On September 24th, 2019, Venerable Master Miao Jing and Venerable Master Miao Yin from the Great Compassion Bodhi Prajna Temple visited Emmanuel College of Victoria University in the University of Toronto. They were invited by the Principal of Emmanuel College, Dr. Michelle Voss Roberts and professors Dr. Henry Shiu and Dr. William Kervin to give a speech entitled “Female Empowerment in Buddhism.” They delivered this speech entirely in English.
At the beginning of her speech, Venerable Master Miao Jing praised the audience, many of whom were women, in fluent English. She noted that in Canada, after many generations of effort, men and women have achieved equal status, with equal educational opportunities. Yet, many people do not realize that 2000 years ago in India, the Buddha said: “Every living being has the essence of the Tathāgata; every living being has the Buddha Nature.” The Buddha taught that in his tradition there are four types of disciples: Monks, Nuns, male lay disciples, and female lay disciples. In other words, Monks and Nuns are men and women who receive full ordination and leave their homes to practice the Dharma, whereas lay men and women remain at home while practicing the five precepts and following the Bodhisattva path.
Venerable Master Miao Jing began by providing her audience with a historical overview of female practitioners in Buddhism. The first woman to follow Buddha’s teachings was his maternal aunt and mother-in-law, Mahāpajāpatī. At that time in India, it was unusual for women to want to leave home to become nuns. Despite the fact that she was part of the royal family, Mahāpajāpatī overcame many difficulties in order to achieve her goal. According to the Buddhist scriptures, she led the Buddha’s wife Yaśodhara and 500 other noble ladies from the Śākya tribe for several months on a barefoot journey in order to seek ordination from the Buddha. At first, the Buddha refused, and his chief disciple Ānanda was very disappointed. After they petitioned the Buddha three times, he relented, and the first group of Buddhist nuns was formed. At that time in India, society was divided into four castes: the Brahmins (teachers and priests), the Kshatriya(warriors and rulers), the Vaishya (labourers, merchants, farmers, and trades people), and the Sudra (slaves). The caste system excluded the Dalit (untouchables), because for many generations, this group did work that they considered to be polluting, such as handling corpses, removing excrement, collecting garbage, etc. Despite the fact that the Buddha’s aunt was a noblewoman in the Śākya clan, she still could not enter the monastic order without difficulty; however, with the help of the 500 Śākya women and his Holiness Ānanda, she was able to succeed in becoming ordained. The Buddha said that all living beings could attain Buddhahood; therefore, he permitted members of the untouchable class to enter the monastic order.
Venerable Master Miao Jing also shared the story of the eight-year-old Dragon Girl from the Lotus Sutra. She was the youngest daughter of the Dragon King, and she was well versed in the teachings of the Lotus Sutra. She transformed her body into the body of a man in order to demonstrate to the Buddha’s disciples and Bodhisattvas that she had attained Buddhahood. Venerable Master Miao Jing noted that some members of the audience might be wondering why a woman had to transform into a man in order to become a Buddha in that story. Well, this is not the case. In the Venerable’s third story, from the Śrīmālādevī Siṃhanāda Sūtra, Queen Śrīmālā attained Buddhahood entirely through her own practice, in her female form.
Venerable Master Miao Jing believes that women have the same love and compassion for their children that the Bodhisattva Guanyin has for all living beings. The difference is that ordinary mothers do not extend their love outward toward all beings; whereas the Bodhisattva Guanyin is concerned with the suffering of all creatures in the six realms of existence. When we can all expand our hearts to this level of compassion, this is the essence of Bodhicitta.
Bodhicitta is like a seed that grows into the spirit of compassion, caring, and dedication to others; we demonstrate it in both in thought and action. Indeed, we all have the ability to develop Bodhicitta. Buddha educated us to cultivate our inner heart; this is a manifestation of selflessness. Therefore, the purpose of our practice is to continuously improve, in order to reach a state of selflessness and to serve others selflessly. In humans, a mother’s love for her children is a true manifestation of selflessness. Maternal love and compassion are like Bodhicitta.
In fact, we all have female and male traits. We practice in order to sever our attachments to ourselves, and to the outside world. Women have the opportunity to let go of the traditional positions given to us by society. We do not need to rely on husbands, identify as wives, and exist for the sole purpose of being mothers. We can expand our Bodhicitta, and move from selflessness to “egolessness.” “Egolessness” means the ability to let go of our attachment to our sense of self. Women’s true awakening lies in our ability to live according to our own inner values, make good use of our loving-kindness, and exert our compassion. We can also become Buddhas. “Self-awakening” is the seed of Buddhahood. Women can demonstrate their caring and talents through careers in the social services. We can enhance our inner awareness and improve ourselves, and then realize that women do not belong to anyone. We are at the helm of our own lives.
We are all capable of this type of self-awakening, and we can continue to improve. Today we see women as national leaders, and as CEOs of companies and industries around the world. They have affected major changes in society, and have greatly altered our understanding of women’s roles. Here today, we see the first female principal of Emmanuel College, the best example of social responsibility under the power of women’s awakening.
Q1, Some people raised a question: since all beings are equal, why did the Buddha have to allow women to join the Buddhist monastic community after careful consideration?
Master Miao Jing further explained that in fact, the Buddha rejected for two important social factors at that time. It is because at that time, women assumed many family and social responsibilities, from giving birth to raising children, taking care of children, the elderly, and handling household chores. Under the social system at that time, women provided labor and played multiple roles as family educators, caregivers of children and elderlies. Therefore, if women want to become nuns, and because of their family responsibilities, it will make it more difficult for them to renounce the role of the family and the responsibilities and expectations given to them by society.
Master Miao Jing reminded us that the Buddha emphasized that all sentient beings, regardless of gender, can become Buddhas. We all reincarnate in the six realms: heaven, asura, human, animal, hungry ghost, and hell. It is very precious to attain the human form of body, so we must cherish this life as a person!
Q2, Master, you just gave an example that the Buddha’s wife and stepmother have also become Buddhas. Do they have different levels of status?
Master Miao Jing replied compassionately: for those who have been enlightened, there is no difference in the level of status, but in terms of the time of enlightenment, there is indeed a difference. Nevertheless, there is no difference in their level of cultivational status.
Q3, How do women receive full ordination when joining a monastic community? Who conducts the ordination ceremony?
Master Miao Jing replied briefly: First of all, women should first approach the Buddhist nuns’ community to learn the Buddhist precepts. Chinese Buddhism is part of the Dharmaguptā, and Bhikkhunis’ full ordination also requires going through the Triple Platform Full Ordination and following the precepts of Dharmaguptā. There are also Precept master/ Vinaya master, etc in the ordination ceremony.
Venerable Master Miao Jing’s fluent 75-minute speech was very well received. For many of the audience members, this event was their first time meeting a Buddhist nun. The Buddha’s teachings of equality, wisdom, and compassion from over 2500 years ago continue uninterrupted to this day. At 6pm, the sun was still warm and bright, and the Venerable Master Miao Jing and Venerable Master Miao Yin presented their brilliant interpretations of the power of women’s inner awakening in Buddhism. They are dedicated to all beings, with the compassion of women. As Buddhist nuns, they wish to enter the academic halls of colleges and universities, in order to engage with others and spread the teachings of the Buddha. In the future, they hope that they will have more opportunities to use the English Dharma in order to spread Dharma and Bodhi seeds in Western society.