Saturday, May 28, 2011

Bankei Zen: Can women become Buddhas?

"I can tell you something about this matter of women's Buddha Mind. I understand that women feel very distressed hearing it said that they can't become Buddhas. But it simply isn't so! How is there any difference between men and women? Men are the Buddha Body, and women are the Buddha Body too. You shouldn't entertain any doubts of this sort. When you thoroughly grasp the Unborn, then, in the Unborn, there's no difference whether you're a man or a woman. Everyone is the Buddha Body.
You women, listen closely now. While, in terms of physical form, men and women are obviously different, in terms of the Buddha Mind there's no difference at all. Don't be misled by appearances! The Buddha Mind is identical: it makes no distinctions between men and women."

Bankei Kotaku (from Bankei Zen, tr. by Peter Haskell p. 35)

Comment: I'm really struck by how strongly and explicitly both Dogen and Bankei argued for women's equality in Dharma practice. Dogen Kigen (1200-1253) argues passionately and extensively so in his essay Raihai Takuzui, available at the Soto Zen Text Project (
The problem stems from the doctrine that women cannot become "samyaksambuddhas" or fully self-awakened Buddhas who establish a religion in a world without Dharma (as Shakyamuni did). This idea originated in the Hinayana, where it was not so significant since most practitioners aim at becoming arhats- people who are liberated by a Buddha's teaching, but do not themselves establish a new religion, which Hinayana teachings say women can do just as well as men. 
In the Mahayana this teaching became problematic because becoming a Fully Self-Awakened Buddha was the goal of all practitioners. Many solutions arose, examples of which can be seen in the Srimala Sutra, Lotus Sutra and Vimalakirti Sutra. What impresses me about Dogen and Bankei is their total refusal to accept that women cannot become Buddhas despite the fact that standard scriptural Mahayana says they can't.

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