From 16 to 17 May in Perugia (Piazza Morlacchi 30), the Chiang Ching-Kuo Foundation of International Scholarly Exchange supported a conference titled, “Gender Asymmetry in the Different Buddhist Traditions Through the Prism of Nuns.” This conference examines the perennially sensitive and sociologically complex topic of women in the monastic traditions of Buddhism. This has been a point of contention between Asian and Western feminists, and also within Buddhist communities themselves, monastic and lay alike.
Despite being a much-debated and often emotionally charged topic, it is rarely approached from a scholarly perspective. The academics involved in this symposium are accomplished researchers and teachers, engaged in studies involving a range of feminist concerns, history, and textual criticism. Such a conference naturally will involve interdisciplinary crossovers.
Organized by Prof. Nicola Schneider and Prof. Ester Bianchi, the papers presented will be published as a special issue in the open journal Religions (ISSN 2077–1444). The upcoming volume will be focusing on the “attitudes, perceptions, experiences and actions of the Buddhist nuns themselves while drawing on examples from Buddhist countries.” (Religions)
In her letter detailing the aims of this special issue, Prof. Schneider wrote: “Buddhist monasticism, women are relegated to second rank, mainly for two reasons: first, they do not always have access to the same level of education as their male counterparts and are therefore not credited with the same learning (erudition); second, in some countries, they are excluded from one or all ordination rites. Thus, we have, on the one hand, full-fledged monks, and on the other, female religious practitioners who, in several Asian countries, are not ordained (Burma, Sri Lanka and Thailand) or are only semi-ordained (India, Mongolia, Nepal and Tibet). As for Chinese and Korean monasticisms, there are fully ordained nuns, but they still have to respect traditional norms regarding gender hierarchy.” (Religions)
For these two reasons – uneven access to education and respect, and partial or total exclusion from ordination rites – Prof. Schneider notes: “The resulting asymmetry between ordained men and women is a facet of living Buddhism.” (Religions)
The conference, which only wrapped up several days ago in Perugia, hosted a series of researchers and scholars that gave extremely informative and insightful lectures. Among them was Ven. Bhikkhuni Dhammadinna, co-founder and director of the Agama Research Group, who spoke on the 16th about the topic: “Revived Theravada bhikkhunis and the bhikkhusangha: institutional asymmetries, legal and existential dissonances.” On the same day, Profs. Bianchi and Schneider gave lectures respectively on: “Assessing the Emergence and Impact of Nuns Dual Ordination in the New Era China” and “A Revolution in Red Robes: Tibetan Nuns obtaining the Doctoral Degree in Buddhist Studies.”
There are many more speakers that address complex and urgent gender issues in the monastic setting. The subjects given by the above three specialists, coincidentally, represent a cross-section of Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana concerns in ordination and education. The long-standing question remains, as ever, the full extent to which women can work with traditional structures to earn authority and accumulate education. Furthermore, what can be done when the limits of said extent become irreconcilable with a Buddhist woman’s perfectly justified desire to serve the Dharma without unconscionable handicaps?
This is an uncomfortable question, but one that must be explored thoroughly and answered satisfactorily, for the sake of the future of the sasana.
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