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Gender Equality in Buddhism

 

How the Lotus Sutra views the enlightenment of women.

The Enlightenment of Women

The Lotus Sutra teaches that all living beings possess the world of Buddhahood. There is not even a hint of discrimination toward women. If there are men who deny the enlightenment of women, they are denying the possibility of their own attainment of Buddhahood.

To discriminate against others--in any way--is to discriminate against your own life.

In a fiercely discriminatory society, Shakyamuni staunchly refused to allow his actions to be colored by distinctions of class, gender and birth, or of lay practitioner and monk or nun. As a result, he was seen as a dangerous person by conservative elements of society who stood by the status quo.

Whether male or female, being noble or base depends entirely on what a person has done. It is one's actions and sincerity that count. That is Shakyamuni's spirit.

The Lotus Sutra teaches that men and women are equal both in enlightenment and in practice. This amounts to a declaration that men and women are equally qualified to expound the Law in the Buddha's stead.

In the thirteenth chapter, entitled "Encouraging Devotion," Shakyamuni bestows prophecies of future enlightenment upon a multitude of women. And the people to whom Bodhisattva Never Disparaging bows in reverence (acknowledging their inherent Buddha nature), saying, "I have profound reverence for you, I would never dare treat you with disparagement or arrogance," include both laymen and laywomen, priests and nuns. The premise, here, naturally is that women equally can attain Buddhahood.

In the future, rather than a situation where either one sex or the other dominates society, it will be necessary to develop a completely new civilization in which there is balance and harmony between the sexes.

It is a fact that the images of "masculinity" and "femininity" we have in our consciousness are deeply influenced by cultural traditions that have developed over long periods of time. And the influence of these traditions thoroughly pervades every aspect of the social ethos, including language, religion, systems of organization, education and scholarship. Therefore, it seems to me that the important thing is not that society come up with a particular model for how men and women ought to behave, but that people first and foremost make tenacious effort to live as decent human beings, and allow others to do the same.

In Buddhism, too, there are various explanations about the roles of men and women. But these naturally are colored by the views of men and women that were prevalent at the times and in the societies where these teachings were expounded. They cannot be taken as having universal application. The important thing is that both women and men become happy as human beings. Becoming happy is the objective; everything else is a means.

Anytime someone decides the way people ought to be, no matter how correct the idea might seem, what good is it if in the implementation people become miserable? Nor is it possible that only one sex could become happy at the expense of the other.

From the standpoint of life's eternity, distinctions of male and female are not set in stone. Rather, we may be born as a man in one life, and as a woman in another. Moreover, all people have both male and female aspects.

The dragon girl depicted in the Lotus Sutra who was perceived as having virtually no chance of ever attaining Buddhahood because she was a woman, was very young, and had the body of an animal, was in fact the first to attain Buddhahood in her present form. This is very significant. The dragon girl's enlightenment in an oppressively discriminatory society amounts to a ringing declaration of human rights.

The fundamental point of the "declaration of women's rights" arising from the Lotus Sutra is that each person has the innate potential and the right to realize a state of life of the greatest happiness. Our realizing such happiness will ensure that this noble history of sacrifice and struggle has not been in vain. The goal is for each person, like the dragon girl, to set out on a voyage to attain absolute happiness, while helping those adrift on the sea of suffering do the same--without anyone being victimized.

"All women have the right to become happy. They have to become happy without fail." That is the spirit of the Lotus Sutra.

The land where the dragon girl attains Buddhahood and leads others to happiness is called the "Spotless World." This suggests that when one woman attains enlightenment, it causes her surroundings to turn into a world of purity and beauty. A solidarity of women who are awakened to the nobility of their own lives will doubtless change the tenor of the age and the very character of civilization. The SGI women and young women members are the pioneers and nucleus for the development of such a solidarity. They are infinitely respectworthy. They are truly irreplaceable individuals who can answer the expectations of people around the world.

The Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore characterized modern civilization as a "civilization of power" dominated by men, and yearned for the development, through the efforts of women, of a "civilization of the spirit" based on compassion.

In that sense, this chapter of the sutra contains important suggestions for transforming the very makeup of modern civilization. Simply put; a shift from a material civilization to a civilization of life; and from a society of control to a society of cooperation and compassion.

To compassionately embrace all living beings as one's own children--this is a state of life that all people, women and men alike, should strive to attain. Herein lies the true significance, for civilization and for the age, of the dragon girl's enlightenment.

--SGI President Daisaku Ikeda

Excerpted from a translation of comments made by Ikeda in a discussion with members of the Soka Gakkai study department in the September 1996 issue of the Daibyakurenge, the Soka Gakkai study journal. The discussion was later published as The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra (World Tribune Press, 2001).

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