Buddhism is a Gender Equal Religion. Or Maybe Not.


Buddhism in the Korean Peninsula

Buddhism is one of the main religions in South Korea: in fact, 15.5% of the population is Buddhist. The religion first came to the Korean peninsula from China during the 4th century. Nowadays, there are the different schools of Seon (Korean Zen), Jogye Order, Taego, Cheontae, Jingak Order and Won Buddhism, a more modern and reformed Buddhism. Walking around Seoul, one will often see people wearing light grey seungbok, or Buddhist monk clothes. On closer examination, many of those people are women. In the early stages of Buddhism, Gautama Buddha permitted women to join his monastic community to participate in it as he ordained his maternal aunt and five hundred other women. In fact, Buddhism is one of the few major religions in which a female clergy exists alongside their male counterparts. In the Buddhadharma (teaching of the Buddha), no distinction is made between the genders. However, there is a considerable gap between the nondualistic ideal and what is actually practiced. Over the centuries, the infiltration of patriarchal society and cultural values significantly affected the religion’s original idea of gender equality.

Korean Buddhist nuns in history
According to Buddhist expert Cho Eunsu, records of Buddhist women first appeared during the Three Kingdoms period (AD 184/220–280): of a nun named Lady Sa. It was mainly in the Koyro Dynasty (918-1392) when the Buddhist Order became important and many monks held notable positions, whereas nuns were largely excluded. The situation made a turn for the worse in the Choson Dynasty (1392-1910), with the government’s promulgation of an anti-Buddhist policy. Adopting the Neo- Confucianism ideology, the Buddhist community began to face discrimination;
monks and nuns could not enter the capital and monasteries were built only in the mountains.
Fortunately, Buddhism survived thanks to female members of the royal family who provided financial support to the Buddhist clergy for the preservation of temples. But it was also during that time in which Buddhist women suffered the double oppression of the government’s anti-Buddhist policies along with Confucian ideals that further supported female oppression. In the latter part of
the dynasty, Buddhism deteriorated, with religious beliefs sometimes mixing 55 with shamanistic rituals. Later on, in the colonial period (1910-1945), the Japanese’ favorable attitude towards Buddhism allowed Buddhist nuns to once again learn their doctrine and practice in influential ways. The condition of the nuns also improved and meditation practices were widely on the rise. After the Korean War (1950-1953), many such nuns were involved in the large-scale reconstruction of temples to make up for the poor buildings they had received in the past. Major Buddhist nunneries began to appear in the 1950s—following the Purification Movement that fought for monks’ right to marriage.
Transmitting Buddhist recipes
Korean Buddhist nuns are widely known for their cooking of vegan and vegetarian recipes. Jeong Kwan, a Zen Buddhist nun and chef of Korean cuisine, became famous cooking vegan dishes in New
York. Based in the Chunjinam Hermitage at the Baegyangsa temple in South Korea, she does not use garlic or onions in her recipes—ingredients that some Buddhists believe stimulate libido. Jeong Kwan’s cooking style is focused on dehydrating, seasonality and fermentation. “She is an avatar of temple cuisine, which has flowed like an underground river through Korean culture for centuries. Long before Western coinages like slow food, farm-to-table and locavore, generations of unsung masters at spiritual refuges like Chunjinam were creating a cuisine of refinement and beauty out of whatever they could rustle up from the surrounding land,” The New York Times reported.
Social Status Interestingly, Buddhist nun Martine Batchelor who has experience of many Asian countries, once highlighted that Korean Buddhist nuns have the second highest social status among
Asian countries, after Taiwan. Korean monks tend to respect the nuns, and all nunneries in the country operate with full autonomy. Korean Buddhist nuns’ cohesive power, improvements in the
economic environment, rise in the role of women in the Korean society, the 56 advent of nuclear families, and changes in the religious practice may be some of the reasons behind the remarkable
development of the situation of Korean Buddhist nuns.
However, nuns are still exposed to unequal treatment compared to the monks. Based on the book titled, Korean Buddhist Nuns and Laywomen: Hidden Histories, Enduring Vitality, the number of writings on Korean nuns remains few and nuns continue to practice their faith in rather crowded and financially disadvantaged places relative to those facilities used by monks.

Buddhist female revolution in Asia
In 1928, a proclamation by Thailand’s all-male Buddhist Sangha Supreme Council forbade female ordination. Consequently, many women fly to Sri Lanka to become bhikkhuni, Buddhist nuns. This is the case of Dhammananda Bhikkhuni; born Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, she received full monastic ordination in 2003. However, female orders are not recognized by Thailand’s conservative Buddhist clergy. The government also perpetuates the disparity, exempting monks from paying taxes but not nuns. According to The Diplomat, Bhikkhuni controversy mirrors a broader culture of misogyny in Thailand, which persisted despite the election of the country’s first female Prime Minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, in 2011. Currently, Bhikkhuni activists are struggling to find political support for their campaign— even amongest human rights and feminist groups. The fight for gender equality inside Buddhism is also acclaimed in Tibet. In 2016, nuns at the Larung Gar Buddhist Institute, the largest Tibetan Buddhist academy in the world, held study sessions on feminism sparking a nascent religious movement. The group has since published a series of books on female Buddhist figures and annually puts out a magazine raising their voices.

Analyzing stories about Buddhist nuns, it is clear that there is yet a long way to go for the world to arrive at true gender equality. Even if in countries such as South Korea and Taiwan, Buddhist
nuns are respected and have autonomy, disparities can still be seen in many areas. It is interesting to note that while Buddhism was born as a gender-neutral religion and evolved across the centuries
because of socio-cultural changes and the engendering of patriarchal ideas.


Alessandra Bonanomi, reporter for The AsiaN

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