Women in Tibetan Buddhism

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There has been a lot in the Western press this week about 27 Tibetan nuns taking the Tibetan Buddhist Geshe exam. This is sort of equivalent to a Ph.D. Geshe is the name given to Buddhist teachers in the Gelug and Sakya traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. This is big news because up until now there had only been one nun who was allowed to become a Geshe, and that was a Western Nun, who I have had teachings from and she is an excellent teacher.


Now, before we get all excited and start thinking Tibetan Buddhism has been dragged into the 21st century kicking and screaming, we should just slow down a little. I mentioned that this news was big in the Western press and that is the key to this story. In the West, Buddhists are excited that women are starting to get equal footing, but it actually isn’t quite like that.

I have had some very intense conversations this week that have disturbed me very much. Who were they with? Well, I am sure you can guess, Tibetan monks. Here are some of the points they raised:

  • women are a lower class than men
  • teaching them to become Geshe goes against Buddha and Buddhism
  • women cannot become a Buddha
  • they can never teach men
  • no man would ever listen to them
  • they are not as intelligent as men
  • there has never been a women ruler of Tibet because men are better

These are just a few comments. Some were so bad I couldn’t write them here.

Why I am writing this is because I don’t want people in the West to get carried away. It is a huge move in the right direct, and one I totally applaud, but don’t think that the men are going to give up their money, power and privileges easily. Tibetan Buddhism is a boys club and will be until Dalai Lama has the courage to come back as a women, something he has mentioned on more than one occasion.

Let’s keep encouraging this type of change, but remember it is no good if it is only driven from the West. We have to try to change the hearts and minds of men who have ruled supreme for hundreds of years. I wish these 27 nuns all the best and I will be sitting in the front row when they give their first teachings.





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  1. Patrick

    If you come upon a piece of information study, scrutinize it. If it is useful and true keep it. If it is not discard it. I am not sure why they would not discard this, it is merely a former of clinging.

  2. Mark Johnson

    Another timely and thought provoking piece by Ven. Yeshe Rabgye.
    it is not only Tibetans but other Buddhists of other traditions who hold women to be lower than men on the spiritual ladder. In Thailand, a Theravadin country, it is believed that a woman can never reach awakening. No matter her spiritual attainment, she would have to be reborn first as a man before reaching nirvana.
    Of course, this goes against the very explicit teaching of the Buddha himself in the Pali Suttas. When his disciple Ananda asked the Buddha if women could reach nirvana, the Buddha replied in the affirmative. No amount of cultural prejudice can outweigh that affirmative reply by the Buddha himself. If Buddhists, whether Theradava or Mahayana deny this basic spiritual equality, they are not following the Buddha, but rather are following a prejudiced tradition.
    In all fairness it must be said that the Buddha was very reluctant to give ordination to women, and had to be persuaded to do so.
    Why? Books have been written on that subject, and perhaps they can help us to perceive the thinking of the teacher 2500 years ago, or maybe it will just remain a mystery.
    That aside, the Buddha clearly taught that women can attain the highest goal of Buddhism.
    Can nuns teach monks? Well, if monks refuse to be taught by qualified nuns, that is their loss. True, the Buddha made rules 2500 years ago giving monks first place in the hierarchy of the sangha. That was one of the many rules promulgated then. But there was also a rule against monks handling money. How many monks follow that rule now?
    Times and conditions change.
    Will we find our way to freedom or be stuck to our habitual patterns?

    • yesherabgye

      Thanks Mark for your comments. I would love to know the name of the sutta where Buddha stated that women can reach nirvana – do you know it? We will be stuck in the dark ages until Buddhism stops being a boys club. If I was a woman I would start my own religion and men wouldn’t be allowed – it’s a go job I’m not a woman!

      • Mark Johnson

        Dear Ven. Yeshe la, Thanks for your reply. Elaine and I always hope for your good health and strong dharma practice, benefiting many beings. My books are en route from Sri Lanka, so I can’t pinpoint the place where the Buddha says women can be enlightened. It is in the Vinaya. I am attaching a version of the story. I am sure you can use that to find the exact place in the Vinaya where the story is told. Of course, as part of the story, the Buddha also predicts the inclusion of women will shorten the duration of the true teachings. He even gives the time frame, which is not born out by historical analysis. So either the prediction is an add on, the Buddha was having a bad hair day, or his future predictions were not all that accurate. Attached is a paraphrase version of the story, sorry, no exact source included. Also, I have included a piece I wrote for my Vinaya class. it is also attached. You might enjoy it. peace and bodhicitta mark

      • Karma Yeshe Rabgye

        Hi Mark
        Please do not take this personally, but your last message went to spam. That is why I didn’t see it till now, sorry. There were no attachments with it. Could you send them by email please.
        I am so happy Elaine and you take an interest in my work – it means a lot to me.

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