Conference on Tibetan Buddhism Still an All-Male Event

I think nothing is religion which puts one individual absolutely above others, and surely nothing is religion which puts one sex above another. – Julia Ward Howe

The 12th Major Religious conference for Tibetan Buddhism in exile was recently held in Dharamsala, India. A three-day forum organized biannually by the Department of Religion and Culture and the Tibetan exile government it was presided over by the lineage heads of the five major Tibetan Buddhist traditions and the Tibetan Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay. Around one hundred monks representing the different traditions were in attendance for the gathering.

Although, all the major religions are male-dominated and discriminatory towards females, there is a prevailing impression that Buddhism is somehow different and that women play and hold a more equal role. For example, Buddhism tends to get a more sympathetic press and reception from their Asian and western followers than Islam on this issue.

However, despite the fact that more women in Europe, North America and Australasia are becoming Buddhist teachers, leaders and centre directors, sadly, the situation for female Buddhists in India and Nepal, where the majority of Tibetans in exile are settled, is still lagging behind. For centuries in Tibet (and in exile), women and nuns have been excluded from obtaining an equivalent education or religious positions of power, authority and knowledge, such as becoming a Geshe or a Khenpo (equivalent to PhD in Buddhist Philosophy).

This situation is gradually changing due to the efforts of pioneering Buddhist women such as Tsultrim Allione, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Khandro Rinpoche and the first Geshema Kalsang Wangmo. The obstacles and prejudice faced by contemporary and historical female Buddhist practitioners are nonetheless heartbreaking, as detailed by Prof. Rita M Gross in her excellent book, Buddhism After Patriarchy.

Things are looking up though. The 30 year old HH the 17th Karmapa, Orgyan Trinley Dorje,has been at the forefront of awareness-raising and initiatives to give nuns equal status and opportunities in monastic education. He also wrote a whole chapter on Gender and Equality in his book ‘Noble is the Heart’ and continually spoke about the importance of gender equality on a recent teaching tour of the USA. HH the 14th Dalai Lama has also made frequent statements regarding the importance of women’s rights and equality. Yet, despite these recent efforts, the inherited privilege and attitudes of male entitlement or superiority are proving hard to shift. As a loving follower and student of the Karmapa and Tibetan Buddhism for the last ten years, it was disappointing to see that there were no female attendees at such a conference.

Even in modern education, Tibetan monks are still accorded greater privilege and access to opportunities, such as via the ‘Science for Monks‘ initiative. An excellent project yet it seems so far, that nuns are included more as a ‘token’ females than as main participants or graduates. When I asked someone why more nuns were not involved, they told me that they did not perform as well in the science tests, omitting to mention that centuries of lack of equal access to education are to blame for that, not that nuns are unworthy or have inferior intellectual capacities to monks. Of course, with the latest comments of Nobel Prize winner, Tim Hunt, it is no surprise at all that sexism in science is still prevalent in other parts of the world.

Fortunately, the issue of all male panels is coming more and more to the forefront. Events, initiatives or projects that have predominantly (or only) male delegates or speakers are being called to account with public exposure via feminist activists (such as and this conference is sadly a strong candidate for inclusion.

The question is how can any institution, religion or philosophy that claims to speak on behalf of all human beings, exclude 50 per cent of them from the main table? It reminds me of a pertinent question that German academic and scholar, Sylvia Wetzel, posed to the 14th Dalai Lama at a discussion on ‘Equality between Men and Women in Buddhism’. Wetzel asked the male participants to imagine a religion in which 99 per cent of the teachers, the authors, masters and lineage holders were women and whether they would follow such a religion? The response was an awkward, albeit deafening, silence or laughter.

At the beginning of his talk at the event, the Karmapa mentioned that previously in Tibet there was no tradition of the different lineages assembling for a large conference like this. But after the Tibetans came to India, HH the Dalai Lama through his great kindness began these meetings and now it is the twelfth one. The Karmapa noted that the conferences have taken place in a spirit of equality: participants are not thinking, “I’m important and they’re not.” Everyone sees each other as equals, which fosters harmonious relationships. While this is undoubtedly true and admirable, let’s hope that female Buddhists are included in that ‘perception of equals’ by being included at such events in future. Actions speak much louder than words after all.


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