The Role and Rights of Women in Buddhism

The rights of women can be summarised as the freedom from discrimination and equal opportunities with men.  In India, during the time of the Buddha, women were treated as inferior to men; a son was more preferable than a daughter. Despite such social conventions, the Buddha regarded women as equal to men. When Ven. Ananda asked whether women have the potential to attain enlightenment, the Buddha said yes – just like their male counterparts. Thus over 2600 years ago, the Buddha gave women permission to enter the Holy Order. Since then many female monks achieved enlightenment. Two of them were appointed female chief disciples of the Buddha alongside his two male chief disciples. The Buddha also suggested some etiquette rules for a husband: he should honour, respect and be faithful to his wife, allow her to superintend the household affairs, and provide her with ornaments. In return, the wife should do her duty well, look after his relatives, be faithful, take care of what he brings home and be diligent in all her duties. It is clear that Buddhism promotes women’s rights and equality.

To many, the term ‘equal rights’ denotes discrimination that needs to be put right. Our interpretation of equal rights in this sense is somehow restricted to worldly gains and external freedom. If we get an equal pay or better salary, for example, we will be happy. But once we get it, the mind will move the goal posts further. The yearning continues and we will never be truly satisfied because we are forever waiting for the next better things. We live in the future, for the future, full of worries and forget to be happy in the here and now.

Inasmuch as we want to put external freedom right, we must not lose our way or neglect our freedom within. For this type of freedom, we don’t need others to hand it to us. Nor do we need to change others to our way of thinking, but we can change our attitudes towards them so that we can be at peace regardless. We need to look deeper beyond worldly and external freedom. As long as there’s greed, anger and delusion in the world, bias and inequality will remain. If each and every one develops peace within there will be no hurting, harming or taking advantage of one another.

There’s a Buddhist proverb: natthi santi paramam sukham, meaning there is no greater happiness in the world than that which comes from a peaceful mind.  For the mind to be at peace it needs to understand things as they are. This requires that we look closely into the nature of things around us and at the body that we regard as self. If this body belongs to us then we should be able to stop it from growing, ageing, getting sick and dying. But we can’t go against the force of nature. Sooner or later the body will return to the earth. We simply acknowledge what is going on without identifying with it or putting ourselves in it. If we hear something unpleasant, it’s just hearing. We don’t add ‘I’ to it.  After all, it’s just a sound coming into contact with our ears.  When a thought is bothering us, we also acknowledge it as thinking, thinking, thinking. When we acknowledge it as such, studies showed that the information will be sent to the frontal brain, the analytical brain, the reasoning brain rather than going to the amygdala – the brain emotional centre. As a result, we will be less stressed.

When we continue to see things as they are, the mind will be able to let go. We don’t yearn to be someone going somewhere. No void needs to be filled. We simply enjoy being!  At that moment, our mind is totally at peace.  It’s only when there is ‘me,’ this ‘me’ needs to be someone, to be on par with others or even better – to feel good. We start hoarding things, our dissatisfaction with the world grows.  Our subjective way of looking at the world brings nothing but unnecessarily stress.

In conclusion, the rights to happiness for women in Buddhism are equal to men. The definition of worldly rights is too narrow a definition. We need to look beyond that, and deep within.  And for that matter, women can enjoy the role and freedom they have – freedom of the mind that is priceless beyond any form of conventional rights and equality.

Kamontip Evans is a stress management consultant and author of Taming the Truant Mind. She also writes blogs on mindfulness meditation for the Huffington Post