Transforming Gender Bias in Tibetan Buddhism

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 21, 2014

Blossoms of the Dharma: The Contribution of Western Nuns in Transforming Gender Bias in Tibetan Buddhism

Elizabeth Swanepoel
University of Pretoria

This article investigates the nature of gender imbalance in Tibetan Buddhism, particularly pertaining to the unavailability of bhikṣuṇī ordination, and the specific role Western nuns have played in contributing to transforming this imbalance. The article postulates that male privilege continues to dominate the institutional cultures of religious life in Tibetan Buddhism. However, fertile tensions have of late emerged between an underground tradition of highly accomplished female practitioners and the institutional preference for male practitioners. A revalorization process has been initiated in recent years by a number of Western female Buddhologists, some of whom are also fully ordained Tibetan Buddhist nuns. The article highlights the efforts of these accomplished nuns as well as a number of other prominent Western Tibetan Buddhist nuns.

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2 thoughts on “Transforming Gender Bias in Tibetan Buddhism”

  1. Dear Elizabeth,
    Thank you very much for your detailed and very interesting study of the nature of gender imbalance in Tibetan Buddhism with special focus on the issue of bhikṣuṇī ordination and the specific role of Western nuns in this context. In Western societies we can observe a growing interest in the question of gender equity in religion and thus your article from a social science perspective just comes at the right time. It clearly shows how hard Western women, especially Western nuns in the Tibetan tradition, have struggled for decades and how difficult it is to be heard. So, thanks for listening and taking interest!!!

    However, one little, but nevertheless very important, detail needs to be corrected. On page 576, note 8, you correctly refer to an article of mine, but then seem to conclude that there is no evidence that the bhikṣuṇīs mentioned received their ordination in Tibet. That is only partly correct. For some bhikṣuṇīs, we do have very clear evidence that they did receive their ordination in Tibet. As I briefly mention in my article to which you refer (p. 207), the famous Sa skya master Śākya mchog ldan (1428-1507) functioned as abbot (Tib. mkhan po, Skt. upādhyāya) for the ordination of the famous bhikṣunī of Gyama. This was an ordination performed by bhikṣus only in Tibet!

    Furthermore, please see also Janet Gyatso’s article “Female Ordination in Buddhism: Looking into a Crystal Ball, Making a Future” in Mohr and Tsedroen (2010), Dignity and Discipline, p. 6, where she writes: “More specifically, and relevant to the effort to collect precedents in Tibetan Buddhism, we have evidence of a handful of cases of bhikṣuṇī ordinations in Tibet from the eleventh to at least the sixteenth centuries–including, among others, the first Rdo rje Phag mo, Chos kyi sgron ma, studied by Hildegard Diemberger; the early yoginī ’Ong jo; and the perhaps sixteenth-century Lca mo Dkon mchog mtsho mo, both studied by Dan Martin.” In note 10 she gives the respective references: “Diemberger 2007: 183 and Martin 2005:67 and 72–73. Diemberger also refers to statements in the biography of Shākya Mchog ldan (1432–1507) that he had given full ordination to his mother and a female disciple (Diemberger 2007:133). See also note 12 below.”

    I suggest to delete the last part of the note that “…there is no evidence that they received their ordination in Tibet” and to upload a revised version.

    With best wishes and thanks again for your contribution,


    Bhikṣuṇī Jampa Tsedroen

  2. This error was not the fault of the author, but was introduced in the editorial process, probably by me. My apologies to the author, to Ven. Jampa Tsedroen, and anyone else who has already downloaded the article. I have substituted a corrected version of the article. Although in general it would not be our policy to make such a substitution after publication, in this case it seemed warranted and does not change the pagination of the article. Daniel Cozort

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