What Buddhism Says About the Power of Women

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The Lotus Sutra teaches the enlightenment of women. And that’s why we practice it.

The heart of Buddhism is the conviction that every person inherently possesses the ability to overcome any problem that they may experience. This ability is called the “Buddha nature,” and we chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo each day to bring it out.

But how do we know that each person can access it equally? Shakyamuni Buddha, or Siddhartha as he sometimes referred to, expounded a particular teaching toward the end of his life called the “Lotus Sutra.” Before Shakyamuni began preaching this sutra, he shared, “In these more than forty years, I have not yet revealed the truth” (“Those Initially Aspiring to the Way,” The Writings of Nichiren Daishonin, vol. 1, p. 875).

This “truth” he later revealed was that each person, just as they are, has the ability to become a Buddha, including women. This was a declaration that the society of the time found truly shocking.

Each person, just as they are, has the ability to become a Buddha, including women. This was a declaration that the society of the time found truly shocking.

However, the Lotus Sutra unfolds with a powerful story of an 8-year-old referred to as the dragon king’s daughter, who is half woman and half dragon. Though she studies the Lotus Sutra diligently, fellow disciples of Shakyamuni do not believe she can attain enlightenment in her present form as a woman. Then, faster than the blink of an eye, she attains enlightenment right in front of them. They stand in shock, their preconceived ideas of what was possible for a woman shattered.

In a discussion on the Lotus Sutra, Buddhist philosopher Daisaku Ikeda goes further and shares the following:

The Lotus Sutra teaches that all living beings possess the world of Buddhahood. There is not even a hint of discrimination toward women. ... If there are men who deny the enlightenment of women, they are denying the possibility of their own enlightenment. This is a point that not everyone understands.

The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 3, pp. 99–100

The point of practicing Buddhism is to become happy. That is not determined by our individual identities. Happiness is a universal right, not something that is only accessible to certain groups of people. Ikeda goes on:

The dragon girl was perceived as having virtually no chance of ever attaining Buddhahood because she was a woman, was very young, and had the body of an animal. She was, however, the first to attain Buddhahood in her present form. This is very significant. The dragon girl’s enlightenment in an oppressively discriminatory society amounts to a ringing declaration of human rights. ... The fundamental point of the declaration of women’s rights arising from the Lotus Sutra is that each person has the innate potential and the right to realize a state of life of the greatest happiness.

The Wisdom of the Lotus Sutra, vol. 3, p. 122

Myoho-renge-kyo is the title of the Lotus Sutra, and the 13th-century Buddhist reformer Nichiren Daishonin added “Nam,” meaning “to dedicate one’s life” to this truth of the Lotus Sutra, that just as we are, we can attain enlightenment. So, each time we chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, we are literally manifesting the life state of the Buddha from within. Isn’t that incredible?

We’ll leave you with this food for thought from a letter Nichiren wrote to a dedicated woman practitioner. (Remember this was the 13th century … not 2021, when society still too often struggles to believe in the equality of people.) Determined to encourage this follower to have a spirit of endurance, Nichiren writes, “Only in the Lotus Sutra do we read that a woman who embraces this sutra not only excels all other women, but also surpasses all men” (WND-1, p. 464).

Only in the Lotus Sutra do we read that a woman who embraces this sutra not only excels all other women, but also surpasses all men.

- Nichiren Daishonin

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