Did you know gender equality is a principle in Buddhism?
I certainly didn’t, until I stumbled across this scene, “The Visit of Manjushri to Vimalakirti,” from the Vimalakirti Sutra. Composed around 100 CE, this Mahayana Buddhist sutra is known for its brash humor – and its advocacy of getting rid of gender norms. In the sutra, Buddha asks his ten disciples to visit Vimalakirti, a layman who is far more advanced in Buddha’s retinue than the disciples. Yet, Vimalakirti is ill, so all the disciples refuse to visit him – except Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom.
In this scene, commissioned by Helian Ziyue (c. 501-573 CE), Vimalakirti sits in a curtained and tasseled pavilion on the right, attended to by fourteen figures. Manjushri is accompanied by thirty attendants. And standing at either side of the two trees in the center are the monk Shariputra and an unnamed goddess. All will play a part in a central debate of Buddhist doctrine and whether women could attain enlightenment. Early Buddhist doctrine stated that lay people and women could not achieve enlightenment, but this was a reflection of patriarchal culture at the time, rather than the actual religion.
To illustrate his point, Vimalakirti uses the example of Shariputra and the goddess. Shariputra asks the goddess why she does not transform into a man so that she can attain buddha status. She replies that she has sought to identify in herself some essential “female nature” but has failed to find it. She goes on to explain how all things exist as illusions – clarifying that all qualities, including gender, are only social constructions that we imagine. To demonstrate her point, the goddess manifests flowers – and only the bodhisattvas who have attained the wisdom of her point can shake them off. Shariputra, believing in gender inequality, cannot shake them.
At the end of the scene, Vimalakirti reveals to Shariputra that the goddess has served billions of buddhas, fulfilled all her vows, and achieved enlightenment. By acknowledging that our only limitations are those we place on ourselves, she has freed herself to be able to do whatever and go wherever she desires.
The scene effectively dismantles the arguments about gender in early Buddhism. Vimalakirti teaches us that distinctions like gender are only relevant in this world – so the ban on lay people and women attaining enlightenment is not from the universe or Buddha, but from society itself. Anyone can attain enlightenment, if they are able to let go of their preconceived notions.
After this sutra was published, several sequels followed advocating for the role of women in Buddhism and stating that anyone could become enlightened. It was, perhaps, the first time a major religion supported gender equality.
Girl Museum Inc.
This post is part of our 52 Objects in the History of Girlhood exhibition. Each week during 2017, we explore a historical object and its relation to girls’ history. Stay tuned to discover the incredible history of girls, and be sure to visit the complete exhibition to discover the integral role girls have played since the dawn of time.