Ancient Buddhist texts reveal shifting perspectives on women

BY Laura Paisley,, April 14, 2017

USC scholar studies the ideal of gender roles within Buddhism, focusing on the women and religious texts of fifth-century China

California, USA
-- It’s an interesting aspect of Buddhist tradition: Women were prevented from fully participating in Buddhism by the mere fact of having female bodies. That circumstance, and how views of it evolved, piqued the interest of Stephanie Balkwill.

<< Stephanie Balkwill   
Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar Stephanie Balkwill is a member of USC‘s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. (Photo/Courtesy of Stephanie Balkwill)

“I’m interested in the ways in which Buddhism, when it came to China from India and Central Asia, offered women new opportunities for social and religious practice that they didn’t have before,” said Balkwill, Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. A member of USC’s prestigious Society of Fellows in the Humanities, Balkwill has studied the lives of women, particularly Buddhist women, in fourth- through sixth-century China in depth.

According to the Buddhist tradition, women cannot ascend to the status of a Buddha - one who is awake, enlightened and emancipated from samsara, the cycle of birth and death - because their bodies grow and give birth to children. That ties them metaphorically to samsara.

Ancient text

A passage from a popular 5th-century Buddhist text provides an extensive meditation on the reasons why a woman must transform her sex in order to become a Buddha:

“As for a woman who is born inside the imperial palace, she necessarily belongs to another person. Throughout her life, she is like a maidservant who must serve and follow a great family, also like a disciple who must venerate and serve his master. She is beaten by different kinds of swords and staves, rocks and tiles, and is defiled by every evil word. These kind [sic] of sufferings deprive her of self-sovereignty. This is why a woman must give rise to the thought of abhorring and getting rid of her female body.”

To attain Buddha status - the ultimate goal of the religion - a woman must become a man, by dying and being reborn. But in many Buddhist texts, an advanced practitioner of Buddhism might miraculously change her form, in this life, at her own will.

Shedding light

While working on her doctorate at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, Balkwill identified a body of Buddhist texts written in fifth-century China that sheds light on how the problem of the female body within Buddhism was understood at the time. The Sutra on Transforming the Female Form, which claims to be the master text on the subject, represents a significant departure of thinking, she explained.

“It’s largely understood sociologically instead of bodily. … The Buddha starts talking about patriarchy instead of the physical limitations of the female body. So it’s a big shift in ideology,” said Balkwill, who titled her postdoctoral research proposal “Because the Buddha is No Longer a Woman: Tracking the Ideal of Female-to-Male Sex Change in Mahayana Sutras.”

According to Balkwill, powerful Buddhist women in fifth-century China were very interested in Buddhist monasteries, a place where they could derive power and negotiate the political situations in which women of high standing often found themselves.

It is likely that those women sponsored and commissioned these fifth-century texts, Balkwill noted. Some of the writings specifically mention women of the imperial court, pointing out that they are vulnerable to patriarchal forces in that they are put on a pedestal, given jewelry and garlands, but are still not free. These women lived with a lot of luxury, but also a lot of constraints.

“One of the things I’m really interested in with these texts, and why I think they appeal to women even though they’re saying you have to become a man, is that their [female] protagonists have wonderful conversations with all these different Buddhist teachers and eventually the Buddha,” she said. “The texts show how smart, capable and articulate the protagonists are.”

The various conversations about women’s rights and women’s bodies within the texts help scholars understand how women of the day thought and talked about the notion of female-to-male sex change and related it to their own religious practice.

Expanding her reach

Balkwill was drawn to her postdoctoral position at USC Dornsife as an opportunity to expand upon the specific training she received as a graduate student.

“I really strongly feel that you have to be able to go past that and talk outside of your discipline, and to your students and the general public,” she said.

As a member of USC’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities, an interdisciplinary community of postdocs supported by eminent distinguished faculty mentors, Balkwill participates in meetings and events on campus to promote intellectual exchange and an interdisciplinary approach to research and teaching. She also organized a major international conference last year on Buddhism and Politics titled Buddhism and Statecraft: A Conference of Storytellers.

“Having the opportunity to talk about my work with people in English literature or visual studies uncovers points of comparison and new ways of thinking about my data,” she said.

“I came to USC because I wanted to learn to talk about my research across the humanities and be a more open-minded scholar.”
We Need Your Help to Train the
Buddhist AI Chat Bot
(Neural Operator for Responsible Buddhist Understanding)

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your name in the payment slip. Thank you.

Dear Friends in the Dharma,

We seek your generous support to help us train NORBU, the word's first Buddhist AI Chat Bot.

Here are some ways you can contribute to this noble cause:

One-time Donation or Loan: A single contribution, regardless of its size, will go a long way in helping us reach our goal and make the Buddhist LLM a beacon of wisdom for all.

How will your donation / loan be used? Download the NORBU White Paper for details.

For Malaysians and Singaporeans, please make your donation to the following account:

Account Name: Bodhi Vision
Account No:. 2122 00000 44661
Bank: RHB

The SWIFT/BIC code for RHB Bank Berhad is: RHBBMYKLXXX
Address: 11-15, Jalan SS 24/11, Taman Megah, 47301 Petaling Jaya, Selangor
Phone: 603-9206 8118

Note: Please indicate your purpose of payment (loan or donation) in the payment slip. Thank you.

Once payment is banked in, please send the payment slip via email to: Your donation/loan will be published and publicly acknowledged on the Buddhist Channel.

Spread the Word: Share this initiative with your friends, family and fellow Dharma enthusiasts. Join "Friends of Norbu" at: Together, we can build a stronger community and create a positive impact on a global scale.

Volunteer: If you possess expertise in AI, natural language processing, Dharma knowledge in terms of Buddhist sutras in various languages or related fields, and wish to lend your skills, please contact us. Your knowledge and passion could be invaluable to our project's success.

Your support is part of a collective effort to preserve and disseminate the profound teachings of Buddhism. By contributing to the NORBU, you become a "virtual Bodhisattva" to make Buddhist wisdom more accessible to seekers worldwide.

Thank you for helping to make NORBU a wise and compassionate Buddhist Chatbot!

May you be blessed with inner peace and wisdom,

With deepest gratitude,

Kooi F. Lim
On behalf of The Buddhist Channel Team

Note: To date, we have received the following contributions for NORBU:
US$ 75 from Gary Gach (Loan)
US$ 50 from Chong Sim Keong
MYR 300 from Wilson Tee
MYR 500 from Lim Yan Pok
MYR 50 from Oon Yeoh
MYR 200 from Ooi Poh Tin
MYR 300 from Lai Swee Pin
MYR 100 from Ong Hooi Sian
MYR 1,000 from Fam Sin Nin
MYR 500 from Oh teik Bin
MYR 300 from Yeoh Ai Guat
MYR 300 from Yong Lily
MYR 50 from Bandar Utama Buddhist Society
MYR 1,000 from Chiam Swee Ann
MYR 1,000 from Lye Veei Chiew
MYR 1,000 from Por Yong Tong
MYR 80 from Lee Wai Yee
MYR 500 from Pek Chee Hen
MYR 300 from Hor Tuck Loon
MYR 1,000 from Wise Payments Malaysia Sdn Bhd
MYR 200 from Teo Yen Hua
MYR 500 from Ng Wee Keat
MYR 10,000 from Chang Quai Hung, Jackie (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from K. C. Lim & Agnes (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from Juin & Jooky Tan (Loan)
MYR 100 from Poh Boon Fong (on behalf of SXI Buddhist Students Society)
MYR 10,000 from Fam Shan-Shan (Loan)
MYR 10,000 from John Fam (Loan)
MYR 500 from Phang Cheng Kar
MYR 100 from Lee Suat Yee
MYR 500 from Teo Chwee Hoon (on behalf of Lai Siow Kee)
MYR 200 from Mak Yuen Chau

We express our deep gratitude for the support and generosity.

If you have any enquiries, please write to: