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Wherever they came from, over the centuries the rules were used in many parts of Asia to discourage women from being ordained. If there are no living ordained nuns, according to the rules, there can be no nun ordinations. This effectively ended full nun ordination in the Theravada orders of southeast Asia; women there can be novices only. And no nun's order was ever established in Tibetan Buddhism, although there are some women Tibetan lamas. There is, however, an order of Mahayana nuns in China and Taiwan that can trace its lineage back to the first ordination of nuns.

Buddhism and Sexism

Some women have been ordained as Theravada nuns in the presence of these Mahayana nuns, although this is hugely controversial in some patriarchal Theravada monastic orders. Women have had an impact on Buddhism nonetheless. I've been told the nuns of Taiwan enjoy higher status in their country than the monks do. The Zen tradition also has some formidable women Zen masters in its history. Buddhist doctrines on the enlightenment of women are contradictory. There is no one institutional authority that speaks for all Buddhism.

The myriad schools and sects do not follow the same scriptures; texts that are central to some schools are not recognized as authentic by others. And the scriptures disagree. For example, the Larger Sukhavati-vyuha Sutra, also called the Aparimitayur Sutra, is one of three sutras that provide the doctrinal basis of the Pure Land school. This sutra contains a passage usually interpreted to mean that women must be reborn as men before they can enter Nirvana.

This opinion pops up in time to time in other Mahayana scriptures, although I'm not aware of it being in the Pali Canon. On the other hand, the Vimalakirti Sutra teaches that maleness and femaleness, like other phenomenal distinctions, are essentially unreal.

In spite of the barriers against them, throughout Buddhist history, many individual women have earned respect for their understanding of dharma. I've already mentioned women Zen masters. During Ch'an Zen Buddhism's golden age China, ca. Moshan was a teacher to both monks and nuns. Eihei Dogen brought Soto Zen from China to Japan and is one of the most revered masters in the history of Zen. In a commentary called the Raihai Tokuzui , Dogen said, "In acquiring the dharma, all acquire the dharma equally.

All should pay homage to and hold in esteem one who has acquired the dharma. Do not make an issue of whether it is a man or a woman.

Fluid Depictions of Gender and Identity in Himalayan Art

Hanging between the legs is an ornament composed of rectangular panels, decorated with a plump figure seated in meditation on a lotus, a leonine face spewing vegetation, 19 flowers, flaming jewels, and pearl roundels— a veritable potpourri of Indian and Central Asian motifs of the mid- to late sixth century. Traces of pigment on the front and back of the sculpture indicate that it was once brightly painted. The columnar form of the Qingzhou bodhisattva reflects the complexity of influences found in Chinese art at this time.


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As was mentioned earlier, the rendering of volume in the representation of Buddhist deities is an Indie char- acteristic that appears and reappears in Chinese Buddhist sculpture during periods of close ties with South and Cen- tral Asia. In this case, the columnar rendering, which has parallels in contemporaneous tomb sculptures and paint- ings, 20 may reflect the direct influence of Central Asian, specifically Sogdian, artistic traditions. Based in present- day Uzbekistan, the Sogdians were the premier merchants on the Silk Road from the fifth to the eighth century, and some lived and worked in China.

Tomb goods, particularly funerary beds, reflecting Sogdian artistic traditions have been unearthed in some number there. The production of large freestanding sculptures of bodhisattvas, such as the work discussed above, is also characteristic of the second half of the sixth century.

Women in Buddhism

By this time, the term bodhisattva, which had originally been used to designate Siddhartha Gautama or any other individual at a certain point of spiritual advancement, had been redefined to denote celestial and salvific beings who figure Stele commissioned by Zhang Dangui and others.

Excavated at Qingzhou Longxing-si , Qingzhou City Museum figure Back view of bodhisattva had achieved the same state of spiritual development as a Buddha but had chosen not to transcend the chains of existence in favor of remaining in the phenomenal world, where they guide others in the quest for enlight- enment. In early Chinese Buddhist art, bodhisattvas were rarely depicted; when they were, they were usually shown as attendants to a Buddha. By the sixth century, however, certain bodhisattvas, particularly Avalokiteshvara Guanyin , the embodiment of the virtue of compassion, had become the focus of personal devotion.

Sculptures, often large-scale, of these figures began to be produced independently rather than as part of a group of divinities attending a Buddha. One reason for the growing importance of Avalokitesh- vara and other savior-bodhisattvas was the development and flourishing of the Pure Land Qingtu tradition, which stresses devotion to the Buddha Amitabha, one of the celestial, or transcendent, Buddhas.

The tradition became formalized in the mid-sixth century, when the Indian monk Bodhiruci introduced the Chinese cleric Tanluan to three texts describing Sukha- vati, Amitabha's perfected realm; representations of the Pure Land first appeared at this time. The texts focus on attaining rebirth in Sukhavati through prostration, the calling of the Buddha's name a practice known as nianfd , reflecting on and visualizing sacred realms such as Sukha- vati, and the resolution to be reborn there.

The popularity of Pure Land Buddhism may have been spurred by the turmoil that defined the sixth century in China. In addition to strife between the varying northern regimes and between the north and the south, the period was marked by significant economic chaos, which led to illness and starvation. In Buddhist circles, such harsh realities led to the belief that the second half of the cen- tury was the mofa—an apocalyptic era when living numer- ous virtuous lifetimes seemed impossible and Buddhism itself might cease to exist. In response, Pure Land practice offered the possibility of rebirth in Sukhavati, where ideal living conditions create an atmosphere conducive to spiri- tual development.

Although the Pure Land tradition, par- ticularly from the sixth to the eighth century, stressed devotion to Amitabha, it is worth noting that other Buddhas and even some bodhisattvas, such as Avalokiteshvara, were also thought to be capable of creating and maintaining perfected realms similar to Sukhavati and that other divini- ties were also the focus of devotions of this kind. At the center of a bronze altarpiece that is one of the earliest known images of Sukhavati fig. An inscription on the back indicates that the work was dedicated in by eight women of the Fan clan to ensure the rebirth of their ances- tors and children in the Pure Land.


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  • In the background, seven small Buddhas are seated in the blossoms of the trees above Amitabha; a single phoenix, a traditional sym- bol of rebirth, is also situated among the branches. Tassels with pearls, a reference to the bejeweled nature of Sukha- vati, hang from the trees.

    Two bodhisattvas, two monks, and two lay adherents one male, one female 23 stand beside the seated Buddha. At the bottom of the work, in the fore- ground, guardians and lions flank a small caryatid figure that lifts a lotus bud; in the center of the flower sits a minuscule figure representing a soul that has been, or will be, reborn in Sukhavati.

    Over time, this being will become a Buddha and transcend Amitabha's realm, which is a way station rather than the final goal of Buddhist practice. This altarpiece was produced during the short-lived Sui dynasty C. The Sui was quickly overtaken by 14 figure Buddha Amitabha in Sukhavati. Tang Buddhism saw the continu- ation of many traditions that had their roots in the sixth century, including those based on the Lotus Sutra and Pure Land practices.

    This seminal period in Chinese history also saw the flowering of a new variant of Bud- dhism and a new style that would serve as the foundation for the art of later centuries, both in China and in Korea and Japan. The new variant, known as Esoteric Buddhism, was introduced into China in the eighth century by three intrepid foreign monks who studied with masters through- out Asia: Subhakarasimha , Vajrabodhi , and Amoghavajra Best known today through material found primarily in Japan, the new form emphasized the importance of devotion to Vairocana, a celestial, or transcendent, Buddha understood to be the ultimate form of Shakyamuni, the historical, and there- fore temporary, Buddha.

    It also introduced new manifes- tations of savior-bodhisattvas such as Avalokiteshvara and the use of cosmic diagrams known as mandalas. Many of the practices were intended to protect the nation and offered tangible benefits, such as health and wealth, to the ruling elite.

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    Others involved complex rituals and forms of devotion designed for advanced practitioners. Representations of the Buddha Vairocana first appeared in the vicinity of Kucha, at the western edge of what is now the Xinjiang Autonomous Region, in the fifth or sixth cen- tury and were found in China by the mid-sixth century. First mentioned in the fourth- century compilation known as the Sutra of the Heap of Jewels, 24 Vairocana plays a seminal role in the Flower Garland Sutra, 25 where he is described as the source for all Buddhas and bodhisattvas and all forms of sentience in the cosmos.

    The latter text was first translated into Chinese in the early fifth century and was retranslated twice during the Tang dynasty, once in a collaboration between Shiksananda, from Khotan, on the southern branch of the Silk Road, and Fazang, a sini- cized Central Asian. Fazang is considered the third patriarch of the influential Huayan branch of Buddhism, which takes the Flower Garland Sutra as its central scripture.

    He is famous for using metaphors, often involving light, jewels, and mirrors, to explain the interpenetrability of all aspects of the cosmos, in which even the tiniest speck of dust can reveal profound truth. He is also noted for his systemiza- tion of the vast corpus of Buddhist texts and practices then extant in China into five groups, with the Flower Garland Sutra as the highest form of knowledge, followed by texts, such as the Sutra on the Discourse of Vimalakirti, that 15 figure Buddha Vairocana and Disciples.

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    Henan Province Longmen complex [Fengxian-si], cave , ca. Fazang served as an advisor to the Tang emperor Gaozong r. Wu, who could not rely on perennial Confucian themes to validate her rule, stressed the idea of a parallel between her just, though temporary, rule and the eternal, celestial realm of Vairocana.

    The colossal Buddha in a niche carved into the side of a cliff at Longmen fig.