajāpatī Gautamī, and others such as his mother-in-law Bimba, and Mahāpajāpatī’s close friends Anopamā and Rohinī


This founding of a women’s religious order was a truly revolutionary act in ancient India.  Mohan Wijayaratna explains:

“The Buddhist Order of nuns, which was established in the sixth century B.C. looks rather modern:  women were able to work towards their own [spiritual] liberation by renouncing domesticity and family life.  The birth of an organized community of renunciate women in a society where a woman lived her whole life in a state of submission—in childhood to her parents, in marriage to her husband, and in widowhood to her sons—was one of the most important events in the history of religions.

“Nuns organized their communal life independently, according to their own Code of Discipline [the vinaya] but with help and advice from monks.  Monks had the right to advise nuns but not control them.” [3]

On this last point, compare the situation for Buddhist nuns to that of women religious in the Catholic Church, where for the last thousand years or more male ecclesiastics have controlled nuns and sisters in a number of significant respects.

It is said in the Anguttara-nikāya (IV.274-9) scripture of early Buddhism that the Buddha founded the women’s order “reluctantly.”  His cousin Ānanda had to ask him three times on behalf of the women before the Buddha would assent to the institution of a women’s renunciate order.  It has been pointed out by many Buddhist scholars that Gautama’s hesitancy was not because of any misogyny, but evidently because he foresaw problems for women traveling alone through the country and/or he was concerned about possible attachments developing between male and female monastics.  According to an early Buddhist scholar, Ms. I.B. Horner, Gautama may also have been unresolved (if one can speak of the Buddha—whose consciousness had become unbelievably clear and endowed with supernormal knowledge—as having inner conflicts or confusions) over the issue of a woman’s “proper place” in the world.  For, on the one hand, a strong Hindu mindset prevailing in his day dictated that women’s proper dharma, her role or “slot” in the universe, was in the home as childbearer.  On the other hand, the Buddha often suggested that the homeless life of a renunciate was preferable for realizing the supreme peace of nibbāna, and women, in his view, were just as capable as men in achieving this.  Wijayaratna has suggested yet another reason for the Buddha’s not immediately granting Mahāpajāpatī’s request through her kinsman Ānanda:

“All the women who first came to him [the Buddha] were relatives of his from the Sākyan family.  If the Buddha had acceded to their request at once some of his opponents might have thought it scandalous [i.e., that they weren’t really renunciates but were masquerading as such while maintaining family ties]; his hesitation spared ... [his Order] such criticism. ... The Buddha’s initial hesitation also shows that he anticipated a number of problems which might arise for nuns... [such as their being raped when wandering about the countryside collecting food or residing in the forests alone—indeed one nun was raped while alone in the woods and thereafter women religious were instructed to refrain from solitary meditation in such vulnerable places].  [The fact that the Buddha clearly affirmed women’s equal capacity for liberation] shows that the Buddha’s [initial] refusal was motivated by social and practical considerations.  Years later, when asked by a wandering mendicant whether there were in Rājagaha [a city in central India which became a main Buddhist center, with many monasteries] any nuns who had reached the perfect state the Buddha emphatically answered, ‘Not merely a hundred nor two, nor three, four or five hundred, but far more are those nuns my disciples, who by the elimination of defilements have here and now realized by direct knowledge the freedom of mind and wisdom that is without defilements, and who abide (in that realization).’ [Majjhima Nikāya (I.490)]” [4]  

Many hundreds of women including Gautama’s former wife, Yaśodharā, left the householders’ life to become renunciate practitioners of the Buddha-Dhamma (the Way of Awakening) under the lead of the Buddha and Mahā-Pajāpatī Gautamī (at her birth an astrologer had predicted that she would later in life be the leader of a large following).  These renunciate women were termed bhikkhunīs, literally meaning “almswomen,” and they led the exact same life as the male renunciates (the bhikkhus).  Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, a female Buddhist scholar from Thailand, has declared that many of the male monks of the Buddha’s time had rather traditional Indian ideas about women, that women should “keep their place,” and these monks apparently began to treat the bhikkhunīs more as servants than as sisters.  The Buddha, she says, went out of his way in trying to change these negative attitudes of the monks, instituting certain rules to protect the bhikkhunīs.  However, whether at the Buddha’s behest or the demands of later bhikkhus—scholars are undecided—these bhikkhunīs were not to comprise an autonomous order and they were subjected to an extra eight precepts, the Gurudhammas:  these included such disempowering rules as the female nuns having to bow before monks (even a 100 year-old bhikkhunī would have to bow before a new bhikkhu—though we hear the story that once the Buddha instructed some bhikkhunīs not to pay respect to an unseemly behaving group of monks), nuns not being able to admonish any monks (yet bhikkhus could admonish bhikkhunīs), and nuns’ ceremonial affairs being subject to guidance or witnessing by monks.  (Moreover, bhikkhunīs were expected to undergo a two-year probationary period before receiving complete ordination, which bhikkhus were not obliged to experience.)  We do know, thanks to the research of Dr. Kabilsingh, that three months after the Buddha’s passing, somewhere around 500 supposedly enlightened Buddhist monks met at the First Council of the Saṅgha, and none of the evidently hundreds of enlightened women arahats were invited to attend.  Moreover, Ānanda was accused by the other monks of having committed an offense by urging the Buddha to accept women into the Order.  Thus, a strongly androcratic, sexist element was already obscuring the Buddha’s spiritual message of equality with a social concern to “keep women in their place.”   A contemporary Buddhist scholar, Nancy Schuster-Barnes, makes the point that early Buddhist monks were not misogynist (women-hating), but simply desirous of keeping organizational power in male hands, a prevailing syndrome in India at that time; any other policy would have simply been too radical. 


And Barnes suggests that the special rules instituted for bhikkhunīs were actually designed to protect them from male exploitation, though as Nancy Falk has shown, it seems that on the whole these rules, in combination with longstanding Indian views of women’s inferior status, served to lower the prestige of bhikkhunīs compared to bhikkhus in the eyes of the layfolk and thereby led to their being less favored by the lay-donors over the next two millennia. [5]


The order of Buddhist nuns, the bhikkhunī-sāsana, presided over by Mahāpajāpatī, came to include, as we have learned, a large number of enlightened arahats—fully liberated saints.  Several works in the Tipitika, the Pali canon of ancient Buddhism (which originated in oral tradition and was finally written down on palm leaves about 80 BCE) were preached by women, such as the one preached by the venerable nun Dhammadinnā to her former husband. Most important of these Pali Buddhist scriptural works by women is the anthology known as the Therīgāthā, “The Psalms/Verses of the Sisters” (found in the Khuddaka-nikāya, the fifth part of the voluminous Tipitika).  The Therīgāthā comprises 73 enlightenment-verses (gāthās) and other poems attributed to 71 therīs (“elder sisters”) or bhikkhunīs said to be contemporaries of the Buddha.  Only half of these women are mentioned in other works of the Pali canon, and, in examining several works of the Pali canon there is a bit of confusion as to which verses were uttered by which women, so the eminent British scholar, Carolyn Rhys-Davids (translator of the earliest English version of the Therīgāthā) has advised us:


“It is only for a very limited section of the Psalms that we can with any fraction of confidence, associate a given gāthā with a putative poetess for whom something approaching historical personality may be claimed.  This does not, of course, warrant the conclusion that the majority of Sisters named as authors of gāthās, but of whom nothing is elsewhere recorded, never existed.  But [the discrepancy in attributed authorship in certain cases] ... shows us that, if the verses were carefully preserved, the identity of the authors had, for the preservers, something of a Shakespearian or Homeric indefiniteness.” [6]


The poems of the therīs are fewer in number and shorter than those of the elder male bhikkhus (the theras; there are 264 of these verses), and some of the shortest verses attributed to these Sisters were actually recited first by the Buddha and then adopted by these women.  Nevertheless, many of the selections, evidently composed by real enlightened women, are priceless “testimony to high quest, to devoted heart, to indomitable resolve,” as Mrs. Rhys-Davids remarks.  The very existence of this scripture (which is available again in a modernized translation by Susan Murcott) is a clear testimonial to the power of female enlightenment in early Buddhism.


It must be reiterated that the Buddha himself claimed that the supreme spiritual goal of nibbāna, a completely liberated, selfless, blissful, unlimited (non-reifiable) state, is available to anyone—male or female—who relinquishes all egocentric craving through a life of virtue, concentration and wisdom (sīla-samādhi-paññā—the essential three elements of the Noble Eightfold Path preached by the Buddha).  As we have seen, the Buddha himself claimed that more than 500 women succeeded in completely realizing this lofty goal.  Dhammapāla, a Theravāda monk of southern India, living in the 5th or 6th century of our Common Era, collected the legends of many of the saintly Indian Buddhist women, or arahats, in his work, Paramattha-dīpanī (part of which is a commentary on the Therīgāthā). [7]  There may be some reality to the stories of the lives of these female students of the Buddha—though perhaps no validity to the tales of their many past lives as recounted by Dhammapāla’s sources.  In any case as exemplars of courageous, wise, enlightened ones they became powerful role models for women of those and later times.  Let us take a moment to very briefly profile (with the limited materials available to us) these shining presences from 2,500 years ago, who constitute the first corps of deeply enlightened women to ever walk the planet and be acknowledged for their sublime breakthrough:


Patācārā lost her husband and her two babies but went on to become among the bhikkhunīs the foremost master of the monastic code of conduct (vinaya), and an influential teacher for the women’s community.  Kisā-Gotamī lost her baby boy, but her tremendous grief, like Patācārā’s, was dispelled by the Master’s sublime teaching; she became the foremost among the Sisters in her asceticism.  Dhammadinnā‚ was ranked by Buddha as most skilled among the Sisters who preached the Dhamma.  Bhaddā Kāpīlāni was regarded by the Master as first in ability to recall past lives.  But, perhaps more importantly, she was married to Mahā-Kassapa before they entered into the Order (he would later become the successor to the Buddha as head of the community), and in her enlightenment verse, she tells of how they have both equally attained nibbānaKhemā‚ was a beautiful queen who attained arhatship after witnessing a vision of impermanence miraculously created by the Buddha; she then renounced her royal life to become a homeless wanderer.  Khemā was considered foremost in insight-wisdom by the Buddha.  Sonā, a mother of ten children, left the family life when they had come of age, as her husband had done years before.  She also became enlightened under the Buddha, and was regared as foremost among the Sisters in spiritual effort.  Sahulā (or Sakulā/Pakulā) was like all these women, another arahat, and seen as incomparable among the sisters in the power of clairvoyance (the “heavenly eye”).  Her fellow Sister Uppalavannā was considered foremost in miraculous power (iddhi).  Nanduttarā was formerly a renowned speaker amongst those devoted to the religious path of the Jainas; she became fully enlightened after converting to the Buddha way. Ambapālī, a rich, beautiful courtesan, unsuccessfully tried to seduce the Buddha, and later in life became one of the staunch supporters of his community (saṅgha).  Eventually she became a bhikkhunī and realized nibbāna (there were several other courtesans and/or prostitutes who likewise attained the state of arahattaVimalā, Padumavāti, and Addhakāsi).  Subhaddā killed her evil, dangerous husband, then became a wandering sage, subsequently meeting the Buddha and becoming fully enlightened.


In addition to these and many other perfected women saints among those who were fully ordained into the Order, we hear of... Sāmāvati, whom the Buddha praised as “foremost among the lay devotees,” perfected via her goodwill toward others; ... Khujjuttarā, chief of the vast group of learned female upāsikās (lay followers); ... and Vishākhā, a wealthy merchant’s daughter, married, and foremost among the women donors.  Though Khujjuttarā and Vishākhā are not, to my knowledge, specifically described as having reached the perfected state of the arahat, they and other women, along with a number of men, came very close to such perfection, and undoubtedly completed the enlightenment process in a subsequent lifetime.  In the early Buddhist soteriology, there are three stages of attainment short of full arhathood, and these are all destined to yield the fruit of arhathood shortly thereafter—thus we read of the stages of non-returner, once-returner, and “stream-enterer,” who has a maximum of only seven more rebirths before realizing the arahat state; evidently the housewife Velukanthaki Nanda-Mātā is only one of many women who attained the state of non-returner (anāgāmi), one who had so purified her consciousness that she would never again need to manifest with an earthly form, and would certainly realize nibbāna while associated with an embodiment in one of the higher, subtler planes of manifestation.


These and other laywomen were especially important for early Buddhism in that they made the offerings of food to the bhikkhus and bhikkhunīs, and some, like Ambapālī and Vishākhā, made substantial land-offerings as well.  Ms. Horner and Nancy Ayer Falk have pointed out that the laywomen seem to be praised in more consistently positive terms than the bhikkhunīs, undoubtedly reflecting an intrusion of that afore-mentioned Hindu attitude which holds that the woman’s dharma, her special place or “slot” in this universe, is that of childbearer, and failure to fulfill this role “invites disaster—for oneself, one’s family, and ultimately the whole order.” [8]   


It was likely as a response to the Hindu epic-tales (the Mahābhārata, the Rāmāyāṇa, and the Purāṇa literature) of the early centuries of our Common Era—which featured awesome male gods—that there was an attempt in some of the developing Buddhist literature of the early centuries of the Common Era onward to establish the Buddha as a similarly great male deity.  This tendency is found especially in the Mahāyāna or “Great Vehicle” Buddhist movement which arose as a reform against the conservative Theravāda (“way of the elders”).  A by-product of this veritable deification was the notion that a Buddha could never be female and it was further said in some circles that Siddhartha had never been a female in any of his past lives.  But the wisest literature—for instance, the Vimalakīrtinirdeśa, and the Aṣṭasāhasrika and the Vajracchedikā of the Prajñāpāramitā body of Mahāyāna Buddhist literature (written in Sanskrit)—saw such gender distinctions as signs of ignorance. 


These more “enlightened” scriptures which prefer orienting to the absolute level of truth (paramārtha-satya) than to the relative, conventional level (samvrti-satya), thus tended to preserve the egalitarian nature of the early Buddhist ideal.  Perhaps as a corrective to any male-exalting tendencies in other schools, the Aṣṭasāhasrika Prajñāpāramitā, a very old Buddhist work (c.1st century BCE) and earliest of the Mahāyāna Buddhist literature, personifies the liberating wisdom, prajñā-pāramitā, as female (much like wisdom is given a feminine form in the Christian tradition—”Sophia,” and in the Jewish Proverbs as “Chochmah”).  This female principle of wisdom would be especially exalted—at least philosophically if not on the popular level—within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, as we shall later see. [9]


In this same early Buddhist work, we hear the legend about a merchant’s daughter as an example of a female kalyāna-mitra, the “noble friend” or spiritual teacher, advising the male bodhisattva (“enlightening being”), Sadāprarudita—though she and her attendants become his disciples when he becomes enlightened; soon thereafter they become fully enlightened themselves.


The immensely popular and often poetic Mahāyāna scripture, the Saddharma-Puṇḍarīka Sūtra (1st century CE), has the Buddha telling a tale (in Chapter XI) of the eight-year old Nāga-princess (whether this means a girl from the Nāga hill tribe or someone with powerful, wise qualities like the sacred cobra, we do not know):  when some of his disciples had looked down their noses when this mere girl was brought into their presence, highly recommended by bodhisattva Mañjuśri, she completed all the subtle bodhisattva practices in a flash, losing not only all vestige of egotism but also transforming herself into a male in the process, and then she miraculously re-located to a distant Buddha-field wherein she herself became a Buddha. “Here is the only case in the whole of Buddhist literature where any mortal [in addition to Siddhartha] becomes a Buddha. ... She is the only example. Needless to say, this unnamed Naga-princess became a heroine to the feminists of China and Japan [where the Saddharma-Puṇḍarīka was most popular].”


In the glorious Mahāyāna work Gaṇḍavyūha (the final book of the Avatasaka Sūtra, written sometime before the 4th century CE), detailing the mythic journey of Buddhist pilgrim Sudhana through India, 21 of the 53 kalyāna-mitras he meets are extremely wise females—goddesses, bodhisattvas, laywomen, “girls,” and a bhikṣuṇī. [10]  Some of these, excepting perhaps the goddesses, may have been based on real women Buddhist teachers of the time.


We notice here that the mention of a bhikṣuṇī is unusual for Mahāyāna Buddhist literature, which has almost nothing to say about renunciate women. Scholars have noted two reasons for this: 1) a strong emphasis on the role of the laity in the Mahāyāna Buddhist ideal (yet monks [bhikṣus] were given no small amount of consideration by the Mahāyāna, so sexist discrimination is at work here); and 2) a return to the old Hindu idea that women’s proper role is that of carrying out household duties, and not running off to become a celibate renunciate.  Therefore, it is not bhikṣuṇīs, but many laywomen who would be praised for supporting the Buddhist monks and their monasteries, as well as for raising sons who would make important contributions to the Dharma (the Buddhist Way or Teaching). [11]


Looking for more exemplars of female spiritual eminence in the evolving Mahāyāna Buddhist tradition, we do find tales of some female bodhisattvas—though, comparatively speaking, not very many.  And we must remember that their existence, or at least many of their exploits, are only legendary.  Queen Śrīmālā, featured in the Śrīmālādevīsūtra, is certainly the most illustrious. Queen Śrīmālā, the personification of wisdom and practice, is capable of the “lion’s roar”—teaching the ultimate doctrine of universal salvation.  She is straightforwardly accepted as a true teacher of the Dharma, and her femaleness is never challenged. ... As a secular woman, a representative of the feminine she symbolizes the highest development of women’s intellectual spiritual and religious potentialities. [12]


A curious feature found in some works of the huge body of Mahāyāna literature is that certain female bodhisattvas, such as Candrottarā and Sumati (who are featured in sūtras named after them) and the Nāga-princess first transform their female bodies into male forms before becoming highest-level bodhisattvas or Buddhas.  (Queen Śrīmālā is notable for becoming a high-level bodhisattva without changing her sex.)  In discussing these stories, Diana Paul regards this kind of “female-changing-into-male” story as a further example of misogyny in Buddhist literature.  Schuster-Barnes, on the other hand, regards such miraculous behavior as illustrating the principle that gender matters not in enlightenment; rather, what matters is one’s degree of wisdom. [13] 


However we interpret these tales, the essential fact is that Buddhist schools came to have two different views of women’s spiritual status: on one side it was argued that women were not the full equals of men, and could not attain to the highest levels of spiritual evolution (furthermore, women, as in other religions, came to be viewed by this camp as loathsome sexual temptresses; one passage of writings from Vasubandhu, a leading sage of the 4th century CE who converted to Mahāyāna, maintains that certain people cannot achieve Buddhahood, and women in general are part of this woeful community:  “Woman is a servant of hell, excluded for all time from any hope of attaining Buddhahood.  She may have the gentle outward appearance of a bodhisattva, but her inner heart is that of a demon.”)  The other side of this dispute insisted that such distinctions were products of delusion.  Thus, real women in Mahāyāna Buddhism have had to live in a world marked by a tension between these two camps—a tension which did not exist for males.


Nancy Ayer Falk, in an insightful article, has shown that the order of renunciate Buddhist almswomen or “nuns,” comprised of Theravāda bhikkhunīs and Mahāyāna bhikṣuṇīs, was thriving in India, especially in the south, until the third century of our Common Era.  But because a) this order was smaller to begin with, b) rendered less visible and less prestigious in certain ways (mainly because of those extra eight precepts—the original idea was to protect the nuns, but this would turn out to be a serious liability in later times when support was needed from the celebrity-oriented royalty), and because c) certain Buddhist writings showed an ambivalence toward the nuns (Hecker states that writings after the Buddha’s time began to utilize the slightly derogatory term matugama to the exclusion of the more neutral term for a woman, itthi), the order faded over the next few centuries into social, economic and intellectual obscurity.  This was especially true in India, where the order of bhikkhunīs/ bhikṣuṇīs had diminished considerably in size and resources by the 4th or 5th century, whereas the monks flourished in India until Muslim conquests in the 12th and 13th centuries decimated the Buddhist saṅgha (community).  (In this century, pockets of monks have re-established themselves in Indian Buddhist pilgrimage spots such as Bodh Gāya and Sārnāth, in the vicinity of the Tibetan Buddhist refugee camps, and in Dr. Ambedkar’s Buddhist movement in Maharashtra state).  Falk says that, given the social factors working against the nuns’ order, it is actually a marvel that it flourished for some 700 years, and, after that, could still survive in India (though in much diminished fashion) up until at least the 9th century. 


We learn from various scholars that the bhikkhunī-saṅgha fared a little better in Sri Lanka (Ceylon).  In the 3rd century BCE, Queen Anulā, sister-in-law of Sri Lankan King Devananpiyatissa, requested ordination from the visiting Mahinda Thera, son of famous Indian Buddhist King Asoka; King Asoka sent his learned daughter, nunwoman Saṅghamittā Therī, along with a group of wise elder bhikkhunīs, down to Sri Lanka, where Queen Anulā and about 500 Sinhalese women adopted the ten precepts (dasa sīlāni).  Shortly thereafter they received the full bhikkhunī ordination from their Indian sisters (who had come with the entourage bringing the sapling from the famous Bodhi tree under which the Buddha had sat on his night of enlightenment).  These Sinhalese and Indian women all proceeded to live together at the Hatthālhaka-vihāra near the town of Anurādhapura, and it is said that within a short time they all became arahats.  We hear of a number of holy bhikkhunīs (Mahāsenā, et al) who taught the Vinaya monastic code in Sri Lanka after the terrible famine in the middle of the first century BCE; they were also joined by illustrious Indian bhikkhunīs Sīvalā and Mahāruhā from India.  Sinhalese bhikkhunīs flourished for some 1400 years.  Throughout their history, according to Kabilsingh, both male and female saṅghas received regular royal support, in contrast to their Indian sisters, who were not so lucky.  The bhikkhunīs were active in their Dharma study, and there is evidence that they were also involved in social welfare activities, such as running a hospital.  Around the 11th century, an invasion by the Chola dynasty of South India wiped out the Sri Lankan government and the entire Buddhist saṅgha there—save one novice monk.  While the bhikkhu-saṅgha was reestablished with the help of a visiting contingent of monks from Thailand, the bhikkhunī-saṅgha was never revived (since a bhikkhunī-saṅgha had never migrated to Thailand).  Ironically and most poignantly, in the year 433 CE a group of Sri Lankan bhikkhunīs, led by Bhikkhunī Devasāra, had given ordination to 300 Chinese women at Southern Forest Monastery in Nanking, China, and now, over 15 centuries later, there is a movement to bring the bhikkhunī lineage back to Sri Lanka from Chinese nuns living in Taiwan, where the bhikkhunī-saṅgha is today flourishing. [14]   


This leads us to the question of what happened to the Buddhist nuns in other Asian countries and what status do they enjoy today? Because full ordination of nuns to the rank of bhikkhunī/bhikṣuṇī in both Theravāda and Mahāyāna traditions involves an elaborate ceremony requiring the presence of 12 nuns and 10 monk-witnesses, the full ordination rites for women never reached certain countries difficult of access, such as Tibet and Thailand, or else have died out in other countries like Sri Lanka and Burma due to invasions from anti-Buddhist powers.  Nowadays it is only in Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, China, and at two thriving Chinese Buddhist monastic complexes in California that women can still receive full ordination (and prestige) as “official” bhikṣuṇīs and live under the complete regimen of several hundred precepts as established in the days of the early Buddhist saṅgha. [15]  Therefore, since most Asian Buddhist women considering the renunciate life cannot afford to travel to the relevant centers in Taiwan, Korea, China or the U.S. for this ordination, they must become perpetual “novice nuns,” or śrāmaṇerikās, living by eight, nine, or ten precepts (sometimes more).  Or, if even this “novice” status is unavailable to them (as is the case in most of the Theravāda countries), they just remain as laywomen who adopt the main eight, nine, or ten precepts.  Unfortunately for the śrāmaṇerikās, and even more so for the “lay nuns,” their perpetual “novice” condition gives them no real status in the eyes of the monks and the lay community—even though these women may have undergone a relatively formal ceremony, shaved their heads, donned a plain robe, and for many years lived virtually the same lifestyle as a fully ordained nun—a lifestyle extremely simple, austere, and meditative, governed by the main ten Buddhist precepts (no killing, stealing, having sex, lying, using intoxicants, no meals after noon, taking part in dance, song, music or theatrical events, using garlands, perfume, or ornaments, sleeping on a high bed, or receiving gold or silver).  On the positive side, many of the 10-precept “novice nuns” and “lay nuns” actually prefer their present status to full ordination, since they feel that this way they are more independent of monks than they would be as formal bhikkhunīs, and are less restricted if/when they choose to teach or serve the laity in the cities or villages.  (Yet there are many cases of fully ordained nuns who have been able to act quite independently and accomplish much teaching and charitable work far and wide.)


Rev. Karma Lekshe Tsomo (1944- ), a Western-born, fully-ordained bhikṣuṇī (from a Korean Buddhist lineage), co-convener of the historic First International Conference of Buddhist Nuns (February, 1987), has gathered some important information on the renunciate women of the Buddhist world.  In Sakyadhītā: Daughters of the Buddha (an extremely useful work on Buddhist nuns and their first conference which Rev. Lekshe Tsomo has edited), she reports that there are around 130 million Buddhist women worldwide today, and conservatively estimates there to be 60,000 Buddhist nuns (including several hundred Westerners), approximately 15,000 of whom are bhikṣuṇīs, 5,000 are eight- or ten-precept novices (śrāmaṇerikās), and the remainder are devout laywomen living as eight-, nine- or ten-precept “nuns” without having received either of these formal ordinations.

Bhikṣuṇīs are found in the Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese traditions. Śrāmaṇerikās are found in the Chinese, Korean, Tibetan, and Vietnamese traditions.  Nuns holding eight nine, or ten precepts, without formally receiving ... [either] of the above ordinations are found in the Theravāda traditions of Burma Cambodia, Laos, Nepal, Thailand, and Sri Lanka.  The nuns of Japan [see subsequent section] receive bodhisattva precepts but do not formally receive any of the ... above ordinations.  Nuns holding siksamānā precepts [a “probationer” nun] are rarely found in any tradition today. [16]


Rev. Lekshe Tsomo has provided us with further details about the ordained and unofficially ordained nuns in each Asian country which are worth presenting in full in several long passages over the next several pages, and which I will supplement with extra material (some of it enclosed within brackets [ ]) gained from other sources:

“At present there are a mere dozen ethnic Indian nuns who have emerged among the new Buddhist communities of Maharashtra State [western India; this “liberation theology” movement was founded in 1956, chiefly among the lowest caste by Dr. B.R. Ambedkar; see below for more information on this movement].  They live in scattered locations and follow the Theravādin tradition.  They have been ordained as śrāmaṇerikās by Indian Theravādin bhikṣus [monks].  There are some five hundred śrāmaṇerikās practicing the Tibetan form of Buddhism in Ladakh, in the Kinnaur and Spiti regions of Himachal Pradesh and among the Mon people of Assam. ... Recently one hundred nuns of the Chakma people following the Theravādin tradition have settled in the Tripura area as refugees from Bangladesh. ...   There are some four thousand female renunciates in Sri Lanka following the Theravādin school.  They are called dasasīl mātās (ten-precept nuns) [also called sīl māniyōs or anāgārinis]... [Remember that the bhikkhunī-saṅgha was wiped out here in the 11th century by invaders.]  Peter Harvey writes: “In Sri Lanka, traditionally the only permanent nuns were old women who kept the eight precepts and lived by begging or charity.  In 1907, the institution of the ten-precept nun spread from Burma [through the work of a European woman Catherine de Alwis/Sister Sudharma—see below] and gradually came to attract young women.  Since around 1945 these nuns have increased their activity, giving public sermons and developing an organization increasingly like that of the monks.  Their time is spent in study and meditation, and in serving the laity by conducting rituals and teaching Dhamma to adults and children.  In return the laity support them with alms, etc.  Due to their simple lifestyle and practice of meditation the laity often see them as living a more virtuous life than that of the city and village monks.”  The new government of Sri Lanka is increasingly supportive of the ten-precept nuns’ welfare, which still leaves much to be desired; they are also investigating to see how the bhikkhunī-saṅgha may be reintroduced to Sri Lanka from China, in spite of reluctance by the male saṅgha to accept a lineage which though originally given to the Chinese by the Sri Lankans they now consider a foreign, “Mahāyāna” line.   In Burma there are some ... thirty thousand ten-precept nuns, known as anāgarikās (“homeless ones”) or thilashin ([silashin] “possessors of morality”).  [The number of bhikkhus is 300,000] ... Stone inscriptions discovered in recent excavations give evidence of bhikṣuṇīs existing in the Pagān period (eleventh to thirteenth century), but the order probably died out during the Mongol incursions that brought that period to an end [in 1298].  [The bhikkhunī ordination was probably available to the Pyu women in the pre-Burmese period from the time of Emperor Ashoka.]  [I have heard that the ten-precept nuns of Burma had “a great period of revival and prosperity during the ... (latter) nineteenth century.”]  There are numerous nunneries throughout Burma today especially in the Mandalay area [e.g., across the Irrawaddy river at Sagain where there are 145 convents and over 2,000 silashins] maintaining admirable discipline.” 


We note that many of the nuns from this and other regions are highly educated, and fare quite well in the national scholastic exams.  The present author visited a few of the nunneries in Sagain in 1980, and found a number of extremely radiant, pure-hearted women highly respected by male and female laity.  Note that the numbers of male and female religious practitioners and their conclaves are somewhat diminished with the recent, ongoing oppression by the current militarist regime in Burma which has re-named the country “Myanmar.”


A small number of Burmese-style brown-robed anagārikās or silashins now are to be found in Nepal as a result of some women taking the 10 precepts from some visiting Burmese monks on pilgrimage sixty years ago.  In the last three decades this budding movement has been augmented through the work of Ven. Dhammavati who has recently, with some of her associates, received full bhikkhunī ordination in Los Angeles—see below.  Some sixty small nunneries and a number of scattered individual 10-precept nuns, can now be found in Nepal.


Rev. Lekshe Tsomo continues the survey:

“Apparently the bhikṣuṇī lineage never reached Thailand although a Theravādin bhikṣu order flourishes there.  It is estimated that there are from eight to ten thousand white-robed, shaven-headed māī jīs [aka maechees], women living the religious life but they are not recognized as being full-fledged nuns.  They receive eight precepts and there is a small group who receive ten precepts, but none of them are [officially] considered śrāmaṇerikās due to the absence of a bhikṣuṇī order.  [Peter Harvey reports 70,000 māī jīs compared to 250,000 monks in Thailand, probably an inflated figure since Kabilsingh reported in 1981 that there could not be more than 20000 māī jīs in Thailand.]  Similar orders of Theravādin nuns dressed in white and holding eight or ten precpts, existed in Laos and Cambodia but have barely survived recent political events.”


Regarding Cambodia, Yang Sam reports that in 1970 there were over 3,500 Theravāda monasteries, and some 65,000 monks whose discipline was exemplary among Asian monks; numerous elderly women were making permanent retreats as unofficial nuns at these monasteries, also probably helping clean and cook for the monks and carry out the many social services which the monasteries provided to their surrounding communities rural and urban.  Normally, more women than men in all age groups attended the religious rituals.  In the first five years of the horrendous war, from 1970-5, perhaps as many as 90% of the monasteries (as well as libraries and scriptures) were destroyed and Buddhism was almost completely eradicated by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime.  Most religious men and women had to maintain Buddhism in their private thoughts only.  From 1979 until the present day there has been a gradual limited restoration of Buddhism.  Seven monks were re-ordained in 1979 1,821 monasteries were re-opened in 1982 (for 2,311 monks; which means that the Khmer Rouge had eliminated the other 60000 monks). But the new laws dictated that only older men and older women with no other means of support could become monks and (unofficial) nuns.  In the West meanwhile, Cambodian women are far more numerous than men at the retreats and programs held in the Cambodian Buddhist temples and centers opened in such places as Montreal and New Carrolton, Maryland.] [17]


Rev. Lekshe Tsomo continues:

“The bhikṣuṇī order has fared best in the Mahāyāna countries.  In 429 A.D. and 433 A.D. two groups of Sri Lankan bhikṣuṇīs [the latter under the leadership of Bhikkhunī Devasāra] traveled to China to administer full ordination to hundreds of Chinese nuns.  Despite periods of religious oppression and political turmoil [from neo-Confucian and ten Communist regimes], this bhikṣuṇī order ... has continued uninterruptedly until the present day.”

      “One estimate maintains that in 1930 before the Communist takeover there were 225,000 nuns spread thinly throughout 134,500 nunneries and 513,000 monks in 98,400 monasteries.  Another scholar has said that prior to the Cultural Revolution it was ‘widely accepted’ that there were fully 500,000 temples/monasteries and three million monks and nuns in China perhaps inflated figures.  We must add to this the 20000 temples with laywomen in residence—these seem to have been akin to ‘vegetarian rest homes’ for old single women; these places were almost five times as numerous as those for men.  During the Communist suppression of religion almost all temples and monasteries, except those very difficult of access were destroyed or converted into barracks factories, warehouses, or public schools.  In the 1980s, with the greater tolerance for religion on the part of the government some temples and monasteries have been re-opened and a small number of monastics have returned.  For instance the previously large Zi Xiu nunnery in Shanghai saw fifteen nuns return and has eleven new ones; at Nan-hua Temple in Kwangtung province, 250 monks and nuns from many provinces were ordained in 1983; at Ch’eng-tu Temple in Fuchow a training center for Buddhist women has been started, beginning with 50 women in 1983.  Thus while the bhikkhunī-saṅgha has been able to continue in China it is badly decimated.

     “In 1982 it was believed that the total number of Buddhist monks and nuns in China including Tibetan and Mongolian lamas (teachers of the Vajrayana tradition) was only around 25,000.  Most of these were elderly men and women.  Ordinations over the last few years of new monks and nuns are fewer than 1000, meaning that the number of Buddhist monks and nuns will be radically reduced even further after the older ones have passed away…. The Chinese bhikṣuṇī order is strongly established in Taiwan and Hong Kong...  [Note:  Of the 10,000 monastics ordained in Taiwan since 1952, fully seven thousand are nuns; one figure has also stated that nuns outnumber monks in Taiwan by a factor of eight to one which may be an inflated number.  Nevertheless the fact remains that Taiwan is the only Buddhist country where nuns far outnumber monks.  It has been said that in Taiwan Buddhist education is in the hands of the bhikkhunīs.  In Hong Kong the number of nuns probably somewhat under a thousand, roughly equals the number of monks.]  Chinese bhikṣuṇīs are to be found in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, [the U.S.] and almost every country where there are overseas Chinese communities. [18]

      “In successive waves through China, the Buddhist teachings were transmitted to Korea and Japan.  The style of monastic practice in Korea today closely mirrors the forms of the Ch’an school as it existed earlier in China [i.e. very rigorous meditation practice, Dharma study, chanting some manual labor, vegetarian meals].  Both the bhikṣu and bhikṣuṇī lineages became firmly rooted there from early times.  [Despite the oppressive Japanes occupation from 1909-45,] the Bhikṣuṇī Saṅgha still flourishes in Korea with nuns [in largely self-supporting monasteries strictly separated from the monks] ... slightly outnumbering their ordained brothers.  [Harvey reports that there are about 15,000 bhikṣuṇīs and śrāmaṇerikās in Korea plus a large number of others in training.  Figures by Rev. Lekshe Tsomo are much lower, indicating only about 6,000 nuns and novice nuns and 6,000 monks.  There is a Buddhist women’s college at Seoul providing education for women and nuns.  Many young women are attracted to this life, with an average of 200 nuns at the annual national bhikkhunī ordination.  Note that the novices’ training is quite strict, lasting some 5-6 years minimum, and that the bhikṣuṇī masters have real authority in the ordination process of their younger sisters.  Nuns in Korea have been aided immensely by the renowned monk, Ven. Il Ta Sunim.] ...

      “Both forms of practice and styles of dress vary widely among the nuns of Japan.  They belong primarily to the Zen Tendai, Nichiren, Shingon and Pure Land schools.  Neither the bhikṣuṇī or śrāmaṇerikā lineages are existent but Japanese nuns [there are about 2,000] receive bodhisattva precepts [vows to help liberate all sentient beings] and live celibate lives.  [Most live alone, with few young women feeling moved to join them in this life.]  There is also a large number of female priests who are not celibate [especially those married to temple-head priests]. ...

      “The Bhikṣu Saṅgha was established in Tibet [from India] in the middle of the eight century under royal patronage, but a corresponding bhikṣuṇī lineage was never transmitted due to the difficulties and dangers of travel [evidence shows that some Tibetan Buddhist masters, beginning in the 12th century did give bhikkhunī ordinations to Tibetan women from time to time but since there was no group of fully ordained nuns present from another land the validity of the ordination was contested].  The nuns of Tibet and other Himalayan regions following this tradition receive śrāmaṇerikā ordination from bhikṣus. ... Large numbers of nunneries were built beginning in the eleventh century [the first was in Phenpo north of Lhasa], where nuns could practice Dharma [the Buddhist way] in isolation and quietude.  There were more than eighteen thousand nuns in Tibet [some figures indicate 26,000; another figure says only 13000] prior to the communist invasion [after which, during the 1960s “not a single robed figure in all of Tibet could be found”; several hundred nuns have emerged in the 1980s with a relaxing by the Communists of their religious prejudice].  There are less than five hundred Tibetan nuns now settled in exile in India and Nepal.  [Śrāmaṇerikā Lobsang Dechen reports that there are 839 nuns following the Tibetan tradition in India and 500 in Nepal; furthermore, she states there are about 600 nuns in Bhutan 100 of whom live in nunneries and some 240 Western nuns following the Tibetan tradition in Asia and the West.  Numerous young women have wished to join many of the exile Tibetan Vajrayāna communities, but there is no room for them, given the quite limited accomodations.]

      “Similar winds of political change have affected the Vietnamese order of nuns. A Bhikṣuṇī Saṅgha numbering in the thousands previously flourished in Vietnam but only a small number of them have been able to settle abroad since the advent of communism. Most of these nuns practice in the Mahāyāna tradition ... Until recently, there were also Theravādin nuns in Vietnam ... but their present circumstances are unknown.” [19]


We will discuss more fully in subsequent sections the situation of Buddhist women renunciates in Thailand, Taiwan, Japan, and Tibet.


As a case study illustrating the downside of affairs for Buddhist women religious, with a growing potential for enhancement, the leading Thai feminist scholar and an ardent Dharma-practitioner, Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, tells of the sorry plight of the unofficial nuns in Thailand, the s or māī jīs, who are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. [20]  It is unclear just when Thai women began shaving their heads, wearing the white robes, taking up the renunciate life and observing the eight or ten precepts.  Buddhism has been in Thailand for seven hundred years, and whereas a bhikkhunī lineage never reached over the mountain ranges to this country, we know from a late 17th French missionary that māī jīs were existing at that time, so this way of life is at least 300 years old in Thailand. 


In 1928, two young sisters, Sara (1910- ) and Chongdi Bhasit (1912-?), of Nonthaburi province, who had been living the previous two years as māī jīs, were encouraged by their progressive father to receive the novice nun (śrāmaṇerikā) ordination from some brave, open-minded Thai monk who remained anonymous lest he be expelled from the saṅgha as a result of his “liberal” behavior.  In 1932, the two young women received bhikkhunī ordination from a band of compassionate monks, but since no bhikkhunīs were present (because there were, of course, no bhikkhunīs in Thailand!), the ordination was considered “invalid” by the Saṅgha hierarchy, the press, and the government.  The women presided for a time at their Wat Nariwong temple in Nonthaburi on the Chao Praya River, joined by six other women who became unofficial bhikkhunīs witht them, until they were all eventually arrested and asked to give up their robes.  Sara and Chongdi alone continued on with their robes for another two years, and then they, too, finally gave in to society’s pressure, and resumed the life of laypersons.  So much for an attempt to establish the bhikkhunī-saṅgha in Thailand!  (But see below.)


Today, as probably in the past, nearly all the women who have taken up the life of māī jī are single, divorced, or separated.  They are from the lower class, most of them coming from families of poor farmers.  Sixty percent of them have not finished 7th grade, and only 7% have completed secondary school.  They are not welcome in most wats (Buddhist temples), since the monks consider them a “nuisance.”  In some wats, a few māī jīs up to a several dozen can be found, yet living in segregated quarters and spending most of their time, not in meditation or study (most of them are undereducated anyway, as we have just mentioned), but in cleaning the temple and cooking for the monks.  Since their study of Buddhist lore is minimal, they do not preach, and thus are not seen as “propagators of the Buddha-Dhamma (teaching).”  Indeed, “despite the fact that māī jīs shave their heads, wear white robes, and live a form of monastic life that distinguishes them from ordinary laywomen, they are not considered ordained persons,” either by the government or the male Buddhist saṅgha (monastic community).  “As they do not have an official legal position in the Saṅgha, the laity does not feel obligated to support them.” 


As in most other Buddhist countries, it is considered far more “meritorious” for laity to support the monks rather than these “unofficial” renunciate women, and so the latter receive minimal funding or other kinds of donations (land, clothing, temples) from laypersons.  In sum, like renunciate women in other Asian countries, they have no recognition or prestige, and are seen as having failed in their worldly life.  The life of a is, therefore, that of an “outsider,” a social outcaste, and not something to which any self-respecting young Thai woman would aspire. 


On a more optimistic note, Kabilsingh reports that in 1969 the Institute of Thai Māī Jīs was formed (centered in Bangkok) under the patronage of some learned monks at Wat Bovornnives so as to unite, educate, and support māī jīs, help them organize social work, and raise their status in the eyes of society.The s are, most importantly for their vocation, being supported and encouraged to learn Pali and study the Buddhist teachings (dhamma) and the monastic code of discipline (vinaya) so as to enhance their meditation and wisdom.  Māī jīs are also teaching in schools attached to monasteries, helping in hospitals, or working with delinquent girls.  In the countryside, in many cases through the help of the Institute, some gifted nuns have set up independent nunneries, and teach meditation to other nuns and visiting laywomen.  On this last point, Chatsumarn Kabilsingh has profiled for us a score of different māī jī communities, many of them in rural areas, and the one community for unofficial nuns.  The latter is the work of an adventurous Thai woman, Ven. Voramai Kabilsingh (1908- ; see subsequent section for more of her story), who received the eight precepts in 1956 and full bhikkhunī ordination in Taiwan in 1971.  In the late 1950s she founded the first temple in Thailand for Buddhist women (this is Watra Songdharma Kalyānī, in Nakhonpathom province, 35 miles west of Bangkok), in which several dozen shaven-headed, yellow-robed women, called buddha-savikās, observe the precepts of unofficially ordained nuns.  Ven. Voramai was threatened in the late 1950s by the male Saṅgha and by Thai society, but she would not give in; her ordination in Taiwan was seen as being a “Mahāyāna” ordination and thus discounted by the male Thai Saṅgha, though the fact is that this Taiwanese ordination originally came to China many centuries ago from Theravādā Sri Lankan bhikkhunīs, and the present Taiwanese monastic rules are those of the Dharmagupta, a sub-sect of Theravāda Buddhism.  Thus, her ordination should be considered valid in Thailand, a Theravāda country.  Her movement will gain momentum and power only with a) a more receptive attitude on the part of the older, conservative male monks (who have never had the opportunity to co-exist with a flourishing bhikkhunī-saṅgha, and so tend to be suspicious of any empowerment of the nuns); b) the courage and inspiration of more Buddhist women to take up this life; and c) the improvement of their opportunities for education. 


The Santi Asoke Buddhist movement (which has a number of branches such as at Nakhonpathom, 35 miles west of Bangkok), started in the 1960s by Pra Bodhirak, has attracted a large number of young Buddhists who sympathize with their leader’s dissatisfaction with the materialism of many of the members of the Saṅgha.  Pra Bodhirak has made ordination available to women, but only up to the ten-precept, brown-robed sikhamāt level; moreover, he has set a ceiling on the numbers of women by limiting their number to a maximum of one-fourth the total of monks at any given time.  Thus there are only 20 sikhamāts.  Like their brothers in the community, they lead austere, communal, meditative lives, eating only one (vegetarian) meal a day.  Under strong pressure from the government, Pra Bodhirak and his followers have finally stopped wearing the brown robe (which signifies a kind of ordination not traditionally available in Thailand), and the women now wear gray robes.  They tend to be much better educated than most other māī jīs.


On the topic of education for māī jīs—their ticket to empowerment— the Bangkok Post ran a story June 9, 1991, on a two-year secondary education program for young women at Dhammacarinī Wittaya, a project of the Wat Paktho nunnery in Rajburi Province, Thailand (some 60 miles west of Bangkok).  It is overseen by “Mother Superior” Pratin Kwangaew (or Kwan-on, b. c.1943), who holds an M.A. from an Indian university, and features as its teachers a number of māī jīs from Wat Paktho.  This is the country’s first Buddhist convent school run by māī jīs.  Here 35 of the younger (12-20 year old) māī jis are attending, as well as 22 lay-girls, aged 12-17, who come from impoverished and/or broken families.  For the latter, Dhammacarinī Wittaya is a real “Buddha-send,” saving them from being caught up in one of the usual destinies of a poor, unmarried young Thai woman—prostitution, drugs, drudgery work, or all of the above.  Life at the Dhammacarinī revolves around simple agriculture and the spiritual practices of praying, chanting, and meditation, and includes sewing as vocational training, in addition to classes which will make these women literate and capable of studying more fully the Buddha’s teachings.  And mastery of study will allow them to hopefully become teachers to other females and males, thus improving their esteem in the eyes of society and setting them up as role-models for emulation by other women.  Thus a vicious cycle—wherein only low-cast or old women turn to the spiritual life as a “last resort” and most young women from poor families must become prostitutes (there are now almost one million prostitutes in Thailand!)—can be broken and Thai women interested in leading the religious way will enjoy more status and opportunities.  Unfortunately, because of that earlier-mentioned Southeast Asian prejudice which does not regard donations to unofficial nuns as meritorious as funding monks and building projects, Dhammacarinī is in serious danger of folding due to lack of financial resources, and may not even finish its first two-year course, let alone receiving and training new batches of young women.


A relatively positive situation for Thai women Buddhists is Wat Paknam in Thonburi across the Chao Praya River from Bangkok, with its 200-300 māī jīs residing there and in branch temples.  It was founded by the late Pra Mongkonthepmuni, a famous healer and meditation master.  Many of his māī jīs are his adept successors in the art of healing meditation.  The māī jīs here are involved not only in servicing the large temple and monastery grounds, they also participate in the regular meditation classes and Dharma study classes (both as teachers and learners).  Vanasanti Nunnery, headed by māī jī Thongpien Kaewnaet (b. c.1924), is situated in Don Yiprom, Petburi province, 65 miles southwest of Bangkok, on land belonging to her parents.  It is unique in being entirely self-supporting through its agricultural endeavors, and the 30 māī jīs in residence are able to practice not only meditation and chanting but also a true communal lifestyle, whereas in many other nunneries and temples the women are each responsible for their own meals and support. 


The other prominent nunneries for māī jīs in Thailand are likewise located mainly in the central region of the country in Bangkok and to the west and southwest of Bangkok.  Chatsumarn Kabilsingh tells of the secluded Sanaam Ji Nunnery with 100 māī jīs, Thamglaeb/Bunthawee Nunnery (100 māī jīs, mostly elderly), Wat Kampaenglaeng (30 māī jīs), and Nekkham Nunnery (20 māī jīs)—all located in Muang district, Petburi province; Wat Chao-moon (20-30 māī jīs), in Thonburi; Wat Pa Dhamma-Sobhon forest temple with 70 māī jīs in the Muang district, Lopburi province (70 miles north of Bangkok); Santisuk Nunnery with 50 strictly disciplined, well-respected māī jīs in Nakhonpathom province (35 miles west of Bangkok; near here is to be found a branch of the aforementioned Santi Asoke movement); Prachumnari Nunnery (founded by King Rama V’s consort) with 100 māī jīs in Rajburi.  And then there are a number of places where māī jīs reside in Bangkok—such as Wat Saoi Thong with its nunnery of 50 māī jīs; Wat Siripong Dhamnimit, also with 50 māī jīs; Wat Mahathat (40 māī jīs); Wat Chana Songgram (30-40 māī jīs); the small Ratnapaiboon Nunnery, directed by Māī ji Arun Pet-urai, secretary general of the Institute of Thai Māī jīs, and the nearby Silacarini Nunnery with its three reclusive brown-robed silacarinīs 10-precept nuns.  There are thousands of other māī jīs scattered individually or in small groups throughout the country, especially in the many meditation-oriented monasteries of northeast Thailand. 


We have heard earlier discussion of how the situation for the several thousand 10-precept “unofficial” nuns is somewhat better in Sri Lanka where the women have enjoyed increasingly greater respect from society and better support from the government.  Yet there is much that still needs to be done, especially in the form of giving these women a better education and letting those who so desire become fully ordained bhikkhunīs.  The 30,000 Burmese 10-precept nuns also were faring better than their sisters in Thailand until the recent political turmoil began to threaten them in various ways.  Much more study needs to be done to assess the situation of these women and their sisters in other war-torn countries such as Cambodia and Laos. 


In contrast to the more-or-less depressed situation for women Buddhist renunciates in southern and southeast Asia, Taiwan, which received Buddhism from China at a late date (circa the 12th century), is a place where nuns can be fully ordained and gain much more prestige and respect.  In fact, these full-fledged bhikṣuṇīs are said to outnumber the monks by a factor of eight to one (perhaps an inflated figure), and many more young women are aspiring to join the ranks of their nun-sisters, for nuns are not seen as social failures but as inspiring role-models of the Buddha-way.  This is undoubtedly due to the fact that Taiwanese Buddhism gained an influx in the 1940s and 1950s of many eminent monks and nuns from mainland China during the Communist persecutions there.  These individuals have sparked a huge revival of Buddhism in Taiwan after it was persecuted by the Japanese occupation of 1895-1945. Today there are 2,000 temples and Buddhist organizations in Taiwan, ten of which have Buddhist colleges giving equal education to women and men monastics. Other colleges and universities are open to women, and many nuns have finished studies in law and medicine.  Dr. Kabilsingh, summarizing the research of Taiwanese Bhiksuni Shih Yung Kai, observes:

“Taiwanese nuns engage in various types of Dharma work—giving public lectures on Buddhism, social work, operating kindergartens, organizing retreats and teaching in high schools, Buddhist colleges, and universities.  Some are also involved in cultural activities such as editing and publishing Buddhist books and magazines.  Their principal support comes from private donations from devotees.  The main communal religious activity for nuns living in a temple is morning and evening chanting.  In addition nuns do individual practices on their own, such as reciting the names of the Buddha making prostrations, chanting sutras and practicing meditation.  Seven-day retreats are held throughout the year.” 


An especially exemplary situation for Buddhist nuns in Taiwan, indeed, in all the world, is Fo Kuang Shan, a forest monastery picturesquely located on the banks of the Kao P’ing River near Kaohsiung, in southwest Taiwan.  This is the largest monastery in Taiwan, a Mahāyāna Buddhist wonderland of shrines, meditation halls, educational and social welfare facilities, a cultural museum, and so on.  It was founded in 1967 by the Venerable Hsing-yun, a refugee monk from mainland China who has played a major role in the revival and reformation of Chinese Buddhism in Taiwan, promoting its meditative, educational, and community-welfare aspects.  Fo Kuang Shan monastery alone has spawned five of the ten Buddhist educational colleges in Taiwan, and three of these are directed by nuns.  Significantly, of the more than six hundred residents at Fo Kuang Shan (the number keeps growing), over 75% are nuns.  There are 16 branches around Taiwan and several overseas, and almost all of them are run by nuns.  The largest branch temple is the Hsi-Lai Temple complex in Hacienda Heights, southeast Los Angeles, which hosted the 16th General Conference of the World Fellowship of Buddhists, the first time this august assembly had ever met outside Asia.  More importantly for women, Hsi-Lai Temple is the major site outside Taiwan and Korea where women can be ordained as full bhikkhunīs/bhikṣuṇīs.  In 1988, an international ordination was organized at Hsi-Lai and more than 200 women from the U.S., Canada, England, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Nepal received the full nun’s ordinationn according the Tibetan, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese and Chinese traditions.  After Ven. Hsing-yun’s retirement from being general Abbot over all the temples, Ven. Hsin Kuang (ordained in 1965) became the Abbess at Hsi-Lai temple where she has been assisted by a number of nuns (and some monks), including Venerable Dharma teachers Shih Tz’u Jung (formerly the Abbess of P’u Men Temple and Director of Fo Kuang Shan) and Shih Yi Jih (formerly the Abbess of P’u Shen Temple), and the English-speaking nuns and Dharma teachers Shih Yung Kai, Shih I Hua, Shih I Li, Shih I Man, and Shih I Han.  Recently Ven. Hsin Kuang has left her position in the U.S. to become Director of the world headquarters at Fo Kuang Shan in Taiwan, a quite prominent position for a nun in the Buddhist world and long overdue. [21]


A great spiritual leader of both the Ch’an and Pure Land traditions, is the eminent Tripitika Master Shih-fu Hsüan Hua (b. 1910), an amazingly courageous, generous, ecumenical, ascetic, and wonderworking spiritual leader of our times.  He is a chief successor to the long-lived Ven. Master Hsu-yun (1840-1959), who was himself considered the greatest Chinese Buddhist master of the last half-millennium.  Master Hua has founded many monasteries and temples in Hong Kong, California, and other places, attracting many women from Hong Kong, Taiwan, the U.S. and elsewhere to become bhikṣuṇīs and śramaṇerikās under his guidance.  The full bhikṣuṇī ordination has for some years been available at his international headquarters, The City of Ten Thousand Buddhas, located at Talmage in northern California, and there is a Saṅgha/Laity Training Program to promote the religious education of any sincere clergy- or laywomen and men who wish to join.  Currently, there are to be found roughly 100 bhikṣuṇīs, including about 20 Westerners, compared to about 30 bhikṣus, at this thriving Buddhist “cultivation” center, whose current abbot is Bhikṣu Heng Chi (Master Hua lives in retirement, though he still teaches and spiritually guides his community).  The nuns, monks, novices, and laity are engaged in traditional Ch’an meditation, recitation of the mantras in praise of Amitābha Buddha (Chinese: E Mi Two Fwo) and/or the Bodhisattva Guan Shih Yin, education of children at the primary and secondary levels of their in-house schools, missionary work to other countries in Asia, the U.S., or Europe, and/or translation of the Buddhist canon into English and other languages.  A number of these bhikṣuṇīs, śramaṇerikās, and laywomen (upasikās) have been profiled in the Vajra Bodhi Sea monthly journal of Master Hua’s highly orthodox Buddhism; a good number of them are called “Dharma Masters” by Shih-fu HuaBhikṣuṇī Heng Hsien is president of Master Hua’s Dharma Realm Buddhist Assoc., the parent organization which oversees the monastery and its branches, publishes their periodicals and many works, and Bhikṣuṇī Heng Wen‚ is its vice-president.  Bhikṣuṇī Heng-Yin has led the community of nuns in S.F., which does translations and runs a primary and secondary school; Bhikṣuṇī Kuo-Tsan has been principal of the school system there.  Note that Shih-fu Hua’s Dharma Realm Buddhist Assoc. held its sixth ordination for bhikṣus and bhikṣuṇīs in the Fall of 1991.  These ordinations are unique in that the Certifying Masters are drawn equally from both the Mahāyāna and Theravāda traditions (it is Master Hua’s great wish to see these “Northern” and “Southern” traditions reunited). [22]


As previously indicated, in 1987 at Bodh Gaya, India, the first International Conference of Buddhist Nuns was convened (by Dr. C. Kabilsingh, Rev. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, and Ayya Khema), allowing Buddhist nuns to begin networking for change in a significant manner.  Sakyadhītā: Daughter of the Buddha, an abridgement of the proceedings of this historic conference, contains very informative individual chapters by various Buddhist women on the ordained and unordained nuns of the various Asian countries and their lifestyles, and on Theravāda and Mahāyāna Buddhist practice for women.  With the networking power afforded by this conference, and the creation of the Sakyadhītā International Association of Buddhist Women (which has chapters in various countries of Europe and Asia), and a journal of the same name, prospects for the upliftment and support of Buddhist nuns and meditators look much more favorable than ever before.  Yet some authoritarian, chauvinist monks are still resisting the idea of full ordination (and more equal power) for the nuns—not realizing that empowering women to be nuns will also empower Buddhism as a whole.  As a sequel to the 1987 conference in Bodh Gaya, the first international “Conference on Buddhist Women” was held in late October, 1991 in Bangkok, Thailand (where, as noted, Buddhist women’s plight seems to be more severe than in most other countries).  This, too, was a major success, especially marked by the supportive participation of a number of monks, and, most importantly, a commitment by all the Buddhist women present to “strength in unity.”  They focused much more on their commonalities as dedicated wayfarers in the Buddha-dharma rather than on the differences in their particular cultures, languages, or rituals.  A noteworthy ecumenical spirit is developing among nuns and laywomen from the various Buddhist traditions as they learn from each others’ Buddhist teachings and practices.  Indeed, their ecumenical efforts promise to be no less fruitful than those of the World Fellowship of Buddhists (a largely male-dominated group which had its inception in 1950) and such male leaders as Master Hsüan Hua. [23]  Hopefully all these developments will positively transform the situation for an estimated 130 million Buddhist women worldwide.


For a host of reasons, education—and especially religious education—is and will be for Buddhist nuns and laywomen their gateway to further empowerment.  A male novice can usually look forward to a life of free education, and thereby he is enabled to teach Buddhism and receive society’s laurels.  Not so with the females of many Buddhist countries.  On this important subject of education, Rev. Karma Lekshe Tsomo has made an impassioned entreaty:

“Nuns in Taiwan today, filling the Buddhist colleges to capacity, may be seen as the trendsetters.... The prognosis for unprecedented developments in women’s Buddhist education are excellent, with nuns taking a position of leadership among women.  The magic ingredients in this somewhat spectacular development have been adequate facilities, inspirational role models, and encouragement from teachers.  Similar  opportunities for women’s Buddhist education and similar results are found among the nuns of Korea today. A strikingly different picture presents itself in Thailand,... Sri Lanka [Tibet, and elsewhere], where opportunities for religious education for women are barely existent.... What learning occurs is largely a private, individual responsibility handicapped by a dearth of facilities and qualified female instructors.  Unless structured systems of religious education are implemented soon, Buddhist women in these countries will remain disadvantaged for several generations hence.  Though they may well progress spiritually despite learning handicaps, they will not be able to take their rightful places in the religious hierarchy as teachers, administrators, role models, and perpetuators of the Dharma.... The situation of these disadvantaged nuns is quite distressing.... There are often cultural and social innuendos, implanted in young minds, that women are mentally inferior or are temperamentally unsuited for higher studies.  Preconceptions have grown up that women are less qualified for spiritual mastery and should rest content with basic devotional exercises.... Even where secular education is accessible for women, nuns are somehow getting left behind.  Some nuns in these countries now realize that they could improve their minds if they had a chance, but the conditions for such improvements elude their grasp.  The public tends to make offerings more generously to the monks than to the nuns who, being economically handicapped, spend much of their time fending for food or saying prayers to generate donations.  Both their mental and spiritual advancement are therefore severely restricted by mundane realities, though they generally accept their lot uncomplainingly despite hardships and rejoice in their freedom to practice the Dharma. Some nuns, however, are acutely aware of their limitations and bristle under them.... They are not ambitious to become scholars and teachers, but they feel an obligation and sincere inclination to study the Buddha’s teachings as thoroughly as possible.  They are not envisioning themselves as great yoginīs, but they know that intensive meditation practice is vital for transforming the mind.  After having devoted their lives to the Dharma, sacrificing worldly pursuits and material comforts, they become utterly disillusioned when they find the doors to religious advancement closed to them.  These women are not blind to the fact that men enjoy all the advantages for educational and spiritual development.  They are not jealous or resentful in the face of such inequities, yet they would like to go forward.  Many realize that these advantages will not be their without great struggle, but they do not even know where to begin to set things right.... They realize that education is the key to their improvement.... To ignore the needs of these committed nuns would be a pitiful waste of human potential, for each one could become a spiritual leader among women.”  [—And among men, I would add.] [24]


Among all the Buddhist nuns and laywomen in the various countries of Asia and the West, there are undoubtedly many tremendously holy ones.  The clearest Buddhist criteria for perfect sainthood (arahatta, bodhicitta, or Buddhahood) would be, depending on the particular tradition of Buddhism, the complete eradication of a) greed, aversion, deluded egocentricity, b) the ten “fetters” of attachment on all levels of experience, and c) various other unwholesome mental factors; and the significant cultivation of a) the seven main enlightenment factors, b) the 9 insight-knowledges, c) the six or ten pāramitās (excellences), d) the 10 bodhisattva levels, and e) various other virtues.  In simplest terms, perfect sainthood is constituted by a realization of nibbāna/nirvāṇa, that unborn, undying, unconditioned spiritual “state” of perfect freedom, peace, and bliss, devoid of any illusion of separate selfhood. 

Though it is considered to be harder to reach this exquisitely sublime state in this era than in the time of the Buddha, I have heard of a number of male and female figures of the last hundred years who have allegedly achieved this radical liberation and purification of consciousness.  And in terms of stages of saintliness quite close to the above ideal (such as the “non-returner” and “once-returner” stages of sainthood in southern, Theravāda Buddhism and the “high bodhisattva” levels of northern, Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna Buddhist traditions), I suspect there are many dozens, hundreds or even thousands of persons of this calibre, men and women. 


However, as is the case with most of the spiritual traditions, saintly people tend not to be noticed by more than just a relatively small number of associates or community members unless they emerge into the limelight as exceptional teachers/preachers, authors, scholars or wonderworkers, and/or have books or articles written about them.  And for various reasons (cultural favoring of males, better education for males and thus higher literacy for males), holy females are given less attention or come to light less often than male figures.



We will here resume our survey of women leaders and teachers in the three major Buddhist traditions—1) the conservative Theravāda (“way of the elders”—often known to outsiders by the more pejorative name, “Hinayāna,” “little vehicle”) found in Burma, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and, in vestige form, India, Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam; 2) the Mahāyāna (“great vehicle”) sects—Ch’an, Zen, and Son Buddhism, Pure Land Buddhism, and other denominations found in China (Taiwan, Singapore, and other strongly Chinese areas), Korea, Japan, and Vietnam; and 3) the tantric Buddhist traditions of Japan (Shingon) and Tibet-Nepal-India (Vajrayāna).  


Earlier in this chapter we mentioned a number of the women named as arahats in the time of the Buddha.  There is evidence of many more enlightened females of ancient times within the Theravāda tradition.  The 4th century C.E. Sinhalese (Sri Lankan) historical chronicles Dīpavamsa and Mahāvamsa…

“refer to many thousands of bhikkhunīs [of the Theravāda tradition], enumerating seventy-two by name and describing their achievements, attainments, and powers.  The Mahavamsa says [Ch. XXVI.68-9] that eighteen thousand bhikkhus and fourteen thousand bhikkhunīs attained arhatship during the ceremony of laying the foundation for the great reliquary Maha Thūpa [for famous arahats].” [25]


Regarding this latter report by the Mahāvamsa, either these numbers or degree of enlightenment were somewhat exaggerated, or else there was a tremendous ripeness for enlightenment among all these men and women and the blessing-force of the Buddhas was unleashed on this occasion in a most powerful way, in the form of a veritable Buddhist “Pentecost,” unrivalled anywhere else on earth!  The historical record of Theravāda Buddhism since these ancient times, that is, over the last 1600 years, is fairly empty concerning the names of enlightened women or men.  A major reason for this is a disinclination on the part of any enlightened persons to proclaim their attainments, so “released” are they from any sense of separate self.  In the 19th and 20th centuries, through popular acclaim, we know the names of a number of leading monks of Burma, Thailand, and Sri Lanka, but holy women are only rarely mentioned, undoubtedly because they have not been ordained as full bhikkhunis, and so have less “status” in the public eye. 


In Burma, two of the most prominent nuns at the start of the modern period were Saya Kin and May Nat PeOrphans of war from a region now in India, they reached Burma early in their childhood and were adopted by a royal minister.  One sorely wishes that something more of their life-stories, and the names and qualities of leading Buddhist women in other countries had been recorded. 


Happily, in recent decades, a number of holy females within this conservative Theravāda tradition have emerged, highly-respected as masters and/or teachers of vipassanā (“clear-seeing” or “insight”) meditation and the abhidhamma Buddhist psychology, which both aim at teaching the “3 marks of existence” (impermanence, insubstantiality, and dissatisfactoriness of all phenomenal, subject-object experience).  Hopefully these women will serve as exemplars and forerunners for many more holy women to emerge in the Theravāda in the near future.  These women have gained considerable respect for their wisdom and degree of “enlightenment factors” such as equanimity, energy, serenity, discernment, rapture, mindfulness and concentration.  The late Achaan Naeb‚ (d. 1983), born around the turn of the century into the family of a Thai governor in a province bordering Burma, at age 35 began her apprenticeship under Achaan Pathunta U Vilasa, learning the elaborate abhidhamma Buddhist system.  Twelve years later she began teaching, and founded centers for Buddhist meditation and study at many temples.  Eventually, with the patronage of the staunchly Buddhist Thai monarch, this highly accomplished laywoman established a Buddhist Research and Mental Welfare Association at Wat Sraket, in Bangkok.  In her teachings, Achaan Naeb powerfully communicated a strict, “no-nonsense” path of training emphasizing the ninefold “knowledges” or insights into the impermanence of all phenomenal processes, leading to complete liberation. 


We have heard earlier of other leading Thai women, Ven. Voramai Kabilsingh, Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, Pratin Kwangaew (founder of the Dhammacarinī Wittaya of Wat Paktho), Māī Jī Arun Peturai (secretary general of the Institute of Thai Māī jīs), and Māī Jī Thongpien Kaewnaet of Vanasanti Nunnery.  Let us learn more of Ven. Voramai Kabilsingh and her interesting life:  born in 1908, she was educated in a Catholic convent school, became a schoolteacher, and then became the first Thai woman to train in jujitsu, boxing, and swordfighting.  In 1932, at age 24, she joined a group of Boy Scouts on a 28-day bicycle journey to Singapore, the first Thai woman to make such a journey.  During World War II she married a member of parliament (with whom she would have one child and adopt three others) and became a news reporter, which exposed her more fully to Thailand’s many social problems.  She became more interested in Buddhist meditation while her husband became more interested in politics and this led to their going separate ways. In 1955 Voramai began publishing a monthly Buddhist magazine, and the next year she shaved her head and asked for and received the eight precepts from Pra Pronmuni, Vice-Abbot of Wat Bovornnives, a widely respected elder monk.  She lived impeccably, and her compassion for living beings led her to eat exclusively vegetarian, something which most Thai monks will not even do.  In 1957, on a piece of land on the southern outskirts of Bangkok, she started her Watra Songdhamma Kalyani, “Temple for Women who Uphold the Teaching,” which, unlike Sara and Chongdi Bhasit’s small temple of 30 years earlier, has survived all these years since then.  Rev. Kabilsingh and her followers have also helped hundreds of poor men receive ordination as monks.  From 1960 to 1980 she expanded her activities to include the providing of food, clothing, and medicine for the destitute, and was especially supportive of children’s welfare.  In 1960, enduring pressure from all sides to give up her novice-nun’s life, she traveled to Bodh Gaya, India, site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, and requested direct ordination from the Buddha at the Bodhi Tree shrine, spending two weeks in meditation there.  In 1971, learning about the ordination possibilities in Taiwan, she went there and waited for three weeks to receive the full bhikkhunī ordination.  She came through the ceremony with the new monastic name “Bhikkhunī Ta Tao,” though upon returning to Taiwan she continued to go by her maiden name.  To the general public in Thailand, Rev. Kabilsingh is still regarded as only a māī jī; the Thai Saṅgha, as mentioned earlier, still erroneously considers her to be a Mahāyāna bhikṣuṇī though her monastic rules are Theravāda.  These last three decades, however, she has continued to wear the nun’s robes which she has rightfully earned.  In addition to guiding and inspiring her nuns, Rev. Voramai Kabilsingh has held a regular Sunday service for the laity, giving Dharma talks and leading the meditation practice.  She invites teachers from other Buddhist traditions to sometimes come and give instructions.  Today in her eighties, she still continues her teaching, writing and social welfare work.


Māī jī Wanjai Chookorn (b. c.1940) is one of the many female adepts in the line of late Thai meditation master and healer Pra Mongkonthepmuni; she heads the Suankaew Dhamma Center, a branch of the overcrowded Wat Paknam temple, in the Chombung district, Rajburi province (60 miles west of Bangkok), teaching the Luang Po healing meditation to her twenty māī jī followers and a number of the laity.  Former successful model and businesswoman Sansanee Sathiensut, still only in her late 30s, has been a Thai māī jī for 12 years, and has used her funds to set up the Sathiendharmasathan Foundation, which does not merely build temples—the usual form of donation for wealthy, pious Asians, but aspires to build up community and empower people to lead more fulfilling lives.  Her large compound is beautifully landscaped, reflecting her love of nature, and it sponsors Dhamma-imbued training courses for parents and high school students, an Invalid Children Recovery Project (and a companion program teaching healthy children to develop more compassion for the less fortunate).  The Wat Siridhamnimit which she helped set up runs a kindergarten school, which she assists in directing.  Traipitra Sarnsethsiri (b. 1939), a Thai laywoman, married, with two grown daughters, practiced with many leading teachers in Thailand since 1974 and has been teaching vipassanā in the U.S., Europe and Thailand since 1985, even teaching and training the monks at certain monasteries in Thailand and teaching about meditation via Thai television and radio.  She has lived in the U.S. since 1966, residing in Michigan.  (Mrs. Sarnsethsiri informs me that one of her main teachers was an old woman, now blind and living in L.A., by name of Siri Krinchai; she also mentions another prominent woman currently teaching meditation in Thailand named Sujin Borihanrwanaket.) [26] 


Two Bengali women, Krishnā and the late Dīpa Mā, former students of the Indian Buddhist teacher, Anagārika Munindra, are highly-esteemed meditation masters in the Theravāda tradition.  On one of these two ladies we have some further information...  Nani Bale Barua (Dīpa Mā) was born in Bangladesh, later moving to Rangoon to join her husband (whom she had married at the age of twelve).  During her 30s, her first daughter, then a son, then her husband, all died (one daughter survived).  Distraught, she went to a northern Burmese monastery to continue her meditation practice, going into an amazingly deep state of concentration the very first day.  Later she continued her practice with Mahāsi Sayadaw at Rangoon and then with Anagārika Munindra.  Under these teachers, she demonstrated extra-ordinary concentration and many of the iddhis, or psychic powers (evidently Munindra considered her to be even more highly realized than himself).  Around her 46th year, Dīpa Mā was asked to teach at Mahasi’s center, but Mā wanted her 10 year old daughter to remain in touch with her Bengali roots, so the two moved to Calcutta, where Dīpa Mā lived a simple householder’s life for the last 28 years of her life, instructing her many Indian and western visitors in the ways of Buddhist meditation, and bestowing upon them her extraordinarily powerful blessing force.  She passed on in 1989. [27]  


Ven. Dhammawati (1927- ) is a Nepalese (Newari) woman who at the age of fourteen ran away from home to study the Buddha-dharma, walking through the mountains to Burma from Nepal, encountering many difficulties en route, including being arrested for illegal entry.  Finally she received permission to study the scholastic abhidhamma psychology of Theravāda Buddhism there.  After studying in Burma for fourteen years, she returned to Nepal in 1955 where she has worked tirelessly spreading the Buddha-dharma among the laity, especially for women and children.  She has established Dharmakirti Vihar, a community in Kathmandu for more than a dozen ten-precept nuns (anagārikās), where meditation sessions, Dharma talks, and Buddhist pūjās (ritual services) are held, and Dharmakirti Bauddha Adhyayan Gosthi, an organization for Buddhist studiesthrough which Ven. Dhammawati and her nuns are educating people of all ages and publishing educational and spiritual works.  Ven. Dhammawati and her colleagues are also doing much social service primarily in the form of health and sanitation projects in the villages of central Nepal.  She has herself written some 25 books in the Newari language, and in 1988 Ven. Dhammawati, who previously had been living as a 10-precept anagārikā, travelled abroad briefly to receive full ordination as a bhikṣuṇī in the Taiwanese Theravāda/Mahāyāna Buddhist lineage at Hsi Lai Temple in Los Angeles. [28]


In the Theravāda Buddhist insight meditation (vipassanā) groups emerging among Westerners in America and Europe since the mid-1970s, with the exception of a few lineages founded and inherited solely by Asian male teachers, more and more females—both Asian and Western—are stepping into the teaching function.  Rina Sircar, Ph.D. (c.1939- ), the western emissary of the illustrious Taungpulu Sayādaw-phāya of upper Burma (1897-1986, alleged by many to be a full arahat), is a ten-precepts Burmese nun and much respected as a teacher of abhidhamma Buddhist psychology and various forms of Buddhist meditation (vipassanā, the loving-kindness mettā meditation, the “32 parts of the body” and healing meditations, etc.).  Less known to the public are Rina’s healing abilities which she bestows freely on numerous hospital patients and other afflicted persons.  Rina, who lost her father at age two, grew up in Rangoon under the tutelage of her saintly mother, Sneha (d. 1973), an ardent meditator and a renowned healer (Sneha evidently passed on her healing abilities to Rina during a powerful transmission of energy).  Rina practiced meditation intensely under Mohhnyin Sayādaw from 1948-50, then began to train under Taungpulu Sayādaw-phāya in 1954 (Phāya would stay at Rina’s and Sneha’s house, a veritable “temple,” when he was visiting Rangoon).  Since 1973 Rina has lived in San Francisco, teaching at the California Institute of Integral Studies, guiding a large circle of Western students, and helping oversee the Taungpulu Kabā-Aye Dhamma Center, the first forest-style monastery outside Asia.  Amme Daw Kusala and Amme Nana Sariya, who flourished in the 1950s/1960s, were two very holy women close to the Ven. Taungpulu Sayādaw-phāya, and about whom not much yet is known to Westerners. [29]  While on the topic of Burmese women, we should mention that courageous lady, Aung San Suu Kyi (1945- ), an accomplished scholar and daily meditator, and the daughter of Gen. Aung San, the martyred national hero who liberated Burma in 1945.  Mother of two, and married to an English scholar, she was incarcerated on July 20, 1989, for rallying national opposition against the corrupt military regime in Myanmar (their new name for Burma) and protesting their violations of human rights.  Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, but as of late 1992, is still being held captive. Reporters explain how the Burmese people feel a veritable “mystical oneness” with this beautiful lady who has come home to sacrifice herself for their cause.


The late Anagarika Dhamma-Dinna (née Anna B., 1913-1990), born in Austria, spent much time in England, then worked as a nurse in Canada, also raising a son.  In 1960 she departed for India, visiting many ashrams, temples, and hermitages, studying under the late Sumatipala Nyaka Mahathera, a vipassanā master, and Myanasatta Mahathera, an abhidhamma teacher at Nalanda, encountering many hardships.  She finally ordained as a ten-precept nun at Kolatenna Hermitage in Banderawela, Sri Lanka, before returning to Canada.  Here she gave individual instruction in vipassanā and abhidhamma and led many intensive meditation retreats in British Columbia and Alberta.  She also helped found Dhamma: A Theravada Buddhist Society in British Columbia in 1979, and Light of the Dhamma in Alberta in 1984, also arranging the visits to America of a number of respected meditation teachers from Sri Lanka and elsewhere. [30]


Another long-time female vipassanā teacher in the West is German-born laywoman Ruth Denison, founder of the Dhamma Dena Desert Vipassana Center in the southern California desert (near Joshua Tree) and the Centrum for Buddhism in the West in Nickenich, Germany.  Ruth was authorized to teach by the celebrated Burmese meditation master and prominent government official, Sayagyi U Ba Khin (1899-1971), and teaches not only his profoundly liberating “sweeping the body” method of insight meditation, but also forms of movement-therapy and sensory awareness, in the United States and all over Europe.  Mother Sayama was attendant to U Ba Khin and another one of his successors. She is a Burmese woman now living in England with her husband conducting ten-day retreats and other meditation sessions for a number of students throughout Europe (especially at her International Meditation Centre, founded in 1979 in Heddington, Wiltshire, U.K., and in Germany).  Friedgard Lottermoser (1942- ) studied the vinaya monastic code and meditation under several Burmese teachers as a young woman (her German father was stationed there).  From 1973 on she helped set up the first meditation courses (and meditation centers) of the U Ba Khin tradition to be held in Europe.  Satya Nārāyaṇa Goenka—also trained by U Ba Khin—is a hugely popular vipassanā teacher who has, over the last decade, appointed dozens of women (usually along with their husbands if they are married) among his more than one hundred assistant teachers in his worldwide, ever-growing vipassanā movement (which began in India in 1969). His wife, Ilaichī Devī Goenka (1930- ), who resides with him and their children and grandchildren in Bombay, assists him on many of his courses, and travels with him in his far-ranging work, silently radiating the power of metta (loving-kindness). [31]


Over a century ago, in 1880, Catherine de Alwis, a European Anglican woman living in Sri Lanka, became a Buddhist and later was ordained a 10-precept nun in Burma and given the name Sister Sudharma.  She returned to Sri Lanka in 1905, soon establishing an aramaya (hermitage) for 10-precept dasa silamātas; this retreat center also housed orphaned or abandoned children, and aged or destitute women.  Another early European woman to convert to Buddhism and become a 10-precept nun was Sister Uppalavarna (n.d.) of Germany, who became unofficially ordained in 1926; nothing more about her is known to me.


In more recent times, we find the case of Ayya Khemā (b. 1923); she fled Germany as a youth during Hitler’s regime. eventually joining her parents in Shanghai, only to be interred in a harsh Japanese prisoner-of-war camp where she lost her father.  Later she married, had a son, lived in Australia, hiked throughout Asia, studied the Hindu Advaita Vedānta, and in 1979 finally became a 10-precept nun in Sri Lanka.  An energetic teacher of Theravāda Buddhism in Asia and the West, Ayya (“Sister”) Khemā is the pioneer founder of several monastic institutions for Westerners, Wat Buddhadhamma near Sydney, Australia (still flourishing) and the International Buddhist Women’s Center on Parappuduwa Island at Dodonduwa, Sri Lanka (f. 1984).  In 1988 Sister Khema went to Hsi Lai Temple in Los Angeles and received the bhikkhunī ordination, along with five other silamātās from Sri Lanka.  Author of several fine books on Buddhism, and co-convener of the historic 1987 International Conference of Buddhist Nuns, Ayya Khemā now teaches primarily at Buddha-Haus in West Germany, frequently traveling to Sri Lanka, Australia, and the U.S. to conduct meditation retreats and give Dharma talks.  Ven. Sister Amita Nisatta‚ from Sweden, received Buddhist training in Burma and Nepal and returned to her home country to become the first Buddhist nun there.  She has taught vipassanā and Vajrayāna (Tibetan Buddhism) for over 35 years, mainly in southern Sweden and more recently at her home and center in Poland.  Jacqueline Schwartz-Mandell became a 10-precept nun under the late Ven. Mahasi Sayadaw but now teaches vipassanā outside of the Theravāda tradition primarily because of its centuries-old “non-recognition of the equality of women.”  Dr. Joanna Macy (1929- ) first encountered Buddhism while working with her husband in assisting Tibetan refugees coming to India.  She is a scholar and highly-regarded teacher of “engaged Buddhism” or “social mysticism” (based on a strong sense of the immanence of the Buddha-nature or Ultimate Reality) and environmental awareness in many parts of the U.S. and abroad.  Dr. Macy utilizes certain Hindu and Christian theistic elements but mainly teaches a striking form of the old Theravāda “Brahma-vihāra” (“Divine Abode”) visualization/meditation (emphasizing loving-kindness, compassion, sympathetic joy, and, finally, equanimity). [32]  


In the Western-born vipassanā groups of America, the U.K., Germany, and elsewhere, many other women can be found, teaching the ancient art of clear-seeing mindfulness and non-clinging, more or less within the Theravāda tradition:  Sharon Salzberg is one of the founders (along with Jack Kornfield and Joseph Goldstein) of the seminal Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts (so important for hosting various teachers in the early days of the vipassanā movement in this country).  Sharon has taught meditation worldwide since 1974.  Christina Feldman co-founder of Gaia House in England, has taught vipassanā since 1976, and lives in Totnes, England.  Kristin Penn, Anna Douglas, Julie Wester, Carol Wilson, Catherine Ingram, Michele McDonald-Smith, Henrietta Rogell Martine Batchelor, Mary Orr, and Sylvia Boorstein are some of the other women leading and/or assisting at vipassanā meditation retreats in Europe and in the U.S. (especially at the recently established Spirit Rock Meditation Center north of San Francisco, a institution complementing the IMS).  At Lakewood, Colorado one finds Chan-Nhu Buddhist Pagoda, a nunnery and women’s retreat site which emphasizes vipassanā practice; it is presided over by Bhikkhunī Chan-Nhu‚ of Vietnam and an American bhikkhunī Rev. Martha Dharmapali.  At the Amaravati Buddhist Centre, at Herfordshire, England (just north of London), and at Chithurst Monastery, as well as at two more monasteries in the U.K. and ones in New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Switzerland, a Western Buddhist saṅgha of monks, ten-precept nuns, and postulants (anagārikas/anagārikās) are being trained under the guidance of the esteemed American monk, Ajahn Sumedho (a disciple of the late Theravāda Buddhist master, Achan Chah of northern Thailand).  As of early 1991, there were over 90 members of this flourishing Buddhist saṅgha (monastic order).  They maintain a meditative, unattached lifestyle based on the traditional vinaya code of discipline, and a number of the monks and nuns travel quite widely on invitation to teach meditation and the Buddha-Dharma (way of enlightenment). 


Somewhat similar to this organization and much larger is the Western Buddhist Order (WBO), founded in 1968 by the English Buddhist monk and scholar, Ven. Mahā Sthavira Sangharakshita.  Incorporating elements from Theravāda and other paths of Buddhism (especially Tibetan Vajrayāna), this saṅgha now has about 450 women and men, dharmacharinīs and dharmacharins, who take the ten precepts, and vow to maintain the spirit of community as well as serve others through various charitable activities (Dharmacharinī Saṅghadevī and Dharmacharinī Gunabhadrī are two of the leading women members in England.)  The Friends of the Western Buddhist Order (FWBO) is the name given to the various charitable organizations worldwide through which members work to spread the Dharma; it also includes thousands of dedicated mitras (“friends”) associated with the Order through various activities, who in many cases live with the Order members in the all-female and all-male communities.  The FWBO has in recent decades distinguished itself by helping many thousands of Theravāda Buddhists formerly of the “untouchable” caste in the Maharashtra state of India who followed the lead of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar, the untouchable who managed to become the first Law Minister of independent India, and who then converted to Buddhism in 1956.  Only six weeks after the mass conversions to Buddhism catalyzed by his example, he passed away, leaving this new lay Buddhist movement leaderless, and most of his eight million followers were illiterate and had no opportunity for becoming educated in their new faith.  Supposedly freed of caste identity by becoming Buddhists, they nevertheless were still treated with contempt by most surrounding Hindus, and were compelled to live in slums and shanty-towns and at the outskirts of poor villages.  Dharmachari Lokamitra of the WBO came in 1978 to the town of Pune to begin assisting these Buddhists to deepen their understanding and practice of Buddhism, founding an Indian wing of the FWBO known as the Trailokya Bauddha Maha Sangha (TBMSG).  Dharmacharinī Padmasurī (née Hilary Blakiston) a nurse, joined him in 1982.  They have helped these Indian Buddhists to stand on their own feet with health education and primary health care, kindergartens, adult literacy classes, hostels for children getting educations in the cities, sewing classes, and income-generating schemes.  Significantly, women constitute the backbone of many of these projects.  Many Dharma activities, such as meditation retreats, talks, and classes, are happening as well (Dharmacharinī Padmasurī initially led these activities for the Indian women for some years before some Indians themselves took over the work), and more than one hundred of these ex-untouchables have become dharmacharins and dharmacharinīs (the first two Indian women members of the WBO were ordained in 1987). [33] 


Peter Harvey reports that recently twelve western women ordained as Theravāda bhikkhunīs in the U.S., but it is uncertain whether they will be officially approved by the elder monks of all the Theravāda countries, whose approval is required for their ordination to be considered valid.  Given the zeal, purity, wisdom, and depth of practice evidenced by so many women thus far in Buddhism’s history, especially at its outset and in the present day, and the capacity for fully ordained women to make a huge contribution to their society in both spreading the Dharma and in social welfare projects, it would seem imperative that the old male Buddhist hierarchy hasten to officially approve these “unofficial” ordinations, and to facilitate the ordination of, and equal participation of, dedicated women Buddhists. 


On the topic of women and Theravāda Buddhism, I must mention again a female Buddhist scholar from around the turn of the century, Mrs. Carolyn A.F. Rhys-Davids, and, somewhat later, Miss I.B. Horner, who provided an invaluable service for all English-speaking Buddhists by translating a large portion (well over half) of the Pali scriptures—the first important Buddhist works to be made available to Westerners.  Carolyn’s husband, Thomas Rhys-Davids, had learned Pali from an inspiring Sinhalese monk in the 1870’s, and then founded the Pali Text Society, which collected a complete edition of the Pali canon, the Tipitika.  Miss Horner was a president of this august group for some years.


Let us now turn to examine women’s roles in the different schools of the Mahāyāna Buddhism which first arose in India around the dawn of the Common Era as an attempt to reform Buddhist doctrine and also bring it more to the masses.  We have learned of the large numbers of nuns (ordained and “novice” nuns) in these countries, past and present, and some legendary bodhisattva figures, but are there specific women noted for their sanctity or leadership?  Rev. Shig Hiu Wan, a highly regarded present-day Taiwanese nun (Director of the Institute of Sino-Indian Studies) reports:

“Emperor Ming of the [Chinese] Han Dynasty [which ended around the year 220 CE] authorized the ordination of a woman from Loyang called Ah-p’an, this being the first historical record of a Buddhist nun in China.  In the Eastern Chin dynasty [317-420], another nun, Bhikṣuṇī Tao-hsing of Tong Temple in Loyang, became famous for her understanding of the Lotus Sūtra, the Vimalakīrti Sūtra, and many other profound Buddhist scriptures.  She was the first nun to expound sūtras and to propagate the Buddhadharma [Buddha’s way or teaching] in the history of Buddhism in China.  In the Western Chin dynasty [265-317], Bhikṣuṇī Chien-ching established the Chu-lin Temple to the West of Loyang and served as its abbess.  She was the first nun to be in charge of a Buddhist temple in China.” [34]


Denise Carmody tells of Bhikṣuṇī Miao-yin, of the 4th century, “a nun learned in both Buddhist and secular subjects, and a gifted writer.  She held discussions with the royal court and the literati, and in 385 the emperor set her over a new monastery of more than three hundred nuns.  She received so many gifts that her wealth became a cause of envy, while hundreds of supplicants lined up daily at her monastery gates.” [35]


Remember that in the year 433 CE some 300 Chinese women took ordination from a number of Sri Lankan bhikkhunīs who had come there to empower the Buddha-Dhamma abroad.  Undoubtedly there were many especially holy women who emerged among these Chinese nuns.  An important Chinese Buddhist biographical work, Pi-ch’iu-ni chuan, “Lives of the Nuns,” written about 516-517 CE by a scholar-monk, Pao-chang (translated into English but now out of print) tells of 65 bhikṣuṇīs living a thousand years after the Buddha under monastic disciplines inherited from India; these women Pao-chang considered to be outstanding for their faith, their asceticism, or their accomplishments in meditation or in learning and teaching.  Their attainment in the eyes of Pao-chang is remarkable, a radical step forward for the Chinese woman, who previously had been so disempowered by the Confucian-influenced family and social power structure of men dominant over women.  Schuster-Barnes explains:   



“These Chinese nuns are praised for their own worth and accomplishments, not for the quality of their relationships with fathers, husbands, or sons [cf. the Confucian ideal], and they probably did serve as examples of personal responsibility and independence for those Chinese women who read about them. ... [Nevertheless] so far as history is concerned, the nuns remained on the periphery of religious events ... [As in India,] there is no evidence so far that individual nuns or nuns’ communities made any significant contributions to the development of the Chinese Buddhist schools which were emerging by the sixth century C.E.” [36].


“Significant contributions to the development of ... Buddhist schools” mainly means innovative doctrinal and/or literary expressions, institutional reforms, missionary activity, and building projects.  (In the introduction to this book, we have already heard some of the reasons why men seem to be involved in this kind of activity to a greater extent than women.)


In reflecting upon the history of Ch’an/Zen/Son Buddhism, probably the most important Mahāyāna school that flourished throughout China, Japan, and Korea, based on a radical intuition on one’s original Buddha-nature, it is clear that none of the Indian patriarchs and none of the early Chinese Patriarchs (6th-9th century) were female.  Whether the Indian Patriarchs had any leading female disciples, we just do not know—though if we can extrapolate backwards from later centuries, it is likely that prominent women were to be found as students of many of these men—we simply lack any evidence one way or the other (and always remember that “lack of evidence is not evidence of lack”).  The Ch’an Masters of the T’ang dynasty (618-907), especially after Hui-neng (d. 713), undoubtedly had a number of illustrious women adepts among the thousands of advanced disciples who flourished during this peak flowering period of Ch’an Buddhism.  However, the Ch’an Buddhist historical works of somewhat later times, which give famous cases of interchanges between masters and disciples (such as the Pi-yen-lu, or Blue Cliff Record, one of the foremost of these works, authorized by Yüan-wu [1063-1135]) or which purport to be “records of transmission of the dharma” do not mention any female holders of major lineages.  And, though a number of male Ch’an masters in later centuries had individual books compiled on them, featuring their teachings and anecdotes from their lives gathered from various earlier sources, no Ch’an women have been accorded the same honor.  Thus, women are not to be found in the limelight of Ch’an.  As a matter of fact, in the entire tradition of Ch’an/Son/Zen Buddhism, despite the saying of eminent 13th century Japanese master, Dōgen Zenji, “A little girl of seven even may be the teacher of the four classes of Buddhists and the mother of True Compassion to all living things,” there have been only a relative few women in China, Japan, or Korea who have received any attention at all for their spiritual realization.  And these women are marginal, not featured in most tellings of the “great masters,” that is, such eminent male masters as Bodhidharma, Hui-neng, Ma-tsu, Hui-hai, Huang-po, Lin-chi, Tung-shan, and Ta-hui of China; Eisai, Daio, Daito, Kwanzan, Dōgen, Keizan, Bankei, and Hakuin of Japan; and Wonhyo, Chinul, and T’aego of Korea (to mention just a few of the many dozens of other illustrious Ch’an/Zen/Son masters). 


Yet, as mentioned, one can get an occasional glimpse of deeply enlightened women, some of whom even had prominent male disciples:  the Ching-te ch’uan-teng-lu (Transmission of the Lamp Compiled During the Ching-te Era), the second earliest of these historical records, compiled in 1004 by Tao-yüan and naming almost 1,700 Ch’an masters, tells of the Chinese Abbess Mo-shan Liao-ran (n.d.), who

“gained [the monk] Zhi-xian as her disciple by demonstrating to him in a sharply pointed dialogue that her understanding was superior to his, and true.  He knelt and bowed to her—an act forbidden in the ancient Vinaya [code of monastic discipline]—thus admitting she was his teacher, and under her guidance he attained enlightenment.” [37]

Taiwanese Bhikṣuṇī Shig Hiu Wan reports:

“In the book Wu.teng.heui.yuan, there is a story concerning a woman named Chit-t’ong [n.d.], who through the study and practice of Buddhadharma [Buddha’s way], became enlightened ... Later on, her practice of Ch’an meditation became legendary.  She entered into nirvāṇa [in this context, the word means “final passing beyond the body”] while seated in cross-legged meditation.  Her book, Analects of the Enlightened Mind, has been circulating ever since.” [38]

P’ang Ling-chao (d. 808) daughter of the famous Chinese Ch’an Buddhist lay master P’ang-yün, was known for her spiritual power, piercing insight, gentleness, femininity, humor, and her sudden, conscious passing from the world (performed as a kind of humorous, masterful joke for her father, who was himself preparing to die).  Contemporary Korean Son Master Seung Sahn has told the tale of Sul (the Korean version of her Chinese name, unknown to me), who as young girl focused on chanting the name of the bodhisattva Guan-yin and attained enlightenment under Ma-jo (Ma-tsu?—d. 788), later becoming “a great Zen Master” while also marrying and raising a large family.  A Chinese woman, known to me by the Japanese version of her name, Myōshin, was appointed head of the temple office by her master Yang-shan (Jap.: Kyōzan; d. 899), and is remembered for having greatly edified seventeen visiting monks one night with her enlightened wisdom.  Ono-no Komachi is another Japanese rendering of the name of a famous 9th century Chinese poetess celebrated for her beauty who in later life, lost not only her beauty but also her wealth, and position, yet was much esteemed by the local people for her highly enlightened state.


I know no names of famous and/or enlightened women in the Korean tradition of Son Buddhism up until recent times (see below).  However, we know that many thousands of Korean nuns flourished in the Son tradition, and many of them have undoubtedly been highly accomplished in the rigorous path of Son meditation which is so strongly emphasized in many Korean monasteries.  Therefore, feminist scholarly investigation of this tradition is definitely needed to cull the names of the outstanding Korean women adepts.


In the two major historical traditions of Japanese Zen Buddhism—Rinzai and Sōtō which arose during the Kamakura period (12th-14th century) after Buddhism had been in that land for 500 years—women were generally considered inferior to men, but there is evidence of many women ardently practising the way.  As far back as the year 815, the conversations of Empress Tachibana (Danrin, consort of Emperor Saga) with the visiting Chinese Ch’an Master Gikū mark a small beginning of lay practice of Zen Buddhism in Japan.  (As we shall learn, it was a laywoman who also became the first student of the first Zen master in the U.S.)  Yet, as mentioned, Zen Buddhism would not significantly arrive in Japan until the late 12th century, during the Kamakura period, when Buddhism finally came out of the courts and temples to flourish among the masses, and after that time, as Rinzai Zen scholar Imai Fukuzan has remarked, “it was not unusual in Zen for a teacher to be a woman.”  Enlightened Zen women were especially to be found in the “warrior” brand of Rinzai Zen, known as such because it was developed for the samurai class at Jufukuji temple in Kamakura by the Japanese Zen master, Eisai (1141-1215), and then developed even more fully at Kamakura by the Chinese Lin-chi/Rinzai Zen masters, the “national teachers” Daikaku (Lanxi Daolong, 1213-79; first teacher at Kenchōji temple) and his successor, Tsu-yüan/Bukkō (1226-86; founder of Enkakuji).  This very dramatic “warrior Zen” was designed for those fearless, vital souls “who might be called upon to die at any moment... sometimes a naked sword was at the centre of the interview”—and their number included women.  (Trevor Leggett observes, “The samurai women were famous for their strength of character, and for moral strictness.”)


The chief record of Kamakura Rinzai “warrior Zen” available to us in English is the 16th century document, Shōnan Kattōroku, presenting 100 famous kōans (Chinese: kung-an; the “public case” spiritual testing devices intended to explode the egosense) based on interchanges between illustrious masters and disciples, and this work, in comparison with other classic Ch’an, Zen, and Son documents, mentions a good number of enlightened women (other works, such as the commentary to the Sōrinzakki, have sections profiling Zen women adepts; and tales of enlightened women—both laity and nuns—are undoubtedly to be found in the Hōmeishu, Undaigendan, Nyūdōsanzenki, Senjōmonshōkan, and other Zen records of adept medieval Zen practitioners, but none of these, to my knowledge, have been translated into English).  Mujaku (c.1222-98), whose lay name was Chiyōno, was an exquisitely beautiful woman of Akita (northern Japan) who married and had one daughter; in 1276, when she was 34, her husband died, and, grief-stricken, she intensified her spiritual life.  One tale tells how she practiced for a while as one of the seven female disciples of the famous Chinese Ch’an Master Ta-hui (Jap.: Daiye) on Ching-shan mountain near Hangchou in China (there are some discrepancies in dates, because he passed away in 1163); we have a remarkable tale (reproduced in Volume Two of my work) of Mujaku (or the beautiful woman who was studying with Ta-hui on Ching-shan): it is said that she tested Ta-hui’s head monk, Manan—who disapproved of her and other women students visiting the private room of his master—by having Manan brought alone to her, whereupon he found her lying naked on a bed!—she then completely foiled him in the verbal “Dharma combat” (mondo) that ensued.  Mujaku later became a nun, and trained under the Chinese Rinzai Zen master Bukkō (his name in Japanese); she underwent several times the major breakthrough kenshō or satori experience of utter egolessness and nonseparateness, and eventually Bukkō “passed over the robe and bowl” to Mujaku, that is, authorized her as one of his successors to teach Zen.  Mujaku was invited to become the first teacher at the newly built Keiaiji Temple in Kyōto.  Later, a hermitage was built for her at Shirogita, the temple of Bukkō’s grave.  Nyozen, of the nunnery at Tōkeiji, trained under master Genō (founder of Kaizōji temple), and used to meditate on Mujaku’s enlightenment poem; in 1313 she herself underwent a profound enlightenment. 


Shidō (aka Chidō; b. 1246) of the Tokimune household, was the foundress of Tōkeiji nunnery and temple at Kamakura, the most important training monastery for nuns in Eastern Japan, if not all of Japan in those days.  Shidō had been the teacher of the nuns at Tōkeiji for many years (since before 1287) and in 1304 was granted the inka (formal approval) as a Zen Master by Master Tōkei of Enkakuji.  The head monk did not approve, and challenged Shidō, whose classic retort (reproduced in Part Two of my work) earned his deep respect and convinced him of her enlightened nature.  Many of Shidō’s successors, including the first seven, were granted inka, full confirmation of their Zen realization, by leading male masters; the first eight teachers at Tōkeiji uttered enlightenment poems which became famous as kōans for later nuns practicing there; these illustrious women were Shudō, Runkai, Shōtaku, Junsō, former princess Yōdō, Ninbō, Ryōdō, and Kanso. The only one I have any detailed information on is Shōtaku, formerly known as Sawa. Widow of a slain samurai, she cut off her hair and entered Tōkeiji, also studying under Daisen of Enkakuji, and later becoming the 3rd teacher at Tōkeiji.  As evidence of her great samādhi-power, that is, her intense spiritual focus and accumulated ki-energy, the story is told of an incident in 1338, when Shōtaku was walking back from Enkakuji, a man armed with a sword came up to her intent on raping her; she was able to completely immobilize him and make him flee in terror by simply thrusting a rolled-up piece of paper at him and issuing the primordial Zen shout of enlightenment—”KATSU!” 


The Shōnan Kattōroku tells a comic tale about a pupil of Ninbō (the 7th teacher at Tōkeiji) named Yoshihime and nicknamed “devil-girl” because she was apparently externally ugly and also exceptionally strong.  The daughter of General Kanazawa Sada, Yoshihime wanted to have interviews with Master Seisetsu of Enkakuji temple, which originally, like virtually all the holy places of Japan, was forbidden to women, with the exception that unmarried women of a samurai family who were training at Zen were allowed to come and go through the gate.  After 1334 a rule was made that unless a woman had attained to “seeing the Buddha-nature” she was not allowed to go to the Great Light Hall.  In time, it became customary for the gatekeeper to present a kōan to a woman if/when she applied to go through.  Yoshihime was famous for having turned the tables on the gate-keeper and then Master Seisetsu’s attendant by presenting them with kōans, demanding that they look into the Buddha-nature beyond the opposites of formlessness and form, symbolized by her two legs, between which she had shoved each man’s head when they approached and challenged her!


The Tōkeiji nunnery sometime ago became extinct (the Kamakura Zen tradition seriously waned by the end of the 16th century), and is now a temple for monks; in its day it was famous for carrying on a tradition of “Mirror Zen”:  the nunnery had been the recipient of a famous six-foot-high mirror originally commissioned by military leader Yasutoki half a century before (in 1219) after Nun Shōgun (Hōjō Masako) had a dream of a great mirror with a voice emanating from it urging “I am the voice of the great shrine, and what is to happen in the world is seen in me.  There is a war imminent, and the army must be mobilized.  If Yasutoki polishes me, he will be victorious and bring about a great peace.”  And so it came to pass.  The mirror was later plundered from its special hall at Tōkeiji, but returned in 1374.  The mirror hall was enlarged to become a meditation hall and all the nuns who entered Tōkeiji did meditation before the mirror, similar to foundress Shidō, whose enlightenment supposedly occurred while facing a mirror.  Tōkeiji, also famous for its beautiful flowers, was known as the “Divorce Temple” because if a woman of the samurai class who was unhappy in marriage entered Tōkeiji and stayed three years—later amended to only one year—the marriage link was dissolved.  For this reason alone, a good number of women were probably in residence at Tōkeiji.  The quality of spiritual practice was quite excellent at Tōkeiji.  In 1596, 108 nuns from Tōkeiji and from other parts of Eastern Japan attended a winter retreat on the 350th anniversary of Shidō the foundress; of the 41 nuns who took interviews with presiding Master Sanpaku of Enkakuji, fully 35 of them passed their enlightenment tests with him, based on their high degree of realization as evidenced by their responses.  The most distinguished of these women was the nun Myōtei, who passed the notoriously difficult kōan known as the “Four Katzu!s of Rinzai.”  One night back in the year 1568, during the grueling rōhatsu training week (involving almost continuous meditation and chanting and little or no sleep), Myōtei, a widow well known for her strength of character, had come into the interview room of the teacher—probably Kimon of Enkakuji, with whom she had trained for some years—without wearing a stitch of clothing, and she lay down before him.  Though in the mondo interchange which ensued she betrays a hesitancy not characteristic of final realization, the next morning she was accosted by the teacher and her reply earned his deep respect, expressed by him in typical poetic Zen language:  “One general at the head of ten thousand men enters the capital.”


I have gleaned some hazy details on a few more highly realized Zen women elsewhere in Japan:  the nun Gentai was an advanced student of eminent Rinzai Master Daio (1235-1308); Eshun‚ (n.d.), an evidently enlightened nun, carried out a conscious death by immolation.  Around that hugely popular, unconventional Rinzai Zen master, Bankei (1622-93) were many hundreds of women disciples—nuns and laywomen.  One old nurse to a samurai family and several old blind women were among the many women affirmed by Bankei to have thoroughly realized the Unborn Buddha Mind.  We also hear of an unnamed, enlightened old woman who ran a teashop an acquaintance of illustrious Rinzai master Hakuin (1686-1769) (there have apparently been a few of these enlightened—or at least very sagely—”old teashop ladies”).  Ryōnen (b. 1797), an enlightened disciple of Ha-kuo, was, earlier in her career, considered “too beautiful” to become a Zen student (too formidable a “temptation” for the monks), and so she disfigured her face with a hot iron so as to be allowed entrance into the community (understandably, feminists are outraged over such a situation). [39]   


In our own century, we find a number of noteworthy cases of enlightened or exceedingly wise, pure-hearted women in the Ch’an, Zen, and Son worlds:  Long Lien (n.d.) is a famous scholar-nun now in her 70s living at the Chendo nunnery on Mt. Omei in Sichuan province China.  A monk from the Dharma Realm Buddhist Association tells of another (unnamed) old nun‚ who left the home-life at age 16 in her next year became head of the Buddhist Studies Academy, but then went off to Mt. Omei and took up the ascetic, meditative life.  At one point she was ordered by the Maoist communists to return to lay life, but she refused.  Now over 80 years of age, she lives alone on Mwo Tyan Ding peak in the Jung Nan Shan range.  Many young people brave the rigorous, precipitous journey to get instruction from her on the Buddhist scriptures, especially the Diamond Sūtra.  She eats only steamed bread, and evidently her qigong fu power allowed her to grow back a set of shiny white teeth after her others fell out due to old age.  The aforementioned Bhikṣuṇī Shig Hiu Wan (also known as Shiao-yün Fa-shih), a celebrated Taiwanese scholar-nun, now in her 70s, has founded, directs, and coordinates a number of Buddhist institutions and conferences.  She is a famous painter, calligrapher, and specialist in T’ien-t’ai Buddhist doctrine and Ch’an Buddhist meditation.  Venerables Tzu-chang, Tzu-hui, Chung-yen, Tzu-yee, and Yi-kung are five Chinese/Taiwanese nuns mentioned by one reporter as “illustrious contemporary nuns ostensibly having realized some degree of enlightenment.”  The aforementioned Abbess Hsin Kuang from Fo Kuang Shan in Taiwan and her leading female colleagues are also women of no small degree of spiritual realization.  The nuns of Ta Hsing Shan Monastery near Taichung Taiwan are known for their “selfless practice.”  I have already mentioned the good number of nuns, old and young, in Asia and the West, who have become “Dharma Masters” of great attainment in their spiritual practice under the guidance of the current Patriarch of Chinese Ch’an and Pure Land Buddhism, Ven. Master Hsüan Hua.


Over in S. Korea, Ven. Hye-Chun Sunim is the highly esteemed president of the flourishing Korean Bhikkuni Association and a leading Son master who has built a meditation center which can accomodate 100 nuns for 3-year intensive retreats.  (Currently there are 40 nuns engaged in rigorous three-year retreats; there are also over 500 Korean nuns practicing especially intensive meditation in the meditation halls throughout Korea.)  A few Korean women are teaching Son and/or Mahāyāna Buddhism in America, whom we will mention subsequently.  The fact is that we need to know much more about women in the present Son Buddhist tradition of Korea, just as we need to know more about the women in Son’s history.  For this is a thriving tradition, and undoubtedly has produced numerous enlightened women along with the many male adepts.  [UPDATE NOTE: The reader should investigate the online materials and books now available on great South Korean Seon Buddhist luminary Daehaeng Sunim (1927-2012).]


In Japan, Satomi Myōdō (1896-1978) was raised in an impoverished farming village experienced an unhappy early marriage, later separating from her husband and children.  After undergoing a nervous breakdown, she took up a career as an actress.  She gravitated toward spirituality, and studied hard under a Shinto priest to become a mikō shamaness (a kind of trance-medium for the kami, or guardian spirits); later she trained even harder in the Zen tradition, and realized the kenshō level of initial enlightenment under the tutelage of the Rinzai Zen master Hakuin Yasutani-Rōshi (d. 1973) through the dramatic path of koans (mind-breaking, enigmatic questions) and mondo (challenging interactions with the Zen master) found in the Rinzai tradition.  Yaeko Iwasaki (c.1910-35) was “a great bodhisattva,” who, despite being on a sickbed after the traumatic death of her father, awakened to her True Nature through ardent determination under the tutelage of Yasutani’s teacher, Daiun Sogaku Harada (d. 1961).  She died twelve days later—after an early premonition of her passing—having deepened her realization to a “rare degree.”  Rev. Kojima Kendō (n.d.) is one of the leading nuns of the Sōtō Zen Buddhist tradition, which, in contrast to the enlightenment-as-a-goal emphasis of Rinzai Zen, practices a simple demonstration of “already enlightened Buddha nature” via constant meditation, whether sitting, standing, walking, or lying down.  Having worked hard for many years not only to purify her own awareness through Zen training, Rev. Kojima has also worked tirelessly to empower women in the Sōtō tradition (see below).  She is foundress of the Sōtō Nuns Organization.  Rev. Shundō Aoyama (1927?- ) is the chief priest at the Aichi Semmon Niso-do, one of the few training temples for female Sōtō Zen priests, and the Muryo-ji mountain temple in Nagano Prefecture, where she began her austere training as a five year old girl under the tutelage of her aunt and the latter’s cousin.  A very humble woman, Rev. Aoyama was fortunate to be one of the early nuns admitted to the Sōtō-affiliated Komozawa University in the 1940s.  She has written many books and articles on Buddhism, and her annual sesshins (zazen meditation retreats) are attended by hundreds of people.  She has told the story of the Buddhist nun Junkyo Oishi (1887-?), who as a young woman by the name of Tsumakichi had been a geisha girl in Osaka.  In 1904 the proprietor went crazy and killed five of his geishas; Tsumakichi escaped with her life, but had both her hands chopped off.  She joined a company of wandering entertainers, and one time was greatly inspired by a pair of canaries who accomplished so many tasks using only their mouths; remembering with gratitude the words of the geisha-house proprietor who had disfigured her, “Everything depends solely on effort,” Tsumakichi began to educate herself and learned to use a calligraphy brush by holding it in her mouth. Later she became a nun and her pictures and writings became world-famous.  “If the problem is a crippled body, nothing can be done about it, but don’t let your heart become a cripple,” she would say.  Two other more-or-less enlightened Japanese women of the Zen tradition include Soei Yoneda, the former abbess of the Rinzai nunnery and temple at Sanka-in, in the Koganei area of Tokyo, and her disciple, now abbess of Sanka-in, Koei Hoshino.  They both were/are accomplished teachers of the traditional art of shojin cooking. [40]   


Speaking of Japanese female priests, we can take a moment here to discuss more fully the status of Buddhist women religious of Japan, where, unlike the other countries of the far east—Korea, Taiwan, and China—the bhikṣuṇī saṅgha does not exist.  Japan has been strongly influenced by Buddhism—along with the older Shinto religion—ever since the early 7th century, when the renowned Prince Shōtoku (574-622), under the influence of his aunt Suiko, converted to the new faith and united the country (which had been essentially tribal in nature previous to this).  Sources uncovered by scholar Paula Arai and Chatsumarn Kabilsingh indicate that the first ordained Japanese Buddhists were three women who went to Korea in 590 (but there was not the requisite number of attending bhikkhunīs so an official bhikkhunī-saṅgha could not be established in Japan), that the first Japanese to go abroad to China to study the Vinaya code of Buddhist monastic conduct were nuns, and that the first Buddhist temple in Japan was a temple for nuns.  I have not yet seen any work in English which details the history of Buddhist women in Japan.  We do know that female renunciates and ascetics who might be thought of as “nuns” (they were called “unsuis” or “clouds wandering over water”) existed since the early years of Buddhist presence in Japan.  Yet we also know that, because of a rigidly androcratic society, the sacred shrines and mountains—such as the head temple-sites of the various Japanese Buddhist traditions (e.g., Kegon, Hosso, Tendai, Shingon, Rinzai Zen and Sōtō Zen, and the Nicheren schools)—were, with only a very few exceptions, open only to men until as recently as 1873, and the summit of some sacred mountains are still off-limits for women, no matter how revered and accomplished they might be.  (We learned that Rinzai temple Enkakuji, and perhaps others, were open for a time to women of distinguished samurai families, and later open only to deeply realized women.)  During the 250 years of feudalism under the Tokugawa shogunate prior to the Meiji period (1867-1912), the status of women in Japan, Buddhist and otherwise, was the lowest in all of Japanese history.  Buddhist nuns were at the bottom of the system.  They were allowed to live only in hermitages, even when a nearby temple was empty, awaiting a priest.   


In the Sōtō Zen Buddhist tradition, Dōgen Zenji’s positive views regarding women, as evidenced by a quote given earlier, were quickly forgotten by his followers (the Rinzai Zen tradition on the whole seems to have held an equally low view of women, despite the presence of a number of women teachers in the earlier years at places like Tōkeiji temple in Kamakura).  The two Sōtō head temples, Eiheiji and Sojoji, like the other Japanese Buddhist sects, both refused admission to women until the Meiji era (1868-1912).  Kumiko Uchino, who has detailed some of this picture for us in her article about nuns of the Sōtō Zen Buddhist tradition, which is the third largest denomination of Japan, tells us that Sōtō Zen nuns were not allowed to hold the Zen retreat (sesshin), the most important activity in Zen Buddhist spiritual life.  They did not have the right to perform the initiation ceremony to Buddhist priesthood for young nuns, and thus they could not function as Zen masters, no matter how long they had trained their successors.  Nuns’ clothes always remained black in color, the same as novices, whereas monks’ clothing changed color as they attained the higher ranks of priesthood.  The nuns could not perform funeral services for the public, and were constrained to only serve as the assistants of priests, thus depriving them of a major source of income.  Despite certain progressive tendencies during the Meiji era, there was no increase in nuns’ status, mainly due to the fact that they were not able to attend the Zen Buddhist schools and obtain a proper education.  Finally in 1902, three schools were established in which they could formally study Sōtō Zen Buddhism and some general subjects, but the level of education was still far lower than for monks. 


A feminist movement among the nuns during the liberal Taishō era (1912-25) occasioned the first Sōtō Nuns Conference ever held, in 1925, with 300 nuns in attendance.  In 1930 and in 1937 further conferences were held. Each year from 1925 onward a petition was submitted by the nuns to the Sōtō Zen Buddhist governing body requesting certain basic rights to bring nuns into a more equitable standing with monks.  However, the old androcratic Japanese attitude prevailed, maintaining that the nuns’ vocation was improper to start with—these women should be married and bearing children!  In the pre-war years, one revealing figure tells a lot about the sorry status of the nuns:  the Sōtō government was paying 600 yen to each nun for financial support, and 180,000 yen for each monk.  Nevertheless, nuns were gaining ground in certain ways:  in 1923, they began to be allowed certain titles of respect, such as “Shūso” and “Oshō”; in 1929, the title “Ama Kyōshi,” or “nun teacher” could be granted, a status still lower than the lowest rank for monks.  In 1925, the Sōtō institution, Komazawa University, permitted nuns to enter as auditors; in 1949 it would become co-ed, and four nuns were admitted as bonafide students, given training in preaching and becoming missionaries.  In 1943 a special seminar for training nuns was held, mainly to mobilize their support for the war effort.  With the war’s end, one nun dedicated to her sisters’ cause, Kojima Kendō, worked to transform this regular seminar into the Sōtō Nuns Organization, and she called for basic rights of equality in education, performance of ceremonies, establishment of a convent for nuns’ meditation, and so forth.  In 1946, the new Sōtō constitution integrated the titles of male and female religious, the existence of certain female Zen masters from history was acknowledged, nuns were allowed to hold Zen meditation for themselves, and nuns were allowed to become orthodox pupils in Zen priests’ transmission lines.  In 1950, four schools for nuns were opened as Zen monasteries, and in 1951, the right to initiate nuns and monks in the capacity of a Zen master was granted to women priests, as was the right to transmit a Zen lineage—major breakthroughs for Sōtō Zen women.  In 1968, permission was given to the nuns to establish their own head temple, and Kojima and three other nuns were appointed as Zen missionaries.  In 1970, Sōtō Zen women priests/nuns were finally allowed to be priests of temples at the hōchi level (a fairly low grade of temple), and to conduct among themselves the long kessei ango retreats centered around zazen meditation.  Though these may seem to be quite optimistic signs (if long overdue, and still not bringing total equality between women and male religious leadership), the unfortunate side of the picture is that, because of 1) the influx of Western values and rampant materialism in Japanese culture, 2) the fewer number of children in Japanese families (and less permission from parents to let their daughters enter nunneries), and 3) the fact that the Buddhist denominations do not financially support their women nuns/priests, and the latter must eke out an existence through teaching classes in flower arrangement (kado), tea ceremony (chado), or calligraphy (shodo), or holding kindergarten classes, selling handicrafts, and so on, not many young women are feeling the call to become women-priests.  In fact, in recent years, the average age of entry for Japanese Sōtō female novices, and, presumably, women female novices in the remaining Zen and other Buddhist sects, has increased from about 16 years old—the traditional average age in former decades—to 43 years of age; on the one hand, this suggests that becoming a nun has little appeal for the large majority young Japanese women; on the other hand, it suggests that those women who do become novices are making a more mature, conscious choice about the matter, and also that they have received more education or training in the world, which will allow them to be more “well-rounded” in their monastic careers.  Yet the fact remains that, due to the waning numbers, the Sōtō women’s order, just at a time when it has been empowered at the institutional level, is in serious danger of virtually dying out in the next century. 


In passing we would remark here that the official status of Japan’s Rinzai Zen and Obaku Zen nuns lags even further behind that of Sōtō nuns, since their numbers are too small to be influential.  A Japanese census published in 1984 indicated that overall Zen Buddhist female clergy (not including temple head priests’ wives, the jizoku) are outnumbered about 11 to 1 by male clergy (22,206 men to 2,044 women); the ratio is higher in the traditional Zen denominations—Sōtō, Rinzai, and Obaku, whereas in two of the five small, non-traditional Zen denominations, Nyoraikyō and Senshin Kyōdan, the women clergy greatly out-numbered the male clergy (totalling 377 to 80).  The Sōtō school, with its almost 7 million adherents, has 31 monasteries, including five nunneries, and some 1,177 nuns; the Rinzai school (nearly 2« million adherents) has 39 monasteries, including just one nunnery (under the dominion of the Nanzenji monastery-line), and 351 nuns.  Taiwanese nun Juo-hsueh Shih, in contrasting the situation of an increasing number of Taiwanese nuns (who already far outnumber monks) with the decreasing number of Japanese Sōtō nuns (and decreasing number of Japanese Buddhist nuns in most other sects), points out that the Japanese Sōtō Zen nuns are being trained primarily to run temples, and are therefore being educated in the various kinds of Zen arts (tea ceremony, cooking, flower arranging, etc.) so as to help them gain revenues for their under-funded temples;  they are also trained to attend to the needs of their patrons in the function of a kind of “minister.”  These kinds of training encroaches upon the more purely spiritual training in meditation and scriptural study; thus...

“It is quite understandable that fewer and fewer women would like to devote themselves to the monastic life if they have to make their own living.  If this is the case there will be few differences between the secular and the monastic life in terms of the amount of time available for religious practice.  ... [In contrast], Chinese nuns generally are expected to be great practitioners rather than successful temple administrators.  They have more alternatives to select from if they are not interested in running a temple.  Even the nuns who seclude themselves from society and make no ‘concrete’ contribution to humanity can earn respect and support from the Buddhist followers.  If they are good practitioners, their contribution is in being living spiritual models of the teachings for other Buddhists to admire and follow. [41]


Let us hope that, as with women monastics everywhere, funding for Japanese nuns and their temples will significantly increase so that they can devote more time to the meditative way and, by their example, attract more young women who will feel inspired to join with them in this time-honored way of “demonstrating the Buddha-nature” on behalf of all sentient beings.   During the Meiji era, all Buddhist priests (including monks and nuns) were ordered to marry; by the end of the Meiji era, some 50% of the males had married (by 1935, about 80% had married), whereas the nuns were adamant about keeping their ascetic, celibate lifestyle, and they have done so up to the present.  (They also do not drink alcohol, whereas many of the male priests do, which has led to some alcoholism in certain cases.)  In the Sōtō Zen tradition, and evidently in the other Buddhist traditions as well, from the outset the priests’ wives were not recognized as such by the Sōtō government, and thus these women had very low status and incurred society’s condemnation. 


In 1943 at Eiheiji Temple, a seminar for these women was held, wherein their marriages were recognized as valid, they received Buddhist teachings, and were granted entry-level ordinations as female priests; after the war they were insured certain legal guarantees of security (e.g., being able to reside at the temple after the death of the husband).  In 1977, half of the Sōtō temple-priests’ wives (about 6,500 women) held the first-level priest status. Though this clearly benefited the wives of the temple priests, it tended to usurp the role of the celibate nuns/priestess, causing them some problems.  In 1968 the Sōtō nuns demanded that the priests’ wives (who are known as jizoku) were in need of better religious training, and that they were being granted many of the same privileges as the longtime nuns without having undergone the same learnings or hardships.  The Sōtō government rightfully sided with the nuns and therefore at present the jizoku must remain as assistants, not llowed to perform priestly functions.  Yet their status has definitely improved from earlier in this century, and they are now formally recognized as religious figures who have a role in guiding the laity—a role which in some cases is undoubtedly not insignificant.  (However, when a temple priest dies, it is almost always his son or nephew who inherits the status of head priest, not his wife.)  It is possible that a number of the jizoku will become nuns in the future, undergoing the same education and more training, and thus improve their status even more, also swelling the ranks of the number of formal women religious. [42]


Jiyu-Kennett Rōshi, a Western-born, ordained Sōtō Zen priestess and acknowledged Zen Master, clarifies for us the distinctions between monk/nun and priest/priestess, and various grades of priesthood, as well as the status of women in the Japanese Sōtō Zen world:

“Let us look at the words monk and nun.  In Zen temples the Japanese ... have only one word for both of these: unsui.  This word is made up of two Chinese characters, the first of which means ‘cloud’ and the second ‘water’ ... An unsui is a person, male or female, who wanders across the world as free as a cloud in his search for Truth, yet has the strength of an ocean to wash away the mountains that stand in his or her way.  This is obviously a very different meaning from that usually given to the words monk and nun in countries with a Christian culture or background.  A monk or a nun lives a dedicated life in the service of God under vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, but the unsui takes no such vows; his [her] only vow is that of the Bodhisattva: ‘However innumerable beings may be, I vow to save them; however difficult the teachings are, I vow to master them; I vow to cleanse my own heart.’  There is another difference: in Zen both male and female unsui are expected to become members of the priesthood; they are not supposed to be content with being unsui.  This brings into focus the difference between Christian and Buddhist monasticism; the former does not permit nuns to become full priests, but in Zen the female unsui is expected to become a priestess of a temple.  The ideal set forth in the Buddhist scriptures is that male and female are alike in the Buddha Mind and so men and women can go up the ranks of the priesthood equally.  Unfortunately, Japanese custom (or prejudice...) gets in the way of the women far more often than it should, with the result that there are not nearly as many full priest[esse]s among them as there should be and those who have made it have much poorer temples than the men.  Prejudice apart, the ideal is complete equality of the sexes, and a woman, if she is energetic and resourceful, can go all the way up the seven ranks of the priesthood; quite a number of my friends have done so.  Before the war the obstacles placed in a woman’s way were so great as to be almost insurmountable.  However, with the influx of new ideas from outside Japan, life has become a lot easier for the  female members of the priesthood, and a really determined woman, if she is willing to put up with slights from male priests, can become a full priestess.  This is perhaps easier for Western women to achieve, since they possess more tenacity than do their Japanese sisters. ... Oshō literally means ‘priest’ and ni-oshō means ‘female priest’ or ‘priestess.’  These terms are applied to unsui [“trainees”] who  have reached the fifth grade of the priesthood ... 

  “The various ranks of the Sōtō Zen priesthood ... are seven in number:

  1. Jūkai Tokudō.  This is equivalent to a layman’s confirmation in the Christian church...

  2. Tokudō.  This signifies ordination to the priesthood as a trainee.  [Note: this is the grade of ordination given to many of the wives of the male priests who serve as heads of temples; note also that many Westerners confuse this level with full priesthood.]

  3. Shusōshō.  This is the rank of chief junior, which means the trainee has reached a certain level of understanding, can recite all the scriptures, lead all the other trainees in the temple [etc.] ... 

  4. Transmission.  ... There is no way of gauging when this will take place, since it takes as long as it does for a person to become truly converted and to find his true spiritual potentiality, the Truth of Zen.  ... Once this [transmission] ceremony has been performed upon an unsui it is impossible for him [her] to leave the priesthood, for he has then been joined to the apostolic line of his own master.

  5. Zuisse.  This is a special congratulatory ceremony ... at which trainees receive their certificates of priesthood.

  6. Shin Zan and Kyoshi.  The kyoshi is the divinity degree bestowed by the temple in which the new priest underwent his [her] training.  After receiving it, he may perform the ceremony of Shin Zan, or ‘ascending the mountain,’ as the new abbot (priest) of a temple.

  7. Kessei.  The four ceremonies of Kessei ... are performed when a priest has a disciple whom he has trained from tokudō to shusōshō.”  [43]


As with Theravāda Buddhism and vipassanā meditation, a number of Western women, such as Jiyu-Kennett Rōshi, have been important figures in the blossoming of Japanese-style Zen in the United States—though male leadership is still dominant.  In 1905 it was an American woman, Mrs. Alexander Russell of San Francisco, who hosted Sōen Shaku (1859-1919), the first Zen teacher to come to America.  She became the first Westerner to study Zen in the West (in this case, Rinzai Zen, which emphasizes use of the kōans, those enigmatic, mind-breaking riddles).  Ruth Fuller-Sasaki, student and subsequent wife of Rinzai Zen teacher Sokei-an (1882-1945), had a major influence on American Zen.  Studying Zen in Japan in the 1930’s on, she informally taught at the First Zen Institute of America with Sokei-an; she established in 1956 a center for Westerners to study on the grounds of the Daitokuji Rinzai Zen center in Japan; and she wrote and translated various Zen works and promoted Zen scholarship in the West.  On this matter of scholarship, it can be noted that a number of women have written, translated or edited useful early books on Zen and Mahāyāna Buddhism, such as Nancy Wilson Ross, Elsie Mitchell, Irmgard Schloegl, Beatrice Lane Suzuki‚ (wife of the great Zen scholar D.T. Suzuki), and Jiyu-Kennett RōshiElsie Mitchell (1926- ), whose Bostonian family line is traced back to the Transcendentalists, spent much time with Asians at Harvard and visited Japan several times beginning in 1957, where, in the early 1960s, she received the tokudō grade of ordination as a Zen “priest.”  Elsie also helped organize the influential, nonsectarian Cambridge Buddhist Association in 1959. [44]  


The afore-mentioned Jiyu-Kennett Rōshi (née  Peg Kennett 1924- ) was born to Buddhist parents in England, and became a Theravāda Buddhist while living in Europe; she then spent considerable time in Asia, taking the full bhikṣuṇī ordination in Malaysia in early 1962, and then spending over a year practicing at the Sōjiji Sōtō Zen temple of Yokohama (where she was re-named “Jiyu-Kennett”), by invitation of the Ven. Chisan Kōhō Zenji—an unheard-of phenomenon for a foreign woman.  In 1963 she was granted the status of “Rōshi” by Chisan Kōhō Zenji and installed as Abbess of her own temple in Mie, Japan, where she taught Western disciples the way of Sōtō Zen. Returning to America in 1969, Kennett Rōshi founded Shasta Abbey in 1970 in Mt. Shasta, northern California, which is now headquarters for her Reformed Sōtō Zen Church (incorporating some elements from her Christian and British past).  Kennett-Rōshi was the first Western woman to receive such formal “empowerment” as a Zen teacher, and she has had a crucial role in training many Westerners in authentic Sōtō Zen—several dozen of whom (men and women) have become full-fledged Zen priests.  Kennett-Rōshi has founded several Zen centers, including the Throssel Hole Priory in Northumberland, U.K., another flourishing training monastery for male and female priests, and written some important books on various aspects of Zen life.  After a near-death experience, Kennett-Rōshi emerged even more physically healthy. A woman of great wisdom and humor, in later decades she appears to have fallen into states of delusion and grandiosity according to some former disciples, though they were grateful powerful teacher of the Buddha-way. [45]


A number of other women have come into teaching roles in the Zen world of the U.S. in the last dozen years.  True to the “community” orientation of emerging American Buddhism, it is notable that most of these women (like many of their Western sisters teaching Yoga-Vedānta) are generally not isolated, ascetic nuns—most of them are married and/or raising children and/or involved in the world.  Barbara (“Bobby”) Rhodes is a married laywoman and nurse who was given the dharma transmission in 1977 and thus empowered by Korean Son (Zen) master Seung Sahn to be one of the first four “Master Dharma Teachers” in his extensive Kwan Um Zen school (which has recently been shaken up by revelations of his sexual relations with several women students). 


Rōshi Prabhasa Dharma (formerly Gesshin Myōko Midwer) trained as a Zen unsui for 15 years under Rinzai Zen masters here and in Japan, and has been director of several Zen monasteries in America; she leads meditation retreats worldwide and in 1983 founded the International Zen Institute of America, based in Los Angeles.  One of her projects is to create a Buddhist hospice supporting those individuals who wish to engage in deep spiritual practice at their time of passing, undisturbed by complicated medical interventions.  The late Maurine Myoon Stuart Rōshi (1922-90) a handsome, energetic yet gentle woman (“half lion, half kitten”), grew up in the Canadian prarieland, later becoming a concert pianist, an expert on food, and mother of three.  She was ordained a Rinzai Zen priest in 1977 by Eido Tai Shimano-Rōshi, and confirmed (unofficially) as a Rōshi in 1982 by the late Nakagawa Sōen-Rōshi.  Stuart-Rōshi taught and led Zen meditation retreats (sesshins) at the non-sectarian Cambridge [Massachusetts] Buddhist Association (befriending Elsie Mitchell) and at the prestigious Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, emphasizing Zen practice for laypersons.  One of her accomplishments was to soften the old samurai traditions of Japan with her blend of maternal warmth and strong inner discipline. 


Mary Farkas, an early student of Sokei-an, for many years directed the First Zen Institute of America and edited Zen Notes, one of the oldest and most illuminating Zen journals in America.  Western-born Sister Karunā Dharma, a long-time student of Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Thien-an, became the  abbess of his International Buddhist Meditation Center in L.A. upon his passing in November, 1980.  She has many Vietnamese and Western students coming to her for spiritual guidance.  Bhikkhunī Miao Kwang Sudharma is a Western nun who has trained in monasteries of Japan, Sri Lanka, and Taiwan, and now directs the Devachan Temple in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.  This offers a broad Buddhist training incorporating elements from Sōtō Zen, Ch’an, Pure Land and Theravāda Buddhism.  German-born Toni Packer, a psychologist and a Dharma-heir of Philip Kapleau-Rōshi, taught at his Rochester Zen Center before leaving the Buddhist tradition through the inspiration of Jiddu Krishnamurti. Since 1982 Toni has taught the way of thought-free, “choiceless awareness” at the Genesee Valley Zen Center and other centers and retreats.  Jan Chozen Bays, a pediatrician and acupuncturist, was ordained as a Zen unsui in 1979 and became one of Taizan Maezumi-Rōshi’s dharma-heirs at the Zen Center of Los Angeles in 1983.  Charlotte (Jōko) Beck is an ordained Zen priestess a grandmother in her 70s, director of the Zen Center of San Diego, and another teacher in the lineage of Maezumi-Rōshi, with an excellent collection of Zen teachings available in book form.  Joan Rieck Jōun Rōshi a former Maryknoll Mission Sister (Roman Catholic), went to Japan to help spread her Christian faith, thenfortuitously met Yamada Kōun Rōshi in Kamakura, and, after eleven years of study with him, was given permission from him to teach.  A year later, in 1984, she began to lead sesshin-retreats in the Pacific Northwest.  Flora Courtois is a Western-born woman now hosting a meditation group in Santa Barbara, California; her clearcut enlightenment experience during a Spring vacation in Detroit years ago and subsequent deepening (written up in very clear prose) was acknowledged by Yasutani-Rōshi in 1968.  (In a collection of eight individuals’ potent enlightenment experiences under Yasutani Rōshi, three of these are women:  Mrs. A.M., an American schoolteacher, Mrs. L.T.S., an American artist, and Mrs. D.K., a Canadian housewife.)  Gerta Ital came from a sophisticated European background into a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery some years ago and after a long period of intensive meditation, enjoyed a breakthrough satori (enlightenment), written up in another recent book.  Tranpersonal psychologist, Sonja Margulies was authorized in the early 1980’s to teach Zen by the Japanese Sōtō Zen teacher, Kōbun Chino Otogawa (who teaches in Los Gatos, California).  A number of women can be found directing local chapters of various Zen parent organizations, such as those founded by Seung Sahn, Jiyu-Kennett, John Daido Loori, Taizan Maezumi, and others.  Maria Rowe Kim directs the American Buddhist Shim Gum Do Assoc. of Brighton Mass., founded by her husband, Chang Sik Kim, a Korean martial art and Son master (both were students of Korean Zen master Seung Sahn).    


Several Asian women also have teaching roles in the American Zen and Mahāyāna Buddhist scene in recent years.  Dharma Master Dr. Danette Choi (known to her students as Poep Sa Nim [respected teacher] Ji Kwang), a wise and psychically gifted Korean woman, received transmission at age 18 in the Lotus School lineage in Korea from a powerful, old cave-dwelling meditation master and wonderworker.  After that she served for a time as a spiritual and psychic counselor, eventually coming to Hawaii where she earned a B.A. and a Ph.D. in Religious Science, married, had a son, ran a business for some years, and then, with the influence and support of Korean Zen/Son master Seung Sahn (Soen Sa Nim) she started her vocation as a Zen teacher and healing minister.  She has taught and ministered in Honolulu for over 20 years, having founded the Hawaii Dharma Sa (Zen Center) in 1978, along with a center in Paris.


Dr. Sun-ock Lee, a student of Son Master Song Dahm of Inchun, Korea, is one of S.Korea’s foremost traditional and modern dancers/choreographers, and directs the Zen Dance Center of N.Y. and the Zen Temple of Cresskill, New Jersey.  Hai Ill, another Korean woman, is a priest and student of Dae Haeng of the Korean Son tradition and is teaching meditation in Alaska.  Grandmaster Tae Yun Kim, who endured great discrimination to become the first Korean female martial art teacher, began her training at age 7 with her uncles in Korea, and then with a monk in the mountains; she went on to become an eighth-degree blackbelt in Tae Kwon Do, despite her petite size (4’11” and 90 pounds).  Disenchanted with the mainstream world of martial arts, Tae Yun Kim eventually broke away from it to found her own spiritual martial art discipline, which she calls Jung SuWon, “the way of uniting body, mind, and spirit in total harmony,” based on a realization of the inherent “Silent Master Consciousness which links one with God.”  Now 45 years old, after having lived for some years in Vermont, Tae Yun Kim lives in Fremont, California, teaching her way of “internal power,” involving breathing, meditation, and breaking through all fears to her (mainly male) students.  A Taiwanese Mahāyāna Buddhist nun, Rev. Yuen Yi, whose sublime and paradoxical teachings are strongly flavored by the Ch’an/Zen tradition’s emphasis on discovering one’s true identity beyond the ego-centered state, came to this country in the early 1980’s where she has been instructing ever since, mainly out of Boulder, Colorado.  Sister Chan Khong (b.1938), née Cao Ngoc Phuong of Vietnam, is a longtime peace activist, social worker, and Zen teacher who started her mission helping the poor in Saigon when she was only eighteen. A few years later this beautiful young woman joined up with like-minded Buddhist peace spokesman Thich Nhat Hanh, and has spent the last three decades as a courageous, tireless helper of the war victims and refugees.  Sister Chan Khong is also Nhat Hanh’s assistant instructor in Zen mindfulness meditation retreats at their Plum Village community in the French countryside near Bordeaux (where 13 other Vietnamese nuns live), and in places like Australia and the U.S., where there are large Vietnamese refugee populations.  Chan Khong took her vows as a full-fledged nun (a life-long desire) in 1988 on Vulture Peak (a site auspiciously connected with the life of the Buddha) during a trip to India with Nhat Hanh. In 1993, her fascinating autobiography was published, Learning True Love: How I Learned & Practiced Social Change in Vietnam.


Ching Hai, reverently known by the title of “Wu Shang Shih” (“Supreme Master”) to her ever-increasing number of Dharma-students, is an appealing young spiritual leader, also from Vietnam, blending many spiritual paths in her work.  Born circa 1951 to well-to-do, broad-minded Catholic parents, who instilled in their children both independence and humility, as well as a love for the world religions, Ching Hai was also mentored by her Buddhist grandmother.  By age eight, she was already a gifted student and spending all her spare times reading Buddhist and Taoist works.  At a certain point in her childhood, her great love for animals moved her to become a strict vegetarian.  She was evidently a very saintly, charitable young girl, and demonstrated this further during the Vietnam War by going to the hospitals after school to tend to the wounded and sick, no matter how distasteful the work involved.  Ching Hai for a number of years had aspired to become a monastic but her parents wanted her to take up an important life in the world.  Consequently, she was sent by her mother to Europe, where she worked tirelessly as a translator for the Red Cross and helping Vietnamese, African, Afghani and other refugees.  She spent most of her pay on charity or offered it to temples.  The rest of her time was filled with frequent meditation, study under a number of spiritual teachers, and continued reading of the world’s scriptures (which has resulted in an appreciation of all the major religions).  While in Germany, Ching Hai married a German doctor, who came to be very supportive of her charitable works, her pilgrimages, and her meditative way of life.  Though they enjoyed a harmonious and loving marriage, he was willing to let her leave after several years to fulfill her deeper calling to realize the highest enlightenment.  While she was in deep spiritual retreat in the Indian Himalayas, under a very old teacher who evidently taught the way of Surat Sabda Yoga (as found in the Radhasoāmi tradition), this final enlightenment evidently dawned.  After her breakthrough, Ching Hai continued to practice deep meditation for many months, then went to Taiwan, where she took the full bhikṣuṇī ordination.  She came to New York for a time, living an outwardly ordinary life, doing chores at a temple there; during this time, she was “found out” by a psychic woman who, along with others, began to revere her as a master.  Ching Hai did not want any of this, and so went to Taiwan, where she stayed in humble retreat in a hut behind a small temple; but eventually she was also discovered here, by a group of people who had been guided to meet her in a vision of Guan-yin.  She kindly refused to be their “Master,” but they were insistent, and so she gave them preliminary teachings (on being vegetarian and keeping the basic moral precepts) and then later she initiated them.  Thereafter, word of mouth has spread and Ching Hai has been invited to many countries to initiate people and teach them the “Guan-yin” method of meditation on the primordial sound current.  The demand is now so great that Ching Hai is initiating a number of people around the world by phone from her Hsi Hu Infinite Light Center in Miao Li, Taiwan.  An estimated 40,000 Taiwanese initiates and 100,000 other initiates worldwide are now practicing her method and living her teachings.  She charges no fees for initiation and disdains gifts and prostrations to her.  Apparently the great number of people who are flocking to her has caused some bad feelings on the part of those Buddhist officials who run or manage some of the temples that are being vacated as the throngs of people go off to spend time with her.  It is said that there have even been attempts on her life, but, like any true spiritual master, Ching Hai is unmoved by these things, and bears them with equanimity, forgiving those confused souls who perpetrate them.  Many women and men have been inspired by her to take up the austere renunciate life, thus she is founding a kind of informal order of monastics.  Numerous tales circulate concerning Ching Hai’s miraculous power of guidance.  One of Ching Hai’s most outstanding charitable endeavors has been to relocate the many thousands of Vietnamese refugees who are stranded in various parts of the world.  She has recently obtained from the government of Costa Rica permission to settle 10,000 refugees to that island country, and is willing to give up all the monastic properties around the world which have been given to her so as to finance the costs of resettling these people.  Ching Hai herself still “supports herself” by selling paintings and items of clothing she knits.  She is a very unpretentious, also very enthusiastic, child-like, and spunky little lady barely five feet tall.  She is on a quickly-changing, never-ending schedule of travel to share the inner spiritual wealth she is so desirous of lavishing upon all who wish.  She knows five languages, yet mainly speaks Vietnamese or Chinese, since this is the language of most of her disciples at this point.  Though Ching Hai can be stern from time to time with her disciples, she often can be seen happily singing simple, romantic folksongs with them for hours at a time.  This attractive blend of power and simplicity, virtue and joy, has many people revering Ching Hai as a manifestation of Guan-yin Bodhisattva (see below for more on Guan-yin). [46] 


It is a healthy sign that so many women are, along with men, now teaching the way of Zen/Mahāyāna Buddhism and Theravādin vipassanā/abhidhamma in America.  The “gender barrier” is finally being broken down to a great extent in these circles of American Buddhism.  In the decades ahead, these women will undoubtedly authorize many more women to teach and thus even greater equality and empowerment of spiritual women will be attained.  The interested reader may wish to consult several books which have emerged in the last few years featuring interviews with women and/or articles by women teaching various forms Buddhism (Theravāda, Zen, Mahayāna, and Vajrayāna).  These include not only the aforementioned Sakyadhītā: Daughters of the Buddha (Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Ed.), but also Meetings with Remarkable Women: Buddhist Teachers in America, containing Lenore Friedman’s interviews with 17 female Buddhist teachers; Turning the Wheel, by Sandy Boucher, with the candid reflections of over 85 Buddhist women; A Gathering of Spirit: Women Teaching in American Buddhism, edited by Ellen Sidor; Not Mixing Up Buddhism: Essays on Women and Buddhist Practice, an anthology of articles from Kahawai—The Journal of Women and Zen (1979-88) published by the Diamond Sangha of Hawaii; Women and Buddhism, a collection of essays put out by Jiyu-Kennett Rōshi’s Shasta Abbey; and Women and Buddhism, published by the Spring Wind Buddhist Cultural Forum / Zen Lotus Society of Canada. [47]


On this topic of the femininization of Buddhism, Zen practitioner and esteemed poet Gary Snyder has remarked:

“The single most revolutionary aspect of Buddhist practice in the United States is the fact that women are participating in it.  From the beginning, women essentially had been excluded.  But in America, fully fifty percent of the followers everywhere are women.  What that will do to some of these inherited teaching methods and attitudes is going to be quite interesting.” [48]


Sampling other males’ views of this phenomenon, Robert Aitken Rōshi, a pro-feminist leader of the Diamond Sangha of Hawaii, has declared that the rather stern, stark tendencies of Zen Buddhism in Japan are due to male samurai influences, and that there is no need whatsoever for American Buddhism to be burdened by these cultural trappings.  Jack Kornfield, a prominent U.S. vipassanā teacher, noting the feminization of American Buddhism, along with two other forces which are transforming Buddhism in America—democratization and integration within the community—offers these cogent insights:

“In Asia, through the monasteries and older monks, Buddhism has been primarily a masculine and patriarchal affair, masculine by virtue of the fact that it has been men who have preserved and transmitted it, and more deeply masculine in that its language and traditions have been predominantly in the masculine mode.  Buddhism has been a practice of the mind, of logos, of understanding through striving and attainment, of gaining enlightenment through conquering oneself.  All of these elements—the mind, logic, striving, the patriarchal structures that did not allow for a full participation of women and that discounted feminine values—are now being confronted by the powerful force of feminine consciousness that is growing in Western culture.  This consciousness  is already bringing about a softening and an opening of the Buddhist spirit and practice that will allow for strength of mind and the masculine element, but also for the tenderness and earthiness of the feminine.  Not only is there a clear movement to abandon the superficial structures, sexism and patriarchy, but there is a more profound movement to develop the Dharma as a practice of relationship to the body, the community, and the earth, and to stress interdependence and healing rather than conquering or abandoning. [49]


Such changes in attitude and incipient attempts to change actual practice along these lines have been promoted by a number of “Women and Buddhism” conferences in the United States, beginning prominently with a forum held at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, in 1981, followed by another one in 1982.  Seung Sahn’s Providence Zen Center hosted a one-day “Women and Buddhism” conference in 1983, a second one in 1984, and his Zen community then sponsored the first such conference in Berkeley, California (a feminist stronghold) in 1987. 


All of these have been quite well-attended and have uncovered a host of issues which, in turn, have occasioned numerous discussions and emerging insights which will go far toward defining an American Buddhism appropriate for our time and place—especially honoring women’s role as teacher and practitioner.  Lenore Friedman has pointed out how these conferences have already effected one very beautiful, historically significant phenomenon—the bringing together of female practitioners from the various Buddhist lineages which are geographically separated and rather alienated from one another in Asia.  At these conferences, and at the International Conference on Buddhist Nuns in Bodh Gaya in 1987 and Conference on Buddhist Women in Bangkok in 1991, female Buddhist practitioners from Theravāda, Mahayāna (chiefly Zen), and Vajrayāna schools of practice are coming together, sharing insights about their meditation, their breakthroughs, their problems, and various other issues, identifying and learning from each other, and basically helping dissolve barriers which have grown up in the Buddhist world over the last two thousand years.  That women have been able to effect this ecumenical joining together is no small achievement. 


In shifting our discussion for a moment to the level of popular devotional Buddhism in the Far East, and its grand mythological themes, we find that, despite the sexism prevailing throughout that region of the world due to the ancient Confucian ethic of male subordination over women, and despite a male or androgynous Buddha figure (such as the historical Sakyamuni or the cosmic Buddhas, Vairocana and his four emanation Buddhas, especially Amitābha) as the “official” central principle in the Buddhist pantheon—there has been, throughout China, Taiwan, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, a tremendous honoring by both women and men of the feminine principle in the form of worship of the bodhisattva (enlightening being) Guan-yin.  (In Japan, she is known as Kwannon or Kannon; in Korea, Kwanseum; in Vietnam: Kwan Nam).


Guan-yin first seems to have made her appearance in China around the 6th century C.E. in male form; she is widely revered and supplicated as the compassionate helper:  her full name, Guan Shih Yin, loosely translating as “the one who hearkens to the cries of all suffering sentient beings.” Curiously, Guan-yin’s prototype in the Indian Buddhist tradition is the male bodhisattva, Avalokiteśvara, considered to be the emanation of the primordial Buddha of the Western direction, Amitābha or Amitāyus (both of these male figures date from the 1st century CE).  And in Tibet, this bodhisattva of compassion is the supremely venerated male figure, Chenrezi.  (Tārā, an emanation-consort of Chenrezi, is the fairly equivalent female protectress-”goddess” in Tibet; see below.)  But in China—especially at her mountain temple of Miao Feng-shan, 40 miles from Beijing, and at her island sanctuary of P’u-t’o (east of Ningbo in the waters of Zhejiang province)—whereas this bodhisattva of compassion is sometimes regarded as a rather androgynous-looking male principle, the female form is much more popular in devotional practice and in iconography.  The same is true in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, Vietnam and Japan. For instance, in Japan, we find 13th century Japanese Rinzai Zen master Daio referring to Kannon as a “she” in his poem to her; and one famous pilgrimage route around Honshu island includes fully 33 temples to Kannon, where it is a “she” that is invoked for blessings.  The feminine form of Guan-yin/Kannon is certainly dominant in contemporary times.  It seems now that Guan-yin has actually become more of a “goddess” than bodhisattva in the minds and hearts of her people, who look to her as beloved healer of the sick, bringer of children to the childless, protectress of sailors and pilgrims, and mediatrix of all sorts of miraculous graces. 


Diana Paul points out that Guan-yin is really asexual, not “female,” in that sexual desire and characteristics are dissociated from her, yet the same may be said for many of the holy women and men and goddess and god figures East and West, most of whom transcend sexuality. [50]  The bottom line is that Guan-yin seems to fulfill the role of protecting, consoling “Mother” throughout the Far East, a role similar to that of Mother Mary in the Catholic and Orthodox world of the West (see Chapter 7).  Another curious parallel is that Guan-yin’s cult in China and Japan grew especially strong over the 9th-12th centuries, exactly when Mary’s cult was burgeoning in the West.  Millions of Asians (i.e., Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese) and an increasing number of Western Buddhists have enjoyed tremendous inspiration, visions and even intercessory miracles from Guan-yin, just as have Christians through their devotion to Mary.  It is quite clear that for about one-tenth or more of the human race, the reality—or at least the archetypal image—of the “mother goddess,” primarily in the form of either Guan-yin or Mary, is a central element in their lives.


At this juncture, I would mention the existence of a number of temples and associations for Chinese nuns and laywomen throughout southeast Asia wherever there are pockets of Chinese emigrants—such as within Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines.  Many of them are named in honor of Guan-yin.  There is a strong tradition of these Chinese “sisterhood” associations, especially over the last century and a half, and the spirit of these associations has spilled over into these other Chinese-occupied regions of Asia.  Many of these women are often versed in the lore of the highly intuitive, sublime tradition of Ch’an Buddhism as well as in the more prevalent “Pure Land” (devotional) Buddhism steeped in devotion to Guan-yin and Amitābha (Chinese: A-Mi-Two-Fwo) Buddha.  Such “sisterhood” organizations devoted to their “goddess” Guan-yin and to A-Mi-Two-Fwo have afforded many Chinese women an opportunity to practice religion on their own terms, free of male imperative.


Having covered the Ch’an/Zen school of Mahāyāna Buddhism, let us here look at other Mahāyāna Buddhist traditions to see how women have figured.  We will examine these traditions especially in Japan, a country which turned out to be much more hospitable to Buddhism than was China (where a Neo-Confucian revival in the late T’ang dynasty demoted Buddhism to second place).  Buddhism officially came to Japan in either the year 538 or 552, and subsequently all the major Mahāyāna Buddhist sects traveled to that land.  (Remember here that it was a woman, Suiko, aunt of the country’s first leader, Prince Shotoku [d. 622], who influenced him to embrace the new faith and make it the state religion in 594.)  As of last count (1970), 162 different Buddhist sects were flourishing in Japan, categorized within seven main groupings:  Zen, the Nara Sects, Shingon, Tendai, Nichiren, and Pure Land.  We will cover these in the following pages, as well as briefly discuss the resurrected Shinto traditions of Japan (to which many Buddhists affiliate from time to time), and some of the dramatically burgeoning “new religions” of Japan, many of whose elements derive from Buddhism and Shinto. The first major schools of Buddhism to come to Japan from China and Korea were what are now called the “six schools of the Nara period.”  These differed more in doctrine than in practice, and were all brought to Japan during the 7th to 8th century by male priests and subsequently were led by priests, though there were provisions for a good number of nunneries (kokubun niji) to be established, with the Tōdaiji temple of the Kegon sect in Nara as the parent temple.  Today only three of these Nara sects survive (Kegon-shū, Hossō-shū, Ritsu-shū), and in rather vestigial form, with a membership totalling slightly over three hundred thousand people (an additional 1.7 million people belong to a Nara-sect-affiliate, the Fudō-shū, devoted to the popular protector-bodhisattva, Fūdo).  Women in modern times have a place within this ancient tradition:  of the 1,383 clergy reported in 1970, 573 of these were women.  Most of these clergywomen (338 of them) belonged to the Kegon-Shū, an old Mahāyāna Buddhist sect from China introduced into Japan in 740 during the Nara period by a Korean priest; it is based on that masterpiece of Buddhist scripture, the Avatamsaka [Flower Garland] Sūtra, extremely rich in its stupendously “cosmic” imagery, and suffused with a profoundly intuitive view of the intrinsic, all-pervasive Buddha-nature.  Kegon-Shū no longer exists in China and now only claims some 70,000 members in Japan.  I know of no names of leading Kegon-Shū women living in Japan (nor any other leading women of the Nara sects), but the one Kegon center in the U.S.—Todaiji Hawaii Bekkaku Honzan—was organized in Honolulu in 1948 by a Kegon Buddhist nun, Bishop Tatsushō Hirai.  She claims to be the only female Buddhist bishop in the world.  Some of the Buddhist clergymen have opposed her, but she continues her role, helped by her adopted daughter, Kaekō Hirai, whom Tatsushō trained and ordained. [51]  


Shingon (“True Word”) Buddhism is the main Japanese school of Buddhist esotericism (mikkyō; Skt.: tantra)—coming to the Japanese Heian court in 805 from India via China, and proceeding to strongly influence its contemporary sect, the Tendai-shū, as well as later movements such as the Nichiren sects, with its fascinating combination of intuitive, non-dual wisdom, asceticism, art, and splendid rites involving forms to realize the formless.  Like Tibetan Buddhist esoteric tantra (see below), Shingon utilizes mantras, maṇḍalas, and mudrās (sacred sounds, artistic diagrams, and gestures) and various forms of meditation, active imagination, ritual and devotion for the purpose of spiritualizing body, speech, and mind, so as to allow for the realization of one’s Original Enlightenment.  I am aware of no influential women who stand out in Shingon history, whether in its Indian-Chinese period or in Japan since the time it was brought there by the renowned Shingon leader, Kōbō Daishi (Kūkai; 774-835) up until modern times.  (Unlike Tibetan Buddhism, not much of Shingon history has been translated into English nor subjected to any thorough examination by English-speaking feminists to discern the presence of any great female adepts who might have flourished in its past.)


Kōbō Daishi, a humanitarian of the highest calibre, was not a sexist, but regarded all beings as capable of wiping away the veils of bad karma and realizing the primordial, ever-existing Original Enlightenment (hongaku)—an idea which, in its misunderstood form as “all beings are already Buddha and therefore do not need to observe the moral code,” insidiously pervaded and degraded much of Japanese spiritual thought during the subsequent Kamakura period.  Kōbō Daishi felt that women were equally capable of realization as men:  “If one has faith [in hongaku] and practices, then, whether one is male or female, or of high or low birth, one will qualify as having a great capacity [for realization].” [52]  One also hears the tale of how Kōbō Daishi underwent a 17-day esoteric rite at Onzanji, on Shikoku island, in order to reverse the Buddhist policy in Japan that no woman could approach the temple beyond a certain hill, in order to allow his mother, Ato Tamayori, a Buddhist nun, to visit him.  He cared for her there and the temple came to be called Onzanji, “a temple of gratitude to parents.”  Speaking of Tamayori, her name literally means “The one in whom the spirit [tama] of the god dwells.”  Joseph Kitagawa comments:  “This was a name often given to a shamanic diviner (Miko).”  If Tamayori was, indeed, a powerful shamaness, her influence on the multi-talented Kōbō Daishi may be much more than has previously been recognized (she may have even invoked his presence onto this planet as a powerful bodhisattva!).  In any case, she is accorded no small amount of reverence by Shingon Buddhists. [53]


The feminine principle is honored to a certain extent in Shingon. Though the central Shingon figure is the rather masculine-looking cosmic Buddha, Vairocana/Dainichi, in the Shingon pantheon one finds a few female deities, chiefly modelled after some Hindu goddesses and consorts.  And the most important bodhisattva is Kannon, originally known as the male bodhisattva, Avalokiteśvara in India, and known in Buddhist circles of China as the great “mother goddess,” Guan-yin.  So important is Kannon for Shingon iconography and tantric visualization that six forms of Kannon are to be found, and the most popular ones (Senju-, Jūichimen-, and Shō-Kannon) are regarded as feminine by the Japanese.  On the Henro pilgrimage route covering 88 (and more) temples on Shikoku island in Japan (this pilgrimage is an important Shingon practice, also performed by clergy and layfolk of other Japanese Buddhist traditions), fully 28 of the 88 main temples (almost one-third) have this feminine Kannon as the Honzon (chiefly honored Enlightened Being). 


An enchanting story tells of how Kōbō Daishi carved the Kannon image at Shikoku’s Kirihataji temple (in Tokushima-ken) at the request of a young woman who kindly supplied all his material needs while he was engaged in religious disciplines there.  When Kōbō Daishi ordained her at her request, she quickly attained Buddhahood “and assumed the form of Kannon.”  This temple is a favorite for female Shingon devotees.  Even more popular is the Senryūji temple on Shikoku (at Shingu-mura, Ehime-ken), often called the “Kōyasan [Shingon headquarters] for women,” because women worshippers can visit here without any restrictions upon them.  Moreover, it was a female Hindu hermit, known by the Japanese name Hōdō, who gave the property to Kōbō-Daishi in the year 794.  Speaking a moment ago of Kannon, it is an amazing fact that many holy men (and undoubtedly numerous holy women as well), who were completely surrendered in their devotion to Kannon, set out onto the seas in southerly directions from the sacred mountains and cliffs at Ashizuri and Kumano, seeking the legendary abode of Kannon (known as Fudaraku in Japanese [Skt.: Potalaka]).  Whereas some of these brave seekers wound up on the shores of Okinawa, it is probable that most of them drowned, their consciousness merging in the boundless compassion of Kannon. [54]  


On the level of organizational leadership Shingon is male-dominated, reflecting the values of patriarchal Japanese society.  Yet, as is the case with the other Japanese Buddhist esoteric tantra (mikkyō) tradition, Tendai (headquarted at Enryakuji temple on Mt. Hiei), there are a number of Shingon women clergy, with the first priesthood ordination of women dating back to 1872.  The number of female religious in the Japanese tantric traditions seems to have radically diminished in recent decades:  the 1970 survey of Japanese religions numbered women clergy in both traditions at about 10,000 (compared to almost 28,000 male clergy), whereas a more recent census reported that, as of December 1988, the number of Shingon ordained women was merely 954 and Tendai, 517. [55]  If these figures and the 1970 figures are accurate, the number of ordained women has decreased 85% in a mere twenty years.  However, the 1970 figures may be somewhat overestimated, and again there is this semantic issue involving a distinction between “clergy,” who may include non-ordained unsuis (nuns/monks) or those with low levels of ordination, and those who have undergone a higher level of ordination.  Hopefully, these numerical figures will be clarified in the near future... and, more importantly, that young in Japanese society will feel the call to the deeper spiritual life and be given permission to do so if they feel moved to enter such a formal religious life.  Would-be Shingon clergywomen (and men) start off with the tokudō ordination for novice priests, then work for the shidōkegyō rank (involving completion of fiercely ascetic practices); the culmination is denpo-konjo ordination (involving the tantric initiation known as abhiśeka) into full priesthood.  There are ten ranks of priesthood, the highest of which have been attained by some women, though none are known to me by name.  It seems that no women have yet been promoted to the various ranks of bishop, but this seems to be open to change in the not-so-distant future.  


The Kōyasan Niso Shudō-in is a center at Shingon headquarters on Mt. Kōyasan which ordains about a dozen female ministers each year, and some of these women do go on to head small Shingon temples in Japan, but they are greatly outnumbered by male temple-directors.  According to the letter of the law in Japanese Buddhism, female and male priests are equal, a far better situation than in most other Asian countries, but the old patriarchal bias still makes itself known in different ways, such as men being preferred as temple heads.  An American Shingon female priest, Rev. Ekō Susan Tanaka, now directing (with her Japanese husband, Rev. Jomyō Tanaka) the Mandala Buddhist Center in Lincoln, Vermont (outside of Bristol), reports that her teachers at the Koyasan Niso Shudō-in “encouraged me not to feel limited by gender, though many Japanese women priests do.” [56]  The female priests are entitled to perform all the esoteric Shingon rites, just like the male priests.  One interesting phenomenon is that, as with their male colleagues, these female Shingon priests may marry or remain celibate, and no official distinction is made between the two categories.  (During training and special spiritual practices, however, celibacy is maintained.) 


In addition to Rev. Eko Susan Tanaka, two other notable Shingon women are to be found teaching in America, though to predominantly Japanese pupils:  Mrs. Tokushō Miyake is a highly respected sensei (teacher) and ordained minister residing in the Northwest U.S.  And in Sacramento, California, Mrs. Toshie Yamamoto has founded the Daishi-kō Shingon organization.  Regardless of the fact that there may be only a relative few women leaders in Shingon, one finds, as in other traditions, a number of very devout, holy women practicing this path.  Rev. Eko Susan Tanaka and Rev. Taisen Miyata, a Shingon leader living in northern California, in his book on the Shingon Shikoku pilgrimage, tell of many such women.  Since most Shingon priests, like priests of other Japanese Buddhist traditions, tend to marry (a result of pressure from the Meiji government from 1868-1912), their wives, even though they might not be (fully) ordained, are involved in “hosting” Shingon temples with their husbands, and thereby come to have, like the jizoku-wives of Zen temple heads, the Jōdo Shin Shū wives of priests, and the Tibetan lamas’ wives (see below), no small influence in their community.


In this century there emerged in Japan a meditation movement which became affiliated with Shingon as a sect of the latter—this is Shinnyo-En, with over two million adherents worldwide.  Shinnyo-En was founded by Shinjō Ito (Kyoshu-sama, 1906-89) and his wife Tomoji Ito Yūshi (Shojuin-sama, 1912-1967), a woman with a “spiritual faculty” which had supposedly been in her family for three generations, and which she and her husband evidently were able to cultivate in some 500 of their followers (who are known as the “Reinoshas,” or “spiritual leaders,” a majority of whom are women).  With Rev. Shinjō Ito’s recent passing, his two daughters, Keishu-sama and Yoshu-sama named together the “Ryojyoe-sama,” are leading the movement, accorded tremendous honor—virtual deification—by the numerous members.  Like their parents, these two women have undergone a period of rigorous ascetic training and have developed the “spiritual faculty” for transmitting teachings and guidance allegedly from the Buddha himself. [57]


One of the oldest Mahāyāna Buddhist traditions from India is that based on the Dharma Flower scripture (the Saddharma-puṇḍarīka Sūtra [Skt.] or Hokekyō [Jap.], compiled circa 1st century C.E.).  This school, emphasizing the inherent Buddha-nature within all beings, is known in China as T’ien-t’ai Buddhism, and flourished in Japan as the Tendai-shū, established by master Dengyō Daishi (Saichō; d. 822) at Enryakuji temple on Mt. Hiei in 788.  Tendai would pick up many esoteric elements after Dengyō Daishi briefly apprenticed himself under the young Shingon leader, Kūkai/Kōbō Daishi.  The Dainihonkoku Hokekyōkenki, written between 1040-44 by Tendai priest Chingen, relates the miraculous tales of people’s association with the Dharma Flower Sūtra and with various bodhisattvas and Buddhas starting with Prince Shōtoku and Dengyō Daishi (Saichō).  The Hokekyōkenki’s hundred-plus stories primarily feature male priests and ascetics, and, especially toward the end of this work, reiterate the traditional patriarchal theme of women’s nature as inferior or as the temptress, seductress, or demoness.  Nevertheless, a handful of holy women are profiled:  the nun Sari‚ as a girl had charmed and inspired the people of Yatsushiro district with her lovely voice reciting the Hokekyō (Dharma Flower Sūtra) and Kegonkyō (Avataṃsaka [Flower-Garland] Sūtra) scriptures.  It is said that some priests were immediately killed by the Buddhist protector-spirits after insulting and slandering her on one occasion.  On another occasion when Sari came to an assembly to hear a sermon and was challenged by the lecturer—who did not approve of a woman sitting in the audience among the males (though she was in her nun’s robe)—she challenged him back, declaring that the Buddhist way is for all beings; then Sari posed many lofty questions to this fellow which he could not answer, resulting in her being viewed by the people as an awesome bodhisattva.  Gansei, the older sister of Tendai priest Genshin (d. 1017), was a nun and great ascetic who would console the lonely and donate most of her alms to the poor; like her brother she was a great reciter of the name of Amida Buddha, a practice which came into vogue around that time and would soon flourish with the spread of Pure Land Buddhism (Genshin was one of the pioneers of Pure Land Buddhism, a path which, as we shall learn in a moment, emphasizes a complete reliance on Amida Buddha, an emanation of the primordial Vairocana Buddha).  Gansei was blessed with visions of bodhisattvas Fugen and Kannon, and many people flocked to her in recognition of her sanctity.  We should note that Gansei’s mother was evidently quite venerable as well for Genshin is known to have been greatly devoted to her (in fact, in honor of her, he brought his movement to the laypeople, women as well as men—in marked contrast to the predominantly male, monkish Buddhism of Japan in those times).  Shakumyō‚ was the mother of holy man Eikan and yet another nun noted for her powerful recitation of Amida’s name.  A half-dozen laywomen—nameless, except for two women both known as “Disciple Fujiwara”—also have their tales briefly told in the Hokekyōkenki; again, these are women praiseworthy for their ardent devotion, their courage, and their steadfastness in the Buddha-way.  In modern times, Kimiko Okano, wife of Tendai priest Okano Shōdō (1900-?), founded with him at Yokohama in 1935 the Tendai lay organization known as Kōdō Kyōdan, which evangelizes on the message of the Dharma Flower Sūtra.  (Women comprised 47% of this sect’s clergy in 1970). [58]


A huge, 30-million-member religious movement in Japan based even more fervently on the Hokekyō/Dharma Flower Sūtra is that group of religious sects known as Nichiren Buddhism (also in some circles termed the “Ekayāna” or One Vehicle).  This was founded by Tendai priest Nichiren (1222-82) an arch-patriotic 13th century Japanese religious reformer seeking a firm social and spiritual order within the chaotic world of his time.  Nichiren, deified by most of the later sects which arose in his name, especially the Nichiren Shōshū sect, fanatically maintained the superiority of the Dharma Flower Sūtra over all other Buddhist works apotheosised the Japanese mantra honoring its name, Namu myōhō renge kyō (known as the Odaimoku), and strongly criticized and rejected the other spiritual paths in Japan (except Tendai, but Tendai disowned him as a heretic, and helped mobilize much of the severe persecution against Nichiren and his followers).  In spite of his fanaticism and intolerance on several issues, Nichiren was, surprisingly, quite sympathetic toward the plight of women—though, given his craving for a following, we may legitimately wonder whether this was, in part, a political strategy designed to win their sympathies and thus increase the number of his students.  In any case, Nichiren echoed the Buddha in not seeing any taboo of menstrual “pollution,” and he eagerly accepted into his fold the women devoted to the Dharma Flower Sūtra—not only the peasant women but also the good number of women from the leisure classes who, like their foremothers in the Heian period (8th-12 century), were often active in studying, reading, chanting, and expounding this beloved scripture.  The three other great spiritual leaders of the Kamakura period, Hōnen, Shinran, and Dōgen Zenji, had regarded women as equal to men, and fully capable of enlightenment; but

“Nichiren went beyond equality of the sexes.  He did not simply see women as equal to men—he praised them as women.  When other men criticized them as inconstant, he praised them for honesty.  When men answered that women had no minds of their own, Nichiren retorted that ‘women seem to be led; actually they lead.’  In his usual manner, he treated them as people first and as representatives of their sex second.  He was so impressed by the fortitude of one woman that he gave her the title ‘saint’ (shonin).  This was no nun, either, but the abandoned mother of a small child—a ‘woman of the world.’” [59]


In terms of individual women leaders within the Nichiren schools, we do not find any among the original Six Senior Disciples or the other early branch leaders (—all were Buddhist priests).  Almost all the offshoot sects of Nichiren Buddhism arising over the centuries have been founded and led by males, with two notable exceptions, which we will discuss in a moment.  In the early 17th century, Lady Oman no-Kata, concubine of Tokugawa Ieyasu, mother of his two sons, and a daughter of a man who became a Nichiren Buddhist priest, was one of Japan’s first “feminists” and staunch supporter of Nichirenism:  she came to prominent attention for her fortitude in preparing to commit suicide if the shogun carried out his desire to crucify Nichion, the chief priest at the head Nichiren-Shū temple of Kuon-ji at Mt. Minobu in Yamanashi prefecture.  Through her bravery, Nichion was spared.  Lady Oman no-Kata then became his chief benefactress, and built for him and for Nichiren Shū a number of gorgeous temples, as well as endowing various projects.  Not only this...  she was the first woman to defy the rules and climb holy Mount Shichimen near Mt. Minobu (unlike Minobu, and like most of the holy mountains in Japan, Mt. Shichimen was traditionally “off-limits” to women).  She climbed it twice more, and today a statue of Lady Oman dressed in her mantra-inscribed pilgrimage costume can be found by the sacred waterfall at the base of the mountain.  


Two women prominent in the Nichiren stream of modern times are Kotani Kimi, co-foundress of Reiyūkai Kyōdan, and Naganuma Myōkō, co-foundress of one of its many offshoot groups, Risshō Kōsei-kai.  These are the third and second largest Nichiren-affiliated sects in Japan, respectively, with three million members for the former, and six million for the latter.  Kotani Kimi (1901-71), born to an impoverished farmer, lost her father at age 4, and then her first husband; a housemaid with a fifth-grade education, she married Yasukichi Kotani, older brother of Kakutarō Kubo who had organized Reiyūkai (“Spiritual Friendship Society”), which at that point was only being practiced by a few souls.  (Note that Kakutarō Kubo had originally started a prototype of the Reiyūkai movement back in 1919 with a woman spiritualist faith-healer, Wakatsuki Chise [1884-1971], whom he had met while on spiritual retreat at the esoteric, mystically oriented Nichiren temple, Nakayama Hokekyōji.  Chise and Kubo split in the mid-1920s, with her group ultimately changing its name to Hochikai Kyōdan in the 1930s.)  Kimi Kotani was urged by Kubo to strenuously practice Reiyūkai—that is, recite the Dharma Flower Sūtra, chant the mantra, Namu Myōhō Renge Kyō, and honor her ancestors—on behalf of her husband when the latter fell ill in the mid-1920s.  When he soon recovered, she became a “true believer,” and, full of enthusiasm, she single-handedly converted an entire neighborhood of needy folks in the slums of Arakawa Ward, Tokyo, primarily through her example of feeding, clothing, washing, and in certain cases actually healing them through her spiritual faith.  When her husband died in 1929, Kimi became a fulltime advocate for the nondogmatic, deeply experiential Reiyūkai movement, which sees all of us as intimately connected with souls living, deceased and yet unborn.  Kimi’s efforts sparked a rapid increase in converts of all walks of life, and she was made Honorary President of the movement when it was officially incorporated the next year.  After Kubo’s passing in 1944, Kimi headed the movement until her own death 27 years later.  Among other things, she presided over the sizeable Reiyūkai pep rallies at the headquarters in Tokyo and built the large, beautiful Mirokusan temple on Mt. Togasayama, a temple dedicated to the future Buddha Maitreya (Japanese: Miroku), and not run by priests, but by the laity.  Kimi was succeeded by Kubo’s young son, Tsugunari Kubo, whose upbringing Kimi had strictly supervised.  An energetic and obviously dedicated woman, who considered it the principal task of every Buddhist to perform frequent acts of mercy and compassion to the needy as well as recruit new members, Kimi Kotani, unlike the elder and younger Kubo gentlemen, could also be tactless and intolerant with some of the people holding responsible positions in her own organization; people either worshipped or hated her.  Quite a few left to found offshoot Reiyūkai groups, mainly due to her temper—a fact admitted by the genial Tsugunari Kubo.  Two important Reiyūkai women in recent times are Tsugunari Kubo’s wife, Katsuko Kubo, who is the author of several best-selling books on the Reiyūkai faith; and Gloria Crable‚ of San Diego, California, daughter of a Japanese diplomat, survivor of the Hiroshima atomic blast, and now wife to an American businessman; Mrs. Crable is a skilled concert pianist as well as a contagiously enthusiastic faith-healer and psychic who has brought many more American members to Reiyūkai than anyone in the official leadership.  In 1980, however, she departed the organization, due to differences with the head office.


Naganuma Myōkō (1889-1957) and Niwano Nikkyō (1906-99) two leading members of Reiyūkai under the tutelage of Reiyūkai sage Sukenobu Arai, were, like their mentor, fervently devoted to the Dharma Flower Sūtra.  In 1938 the two left the movement when this scripture was being somewhat de-emphasized by Kimi Kotani and when they could no longer align with the over-arching emphasis on ancestor-worship as practiced by Reiyūkai.  The name of their new movement, which bore many resemblances to the parent group, was Risshō Kōsei-kai.  It was powered by the ardent organizer and theoretician, Niwano, a joyous milkman who had been an adept of several mystical traditions before he came to Reiyūkai, and by the charismatic, clairvoyant healer, Myōkō, who herself had been healed by Niwano some years earlier.  Just as she had mobilized many converts for Reiyūkai (sometimes as many as 50 a day—her husband amicably left his zealot wife in the process), so she would now do the same for their new movement, which started out with thirty defectors from Reiyūkai and within 35 years had over four million adherents (today it numbers some six million). 


It should be known that the Kōsei-kai, unlike Reiyūkai and Nichiren Shōshū/Sōka Gakkai (see below), does not much like to use a heavily proselytizing approach (shakubuku) to win new members, but, like Jōdo Shinshū and other more mature movements, prefers to persuade by loving example (shoju).  Myōkō, Vice-President of the Kōsei-kai, was a woman claiming to receive divine revelations from the kamis, or beings of the spirit world, and the content of these often imposed severe discipline and ascetic practices on both the leaders and members.  (For instance, fasting was commonly prescribed; and once Niwano’s wife and children were urged to go live away from Niwano for a period of ten years.)  Niwano sometimes would not go along with these “revelations” from the kamis when they seemed to deviate too much from Buddhist principles.  For a while it seemed that the Kōsei-kai might become merely a personality-cult for the older Myōkō; a few years before her death she and some of her followers actually demoted Niwano to number two position, and then even tried to start a new organization without him, but her health began to fail and the schism was aborted; Niwano and Myōkō patched up their differences and resumed the deep friendship they had previously enjoyed.  I would mention that back in 1949, due to an increased interest in “Patriach Nichiren,” Niwano affiliated the Kōsei-kai with the Nichiren-shū at Mt. Minobu as a missionary arm, but Niwano and Myōkō a year later severed connections with Nichiren-shū for what they perceived as a rather mediocre level of spirituality in its branch-temples.  Now the Kōsei-kai, led by the aged, always-affable Niwano (one of the most widely beloved and honored Buddhist leaders of the latter 20th century) is less “Nichiren”-oriented, and has in fact moved to cultivate friendship ties with the Tendai-shū.  Indeed, it is one of the most ecumenically oriented religious sects in the world, often contacting other religions for discussion, usually in the person of Niwano himself.  Risshō Kōsei-kai bases itself not only on the Dharma Flower Sūtra and chanting of its sacred title, but, especially since the renewal of Niwano’s leadership, away from the spirit world and more on the original fundamentals of Indian Buddhist doctrine (e.g., the Triple Refuge of Buddha, Dharma, and Saṅgha, the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, the karmic law of cause and effect, etc.) which members ponder during their local Buddhist group-therapy and discussion sessions known as hoza


Risshō Kosei-kai (whose Great Central Hall at the headquarters in Tokyo is one of the largest religious buildings in Asia) has dedicated itself not only to the perfection, enlightenment, and eventual Buddhahood of the individual, but also, with its mass meetings and parades, to the promotion of a utopian world.  Women clergy have a prominent role in this movement, outnumbering males by a factor of two (in 1970, there were 2,130 women to 1,015 men).  Nevertheless, it will not be a woman who is the next president of Risshō Kōsei-kai; Niwano’s oldest son, Nichiko, has been appointed President-designate to succeed his father.

With a tendency for discord and fission since its earliest years, the Nichiren movement today comprises 37 Nichiren organizations, largest of which from 1960 to late 1991 was the Nichiren Shōshū (“Orthodox Nichiren Sect”), headquartered at Taisekiji temple at the base of Mt. Fuji.  Nichiren Shōshū is the modern-day name for the first offshoot from the Nichiren-shū created by Nikkō, one of the six Senior Disciples, in 1290.  Nichiren Shōshū, the most doctrinally rigid sect, and the one which has most exalted Nichiren, identifying him with the Absolute and regarding Shakyamuni Buddha as having much lesser status, has now become the largest Nichiren group.  This is remarkable, considering that in the late 1920s, Nichiren Shōshū had only 85,000 adherents; yet by the 1970s, Nichiren Shōshū claimed 16 million adherents, making it, along with the two branches of Jōdo Shinshū, the most popular religion in all Japan next to Shrine Shinto (to which many Buddhists belong—Japanese, like Chinese, have traditionally “belonged” to several religions at the same time).  While neither Shinto nor Jōdo Shinshū proselytize, Nichiren Shōshū, the most fanatic of all the Nichiren groups, in the 1950s found its numbers dramatically burgeoning due to the very heavy proselytizing and pressure-tactics of an even more fanatic movement affiliated with it, the Sōka Gakkai, a laypersons’ organization led by Jōsei Toda (1901-58), friend of the deceased Tsunesaburō Makiguchi (1871-1944) who founded Sōka Gakkai in 1930.  Toda reassembled Sōka Gakkai after the war to become a prosperity-oriented, whirlwind enthusiasm-sect, which claimed one million families as members by the late 1950s, when Toda died.  Led since then by the rather dictatorial layman, Daisaku Ikeda (who, like Nichiren, has been virtually deified by his followers), Sōka Gakkai has increased its numbers an estimated sevenfold.  Outside of Japan, Nichiren Buddhism has also been dominated in its representation by Sōka Gakkai/Nichiren Shōshū, which claims some 1.26 million devotees in more than 100 countries.  In the U.S., Sōka Gakkai International-U.S.A. (SGI-USA, formerly, Nichiren Shoshu of America [NSA]) claims a quarter of a million devotees, almost all laypersons.  But in the wake of recent events, all this now seems likely to change.  Sōka Gakkai has long had a stormy association with the priests of Nichiren Shōshū; last year, the priests at Nichiren Shōshū head temple at Taisekiji deposed Ikeda. Toward the end of 1991, Sōka Gakkai, and its highly influential and often corrupt political arm, the Kōmeitō, were finally excommunicated by Nichiren Shōshū head priest Nikken Abe, a move which thereby instantly and radically reduced the membership figures for Nichiren Shōshū and threatened the future of Sōka Gakkai.  As an independent Nichiren movement for laity, it seems probable that it will lose a sizeable percentage of its membership without the support of the Nichiren Shōshū priests, who are necessary for performing funerals and for consecrating the gohonzon in front of which every devotee chants the mantra Nam-myōhō-renge-kyō.  (The gohonzon is the sacred maṇḍala scroll put on one’s altar-shrine; the Nichiren Shōshū gohonzons are copies of the great Dai-gohonzon at Taisekiji, said by members of the Nichiren Shōshū sect to express the actual physical presence of Nichiren—just as the Eucharist for Catholics is said to be the literal body of Christ).  In the wake of these problems, many Sōka Gakkai members have indeed already left to join other Nichiren sects. 


In 1970, only one clergywoman (compared to 328 clergymen) was to be found in the 16 million-strong Nichiren Shōshū in Japan.  Yet outside Japan—for instance, in America—most Sokka Gakkai/Nichiren Shōshū female members are strongly involved in fulfilling the “recruiting quotas” with ardent proselytizing (shakubuku) and the giving of impassioned testimonials to the magical power of their mantra and the gohonzon.  And women, along with men, do a lot of the vernacular song and dance productions to keep the level of enthusiasm at fever pitch.  On an organizational level, in each country, the rather martial-looking Sōka Gakkai is structured into a Men’s Division, Young Men’s Division, Women’s Division and Young Women’s Division.  Members from the male groups are usually given more responsibility than are their female peers in terms of leadership position.  In a few countries outside Japan, an experienced female has become the leader of the Sōka Gakkai when no “capable” male is present.  This has been true for some years in Canada (where a Japanese woman, Helen Izumi, has led the SGI-Canada), in Panama, and in a few other places.  Female Sōka Gakkai members in many countries where feminist, egalitarian mores have arisen are hoping that women will be given more leadership power on the basis of their capability, not simply when there is a gap in male leadership. [60]   


Though the Nichiren Shōshū/Sokka Gakkai movement has in this way been rather sexist, the rest of the Nichiren movement features a great number of women clergy.  The 1970 Japanese religion survey indicated 9,193 clergywomen, fully 35% of the total number of Nichiren clergy; clergywomen were fairly well represented in most of the Nichiren sects, and in 14 of the 37 organizations, female clergy actually outnumbered males; this included the second largest group (Risshō Kōsei Kai, 2,130 clergywomen to 1,015 clergymen), the fifth largest (Bussho Gonenkai Kyōdan, 2,490 clergywomen, 2,084 men), and sixth largest (Myōchikai Kyōdan, 746 clergywomen, 720 men).  No more recent figures on the number of Nichiren clergywomen are available to me except for a partial 1988 statistic indicating that clergywomen of the original Nichiren-shū numbered 903, an increase from the 1970 figure (518 clergywomen, or 7.6% of the total).  My sense is that with the increasing numbers of adherents for Nichiren Buddhism since the war, the number of female Nichiren clergy is probably not declining, as it is for the other Buddhist sects.  I have no data about these various Nichiren clergywomen except for some facts on Rev. Chikō Kōmatsu, formerly a superstar of the opera and dancing world who left her glamorous world to become a nun of an unspecified Nichiren sect; now Rev. Kōmatsu is the well-known abbess of the Jakkōin nunnery on the outskirts of Kyōto.  Rev. Kōmatsu has traveled to India a number of times, has written numerous books on the application of Buddhism in daily life, and has taken on a number of younger disciples for instruction. [61] 


Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism is a widespread Japanese lay-movement, and largest of the two dozen “Pure Land” sects which began to arise during the Kamakura period (12th-14th century).  It is part of a devotional Buddhist movement which dawned in China centurie before, and relies totally on the saving grace of Amida Buddha (Skt.: Amitābha)—the “emanation Buddha” of the Western direction.  Jōdo Shinshū (with its two branches) has around 14 million members and is thus once again the most popular Buddhist sect in Japan in the wake of the recent shake-up with Nichiren Shōshū Buddhism.  The strongly devotional, heart-centered Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism is based on the radical “Other Power” (tariki) teachings of Shōnin Shinran (1173-1262)—in contrast to Zen and Theravāda, which emphasize the need for a persistent self-effort (jiriki).  In Jōdo Shinshū, which tends to appeal more to the older, more mature Japanese individual (the parading, pep-rallying Nichiren sects draw more young people) a tremendous humbleness prevails, and no one, male or female, cares to be singled out as “special” or “saintly” (though historically there has been some competition among the males over the line of Abbothood, and there is now an ordained clergy of over 30,000).  In Jōdo Shinshū, Amida Buddha is felt to bestow liberating grace equally upon all, and the patriarchal relationship of “exalted master” teaching “needy disciple” is not promoted (as it is in certain other schools of Buddhism and in Hinduism, Sūfism, and Judaism).  As Hōnen Shōnin (1133-1212), Shinran’s master (and founder of the Jōdo Shū sect), stated:  “There shall be no distinction, no regard to male or female, good or bad, exalted or lowly; none shall fail to be in his [Amida’s] Land of Purity after they have called, with complete faith, on Amida” (yet a sexist element decrees that females are first transformed into males before entering Amida’s “Pure Land” Western Paradise!).


Just as early Buddhism valued clear-minded mentors (Pali: kalyāna-mitta, or “noble friends”), so also the egalitarianism of Jōdo Shinshū still allows for the honoring of a number of pure souls whose teachings or exemplary lives have been greatly cherished.  These are the myōkonin, “lay saints,” a number of whom have been women.  Osōno (1774-1853), a peasant woman, is one of the most popular myōkonin for Japanese Pure Land members today, though very little is known about her other than the fact that she lived simply in that wonderful kind of “divine ignorance” and complete reliance on Amida. Two women were especially important for early Jōdo Shinshū Buddhism:  these are Shinran’s wife, Eshin-ni, who carried on his work in the Echigo Province after he moved to Kyōto in his old age; and his youngest daughter, Kakushin-ni (d. 1283) highly influential in the development of Jōdo Shinshū as an ongoing tradition, in that it was she who built and presided over the mausoleum-shrine to Shinran at Otani, Kyōto, which became a focal point for his disciples.  Moreover, it was from Kakushin-ni’s first son, Kakue, that Honpa Honganji, the main line of Jōdo Shinshū, developed (this lineage split in the late 16th century, and Eastern and Western Honganji lines emerged).  


Whereas the various lineages of Jōdo Shinshū have been patriarchal, passed on from father to eldest son (or to a later son, grandson or nephew in some cases), many wives/mothers, as in the Zen tradition, have taken the first level of ordination (tokudō) into ministry so as to be able to shoulder responsibility for heading the temple in the temporary absence of a male leader.  I am told that the second level of ordination (kyōshi), which allows one to preach and head a temple, apparently has not been available for these Pure Land women in Japan, because of that longstanding pan-Asian cultural bias favoring male leadership.  However, some women from the U.S. have received in Japan the second level of ordination and have returned here to teach.  These include Rev. Carol Himaka, Director of Education at San Francisco’s Buddhist Churches of America (U.S. headquarters), and Rev. Rebecca MacDonald of Seabrook Buddhist Temple in New Jersey, as well as four women ministers in Hawaii.  In Kyōto there is a Nuns’ Training Institute belonging to the Pure Land school, reopened recently (after a lack of applicants forced it to close down in the 1960s), directed by Rev. Tesshō Kondō.  She recently estimated that there are about 700 nuns (or female religious) in 500 Pure Land temples.  (The 1970 survey claimed that over 2,300 of the nearly 30,000 Jōdō Shinshū clergy were women, and that 700 clergywomen could be found among the 8,145 clergy of the Jōdo-shū, the parent Pure Land organization founded by Hōnen, which in 1970 claimed 5.8 million adherents; thus, if all these figures are correct, the number of women clergy has been diminishing in Pure Land Buddhism as well as in the Zen and most other Japanese Buddhist traditions.)  There have been a number of Jōdo Shinshū women in this century, starting with Baroness Takeko Kujo (1887-1928) and countess Kazuko Otani (d. 1912), who have established or presided over women’s lay-Buddhist organizations (fujinkai), such groups now being associated with most of the Jōdō Shinshū congregations. [62]


We pause here to learn of a Japanese survey which declared that, as of December 1988, there were 11,203 ordained Buddhist women in Japan, comprising 11.4% of the total Buddhist clergy (97,900).  The 1970 survey figures available to me indicated 25,025 women clergy out of 132,439 total clergy (18.8%), which suggests what we have already suspected—that the number of women clergy are rapidly diminishing.  According to the 1988 figure, the largest group of female ordainees, curiously, was found in the “lay-movement” of Jōdo Shinshū, with 7,907 (this number undoubtedly includes those wives and mothers with first-level tokudō ordination).  Regarding other Buddhist schools, about which we shall learn more in a moment, Shingon-shū, the Japanese Buddhist tantra tradition, was a distant second in its number of ordained women (954), followed by Nichiren-shū (903), Jōdo-shū (702), Tendai-shū (517), and the rest of the women belonging mainly to the Zen tradition (chiefly Sōto Zen, followed by Rinzai and Obaku Zen).  (There are problems with these numbers, since the “rest of the women” would number only 230, and yet an earlier-cited figure from 1984 indicates over 2,000 Zen women-clergy in Japan; of course, these numbers may have diminished somewhat in the four or more years’ time between the two censuses, but most likely not by 90%!  The number of Zen “women-clergy” among the figure of 2,000 given earlier probably includes many “non-ordained” unsuis, or nuns of the first-level.) [63]   


A primary way for women to achieve any clearcut spiritual leadership status in Japan has been through a visionary/psychic and/or ascetic/healer role as a kind of “shamaness” or miko within one of the forms of Shinto religion or one of the Shinto/Buddhist-influenced “new religions.”  Women shamanesses have in fact colored Japanese history from its earliest stages:  a Chinese chronicle, the Wei Chih (c.3rd century BCE), tells of the people of Wa (Japan) and a prominent female shaman-queen named Pimiko or Himiko:  “she remained unmarried, rendered service to deities which conferred upon her a special power to bewitch people, and remained secluded in her large, solemn and heavily guarded palace, only one man attending upon her and transmitting her words.”  There is evidence from 200 CE of a number of priestess-shamaness women ruling some of the clan-states, and a mass of evidence suggests that early Japan was politically-structured as a matriarchy.  Remember, too, that from ancient times, the foremost deity of Japan, and spiritual head of the imperial line, is the sun-goddess Amaterasu.  She heads the pantheon of kamis, or spirits, which includes a large constellation of benevolent, heroic human ancestor spirits, and spirits of mountains, streams, forests, animals, etc., honored at the various Shinto shrines, to which many Buddhist practitioners also come for prayers and blessings.  (Some of the anthropomorphic descriptions of Amaterasu, such as in chapter fourteen of the Kojiki, are believed by scholars to actually be descriptions of female miko possessed by Amaterasu.)  In pre-historic Japan, the miko was prominent not only in the court (Empress Jingo is another name to be mentioned here as a prominent shamanic medium) but “in virtually every village community with its own tutelary deity.”  Carmen Blacker, a leading authority on Japanese shamanism, informs us:

“The oldest shamanic figure of which we have any record is the Shinto miko.  This powerful sacral woman—the term ‘female shaman’ conveys only feebly the probable majesty of her presence—served in shrines throughout the land in the late prehistoric period as the mouthpiece for numina of certain kinds.  She was to be found in the Emperor’s court transmitting the admonitions and instructions of deities to the Emperor himself, as well as in villages remote from the central Yamato plain where she acted as the link between the local tutelary kami and the villagers under his care.  ... Among the human haniwa figures so far excavated several have been confidently identified as ‘female shamans.’  ...Most of the miko’s instruments may ... be seen as summoners of deities, as magical means of establishing contact with the spirit world and of luring the deity to descend into the sacralised space made ready to receive him [i.e., the sacred sand-garden enclosure, or saniwa].”


According to Dr. Blacker and other scholars, “like the Japanese race, language and mythology, shamanism in Japan is of mixed origin.”  There were two streams of shamanism, a northern stream, deriving from Altaic or Tungusic practices of Siberia, which spread throughout Korea and the islands to the east, and this shamanism mingled with another stream from a southerly source, Polynesia or Melanesia.  The northern stream of shamanism that had come into this region became, for some inexplicable reason, dominated by women—these are the Korean son-mudang, the Ainu tsusu of Hokkaido island (northern Japan), and the yuta of the Ryūkyū islands (southern Japan).  “Sacral power was believed to reside more easily and properly in women... women were recognised to be the natural intermediaries between the two worlds [of heaven and earth].”  For example, in the Ryūkyū Islands (Nansei-Shotō) at the southern end of the Japanese archipelago, where neither Buddhism nor Shintoism but rather an ancient shamanism flourishes down to this day, shedding light on practices and beliefs which have long since disappeared in Japan, only women shamans can be priests and perform the various sacred rites.  Blacker explains what anthropologists have found in these islands:


“Magic power similar to that inhering in the kami, was in the Ryūkyū controlled and invoked only by women.  A man who required such power for the exercise of his office, and secular offices were usually held by men was entirely dependent on a woman relative for its acquisition.  Usually this woman was his sister: it was his sister who conferred such power upon him, and replenished it once it became depleted. Nakahara Zenchū believed that the women who originally controlled this power were shamans, who received their own power by supernatural gift strengthened by ascesis and ritual seclusion.  Today, however, this original shamanic woman seems to have split into two kinds.  In the first place we have the nuru or noro, a majestic sacral woman, a priestess who exercises spiritual power over her village or group of villages.  Until some sixty years ago her life was one strictly regulated by the demands of ritual purity.  She was forbidden to marry, she avoided funerals and houses where a death had occurred.  Even today she does not sleep with her husband during ceremonial periods, nor does she perform rituals during her period of menstruation.  She possesses a personal kami who is in fact the apotheosis of her own ancestors, and who provides her with a direct link with the spirit world.  Her residence is a shrine where these ancestors have their [memorial] tablets and where her special panoply of clothes, which includes a necklace of magatama beads and sometimes a bronze drum are kept.  In former times she used to travel to the villages under her jurisdiction on a white horse, accompanied by a male acolyte. All these signs are immediately reminiscent of the ancient miko...  For some centuries, however, the nuru has exercised her sacral functions without any recourse to trance.  Her communication with spiritual beings, and her exercise of the magic power deriving from them, is accepted as possible without any altered state of consciousness.  The women who possess the capacity for trance, and who are consequently called shamans are humbler personages known as yuta.  The yuta evince all the characteristic marks of the shaman.  Before her supernatural call to the sacred life, she is afflicted by symptoms of sickness ... Loss of appetite hallucinations, terrifying dreams skin trouble, headaches, failing eyesight, and periods of disassociation of personality are the usual lot of the incipient yuta.  Once the supernatural call is made to them, however, and once they accept the new life which is thrust upon them the symptoms disappear and give way to powers of clairvoyance clairaudience, and possession, all the equipment in short, to discern the causes of human misfortune when these lie in the spirit world.  It is now considered that these two kinds of sacral women, the nuru and the yuta were originally one.  The shamanic woman in the Ryūkyū islands possessed both the dignity and majesty of authority and the characteristically shamanic powers of healing and divining through the medium of trance.  When the office of nuru became a hereditary one however her faculty of trance passed from her, to be carried on by lowlier women who were endowed with the true shamanic sickness initiation and subsequent gifts.

     “The ancient miko may well have resembled the ancient nuru in the Ryūkyū.  She was not only a majestic figure invested with spiritual authority, whose life was set apart and sealed off from the sources of pollution... [s]he was also a natural shaman experiencing the characteristic initiatory sickness supernatural call to the sacred life and subsequent magic powers which enabled her to act as a bridge between the human world and the world of spirits.” 


With the introduction of Buddhist and Chinese thought the miko lost much of her status:

“The miko as a mantic person [one who makes divinations] was banished from the court and the large shrines and relegated to the “little tradition” of religion in Japan.  On this largely non-literate level ... we find that this majestic sacral woman is replaced by humbler figures. ... Until the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868 there were bands of miko to be met with virtually all over Japan.  Many of these women were loosely affiliated to large shrines and lived in enclaves known as miko-mura miko villages.  From these bases they would set out at stated seasons of the year on long peripatetic journeys like strolling minstrels delivering prophesies and messages from the dead in the villages through which they passed.  The women known as Kumano-bikuni for example whose base was the Jippōin temple at Nachi ... were venerated as oracles all over the country.  [Other examples were the ichiko of Edo district and the Shinano-miko of Osaka.]  These activities were summarily suppressed however, by a directive from the Meiji government in 1873 ... [decreeing] that all miko who deluded the people by professing to deliver messages from the dead were henceforth forbidden to practise their calling. ... In theory this prohibition lasted until 1945, when General MacArthur’s Religious Bodies Law allowed the Japanese people for the first time for seventy years freedom to worship as they pleased, to form what religious bodies they pleased, and to carry on what religious activities they pleased.  A good many miko who had until then practised their calling only furtively and in secret thereupon began to find their way back into the acknowledged life of the folk religion.  The fact that they had survived at all, despite the legal prohibitions bears witness to the strength of their position in rural Japan.  Today thirty years later, their numbers are still more drastically depleted by the encroachments of modern life.”


Shinto religion benefitted tremendously in 1869 when the new Meiji government exalted it as the state religion and disestablished Buddhism.  Ever since then down through the Taisho and Showa periods, Shinto shrines and sects have enjoyed huge increases in the numbers of people affiliating with them (though many of these people have retained their adherence to Buddhism as well). Moreover, numerous Shinto-affiliated new religions have sprung up.  An important role is played by women in this diverse Shinto phenomenon.  The 1970 Japanese religion survey indicated 2,751 women clergy in the huge, 60-million member “Shrine Shinto” (compared to 20,889 clergymen); 20,601 clergywomen (cf. 27,354 clergymen) in “Sect Shinto” (which has 6.1 million members overall); and 2,617 clergywomen (cf. 3,646 clergymen) in “New Sect Shinto” (which has 1.8 million members overall).  Charismatic women leaders and/or shamanesses have been especially active in the formation of the “new religions”—many of which can be classified as Sect Shinto or New Sect Shinto groups.  These “new religions” (shinkō shūkyō) have arisen as a by-product of the upheaval in Japanese society which began to occur from shortly before the Meiji period on down through the years of war and recent decades of rapid urbanization and social instability.  (These new religions have arisen in three main waves, in the middle of the last century, in the 1920s and 1930s, and immediately upon the end of World War II; the number of these new religions is, in recent years, growing at a fantastic rate—according to the Japanese Ministry of Culture, there are 230,000 registered religions in Japan, the vast majority of these being new religions, offshoots from Shinto and Buddhism.  A new Japanese religious sect is currently being born every 2« days!  And women are starting the majority of these.) 


Famous examples within the Shinto stream of these women shamanesses-foundresses, often termed ikigami, “living goddesses,” are Nakayama Miki, foundress of Tenrikyō; Deguchi Nao, co-foundress of Omoto-kyō; Fukada Ichi, foundress of Ennōkyō; Kitamura Sayo, foundress of Tenshō Kōtai Jingūkyō; and Nagaoka Yoshiko, foundress of Jiu.  A few further details concerning the first four of these women kyōso (foundresses) can be given:


Nakayama Miki (1798-1887) underwent a traumatic marriage at age 13 to a man she did not like, was bullied by her mother-in-law, and then lost two of her four children.  While trying to heal a painful condition afflicting another child in 1837, Miki went into a deep trance state for three days, speaking as a channel for the entity Ten-no-Shōgun, identifying itself as God (Oyagami) and demanding that her body be its shrine (Miki was released from her immobile trance only when her husband consented to surrender her to Ten-no-Shōgun).  Miki thereafter adopted a life of increasingly strict poverty, finally giving away all of the family property in the process (including the component parts of their house).  She was found to have a remarkable ministry for spiritual healing, which, along with the organizational skills of one Izō Iburi, allowed her Tenrikyō movement to grow rapidly.  Over a fifteen year period starting from 1869 onward she composed, largely through automatic writing, an enormously long poem, the Ofudesaki.  The Tenrikyō sect is based on realization of yokigurashi (the joyous life) through eradication of hokori (negative qualities), and was finally approved and rather misleadingly classified by the government as one of the 13 official new Shinto sects in 1908.  It is now one of the largest of the new religions of Japan, with over 2 million adherents, and over 72,000 clergywomen (compared to only 50,000 male clergy).  Deguchi Nao (1836-1918) was a peasant woman who, after enduring abject poverty, the loss of four of her eleven children, the death of a drunkard husband, and mental disorders in several of her children, had the first of her many divine revelations in 1892 from the deity Ushitora-no-Konjin during a violent trance state.  She would thereafter frequently go into similar trance conditions, wandering round the town roaring at the top of her voice, behavior which led to her being arrested and confined to her room for forty days—after which she quieted down.  Her large number of automatic writings—contained in the immense Ofudesaki, written over a 27 year period—outlined a utopian society, inspired many dissident farmers to join her new religion of Omoto-kyō, and influenced the rise of a number of other new religions.  Like Miki, Nao became a healer.  Nao’s daughter Sumi (1883-1952) and adopted son Onasiburo Deguchi (1871-1948) worked with her to develop and systematize her teachings, organize the adherents, and construct a worship center for the rapidly growing sect at Ayabe in Kyoto prefecture.  Curiously, Onasiburo Deguchi, who married Sumi, was said by Omoto hagiographers to have had “a woman’s spirit in a man’s body,” just as Neguchi Nao was regarded as being “a man’s spirit in a woman’s body.”  Onasiburo passed on the leadership of Omoto to his daughter Naohi DeguchiFukada Ichi (1887-1925), after a deep mystical experience in 1919, became active in succoring the people through faith-healing and helping them avoid misfortune through her power of prophecy.  Her disciples organized Ennōkyō after her death as a way of carrying on her spiritual teachings and faith healing work.  (Ennōkyō women clergy outnumber men 1,669 to 567.)  Kitamura Sayo (1900-67), foundress of Tenshō Kōtai Jingukyō (sometimes called the Dancing Religion), revered by her followers as “Ogamisama,” early in life endured a marriage rendered nightmarish by a cruel mother-in-law who often starved her and deprived her of sleep; the woman even refused to let Ogamisama have any help during childbirth.  Ogamisama took up a number of ascetic religious practices, and in 1944 began to experience a series of apocalyptic “divine revelations” from a snake-like entity, Tōbyō, whom she felt lived within her body.  Its advice was always good, but if she disobeyed its commands, she was racked with pain.  In time, simply by opening her mouth the sermons and songs would pour forth.  The voice was remarkably crude in tone and content, and the formerly demure Ogamisama took to wearing a man’s suit so as to appear less incongruous when it ushered forth!  Becoming widely known as a faith healer, divine miracle worker, and prophetess, her new religion was eventually headquartered at Tabuse in Yamaguchi prefecture.  Here she gave several daily discourses, “punctuated by bursts of extempore song,” considered to be revelations from the male-female God and Goddess aspects, with herself as the deified member of this trinity.  She went on a grueling worldwide tour in 1964, visiting some 36 countries and speaking three times a day.  After her passing in 1967, she was succeeded by her granddaughter, Kiyokazu Kitamura, who is revered as “Himegamisama.”  


Other women have inherited leadership of new religious movements in Japan.  The founder of Mahikari, Kōtama Yoshikazu Okada (1901-74), venerated by his followers as Sukuinushisama (Great Savior), is said to have passed on the spiritual leadership of his increasingly popular, if superstitious and ultra-nationalistic healing movement to his daughter, Sachikō, who now goes by the name of Keiju Okada, and became more reverently known by her 400,000 followers as Keijusama or Oshienushisama, after she took over leadership role in 1978. She has continued her father’s work of preaching, writing, healing, and “purifying” her followers, based at the central shrine at Takayama, Japan.  Her leadership of Mahikari was challenged by a male leader, Sekiguchi Sakae, who directs a second, smaller Mahikari group in Japan.  


Reiki (well known to Westerners) is a potent laying-on-of-hands spiritual healing movement—though not really a religion—started by Mikao Usui of Kyōto in the early 20th century.  Reiki leadership was transmitted to his chief disciple, Dr. Chujiro Hayashi of Tōkyō; the latter gentleman passed the lineage on to an Hawaiian woman, Hawayo Takata (1900-80), who single-handedly kept the tradition alive during World War II and spread it throughout the U.S.  Most of the twenty-two people she has trained to the level of “Master Practitioner,” starting with Virginia Samdahl, are women.  Takata’s granddaughter, Phyllis Lei Furumoto, is the Grand Master of the Reiki Alliance, while another female disciple, Barbara Weber Ray, has started up the American International Reiki Association.


With regard to the Japanese new religions, the 1970 census showed over 81,000 clergywomen, almost 60% of the total number, and most of these women were on an equal par with male clergy.  This is a significant development in Japanese society.


In passing, I would say that the Japanese “new religions,” like their “new age” counterparts in the U.S., are usually quite eclectic and syncretic. They re-interpret and re-combine older elements of the Japanese Buddhist and Shinto religious heritage.  Involving devotion to God, gods (kami), and/or the human spiritual leader, a number of them are also sometimes rather “magical” and “this-worldly” (“uni-level,” in Richard Anthony’s parlance)—mainly oriented toward the healing of body and emotions and the achieving of material prosperity and some kind of ideal society; thus, they often have had little to do with Buddhist traditions of enlightenment, though influenced to a certain extent by this tradition.  Nevertheless, for our purposes we do well to know that many of the leaders of these movements are clearly persons of great sanctity, charisma, and courage. 


A good number of charismatic, brave and holy Japanese women ascetics can be found in recent decades, in some cases loosely affiliated with a Buddhist or Shinto sect.  Blacker tells of the generic type of woman ascetic,


“who is a professional healer and exorcist.  She lives all the year round in her own house which is at the same time a temple to her tutelary deity, leaving the place only to make a seasonal visit to the headquarters of the Buddhist sect to which she is affiliated and perhaps take part in a seasonal [holy] mountain climb.  In her own house every day she receives the stream of patients who come to her complaining of a variety of symptoms, physical and mental, which they attribute to malignant spiritual possession and which they expect her, as a result of the austerities she has undergone to cure.  An enclave of such women lives in the southern suburbs of Kyoto in the district of Sagano.  Others congregate round Mt Miwa not far from Nara.  Others under the peculiar name of gomiso are to be discovered further north in Aomori prefecture in the district of Mt Iwaki. Again, in contrast to these static ascetics there can still be found a few men and women who spend the greater part of their time in peripatetic wandering.  ... They accomplish most of their healing in the course of long wandering journeys.  Sometimes these follow the prescribed course of recognised pilgrimage routes, the Eighty-eight Places of Shikoku or the Thirty-three Places of the Western Provinces.  At other times they set out allegedly at the behest of their tutelary deity without any idea of a goal or a preordained route walking every day where they feel their guardian numen will take them.  These people [are] now less commonly found than the static type.”


Blacker has profiled several women ascetics of both static and traveling categories, whom she met on her travels to Japan in the 1960s and 1970s:  Mrs. Sasanuma in the early 1970s was presiding at her temple in Fukakusa village at the foot of Inariyama at Fushimi.  Many years before, in despair over an incurable illness afflicting her son, she received a radiant dream vision of goddess Kishibojin who promised to save the boy.  The next day his sickness had completely vanished.  Kishibojin urged Mrs. Sasanuma to undertake many austerities (gyō), including pilgrimages on foot to temples and shrines all over Japan, Zen meditation practice for a time in a remote country temple, and even the “fearfully severe” regime of austerities prescribed by the Nakayama branch of the Nichiren sect, involving a 100 day period during the winter of fasting, sleep-deprivation, continuous recitation of the Dharma Flower Sūtra, seven times a day pouring buckets of cold water over the head and shoulders, and a particularly agonizing practice of holding with straight arms some heavy ritual objects.  Finally the goddess relented in her demands, and Mrs. Sasanuma returned home, built a temple to her deity, and attracted disciples. 


“Kishibojin continued to appear to her in dreams at all times with instructions and encouragement and the gifts of clairvoyance and prophesy.  Once a month she repaired to a mountain near Kurama for a bout of austerities, and occasionalyy she took parties of disciples on walking pilgrimages.  For the rest of the time she lived quietly with the small granddaughter she had designated her successor, serving the goddess from day to day.” 


A Mrs. Jin and her mother both took up ascetic practices (gyō) at different times on Mt. Iwaki in Aomori prefecture after they each received visions of the deity Akakura Daigongen; their austerities completed they were surprised to discover that they had been gifted with powers of clairvoyance and divination, allowing them to become professional gomiso (the name for a class of ascetic shamans in the Aomori and Akita area.  Mrs. Hiroshima Ryūun is renowned in the Kansai and Nara districts for her powers of healing and exorcism, and is able to clairvoyantly see deceased spirits, sometimes recognizable in their former embodied selves, other times perceptible only as balls of flashing light.  She is another of these female gyōjas (practitioner of ascetic austerities designed to build sacral power); early on in life she was encouraged by a vision of En-no-Gyōja to take on the suffering of sentient beings; in the following years she travelled on foot virtually the length and breadth of Japan before and during the war years, and would frequently stand under a local waterfall in the middle of winter reciting a hundred times the Buddhist Heart Sūtra—something which takes two-and-a-half hours.  At the end of three years, these practices culminated in a week-long trance state of divine possession, wherein Hiroshima neither ate nor slept, “while deity after deity from all over Japan came into her body and spoke through her mouth.”  After this, she, too, found that she had been blessed with the supernormal powers which would make her widely famous.  She also felt that these powers were worked through her by a new guardian deity in her life, one Magotarō Inari. 


Mrs. Matsuyama, a healer and exorcist still living in the 1960s on the outskirts of Kyoto, had put herself through many austerities on a mountain near Nara so as to incur the grace of the popular Buddhist fierce guardian deity, Fudō Myōō, and heal herself of an incurable illness; this protective entity indeed manifested for her, granting her powers, and guiding her life since then down to the smallest detail.  Mrs. Nakano is a professional healer, clairvoyant, clairaudient, and ascetic from Shikoku island who regularly joins the male Shugendō Buddhist ascetics and makes with them the ritual ascent of Mt. Omine, starting from Kyoto, while appearing in the complete yamabushi costume of this mystical Order.  (Note: as is the case with a number of other holy mountains in Japan, women still are not allowed to proceed all the way to the summit—even very accomplished and respected women such as Mrs. Nakano.) 


Mrs. Onuma Myōshō would frequently make the annual Shugendō ascent of Mt. Haguro, the other holy site of this Order.  The rest of the year she presided over her Jizōin-san temple (a name by which she herself is usually known) near Sendai.  Here she would conduct a spiritual healing ministry for the many patients who flocked to her, whose ills, like the afflictions of many of the patients of other healers mentioned herein, are often due to possession by troubled ghost-spirits (zaishō or muenbotoke) seeking attention from humanity so as to help gain needed psychic or spiritual support for moving higher and less burdened into the spirit worlds.  (This phenomenon of ills due to spirit possession is known worldwide, and not only among traditional cultures, but even amongst an increasing number of mental health practitioners and Christian healing ministers practicing in western society.) [64]


The richly complex Tibetan Buddhist tantra tradition, Vajrayāna—much better known than its equivalent Buddhist tantra denomination in Japan (Shingon)—first arose in northeast and northwest India during the 7th-9th centuries, passing into Tibet via the efforts of certain rather amazing male adepts—Guru Rinpoche (Padma Sambhava), Atīśa, Marpa, et al.  Vajrayāna, along with its inheritance of the body of early Buddhist wisdom, and its development of the Buddhist tantric emphasis on sacred forms (e.g., visualizations of sacred images and diagrams [maṇḍalas], recitation of sacred syllables [mantras], and enacting of sacred gestures [mudrās]) to spiritualize mind, speech, and body, also picked up many feminine elements.  These elements came from different sources:  a) the Mahāyāna Buddhist “wisdom” literature (Prajñā-Pāramitā; 1st century BCE to c.4th century CE), b) the animistic Bōn tradition native to Tibet, c) the indigenous Indian non-Vedic traditions and d) the Chinese Taoist traditions.  In any event, the feminine principle plays a much more visible role in Vajrayāna than in any of the other Buddhist traditions excepting those devoted to Guan-yin/Kannon.  As Hanna Havnevik observes, “In [Tibetan Buddhist] Tantrism, the female principle is no longer conceived of as something to be transcended, and the physical body becomes the vehicle through which Enlightenment is reached.” [65]  This is especially true within the earliest school of Vajrayāna—the Nyingma tradition, with its Dzog-chen or Mahā Ati teachings developed by Guru Rinpoche (Padma Sambhava, 7th century) and by other later masters of this school.


At the popular level of the highly-religious Tibetan culture, there flourishes a tremendous veneration among monks, nuns, yogīns and laypeople for the female yidam (tutelary deity), Tārā (“She Who Helps Across”; Tib.: Dolma).  Tārā is to be found as the subject of many thangka paintings and statues, usually in either her “white” or “green” forms (the two most prevalent of her 21 forms), and she is frequently the central figure utilized in a practitioner’s tantric visualizations.  Tārā’s popularity cuts across the four main sectarian divisions of Tibetan Buddhism (the Nyingma, Kagyü, Gelug, and Sakya schools), and she fulfills the role of the protecting savioress and mother that Guan-yin does in China and elsewhere.  Tārā, considered to be an emanation from a compassionate teardrop of Avalokita (Tib.: Chenrezi), originally seems to have been an emanation of the Indian goddess, Durgā, but became close to the Tibetan people’s heart by being incorporated in their myth describing the origin of their race.  In any case, Tārā is regarded by Tibetans as a “female Buddha,” the first Buddha to appear in a female body. [66] 


Another highly popular yidam for Tibetan Buddhists is the “Diamond Sow,” Vajravarāhi (Tib.: Dorje Naljorma), found mainly within the Kagyü and Sakya schools of Tibetan Buddhism; sometimes she is seen iconographically as the consort of the deity Samvara (Tib: Demchog).  Usnisa Vijāya, white in color, is an emanation of Vairocana Buddha, the primordial, central “Divine Buddha” of the 5-Buddha schema, and is one of the three longevity deities along with Tārā and Amitayus.  A popular female deity for the Sakya school is Nairatmya, the consort of Hevajra (a major male archetype deity); her name literally meaning “selflessness,” she personifies freedom.  Sarasvatī, the Hindu goddess of learning and culture, is venerated to a great extent by many Tibetans.  Vasudhara is the golden goddess of wealth. 


On the deeper wisdom level of Vajrayāna, we find two quite important feminine aspects honored—the “Great Wisdom-Mother” and the ḍākinīTsultrim Allione—one of the first Westerners to become a Vajrayāna nun (10 precepts), now a family woman (mother of three) and director of the Tara Foundation—has beautifully articulated the nature of these two feminine aspects in her valuable introductory essay on feminine spirituality in a book telling the tales of some Tibetan female adepts. [67] 


The Great Mother, Mother of the Buddhas (Yum Chenmo), the Womb of the Tathāgatas (Buddhas), is the primordial ground of being—actually beyond male or female, but considered feminine because She gives birth to the universal play of forms, all phenomenal processes.  The Great Mother differs from the Christian conception of God, according to Allione, because She “does not intend to produce a world and set down laws.  The whole thing [Her giving birth to the world] is spontaneous rather than intentional.”  In these aspects Yum Chenmo is fairly similar to the Hindu “Divine Mother”-principle known as Śakti.)  Moreover, Yum Chenmo’s nature and function as the primordial space or capacity that gives birth to phenomena is played out timelessly, endlessly, eternally in the unbounded moment—”it is not a question of ‘once upon a time,’“ as Allione says.  The Great Mother’s symbol in Tantric iconography is the downward-pointing triangle—a cross-cultural symbol of female fertility—white on the outside because It/She is “unconditioned and non-dwelling,” and blood-red on the interior so as to symbolize transcendental ecstatic vitality and “lust” for manifest phenomena. [68] 


A very important aspect of the Great Mother is Prajñā Pāramitā, the “perfection of Supreme Wisdom,” the principle of profound, penetrating contemplative cognition which is the source, matrix, or “womb” for Buddhas to develop and emerge in the world—hence Her/its connotation, “Womb of the Buddhas/Tathāgathas.”  There are a number of beautiful solo images of Mother Prajñā Pāramitā from India and Indonesia extant.  In Tibetan Vajrayāna iconography, wisdom is represented as a feminine figure (yum) in dynamic, sexual embrace with the masculine principle (yab) of “skillful means” (upāya).  “But when we speak of yab-yum,” says Allione, “we are no longer at the level of the primordial mother, because the Great Mother has no masculine counterpart, she (it) is basic space and [fertile] emptiness.  When we reach to the level of yab-yum we are talking about descendents of primordial space, energies which are working as polarities.  The qualities of these energies are assigned by the culture which gives them labels.  [For instance, in Hindu tantra, the opposite attributes are given to masculine and feminine.]” [69] 


I should mention, too, that the yum figures seem to play a more symbolic, iconographical role rather than serving as venerable objects of devotion, for there seems to be no popular cult to this wisdom-goddess in Tibet (or elsewhere in Buddhist Asia).


Allione writes of the importance for female spiritual practitioners of the sense of lineage from the Great Mother, in which:

“We are not evil temptresses or unwelcome renunciants in a religion whose founder admitted women reluctantly, nor are we ignorant householders who might be able to renounce someday; but rather we could connect with the lineage of the divine feminine, the primal matrix, imbued with compassion, actively wrathful and destructive where energy is blocked, ecstatic and playful, understanding the true nature of reality.” [70]



As mentioned, Tibetan Vajrayāna Buddhism features not only the Great Mother as the fertile, universe-bearing space and as enlightening wisdom, it includes another highly important aspect of the feminine utilized on esoteric levels by the tantric practitioner:  the ḍākinī, known in Tibetan as khadroma, “female sky-goer.”  Janice Willis, a longtime practitioner, scholar, and expert on Tibetan Buddhism, has written a fine article on the multi-faceted aspects and diverse scholarly assessment of the ḍākinī, indicating how the ḍākinī, in pre-Buddhist (Bōn) and Buddhist manifestations, has been variously defined as a “trickster,” a “wrathful or semi-wrathful deity,” a “witch,” a “fairy,” a “genie of meditation,” a “messenger,” a “protectress,” a “mystic consort,” and, most inclusively, as the supreme embodiment of the highest wisdom.  Regarding this last definition of the ḍākinī, Willis reminds us (after Herbert Guenther and James Robinson, et al.) of how the ḍākinī’s “sky-going” nature refers to an “understanding of emptiness” (emptiness = “sky”).  Willis also notes: “In the ultimate, absolute, and final sense, ‘she’ stands for ineffable reality itself”—elsewhere pointing out how we should think of the ḍākinī, not as “female,” but as the feminine principle of Absolute Insight (prajñā-pāramitā), which just so happens to often manifest in female form, either as a subtle-plane appearance or as a female human being. [71] 


Allione has written an illuminating section on the ḍākinī principle, worth quoting at length:

“The dakini is probably the most important manifestation of the  feminine in Tibetan Buddhism, and appears many times [in hagiographies] ... In general, the dakini represents the everchanging flow of energy with which the yogic practitioner must work in order to become realized.  She may appear as a human being, as a goddess—either peaceful or wrathful [the latter form functions to destroy selfish tendencies]—or she may be perceived as the general play of energy in the phenomenal world. ... This luminous, subtle spiritual energy is what is meant by the dakini principle.  She is the key, the gate opener, and the guardian of the unconditioned primordial state which is innate in everyone.  If I am not willing to play with her, or if I try to force her, or if I do not invoke her, the gate remains closed and I remain darkness and ignorance. ... In order to connect to this dynamic energizing feminine principle the practitioner of Tantra (Tantrika) does specific practices.  These practices take place at three levels.  At the primary level the dakini is invoked ans visualized as deity in the form of a dakini.  For example, the dakini may be visualized first in front of the practitioner, and then this external figure is united with the Tantrika, and the mantra of the dakini is recited.  This is a very general description of the “outer” practice of the dakini. After one becomes accomplished at the level of the outer practice one begins the ‘inner’ practice.  At this stage the dakini is  worked with through the activation of the subtle nerves (rtsa), the breath (rlung) and the essence (tig.le). The third level of practice is called the ‘secret’; at this point there is a direct contact between the state of the practitioner and the energy of the dakini principle. ...  By consciously invoking the dakini through Tantric practices we begin to develop a sensitivity to energy itself.  When looking at the iconography of the dakini we should bear in mind that through understanding her symbols and identifying with her, we are identifying with our own energy.  Tantric divinities are used because we are in a dualistic state.  Tantra takes advantage of that, or exaggerates it, by embodying an external figure with all the qualities the practitioner wishes to obtain.  After glorifying and worshiping this external deity, the deity dissolves into the practitioner—then at the end of any Tantra there is a total dissolution of the deity into space; and finally after resting in that state the practitioner visualizes herself or himself as the deity again as they go about their normal activities.  There are a vast number of Tantric dakinis, both peaceful and wrathful, in the Tibetan pantheon, each embodying specific qualities which the practitioner may need to activate at certain times according to the instruction of the guru.  ...  Being a dynamic principle, the dakini is energy itself... She becomes a guide and a consort who activates intuitive understanding and profound awareness, but this energy can turn suddenly and pull the rug out from under you if you become too attached and fixated.” [72]


Some of the more important ḍākinīs of Tibetan Buddhism are Vajravārāhī—an emanation of the yidam Vajrayoginī, as well as the ḍākinīs affiliated with the “5 Buddha Families,” all of whom are discussed by Allione in her work, wherein she also spells out the significance of the main 3 symbolic instruments associated with ḍākinīs—for instance, the hooked knife represents both penetrating wisdom and the pull of compassion; the kull cup of blood or nectar connotes formless and form-full Reality, as well as vitality; the trident staff with three skulls attached indicates the hidden, masculine energy or “consort” of the ḍākinī, as well as the threefold nature of reality, the threefold obstacles, and so on.  Allione makes some important points: a) the ḍākinī is an inspiring, empowering image for spiritual women of an awake, powerful, self-sufficient feminine energy; b) this does not preclude a relationship with a real man, but allows any such relationship to flow out of female strength and wholeness, obviating “indiscriminate and unwise [dependent] relationships that may prove to be painful and masochistic”; and c) the ḍākinī is an important guardian or stewardess of the earth and its ecosystem; to pollute and exploit the earth is said to offend the ḍākinīs and they and other celestials “throw the world into confusion” to give humans some feedback on their inappropriate behavior. [73]


The ḍākinī is not only to be meditated upon in a formal context.  She may spontaneously show up at important moments, either embodied in a human being or else appearing on a subtle-plane in dreams or visions; she comes in various guises, often as a very old hag—old, because she is a manifestation of primordial wisdom, ugly, because she represents the unappreciated, unacknowledged parts of our psyche-soma (this latter aspect is, of course, rather akin to C.G. Jung’s notion of the anima).  The famous Indo-Tibetan gurus/lamas of the Kagyü school, such as Tilopa, Nāropa, Marpa, and Milarepa (10th to 12th centuries), as well as sages Indrabhuti and Maitripi, enjoyed powerful appearances and influential teachings manifested by female ḍākinīs and yidams, in both celestial and human forms.  The Shang-pa sect of the Kagyü school of Tibetan Buddhism traces its origins to an Indian woman said to be a ḍākinīNiguma, the wife and later helper-consort of the Indian Mahāsiddha, Nāropa.  Niguma, the “Jñānaḍākinī Adorned with Bone Ornaments” who lived in the charnel grounds (“whoever encounters her is liberated”), not only helped Nāropa, she also taught and initiated Nāropa’s disciple, Marpa Lotsāwa, who later forcefully propagated the Kagyü Mahāmudrā lineage in Tibet.  She instructed the male siddha Lalitavajra, and through another (unnamed) disciple, she is said to have passed on a special version of Nāropa’s classic “Six Yogas” which he learned from Tilopa.  One of the earliest and best-known Vajrayāna sages, the Indian siddha, Saraha, took up with a ḍākinī in the guise of an unnamed low-caste woman fashioning arrows in the marketplace; she challenged him on a number of occasions with her enlightening tantric wisdom. [74]  

Whereas female ḍākinīs are frequently mentioned in the literature, male consort-energies, or ḍākas, are only rarely encountered, such as in the life of Yeshe Tsogyel (see below).  This is because most of the famous Tantrikas were men, needing to access the feminine energies.  In the future, with more women playing prominent roles in certain schools of Tibetan Buddhism, it might be thought that the ḍāka energy may likewise come more clearly into view; at present, however, amongst Tibetan nuns and laywoman, the curious fact is that the majority of these women prefer the female ḍākinī—especially Tārā—as their yidam or meditational focus.  This probably reflects the lower status of these women in Tibetan society, and their need to work with and identify with a powerful, widely loved female figure.  In the future, if/when women come into higher status, they may begin to work more with the male ḍāka energies.


In passing, we note that one can also find in Tibetan Buddhism a number of Guardian Goddesses, such as Apchi (of the Drigung area), Lhamo Yangchen (of Gurla Mandhata, south of Mt. Kailas; note that Kailas has a female consort-mountain, Dorje Phangmo), and Tseringma, “Long-life Protectress.” Pelden (or Penden) Lhamo, evidently none other than the Hindu goddess Kālī, is particularly revered by the Gelugpa school as “Protectress of Tibet,” specially the royal city of Lhasa and the Dalai Lama; she resides at her Oracle Lake, Lhamo Latso, about 90 miles southeast of Lhasa.  Pelden Lhamo (Skt: Śrī Devī) is the only female among the powerful group of the Eight Dharma Protectors (Dharmaphalas).  The five Pancharaksha goddesses (chief of whom is Mahāpratisāra) are popular deities for protection against sickness, misfortune, and calamity.  There are also to be noted a class of fierce, ugly female celestial-beings known as mamos, who can function as religious protectresses and destroyers of egocentricity.  From earliest times Tibet was also populated by srin-mos, or demonesses.  Indeed, there was a kind of malevolent Tibetan “Mother Earth” srin-mo who, according to Buddhist dogma, needed to be “pinned down” by Guru Rinpoche, et al, with temples and pillars before the land could “properly” receive Buddhism.   By way of summary thus far concerning the feminine in Tibetan Buddhism, let us again hear from Allione, who contrasts some of the disempowering tendencies of earlier schools of Buddhism with the feminine-empowering aspects Vajrayāna, highlighting the usefulness of the latter for spiritual women today:

“[In] the joining of the Buddhist teachings with the Tantric teachings in Tibet, the feminine took on a profoundly more important role than it had in primitive Buddhism [or, for that matter, Ch’an and other Mahāyāna schools of Buddhism as well].  The feminine became an essential counterpart of the sexual polarity which provided the dynamics to reach of state of non-duality, the goal of the path. Feminine divinities also existed as important figures when they stood alone either as the fierce activation force of the dakini or the essentially gentle force of Tara, Prajna Paramita, etc. In Tantric practice the female and male principles are understood as currents running through the bodies of both men and women.  ... We are all made up of both male and female principles, and the Tantric practices activate and integrate both forces within the individual.  These forces may also be polarized [differentiated] through sexual intercourse. Though in Tantra a vast assortment of images of the feminine were propagated, Western culture splits the feminine between the prostitute and the madonna, whom we see passively adoring her male offspring.  In Tantra, we see the emergence of female images which are sexual and spiritual, ecstatic and intelligent, wrathful and peaceful.  How refreshing not to have to be chaste and peaceful with downcast eyes, in order to be spiritual.  We can be sharp and insightful, even angry [like many male spiritual teachers have expressed themselves] and  still celebrate our womanhood.  We can activate all parts of ourselves and increase our feminine and masculine energies, tuning them rather than denying and suppressing them, as we are taught to do in patriarchal religions. [75]


Having presented at some length the importance of the feminine aspects of Reality in Vajrayāna, it is rather disappointing to note that actual living women seem to have received much less appreciation than men in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition.  Sociologist Barbara Nimri Aziz has pointed out a) the serious socio-linguistic implications of Tibetan women being commonly designated by the noun skye-dman (“born low”) and by the pronoun mo (“it”—meaning any destitute woman or female animal); b) the preferential treatment given to sons and the virtual servant status of girls; c) the subjection of women to greater hardships (e.g., in job-functions); and d) the limited opportunities for women—spiritually, politically, economically.  Of course, a lot of these same factors are at work in other Asian, Middle-Eastern, African, and Western cultures as well.  But one would not expect them in a highly refined Buddhist culture which so exalts the feminine principle in its ontology and iconography.  The widespread phenomenon of male “projection” of the anima seems to be at work here. [76]  One also must contend with the fact that of the few accounts of illustrious women of Tibet’s history, only a small fraction have survived the Chinese communists’ wrathful destruction of so many Tibetan books and art objects beginning in 1959.  


The four main schools of the Tibetan Vajrayāna Buddhist tradition—Nyingmapa, Kagyüpa, Kadampa-Gelugpa, and Sakyapa—were all founded by males, and almost all the “official” lineage-holders within these schools have been male.  Yet Tibetan historical accounts do note the existence of about a dozen highly accomplished female yoga-adepts known as siddhās, several of whom established major lineages of practice, or were “unofficial” lineage-holders.  (Willis, Aziz and others want us to remember, though, that these female exemplars are highly exceptional, unconventional cases, and so are not feasible role models for the majority of Tibetan women.)  We should also note that these women siddhās are to be found especially in the Nyingma and Kagyü schools, which stress meditation, yoga, and profound intuitive wisdom—whereas the Gelug and Sakya schools have traditionally favored logic, philosophy, and more academic learning.  Hanna Havnevik has explained that there is a notion rampant in Tibetan culture, based on the idea that the primordial Wisdom is feminine, that women, if they properly “discipline themselves,” are superior to men in the former capacities (i.e., meditation and wisdom), and not quite as suited for the latter (too much learning will make their already “sharp” minds somewhat imbalanced).  Thus, in the following pages, we will hear of almost no women from the Sakya or Gelug traditions (note, too, that the Sakyapa tradition has been little studied by Westerners).


The biography of Yeshe Tsogyel [77] is a late work (18th century) about one of the most important of these siddhās; she was an 8th century Tibetan princess who, along with Mandarava, became one of two main consorts of Guru Rinpoche (Padma Sambhava), the eminent Indian tantric adept who brought Vajrayāna Buddhism to Tibet.  (Rita Gross has pointed out how this consort role makes Yeshe Tsogyel a quite interesting, if unconventional, role model for women who are not drawn to either the “subservient wife” or “chaste nun” roles.)  An influential woman of great power and holiness, Yeshe Tsogyel is said to have excelled in yogic practices and to have become a lineage heir to Guru Rinpoche in the Nyingma tradition of Vajrayāna which he founded (this is the oldest sect of Tibetan Buddhism).  Notable elements in Yeshe Tsogyel’s story include her having male tantric consorts of her own and, on one occasion, her showing tremendous equanimity and compassion in allowing seven ruffians to rape her, using the situation to teach them and enlighten them!  It is also noteworthy that four of her eleven “root disciples” were women, and she was frequently found to be engaging other formidable spiritual women of the day.  Since her passing, Yeshe Tsogyel has been deified as Dechen Gyalmo (Queen of Great Bliss), who is protector of Nyingma’s Longchen Nyingthig tradition.  (There are several lineages of Nyingthig teachings, representing the “innermost essence” of the Nyingma sect of Vajrayāna Buddhism.)


It is also said that Guru Rinpoche passed on Nyingthig teachings to Princess Pemasal, daughter of the illustrious Tibetan king, Thrisong Deutsen (790-858).  One of Pemasal’s subsequent lives was Pema Ledreltsal (13th century?), who brought the Nyingthig teachings to light again; still another lifetime of hers was that of Longchen Rabjam (1308-63), considered “the most celebrated writer and adept of the Nyingmapa school of Tibetan Buddhism,” widely revered in his own day.  The biography of Longchen Rabjam entails numerous appearances of Yeshe Tsogyel and various female “Dharma protectresses” (yidams and ḍākinīs), and mentions the existence of many female disciples receiving high-level empowerments from this great master. [78] 


Gelongma Palmo was a famous Indian nun-siddhā (adept) who was the first to advocate the 8-day fasting practice (nyungne) of Avalokiteśvara, revealed to her by this beloved bodhisattva.  The lineage of Mahākarunika transmitted in Tibet by the Indian sage Atīśa is traced to her as well.  Rev. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, who reports this information, also mentions a section of the Blue Annals text that describes 24 nun disciples of Pha Dam-pa Sangye (11th century) and their various miracles.  Many of these women are alleged to have been ḍākinīs emanations of enlightened mind. [79]


In the traditional 12th century Kagyü hagiographical works telling the tales and songs of the 84 Indo-Tibetan Buddhist siddhas (adepts), four women siddhās have their stories told, replete with fantastic, legendary kinds of elements.  These are:  1) Yoginī Siddhā Manibhadrā (11th century?), notable for being a housewife and mother who, at her final enlightenment, floated into the air and taught the local people for 21 days, before merging into the “ḍākinī paradise” (if not literally true, then this may refer to her being; available as a “subtle-plane” teacher in her postmortem state, e.g., giving instructions to the people in their dreams or visions, much in the way that many Biblical scholars would say that Jesus did after the death of his physcial body).  2-3) Yoginī Siddhā Mekhalā and her younger sister Yoginī Siddhā Kanakhalā (late 9th century?), after 12 years of intense spiritual practice severed their heads in response to their Guru, who had asked for their heads as an offering; it is said that he graciously restored their heads, without scar, after they obediently passed this “test”!  4) Yoginī Mahāsiddhā Laksminkarā (circa 11th or 12th century) is renown as the sister of a King who refused an arranged marriage with a prince gave up her dowry to the poor, and then took up the life of an ascetic contemplative while feigning complete insanity to everyone around her.  From her exalted title, we gather that the influence of her enlightenment was considerable, and that

she edified many people with her “Crazy Wisdom.”  Four other holy women are mentioned as esteemed consorts of their more famous male partners.  Thus, as Keith Dowman reports, there were roughly ten holy men honored for every one holy woman honored in the medieval Tibetan Buddhist tradition. [80]  Nathan Katz has analyzed the same text and counted 56 of the 80 male siddhas as “depicted in the company of a woman [consort]”; in many cases these consorts were considered a sine qua non for the particular siddha to master his practice.  Some of them may have been enlightened “ḍākinīs”—at which point it becomes difficult to assess whether they were actual, living, mortal women or else discarnate female guides.  Here I should mention that some of the male householder lamas of Vajrayāna, especially in the Nyingma and Kagyü traditions, have been married to women highly respected as ḍākinīs, starting with the already-mentioned Niguma‚ the wife and later consort-helper of Nāropa and also a guru to Marpa, and Dagmema (11th century), Marpa’s wife.  Hanna Havnevik states, “Women chosen as consorts of important lamas are instantly recognized as ḍākinīs.”  In any case, many of these wives have functioned as the “spiritual mothers” to all who come within the circle of the lama’s guidance.  They may have much more spiritual influence than has heretofore been recognized. [81]


Tsultrim Allione has garnered legends of some other celebrated women in Tibetan Buddhist history:  Machig Labdron (1055-1145), a philosopher and accomplished yoginī, was said to be the reincarnation of an Indian yogi, Pandit Monlam Drub, who had been murdered by a ḍākinī so as to relocate more easily into Tibet and spread the true tantra teachings!  (His body stayed incorrupt in the cave for many years, until Machig—who knew all her past lives—directed some lamas to go see it.)  Machig was said to be a fully conscious child, very clairvoyant, a master of mantras by the time she was three years old.  In her teens she took up the life of the wandering yoginī, receiving many instructions from numerous high-level lamas, teachings which she quickly mastered.  One of these lamas was the famous adept, Padampa Sangye, whose consort she became for a while.  She married one Topabhadra at age 23, on the inner guidance of a ḍākinī, and had three children.  Many people considered her a “fallen nun” as a result of this.  Machig evidently attained complete realization at age 41 upon receiving a revelation from Tāra while meditating in a cave.  Multitudes of disciples were drawn to her, from royalty and high lamas to common folk, coming from all the regions of Tibet and even Nepal and India.  It is said that Machig had 116 close disciples, and through her 16 closest three lineages of practice descended from her, though she is particularly known for spreading the high-level Nyingma yogic practice known as Chō (a complete surrendering of dualistic fear based in egocentricity through a visualization of frightening deities).  Lamas and Indian pandits challenged Machig to public debates before large crowds but she could not be defeated.  She came to be considered a reincarnation of Yeshe Tsogyel, and, along with Yeshe Tsogyel, Machig Labdron has the highest status and is the most beloved among all the Tibetan women saints of ancient times.  Somewhat earlier than Machig, Nangsa Obum (11th century) was a beautiful queen who became persecuted by her in-laws for her extremely generous works of charity; she experienced a full death experience and then revived—thus known thereafter as a delog.  She wanted to renounce the world and travel as a teacher, but her husband and son pleaded for her not to do so.  Nevertheless, on a visit home to see her mother, she spontaneously taught and converted many people to the true wisdom, and was revered by them as a true lama.  Later she became the student and “colleague” of Sakya Gyaltsen... and when her husband and father-in-law came with the idea of killing Gyaltsen and seizing her, Nangsa and her guru miraculously rose into the air and spoke words of such clear wisdom that the two men were immediately converted and renounced the world—leaving Nangsa’s son to inherit the kingdom.  Jomo Memo (1248-83) became at the early age of 13 one of only two women among the 108 acclaimed tertons (finders of termas esoteric tantric texts hidden by Padma Sambhava).  She subsequently became “all-knowing” and traveled widely, teaching many, and becoming the consort of Guru Chokyi Wangchuk.  Jomo is alleged to have “disappeared into the Clear Light” with two companion yoginīs while still very young (this is called “attaining the rainbow body” [jalü]). 


Machig Ongso (12th century) of the Yug area, apprenticed to a lama of the Kagyü school and became highly accomplished in the six pāramitās (“excellences” of virtue and wisdom).  Drenchen Rema (mid-14th century), another female apprentice in the same Kagyü lineage coming from the great master Milarepa via his talented disciple Rechung, had many disciples who told of her wisdom teachings and miracles, especially healings.  A band of at least fifteen disciples gathered around her and traveled with her.  She passed on at age 80.  Mrs. Allione, who has eloquently spoken in her book on the value of female spiritual role models, reports that there are several, perhaps many, other known holy women of Tibet’s past, but their biographies were either excessively lengthy or not easily available.  She looks forward to further investigations by scholars which may bring into view these other female masters.  (Mrs. Allione is currently at work helping translate the biography of the famed female teacher of the last century and a half, Jetsün Ani Lochen Rinpoche—see below; and Hanna Havnevik has brought to light tales of other women about whom we shall learn further in these pages.) [82]


Dorje Phagmo several hundred years ago (16th-17th century) attained fame as the abbess of Samding, a large nunnery 70 miles from Lhasa, located by Yamdok Lake.  She is said to have preserved it from invading Tatars by her yogic powers.  Since then, she has been widely venerated as a ḍākinī by Tibetans and is said to be reincarnated in each Abbess of Samding (—the very existence of a recognized abbess at Samding is significant, given that most nunneries have been presided over by a male abbot, with a head nun as second in charge, though in practice the abbot usually does not live there and does not like to visit too often lest his vow of celibacy be undermined).  Ms. Tashi Tsering, a researcher at the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, claims that the Dorje Phagmo incarnations are an emanation of Tārā and commenced sometime as early as the 14th century.  In any case, up until the last century Dorje Phagmo was probably the only venerated female tulku (consciously reincarnating lama), and the only one ever recognized by the Tibetan government.  Jetsun Chōnyi Dechen Tsomo (n.d.) was one of the most noted of women in this line of conscious reincarnations and was given one of the most honored titles the Tibetan government can give—Hutukthu.  The Dorje Phagmo tulku has been accorded privileges shared only by the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama, and the Gyalwa Karmapa.  She is also honored in her ḍākinī-form in Vajrayāna iconography, usually under her Sanskrit name, Vajravārāhī. as the consort of Demchog (Skt.: Cakrasamvara, embodiment of highest bliss). 


Unfortunately, the Chinese government, which began to exert noxious policies of pressure and control in Tibet after 1950, in an ominous political move, “selected” the most recent Dorje Phagmo tulku—who would be about the twelfth tulku in this line—Dechen Chodon (b. 1942), a married woman with three children, and, sure enough, this woman (like the current Panchen Lama, who was also “selected” by the Chinese) sides with the Chinese, not with the Tibetans.  She has also officially dissociated herself from the position of a female incarnation.  It would seem that the real Dorje Phagmo is to be found elsewhere, perhaps awaiting a more auspicious time to manifest herself. [83] 


Another acknowledged female tulku came to fame in her fourth incarnation as Gongri Khandroma Konchog Rindzin Drolma (1814-91) in the Amdo region of northern Tibet.  A famous male lama, Akhu Thabkhe Tenpa Gyatso (d. 1897), wrote her biography and was her tutor in her next incarnation when she was known as Alakh Gongri Khandro (b. 1890s?) and presided as abbess over the Dragkar Monastery in Amdo, which housed more than 500 monks—a remarkable position for a woman in Tibet.  The sixth incarnation, according to Tashi Tsering (and reported by Hanna Havnevik), is in her 40s and living in Amdo. Havnevik tells of several other female tulkus who have been recognized on official, semi-official and local levels... Jetsün Kusho Luding Chime (b. 1938), sister of Sakya Trizin, the head of the Sakya school of Tibetan Buddhism, is considered an emanation of Vajrayoginī, and has been the recipient and “lineage holder” of a number of important tantric teachings. She married, so as to carry on Sakya Khon family line, and has had five children, one of whom, a son, is now a lama in India.  Jetsün Kusho now lives in Canada and teaches a small number of disciples.  Kandro Peldzin (18th century) was a clairvoyant adept in Dzog-Chen, the highest level of Nyingma practice, and was alleged to be a tulku (reincarnation) of both Yeshe Tsogyal and Nangsa Obum.  Khandro Rinpoche (also known as Tsering Paldron) is said to be an incarnation of Khandro Ogyen Tsomo the consort of the XVth Karmapa; after finishing her university education, she will head the Karma Chokor Dechen nunnery in Sikkim that opened in 1985.  Havnevik says that belonging to the Drigung Kagyu school there is a tulku of the nun Nene Choden Sangmo, Drigung Khandro, who lived at Tsopema until her death.  Keith Dowman reports that a young yoginī now living in a cave hermitage in the Drigung Valley is the Drigung Khandro tulku (see below). [84]


The most celebrated yoginī-siddhā of modern times is Jetsün Shugsep Ani Lochen Rinpoche (b. either 1853 or 1865, d. 1950 or 1951; note: “Jetsün” is an honorific title; “Ani” means “nun”; “Shugsep” is the holy site where she lived most of her life; and “Rinpoche,” “precious one,” is a title usually given to great masters and/or reincarnating tulkus.)  Ms. Allione is presently working on a compilation of Jetsün Lochen’s life story, most of which is told in a Tibetan biographical work reproduced by Lochen’s disciple Sonam Topgay Kazi.  In the meantime, we must use several sources to piece together her story.  Rinchen Dolma Taring, a Tibetan noblewoman and devotee of Jetsün Lochen, says that Lochen was born in India of a Tibetan father and Nepalese mother, and her family soon afterwards moved to Lhasa, Tibet.  One source says that Lochen’s mother then divorced her father, Dondrub Namgyal, and took young Lochen, now about 13, on a long pilgrimage to “all the holy places in western Tibet” (undoubtedly including Mt. Kailas and Lake Manasarovar), and especially to Gya Nyima, a place where Nyingma was strongly practiced, before returning to Lhasa.  Here Lochen became famous for her singing of the Chō ritual songs in the streets, accompanying herself with the dhamaru hand-drum; she preached spiritual truths, inspiring many girls to take up the nun’s life which she herself was living at this point.  (Taring says that Lochen had been famous as early as six years old for the same edifying activities on the streets of Lhasa.)  Later, Lochen found a remote, sacred cave at Shugsep, about 30 miles (a day’s ride) south of Lhasa, on the side of Mt. Gangri Thokar (Whitehead Mtn.).  Here she lived as a yoginī for the rest of her life, the spiritual teacher to some 80 nuns (Dowman reports 300 nuns) and laywomen who lived nearby, not to mention the many visitors who came to see her.  She spent almost all her time sitting in a wood box on the third floor of the nunnery there, meditating behind a curtain, yet raising the curtain and making herself available to all those who came to see her—whether these be her nuns and regular lay disciples, or her myriad visitors.  As Hanna Havnevik points out, “It was a rare event in the history of Tibet that a religious community centered around a female teacher, and Jetsün Lochen was among the most widely known and respected female adepts in Tibet.”  Considered to be the reincarnation of the already mentioned Machig Lapdron, the illustrious 11th-12th century exponent of the Chō practice and a deified figure of the Nyingma school, Jetsünma Lochen was revered and visited by many Tibetans, including high lamas (reputedly the eminent XVIth Gyalwa Karmapa visited and received initiations from her), monks, political officials, householders, and the state oracle.  One of her male students, Lobsang Lhalungpa, son of the state oracle, says that she belonged to the Nyingma school, but was greatly beloved for her nonsectarian, eclectic views, and that she was highly esteemed by monasteries of all the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism...

“[Jetsün Lochen was] one of the most widely respected women teachers that have lived in Tibet... An extraordinary woman! ... Small in stature, with a serene face radiating compassion and sensitivity. ... In her presence we felt an awesome power that permeated our whole stream-being.  Her teachings [on Atiyoga] and blessings have given me inner strength and inspiration ever since.  ... She never actually slept. ... She was always in a high meditational state of mind—very alert.” [85]

With regard to this last-mentioned aspect of Jetsünma’s character, one of Havnevik’s sources says that Jetsün Lochen “never closed the door [to her box-cell], and even during the night the nuns and other people could come to her.  They told her about their problems and she always listened.  They all felt that she was like a mother.”   


There is a significant disagreement about just where Jetsün Lochen has decided to manifest again with a human body as a tulku (consciously reincarnated lama).  Mr. and Mrs. Sonam Topgay Kazi, who were disciples of Jetsünma Lochen, fled to Sikkim and thence to the U.S., where they are now respected Nyingma teachers; they claim that Shugsep Lochen reincarnated as their Sikkim-born daughter, who is now known as the Venerable Jetsün Pema Rinpoche (she is also the stepdaughter of the former eminent Nyingma leader Dudjom Rinpoche).  Jetsün Pema Rinpoche lives with her parents, keeping a very low profile, interested in working with only a relative few advanced students; she teaches the Dzogpa Chenpo Logchen Nyingthig path of Vajrayāna out of her Nyingma Nyingthig center, which was established in 1982 in Boulder, Colorado.  Remarkably, while still a young girl, she was acknowledged as the tulku of Jetsünma Lochen by their Holinesses the XIVth Dalai Lama and the XVIth Gyalwa Karmapa, the two most eminent spiritual leaders of the Tibetans (incidentally, it is highly unusual for female tulkus to be recognized as such from an early age—the relative few female tulkus tend to be acknowledged after they have already come to some prominence through their accomplishments).  On the other hand, R.D. Taring says that Jetsün Lochen’s tulku was born as a male child to one Chime Dorje in 1955, but, in the midst of the turmoil inflicted by the Chinese, no one seemed to know what happened to him.  Dowman reports, from a visit in 1986, that the 40 nuns residing at the Shugsep nunnery have restored much of it after its complete destruction by the communists in 1959, and that the young male tulku of Jetsün Lochen has an apartment there, but must work in an office in Lhasa—a curious fate for such a spiritual luminary (—to paraphrase a Western saying, “the ways of Buddha-nature are mysterious indeed!”).  On the face of it, the Ven. Pema Rinpoche appears to be the “more likely candidate” as Jetsünma Lochen’s tulku—especially since she was recognized by both the Dalai Lama and the Karmapa.  Yet it could also be that a bodhisattva of such accomplishment as Jetsün Lochen has manifested two different bodily reappearances.  Perhaps Ms. Allione will uncover the full story in her upcoming work on Jetsünma Lochen. [86]


Another famous nun-siddhā of modern times is known to us only by her honorific title, “Jetsünla,” born around 1905 in the Amdo region of north-northeastern Tibet, the only child of a very wealthy family who loved her so dearly that they would never allow her to become a nun.  Yet, having been interested in things religious since her early childhood, Jetsünla finally ran away with a maidservant at age 18, traveling as a pilgrim all over Tibet.  Not only did she have to deal with the danger of encounters with wild animals, she was also constrained to travel by night, remaining hidden during the day, due to harassment from another kind of dangerous animal—“rude men.”  Meeting her lama at age 25, and recognizing him as her true teacher, she received the important teachings from him, and went into strict retreat at his behest, spending the next 29 years in deep spiritual practice.  All this time she was supported by villagers (who saw her as already a highly accomplished adept), so that she never had to leave her cave.  When the ruthless Chinese communist invaders came in 1959, Jetsünla broke her retreat, left Tibet, and came to India, settling at a refugee camp in Orissa state.  Subsequently a helpful cousin built for her a tiny mud-and-grass hut on a nearby hilltop; here she received in small groups a stream of visitors from the first to the ninth day of each month, thereafter spending the rest of each month maintaining total seclusion in a profound state of meditation. 


“The Tibetans staying in the seven different refugee camps in Orissa all recognized her as an extraordinary religious practitioner.  She was revered as the highest lama of that area.  People would ask for her advice both in spiritual and worldly matters. ...  Jetsunla was like a wish-fulfilling gem [able to obtain all manner of boons for people].  She had achieved so much and attained such a high state of realization that she could choose to pass away or to remain living.  A few months before she passed away [date unknown], she said: ‘Now I have accomplished what I had to do and have achieved everything that I need to. Now I don’t have to live any longer.  I am very happy if I can go soon, but before I go I must see His Holiness  the Dalai Lama, because I have a few words to say to him.’  About a month later His Holiness visited Orissa and conferred privately with her for over an hour.  She came out from this wonderful meeting very happy saying: ‘Now my last wish is fulfilled, now I am free to go.’  Soon after she became slightly ill and remaining in meditation posture she passed away.” [87]

When Jetsünla made her “transition,” the air was filled with sweet scent, and the sounds of cymbals could be heard by many people; moreover, at the time of her cremation, the sky was filled with rainbows.   


In the earlier-cited Women of Wisdom, Tsultrim Allione has reproduced for us a biography of a less widely known woman siddhā of modern times, A-Yu Khadro Dorje Paldron (1839?-1953), the disciple of Jamyang Khentse Wongpo (d. 1892), whom she met at age 14.  A bit later in life, A-Yu went on long pilgrimage, after the dissolution of a marriage which was making her ill.  She received many initiations and teachings, chiefly from Nyingma lamas; in her late 30s she herself began to give spiritual empowerments, at the behest of some lamas.  At 46, she returned to her home area where her family had built her a small house.  Here she did a 7-year retreat, finally interrupted by a vision of her dying root-guru, to whom she went for last instructions.  After this empowerment she returned home, and continued her practices, often done completely in the dark.  Many disciples of other teachers who had since died came to her for instruction.  In 1953, she predicted troubles for Tibet and said that she must leave the body.  After several weeks of making herself available to all her students and giving them final teachings, she passed on, without any signs of illness.  Her body remained incorrupt for two weeks before being cremated.  The biography of A-Yu mentions two other Tibetan yoginīs/nuns, Pema Wangkyi (her life-long friend) and a famous Dzog Chen teacher, Mindroling Jetsun Rinpoche


Hanna Havnevik, the young scholar from Norway who has transcribed the tale of the aforementioned Jetsünla (from Yeshe Palmo’s oral account) in her exceptionallly fine work, Tibetan Buddhist Nuns, has discovered from various Tibetan informants the names of a number of other great female nuns-adepts of the last century and a half, greatly respected for their miraculous powers and other marks of holiness (she points out how a cherishing of the miraculous is more prevalent in Tibetan Buddhism than in other Buddhist traditions).  Thus we hear of the nuns with healing power such as Khyung Rinpoche from Tsang, who ritually empowered barley grains as medicine, and Yage Kunsang Drolma, whose hair was used by the people as a talisman for healing; this same Yage Kunsang, who ran away from the man she was going to marry to eventually become a nun at Dzalung Nunnery in the Drongpa Med area of Nangchen, mastered many advanced Nyingma practices; Yage Kunsang Drolma and another nun named Ugdron from Derge were both acknowledged to have the power of seeing into the past, present, and future.  Bumo Khandro Thinley Peldron, a “true ḍākinī,” and often compared to Yeshe Tsogyel, was the consort of Terton Sogyel of Nyarong (d. 1926); she became a nun in later life, and was said to have mastered the power to live as long as she wished; supposedly living to be well past a hundred years, informants declare she looked like a 15 year old girl until the time of her death sometime before 1959.  In an earlier era, Majo Chōkyab, one of the famous 24 nun-disciples of Padampa Sangye, is reported to have lived on nothing but water, and at the time of her and her sister nuns’ physical passing from the world, miraculous sounds and lights were seen.  Garje Khamtrul Rinpoche reports that nun Semo Jamyang Chōdon, the sister of his previous incarnation, living in the vicinity of Derge, was very famous, not so much for her learning, but for her ability to pass through walls via the power of her depth in meditation.  One contemporary nun told Havnevik that some of the most adept practitioners at Gechag Thekchen Ling nunnery also had the power to pass through walls; most of the nuns from this powerhouse Kagyü nunnery, as well as from Galo in the Lhalung area, had some degree of mastery of the tummo practice, evidenced by the ability to dry icy-wet clothes in a short time with their own body-heat.  Tsogyal Drolma was evidently the most highly accomplished nun from Gechag Thekchen Ling able to “bring gods, demons, and humans under her will,” and, at least on one occasion, inadvertently made a ritual phurpa (dagger) move about through her power of psychokinesis.  Other highly accomplished nuns of this monastery included Tsomo, Mugtsug, Rindron, Dronden, Yingchuk, Lhachog, Palmo, Lhadze, Wangchuk Chodon, Dungri, Ari, and Tendru SangmoTashi Pema, a nun from Kham, was another master of the classic yoga of generating internal heat (tummo), and could survive freezing conditions that would have killed other people.  Semo Nordzin, a Nyingma practitioner, and her older sister, Asog (Nyingma-Kagyü) were the yogically adept nun-daughters of Pema Lingpa, founder of a monastery in Derge Ragchab.  Both had mastered the “attainment of the rainbow body” (jalü)—a feat of consciously dying by making the physical body disappear in whole or in part (mentioned earlier in connection with the siddhā Jomo Memo).  Semo Nordzin’s nun-servant came into her room one day after a longer-than-usual morning meditation period and found Nordzin’s body still in the seated meditation posture—but with the head and hands missing, dissolved into pure consciousness!  Jetsün Khacho Palmo‚ of the Nechungri Nunnery in Lhasa, and Sera Khandro (b. 1892), consort of Pema Drodul Sangnag Lingpa, are also reputed to have attained the rainbow body—i.e., disappearing at death, after many years of meditation.  A number of other nuns (such as the aforementioned Ugdron, et al) have had extraordinary and highly “synrchronous” things happen at the time of their death, such as thunderclaps, earthquakes, a rain of flowers, sweet scents, sounds and lights, and the producing of hard, gemlike objects (ringsel) in their ashes at cremation—testimonials to their yogic power and/or sanctity. [88]


Havnevik also has gleaned a few names of famous women from the Sakya and Bōnpo traditions—which have thus far not been much studied by Western scholars.  Rindzin Thinley (17th-18th century), Jetsün Tamdrin (fl. turn of the century) and Dokho Shabdrunk Khandroma of the Sakya tradition are greatly loved in that school though we have no further details about their qualities or accomplishments; Khacho Wangmo (d. 1987) was a famous Bōnpo tertonma (discover of religious objects and scriptures) in the Nyarong and Kongpo areas of Kham (eastern Tibet); her husband Sangnag Lingpa was a famous Bōnpo terton.  She was imprisoned for many years by the Chinese communists, and, upon her later release, made the long pilgrimage to the holy mount Bonri in Kongpo. [89]


In looking for evidence of other highly accomplished females within the Vajrayāna tradition, we learn that Lama Thubten Yeshe, a prominent Tibetan teacher in the West (he “dropped the body” in California, 1984)—was in his infancy honored by a highly psychic lama and the nuns of Chi-Me Lung Gompa convent as the reincarnation of a great female yoginī, the former Abbess of Chi-Me Lung.  The Abbess’ fervent prayer had been that she be able to help sentient beings in a remote place—a wish fulfilled in her reincarnation as the world-traveling Lama Yeshe and continuing again in the form of a young Spanish boy, Lama Yeshe’s tulku (reincarnation), now known as Osel Hita Torres (b. 1985). [90]


The illustrious, long-lived Frenchwoman, Alexandra David-Neel (1868-1969), who became famous in her mid-20s as the “premire chanteuse” of the Opéra Comique, was one of the early and very intrepid Western explorers of Tibet and its religious culture.  She bravely wandered through Tibet on several occasions during an extended Asian journey from 1911 to 1925 (supported by her husband, who remained in France, and by the XIIIth Dalai Lama and other Tibetan lamas), studying Vajrayāna Buddhism and other traditions in Tibet, Sikkim, India, Burma, China and Japan for some 40 years.  Ms. David-Neel actually was granted tantric initiation by Tibetan lamas and went on to teach many Westerners about Tibetan Buddhism, though more from the point of view of a scholar and anthropologist than “spiritual teacher.” Honored by the Tibetans as a naljorpa or adept, she would have been qualified to function as a spiritual teacher, but she always remained a woman of “exemplary modesty” and preferred not to take on this role.  Ms. David-Neel also wrote a number of quite insightful articles and books on Tibetan Buddhism.  In one of these works, she reports on the “tranquil courage of the womenfolk”: 


“One finds here and there in Tibet, communities of less than a dozen nuns, living in isolated convents situated at a great height, some of them blocked in by the snow for more than half of the year.  Other women live as hermits in caves, and many women pilgrims travel, alone, across the immense territory of Tibet carrying their scanty luggage on their backs.” [91]


With the Chinese communist takeover of Tibet in 1959 the Red army ruthlessly looted and decimated the monasteries—one source says 6,254 were destroyed—and the communists have directly or indirectly massacred somewhere over 1.2 million Tibetans to this date (1/6th of the population), and carried out mass imprisonings of roughly one out of every ten Tibetans).  Janice Willis observes that, prior to this horrific nightmare,



“There existed a number of different types of women chos-pa, or religious practitioners.  There were women lha-kha-s and dpa’-mo-s (i.e., ‘spirit-mediums’); there were female religous bards called ma-ni-pa-s; and—representing what may be viewed as the two poles of Buddhist practice—there were the tantric adepts (like [Yeshes Tsogyel]) and the ani-s, or Buddhist nuns.  To be sure, the type of women lauded in the sacred annals are the accomplished tantric practitioners [such as the ones featured above among the 84 siddhas and Allione’s work]. ... On the other end of the spectrum there are the Tibetan Buddhist nuns, women who have quietly, and often with great difficulties, continued to practice in accordance with the monastic rules laid down at Buddhism’s very inception in India ... About this type of enrobed female practitioner the texts do not speak and very little information is presently available.  No indigenous Tibetan literature, of whatever historical period, focuses upon them.  Moreover only the most scant attention has been paid to them in the very recent past.  Yet the ani tradition has managed to survive. [92]


Hanna Havnevik and Rev. Karma Lekshe Tsomo clarify for us that the word “ani” means “aunt,” and “chōla” and “tsünma” are more polite forms which are being more widely used these days to address and refer to nuns (a sign of their increasing status?).  (“Jomo” is the term used for a nun in western Tibet, and “gema” in northeastern Kham.) 


These Tibetan nuns (who, up until very recently, could not be fully ordained, but were 10-precept śrāmaṇerikās “novice nuns” or else laywomen adopting the religious life) have experienced great hardships, whether they lived in the large or small nunneries.  Per Kvrne has identified three kinds of Tibetan monasteries: the large “national monasteries,” very much like medieval European universities; the “village monasteries”; and the “hermitages.”  Nunneries, usually not endowed with very many resources, have been either of the “village monastery” type or the “hermitage.”  “Compared to monasteries, nunneries were poor insignificant institutions.” [93] 


The small “hermitage” type of nunnery, as David-Neel observed, were often situated in remote places where the fierce natural elements and lack of financial support made life terribly austere.  Yet even in many of the larger nunneries, or those monasteries where nuns were attached in separate living quarters, there were problems, as Allione has pointed out, because the nuns had to spend much of their time fundraising and performing rituals for rich patrons, with little time left for meditation.  Havnevik qualifies this last remark by stating that some nunneries were characterized by an ardent and very high level of spiritual practice, such as Gechag Thekchen Ling, Galo, Gonlung Champa Ling, Thonga Chōling, Chedo, and Nechungri.  She also found that advanced studies of logic and philosophy were not taught in most nunneries; the few nuns who studied these things were Gelugpa nuns. (And note conversely most of the ardent meditation and yoga practice is carried out by monks, nuns, and lay yogins and yoginīs of the Kagyü and Nyingma schools, with the Gelugpa and Sakyapa traditions focusing rather more on scholastic studies and monastic discipline; and even then, most Gelugpa and Sakyapa nuns do much less formal study than the men.) [94] 


Because of the aforementioned problems associated with living in some nunneries, many women have opted for the simpler—yet rather harsh—lifestyle of the wandering pilgrim or the eremetical (hermit) yoginī, perhaps traveling or residing with one or two other females.  Some women have lived at home or in the nearby vicinity, with the support of relatives who respect these women’s calling to a life of ardent spiritual practice.  Among all these women who do not live in a nunnery, we can actually further distinguish two “careers” or “levels of spirituality”:  the more advanced level which involves an intelligent and refined spiritual practice, chiefly meditation on formless awareness or on complex tantric themes, or the less evolved, more “preliminary” and/or mechanical, superstitious level of practice.  However they might be living, the elements of Vajrayāna practice for these women (and for monks and lay yogins) would range from the difficult, lengthy ngōndro preliminary practice of performing 100,000 times each the full-body prostrations, the recitations of the Vajrasattva mantra with its visualization, the maṇḍala offerings, and the invocations of the lama of one’s lineage, to the intuitive contemplation of the highest level of the teaching (Mahāmudrā in Kagyü or Dzog-Chen/Mahā-Ati in Nyingma), the Kagyü practice of the “six yogas of Nāropa” and other difficult yogic psycho-technologies, and the highly complex visualizations of deities or other tantric elements; also, one finds the more “common” practices such as chanting other popular mantras (e.g., “Om Maṇi Padme Huṃ” or “Om Tare Tu Tare Ture Svahah”), sending up prayers for the welfare of all beings via the spinning of prayer-wheels, and pilgrimage to and circumambulation of sacred sites. We need to point out here that, though the tantric traditions of Buddhism (and Hinduism) are “famous” for their occasional utilization of ritual sexuality between a male and female practitioner-couple, the truth is that many yogins and yoginīs—especially those who have taken monastic vows and are living in monastic institutions (particularly within the Gelugpa school), rigorously maintain their vows of celibacy and enact the sexual union of polarities (male-female, compassion-wisdom) on a purely symbolic, psychic level, with a visualized consort, or else engage in some nonsexual ritual or ceremony together with another adept as a sign of their tantric “union.” 


Havnevik also reports:  “When a woman, whether nun or laywoman, was chosen as the consort of a respected lama, she, too, became highly respected in society.”  (The fact that a nun may be chosen to be a sexual consort of a lama makes the tantric tradition unique compared to monastic traditions in other schools of Buddhism and other religions like Christianity and Jainism.) 


An issue Havnevik ran up against in her research is that Tibetan nuns—and women in general— have been considered by the people and by certain works of popular literature to be generally more lustful, sexually irresponsible, fickle, deceitful and irrational than men, though no facts support these generalizations.  Indeed, a tragic double-standard is strongly in operation. 


Yet another issue to be clarified is this:  some observers have noticed that whereas many nuns are respected in yogic circles for their spiritual efforts and renunciate lifestyle, a majority of the common people—including women—think that most nuns took up this vocation simply because they were physically ugly, deformed, or mentally handicapped and not capable of attracting husbands, whereas the reasons for young men taking up the monk vocation were always noble and healthy ones.  The facts, of course, contradict this—many nuns are intelligent, industrious and lovely on both physical and energetic (subtle-body) levels.  Havnevik, commenting on these unfortunate social dynamics, laments, “Despite the fact that the main Buddhist doctrines do not devalue women, and Tantric ideology highly praises them, Tibetan nuns continue to find themselves at the bottom of the religious hierarchy... The inferior position of nuns in Tibetan society makes them an easy object for scorn and ridicule.” [95]


Havnevik also uncovers the idea prevalent throughout Tibetan culture, based on certain ancient Indian beliefs which arose after the time of the Buddha, that women are not as eligible as men for attaining enlightenment in a female body, or even are not capable of enlightenment at all.  This has led to feelings of tremendous inferiority on the part of Tibetan nuns. Happily, many of the younger nuns, especially those in exile, do not themselves believe in this “innate inferiority,” and are upholding the original idea of the Buddha and many of the patriarchs, that enlightenment is equally open to both male and female human beings.


Notwithstanding all the difficulties for the nuns, it is remarkable that, before the Chinese takeover, they flourished in very large numbers throughout Tibet (many, but not all, families “donated” a daughter to the nun vocation as a meritorious action, just as they often gave up a son).  As reported by Havnevik, the Council for Religious and Cultural Affairs of H.H. Dalai Lama estimates that, in Central Tibet (U-Tsang), there were 7,141 nuns residing in 290 Nyingma nunneries, 6,831 nuns in 160 Gelug nunneries, 3,697 nuns in 227 Kagyü nunneries, and 1,159 nuns in 40 Sakya nunneries.  In eastern Tibet (Kham) there were 4,468 nuns in 52 Gelugpa nunneries, 2,467 nuns in 29 Nyingma nunneries, 1,017 nuns in 10 Kagyü nunneries, and 80 nuns in one Sakya nunnery.  In northeastern Tibet (Amdo), 290 nuns could be found in 8 Gelugpa nunneries, and 30 nuns in one Nyingma nunnery.  Thus, there seems to have been a total of 11,589 Gelugpa nuns, 9,638 Nyingma nuns, 4,714 Kagyü nuns, and 1,239 Sakya nuns.  (Another source estimates the number of Nyingma nuns and nunneries to be almost 40% lower, and it seems to me that the numbers of nuns in the Kham nunneries are a bit inflated for all the schools mentioned, though I may be wrong.)  Besides these nunneries of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, there were a handful of nunneries belonging to the Bodong and Bōnpo schools.


Of the estimated 818 nunneries in the four main Vajrayāna sects, 271 were quite sizeable, with more than 30 nuns each, and 40 of these nunneries allegedly held over 100 nuns.  Seven hundred to a thousand nuns lived at the Gechag Thekchen Changchub Ling Kagyü nunnery in Nang-chen Kham, eastern Tibet; and 600 nuns are claimed to have lived at a Gelug nunnery in the Brag-gyab region of eastern Tibet.  A few other nunneries had several hundred nuns in residence.  Nunneries of this size were unknown anywhere else in the Buddhist world—or non-Buddhist world, for that matter (except perhaps some of the early Christian women’s communities in the deserts of Egypt).  In some cases there were large numbers of nuns attached to male monasteries, especially in regions where no nunneries that had been built; and in many cases, as mentioned, there were nuns residing at small, isolated retreat communities or living in twos or threes in caves, so as to more effectively carry on advanced spiritual practice.  Some nuns lived at home, supported by relatives. [96]


Of course, everything is quite different in Tibet since the Chinese wave of atrocities began in 1959 (and arose again between 1966-76, and in the late 1980s).  Lobsang Dechen relates the sad news:

“Under the communist regime Buddhism suffered many setbacks and most monastic institutions were totally destroyed.  During the 1960s not a single robed figure could be seen anywhere in Tibet.  Under the new Chinese policy of ‘relaxation’ ... there are still severe restrictions on teaching and propagating the Dharma.  Among the twenty-four monastic institutions now being reconstructed, only two are nunneries: Gari Gonpa and Tsang Khung both in Lhasa.  Even these are being promoted chiefly for propaganda [and tourist] purposes and are not functioning independently as nunneries did in the past.” [97] 

The Chinese imprisoned and/or killed many if not the majority of monastics, and forced most of the remaining monastics to marry.  Furthermore, they forcibly suppressed study and religious practice, confiscating art treasures and burning sacred texts.  Nevertheless, a monk from Kham visiting Dharmsala in 1984 had the following to report:

“Many nuns still keep their vows strictly, even though the Chinese forced them to marry.  Now they practice religion silently in their homes.  They wear lay clothes and keep their hair long [in previous times, a number of nun-yoginīs living outside nunneries would keep their hair long].  In Lhasa I saw many young nuns.  Most of them are workers and they have to wear Chinese dress.  Underneath they are wearing [their traditional monastic garb of] brown and maroon clothes.  Under scarfs they conceal their shaven heads. ... There appear to be more young nuns than young monks, and the nuns inspire the young boys to become monks.” [98]


And out at the Kagyü Galo Nunnery, earlier mentioned as a site of advanced meditation and yoga practice, some fifty nuns (out of the former 500) are at work rebuilding their ruined nunnery—though living in extreme poverty and lacking many of the texts necessary for their devotions.  Most of the other nunneries—including places of high-level practice such as Chedo and others, were completely destroyed, with no signs left 20 years later.


Nevertheless, there was a period in the early- and mid-1980s when things seemed to be improving for Tibetan spiritual practitioners, including nuns and devout laywomen.  Keith Dowman reported (c.1986) [99] seeing and hearing of a considerable number of men and women engaged in deep spiritual practice in the sacred cave-hermitage “power-spots,” such as at Samye Chimpu (10 km. north of Samye, which is southeast of Lhasa), the most sacred of all the Nyingma hermitage sites.  Here, a “significant proportion” of the the 50 yoga-practitioners were women.  Dowman stated: “Women possessing as great a sense of commitment as male yogins or monks comprise a much larger proportion of Buddhist practitioners than before 1959.”  Dowman reported on a renowned ani-gompa Kagyü monastic establishment in the spiritually powerful area of Terdrom in the Drigung valley (about 140 km. northeast of Lhasa), where both men and women, monks and nuns, yogins and yoginīs were practicing a life emphasizing solitary retreat and deep meditation, in hermitages made famous by the former presence of Guru Rinpoche and Yeshe Tsogyel.  Many of the yogins here are married, celibacy not being stressed.  And remember, too, that the Chinese authorities forced most of the monks and nuns to marry—that is, those whom they had not already killed or imprisoned.


At a site near the end of the Terdrom Nangkor circumambulation in the Drigung valley (140 km. northeast of Lhasa) is a hermitage fronting a cave sacred to Guru Rinpoche and Yeshe Tsogyel, which Dowman reports “is the residence for the [aforementioned] Drigung Kandroma, presently a young yoginī considered to be an incarnation of Kandro Yeshe Tsogyel.”  About 12 km. to the southeast is a ridge with the new residence of the Drigung Rinpoches and in the vicinity are a number of monks, nuns, yogins, yoginīs and layfolk making the 3-year meditation retreats.  Dowman also tells of the Kagyü Dorje Ling Ani Gompa, being rebuilt through the efforts of its 30 nuns (it is two days’ walk north of Tsurpu, the former headquarters of the celebrated Karmapa tulkus, northwest of Lhasa).  Britt Lindhe says that Dorje Ling Nunnery and Galo Nunnery are exchanging nuns and maintaining contact.  Another source informs us of a remnant community of about 40 women at Sangchen Mingye Ling in Tibet, the oldest of whom were students of the late Nyingma yogi-scholar, Tso Patrul Rinpoche. 


All these women, in the aftermath of the murderous Chinese “Cultural Revolution” (1966-76) have lived very austere lives, eating very little, often working odd jobs in the community to eke out an existence.  But they are known for being especially strong in their spiritual practice.  Ani Tsang Khung Gompa, about which we have heard previous mention by Lobsang Dechun, was, according to Dowman, “an exemplary nunnery, fully functional in a beautifully restored building,” located between the famous Jokhang temple and the mosque in Lhasa.  Yet regarding the current events of which Dechun spoke in an earlier-given quote, I should hasten to point out that, since the wave of crackdowns by the Chinese authorities in Tibet from 1989 to the present, the life of the nuns at Ani Tsang Khung Gompa, as probably elsewhere, is being severely disturbed by Chinese “work teams” who are compelling the nuns to attend daily, lengthy pro-Communist propaganda meetings.  An 18 year-old refugee nun, Namdol Tenzin, claims that when she joined this monastery three years ago (c.1987-8) there were 116 nuns; the Chinese authorities, in a policy typical in recent years, wanted to expel 60 of the nuns; the chief nun protested vigorously and only 17 were expelled. Then, in late 1990 three of the nuns, including Namdol Tenzin, were arbitrarily arrested—on the ridiculous charge of “pro-independence” activities—imprisoned at the notorious Gutsa prison (where about 40 of the 500 prisoners are nuns), and, like many of her sisters and brothers there, tortured brutally.  Tsünma Namdol was for some reason finally released after three months and has since fled to Dharmsala, India.  (Alex Shoumatoff has found out that many nuns in recent months are “being stripped naked, mauled by dogs, and violated with electric cattle prods.  The new thing in the prisons is forcing inmates to give blood ‘donations’ three times a day, releasing them, if at all, only when they are almost completely exsanguinated and at the point of death.”  One nun from the Gutsa prison now living in Nepal told him about life in that hellish place:  “Everybody was tortured, except the snitches.  Some went crazy.  Only one-third of those who go to prison can come back to normal life.  Two-thirds are permanently disabled. ... I was stripped, [and] kicked all over.”) [100] 


I learned of a community of Tibetan tsünmas under the direction of a male Nyingma teacher, Lama Gompa, in the Ganshu Province of China.  Cathryn Hutton, a young American Vajrayāna student who practiced with these women for some months in 1989, told me of how radiantly happy these women are, despite the fact that they live, like many of their sisters elsewhere, in extremely impoverished conditions and must engage in hard manual labor to earn their little amount of food.  Many of these women dwell in simple caves which they hew out of the local hillside, dwellings which can become extremely cold.  These women—like women in a number of other nunneries in past years—are sometimes constrained to interrupt the form of their spiritual practice and go back to serve their families when any relatives are stricken with illness, injury, etc.  In other words, their status as renunciate nuns, detached from family life, is not fully honored by Tibetan society (whereas it would be almost unthinkable to ask a monk to come back and help his family by working for and/or serving them).  Evidently the head nun of this particular community in Ganshu is a highly realized being, with great powers and virtues. The reader should be aware that, given the hostile spirit of the Chinese authorities—who seem determined to slowly exterminate the Tibetan people through various hideous and insidious means of genocide (massacres, executions of untried prisoners, starvations, forced abortions for women even in advanced states of pregnancy, forced sterilizations, killing of newborn babies by Chinese obstetricians, job-deprivation, etc.)—many of the communities of Vajrayāna practitioners which Dowman and others have reported as existing or even “flourishing” in Tibet in the 1980s may have actually been suppressed again or even completely wiped out by the Chinese in most recent years, despite the Chinese authorities’ avowed “tolerance” of indigenous religious practice.  In response to these unconscionable violations of human rights (repeatedly denounced by the United Nations, but not addressed by the superpowers in any significant way), numerous nuns—along with monks and laypersons—have become real activists in staging peaceful demonstrations for rightful Tibetan autonomy.  Indeed, it is the nuns who are said to have been at the forefront of the freedom movement, bravely risking their lives for the sake of religious and political freedom for their people.  Some of the most celebrated of these women, most of whom probably died at the hands of the Chinese, include Thinley Chodon, Galingshar Ani, Tsamgung Ani Yongten, Sumtog Jetsünma, and Kunsang Tse Jetsünma.  The number of “saintly martyrs” to the Tibetan cause shows no signs of abating in the near future unless the superpower nations intervene and force the Chinese to stop their atrocities, yet they show no signs of doing so.  Tibet, Tibetans, and Tibetan spiritual culture seem to be quite “expendable.”  (The Persian Gulf War of 1991 fought by the USA against the Iraqis who invaded Kuwait was mainly about insuring oil reserves; will the superpowers ever realize that the defence and preservation of a 1200 year old highly advanced spiritual culture is equally, if not much more, important?)  If for no other reason, the superpowers should be concerned about the Chinese transformation of Tibet, formerly a peaceful buffer state, into one vast military base, from where their large number of nuclear missiles can reach all over Asia.  (Another concern is that most of the great rivers of southern and southeast Asia have their source in Tibet—what is to prevent the Chinese from destroying the countries to the south by cutting off or polluting or poisoning these great rivers at the border regions?)


What about the situation of Tibetan nuns among the 100,000 or so Tibetans in exile?  As reported earlier, Śrāmaṇerikā Dechen estimates that there are now about 2,000 nuns following the Tibetan tradition living in India (840 nuns), Nepal (500 nuns), and Bhutan (600 nuns). (Karma Lekshe Tsomo estimates only about 900 Tibetan nuns in India and Nepal.)  Just as a number of the nuns are dying of old age or from stresses and illnesses incurred in adapting to such a different climate and diet, their numbers are being replaced by refugees coming anew from the intolerable conditions in Tibet (94 more nuns arrived in India in the latter part of 1991), and young and old local Tibetan refugee women who are wanting to join their religious sisters.  It is tragic indeed that severe shortages of nunneries and funds, especially in India and Nepal, have prevented many women from living in nuns’ communities, and they must live on their own in austere fashion, doing child-care work or road construction to sustain themselves (a few are working as maids in the Oberoi and other hotels in India’s big cities—much in demand because the nuns are so trustworthy).  The Tibetan Women’s Association, founded in 1959, and headed by the Dalai Lama’s sister-in-law, Rinchen Khando Chōgyal, is working tirelessly to mobilize funds, food, shelter, clothing, medicine and educational resources for the refugees, including the nuns, who represent a very special group of women that could, if empowered, do much in turn to help the Tibetans in exile. [101]


Rev. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, who has done so much work to assess the state of nuns and nunneries in Asia, has reported on conditions in six of the more prominent nunneries of the Tibetan tradition in exile. [102]  Given the considerable interest in Tibetan traditions on the part of many Westerners, and the evidently quite lofty level of spiritual practice (or at least amazing pure-heartedness) of many of these Tibetan nuns, it is worth synopsizing Lekshe Tsomo’s findings.  Geden Chōling Nunnery in Dharamsala, Himachal Pradesh, India (near to the government-in-exile of the XIVth Dalai Lama), founded in 1976, is the largest functioning nunnery of the extant Tibetan tradition, with some 80 nuns (many more would like to reside here, but there is no space for them).  This nunnery, established mainly through the initiative of two nuns from the Nechungri Nunnery in Lhasa, makes room especially for younger nuns, and is providing something of the rigorous, traditional, Tibetan Gelugpa-school religious and philosophical education, even including the ancient practice of scholarly debate—though most of the time the nuns are performing rituals and practicing meditation.  Another nunnery providing for learning and debate of the traditional texts, and many hours of prayer to Tārā, is Keydong Thukche Chōling.  This nunnery was first re-located from Tibet to a remote region of Nepal when the nuns fled in 1959, and then to its present site behind the Swayambunath hill-temple in the Kathmandu valley of Nepal when a flash flood completely wiped out their first nunnery-in-exile while the nuns were away participating at a celebration of the Dalai Lama’s birthday.  Samten Chōling Nunnery, situated on the face of a cliff near Manali (Himachal Pradesh, India), is under the spiritual direction of Ven. Khenpo Thupten, a high Nyingma lama.  The 38 nuns residing here are blending study and deep meditation.  Jangchub Chōling Nunnery is a learning center for nuns established in 1985 in the Tibetan refugee settlement of Mundgod in south India, where the formerly huge Tibetan Gelugpa school monastic centers of Drepung and Ganden have been relocated (albeit now in much humbler form).  About 20 śrāmanerikās from different Tibetan lineages and 20 young novices are in residence, being mentored by Ven. Thubten Lhatso.  And Khachoe Ghakyil is a community of 21 nuns associated with the late Lama Yeshe’s and Ven. Thubten Zopa Rinpoche’s internationally-famous Kopan Monastery above Boudhanath in the Kathmandu valley of Nepal.  Here meditation and traditional learning and debate are held, in a Gelugpa school orientation, with many Westerners in attendance.


The Mahāyāna Buddhist Nunnery (its Tibetan name is Karma Drubgyu Targye Ling) has thus far been undoubtedly the most important Kagyü center for nuns in exile and is the earliest of the Tibetan nunneries to be established in exile.  It was first founded at Dalhousie in 1962 by the English bhikṣuṇī, Khechok Palmo (Mrs. Freda Swan Bedi, 1909-77), at the urging of H.H. Gyalwa Karmapa XVIth, then relocated in 1968 to Tilokpur (between Dharamsala and Pathankot, a site near to a number of caves made sacred by Indian tantric saint Tilopa).  Conditions were extremely harsh in the early years, especially the early years at Tilokpur.  Rev. Palmo appointed as its abbess (ani-khenpo) a spiritually accomplished nun, Karma Hoser (b. 1948), and one of the few Tibetan nuns who have received a B.A.  Her being “abbess” is a unique state of affairs, since most nunneries, remember, have been headed by a male abbot, with a head nun who was often simply called “Ani,” not “Khenmo” (Abbess).  In the case of this nunnery, it is mentored by H.E. Situ Rinpoche, and there are some older, accomplished nuns who serve as chanting master and disciplinarian. The overcrowded Tilokpur nunnery has anywhere between 15-50 nuns, depending on how many are on pilgrimage at a given time (many are sent on pilgrimage to relieve the terrible overcrowding).  These women, many of whom are quite young, are well-known for their radiant warmth, meditation practice, expertise in ritual, efficacy in prayers to Tārā, and frequent fasting (including the arduous nyungne practice of alternating 8 days of no eating with 8 days of eating).  Some are highly advanced practitioners.  (The Tilokpur nuns have been extensively profiled in a long chapter in Hanna Havnevik’s book, Tibetan Buddhist Nuns, the definitive work on Vajrayāna nuns. [103])  In 1984 their new retreat site, Changchub Samten Ling, at Sherab Ling, was finished, and in 1988 a group of the eight oldest nuns from Tilokpur completed the first traditional Vajrayāna 3-year group intensive retreat to be given in India (one of the few such retreats ever held for women); a second group is now engaged in a similar 3-year retreat, scheduled for completion in mid-1991.  (Havnevik has learned, however, that, a monk who has done the 39-month retreat is usually told that he can begin teaching, and more readily viewed by his society as a teacher, whereas “a nun who completed the three-year retreat will still be just a nun,” not capable of giving teachings until a male lama has given her permission to do so, and this permission is often late in coming, if at all—a terrible double-standard.)  The first Tibetan nuns to receive the full gelongma / bhikṣuṇī ordination are members of the Tilokpur nunnery, four having traveled to Hong Kong in 1984 and four more in 1988 to participate in the bhikṣuṇī ordination ceremony at Po Lin Monastery.  It is thus hoped that a strong community of nuns (bhikṣuṇī saṅgha) will be soon established in the Tibetan tradition in exile, so that Tibetan women religious will no longer be relegated to perennial “novice” status by monks and laity.


Another important Kagyü nunnery is Karma Chokhor Dechen at Rumtek monastery in Sikkim India, with 18 nuns; it was begun in 1983 through the efforts of the late XVIth Karmapa, and is projected to grow into a major center for study, meditation, and the 3-year retreat.


Sushri N. Shāntā, a French laywoman living in India, is presently writing a book about the Tibetan anis/tsünmas which, judging from her similar work on Jaina nuns, could become, along with the earlier mentioned work by Hanna Havnevik, a definitive profile of these deeply spiritual women. Hopefully she will be able to examine the situation of nuns in their homeland, and not just in exile.  Meanwhile, on the topic of the past and future of nuns of the Tibetan tradition, specifically those in exile, Rev. Lekshe Tsomo contributes the following important remarks:

“For years Tibetan nuns have been somewhat disadvantaged, in that religious life tended to center around communities of monks.  Being quite humble and self-effacing by nature, nuns have remained quietly in the background and continued their practices in solitude.  Study of higher philosophical texts became primarily the domain of male scholars, and religious education for women was somewhat neglected. Having little access to facilities for such higher studies, women lost faith in their intellectual capabilities, turning to meditation and other practices instead.  In these they excelled, and there are numerous references to highly realized female practitioners in Tibetan historical sources.  Still, due to cultural conditioning, social expectations, and their own delusions of incapability [conditioned into them by males], the range of religious opportunities for women was far more limited than for men.  These limitations were most substantially felt in the area of education. In the last decade, much progress has been made in reversing and mitigating these disadvantages [outside of Tibet, that is].  In India, young Tibetan women receive public education up to the high school level on an equal par with young men.  A large number have gone on to the university ... The quality of religious education for women as  improved, but there is much more progress to be made. ... Facilities at the nunneries need to be expanded to accomodate them.  ... [In any case,] changes are currently underway that will assure Tibetan women a greater role in religious and cultural life.” [104]



Looking to women of the Vajrayāna world in the west, we find a recent case of female empowerment:  Catherine Burroughs, a meditation teacher and prayer-group leader in Maryland, was informed in 1987 by the visiting H.H. Third Drubwang Padma Norbu Rinpoche, head of the Palyul line of the Nyingmapa school, that she was the reincarnation of a Tibetan Buddhist woman saint who died 300 years ago.  Enthroned as a tulku (reincarnate lama), and given the name Ahkōn Norbu Lhamo, she is one of the few women, a lay-woman at that (married, with a son), to be so honored in twelve centuries of Vajrayāna tradition—and certainly she is the first western woman to be regarded as a tulku.  She now presides over the Palyul Chōling Nyingmapa center in Poolesville, Maryland. Unfortunately, in subsequent years her leadership was marked by abusive, exploitative behavior, painfully described by upset former followers. [105]


Other prominent Western women involved with Vajrayāna in the latter twentieth century of whom I have heard any significant mention are 1) the already mentioned Gelongma Khechog Palmo (Mrs. Freda Swan Bedi 1909-77), an English Vajrayāna Buddhist nun, a student and representative of the eminent XVIth Gyalwa Karmapa of the Kagyü school.  She had been one of the first women to graduate from Oxford and then, while working for India’s Social Welfare Board, she became a tireless worker on behalf of Tibetan refugees, eventually coming to be the principal of the Young Lama’s Home School near Darjeeling, helping to educate young male Tibetan tulkus, and founding the earlier-mentioned Mahāyāna Buddhist Nunnery at Dalhousie in 1962 (relocated in 1968 to Tilokpur).  Rev. Palmo, affectionately known to the younger nuns as “Mummy,” and considered by the Karmapa to be an emanation of white Tārā, traveled to Hong Kong in 1972 to receive full ordination (probably the first woman in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition to do so), and spent much of the rest of her life either with the Karmapa or traveling the world in the attempt to mobilize resources for Tibetan nuns and monks.  2) The late Lucille Schaible, a self-taught Vajrayāna adept, was recognized in her later years by eminent teachers of the Nyingma lineage, and founded the Udiyan Maitreya Kosha in America, with several chapters.  3) Li Gotami (Sākya Dōlma) was the Western-born wife of the late German Buddhist scholar pilgrim, and poet, Lama Anagārika Govinda; Li Gotami herself received a number of Vajrayāna initiations along with her husband and studied Vajrayāna tantric art.  4) American-born Bhikṣuṇī Pema Chodron (c.1938- ) a former elementary teacher, is one of the first nuns of the Vajrayāna tradition in North America, having received a śrāmaṇerikā ordination from H.H. Gyalwa Karmapa in Scotland in 1973, and the bhikṣuṇī ordination in Hong Kong in 1981.  She is the resident director of the New Gampo Abbey in Nova Scotia, a Tibetan-style monastery for Western monks and nuns and for would-be ordainees.  Adhering to the Karma-Kagyü tradition, it was established in 1983, and, in typical Tibetan fashion, is headed by a male abbot, the Ven. Thrangu Rinpoche.  5) Sangye Khadro‚ (née Kathleen McDonald), a student of Lama Yeshe at Kopan monastery, Nepal, ordained in 1974 and helped found in 1984 the Dorje Pamo monastery (in France), the first community for Western women ordained as Buddhist nuns (there are now five women in residence).  She has recently been studying and teaching in Nepal, Australia, and elsewhere.  6) Dhyani Ywahoo is a Cherokee/Tsalagi Amerindian woman who not only teaches in that tradition (coming from a long line of teaching elders), but her Sunray Meditation Society in Bristol, Vermont was also recognized as a Vajrayāna center by the eminent Nyingma leader, H.H. Dudjom Rinpoche in 1983 and by H.H. Drikung Kyabgon Chetsang, of the Drikung Kagyü lineage, in 1986. [106]


A growing number of American and European women are becoming nuns in the Vajrayāna tradition (currently they number somewhere over 100, perhaps as many as 200—though none of them stay in the Tibetan-style nunneries). Many of these women have completed the 39-month retreats under high lamas such as Kalu Rinpoche (d. 1989), Lama Thubten Yeshe (d. 1984) and his disciple Lama Zopa, and Lama Ngawang.  Many of these women will likely come into prominence in the years ahead, along with some of the women who serve as directors of local chapter-groups of Vajrayāna organizations founded in this country by the XVIth Galywa Karmapa (d. 1981), Chōgyam Trungpa Rinpoche (d. 1987), and other male teachers.  Along with their Tibetan sisters at Tilokpur, Geden Chōling and elsewhere who are practicing deep meditation and receiving higher educations at the learning centers for nuns in India and Nepal, these women will help to create strong role models for women practitioners of Vajrayāna in the West and in Asia. 



In concluding this chapter on women of Buddhism, let us be aware of how several ancient Buddhist prophecies maintain that, after a period of serious decline, the Buddha-way would make a tremendous revival.  Our own present day is indicated as the destined time, and, in fact, Buddhism is again flourishing in remarkable ways.  Happily, just as was the case in the time of Gautama the Buddha, women are a major element in this revival, teaching and—more importantly—exemplifying, the great way of going beyond all selfish desire and awakening to the unfathomable nirvāṇa