Buddhism in the Balance: Why Do Men Dominate the Sangha?

The Sangha should be not just a brotherhood of monks, but a brotherhood of man, and a sisterhood of women. This is a bit of a sore subject for Buddhism, too, since the beginning, firstly because in its original inception it WAS a bit explicitly oriented towards saffron-robed renunciants, with distinctly less concern for the surrounding community, even though that surrounding community indeed were the very people charged with feeding those same renunciant monks everyday by means of dana provided during the alms-round pindapatha.

This indeed was much of the discussion and dispute that resulted in the formation of a bodhisattva-and-community-oriented Mahayana tradition to enhance the original monk-oriented Theravada tradition. So far, so good. The two traditions managed to co-exist, as they still do to this day. Women haven’t fared so well, though. The Buddha finally allowed them to ordain as full renunciant nuns, but only with grudging acceptance and after much exhortation by a female family member. Then, to add insult to injury, the Buddha stated that the dharma would only last for a fraction of the time that it would’ve otherwise lasted, a fact which some monks use to rub salt in the wound to this day.

Yes, modern monks of the Theravadin and Tibetan Vajrayana traditions proudly elucidate the reasons why nuns can’t be ordained, mostly that because the tradition once died out, then it can’t possibly be revived, can it? So, nuns from Thailand go to Sri Lanka, where the tradition is intact, to ordain, and then go back to Thailand to practice. Ironically the only reason that any Buddhism is intact in Sri Lanka is because Thailand helped them to reboot the system there after it had died out totally, even though Sri Lanka is where Thailand got their Theravada in the first place. Whew! That was close! Yes, it’s complicated.

But mostly it’s just good old-fashioned patriarchy and misogyny that keeps women begging at the gates. Sayadawgyi Mahasi in Yangon, Myanmar, writes that if women are lucky, then they will be reborn as men, so… with that kind of attitude, then it’s no wonder that there is a problem. So, rebirth is used as a justification for patriarchy and not only the Brahmin caste superiority that I’ve long credited them with. Even in my own forest temple in Thailand, the senior monk made it clear that women need not apply for residence, even though I, a foreigner, Thai-speaking admittedly, was warmly welcomed. Women still have a long way to go. Keep the faith. Hearts are there to be warmed.