Buddhism could mislead and often paint a negative picture for women, when we look at the Vinaya Pitaka ( translates to ‘the basket of discipline’ i.e. rule book of ordained Buddhists) which created more rules for women than men. Buddhist feminists have often struggled to understand how the Buddhist path, which stands for equanimity, and peace for all, may not hold women in the same stead?
There are primarily two answers:
1. This first answer says, it is a difficult enquiry, because the time when the Buddha lived nothing was written. The Indian subcontinent then in Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain traditions had similar ways of passing on knowledge which was by oral narration (maukhik parampara). A Guru would sit down with many disciples before him, and just listen enough to absorb it, and pass it on long after the Guru is gone. But it also gives them the freedom to re-interpret and re-memorise it with out the watchful eye of the Guru.
Keeping in mind, that many monks previously belonged to traditions where women were not perceived as equals, when they wrote down the rules, they wrote it as per their preferences. It made it easy for them to impose their ideas onto the written word. This was a proposal of the people that felt women were not strong enough to be celibate, must stay away from scholarly readings, and are only sexual beings.
However, the Buddha was not this way. His thoughts never aligned to favour or disfavour anybody. Instead he went upto the heavens to teach his mother the Abhidhamma (the highest buddhist teachings), even before he passed on this knowledge to his father who was still alive. The fact that he not only respected her, but also chose her over his father, represents his perception of women. This answer blames the writers for their marred misogynistic lens.
2. The second answer looks at the sociological time frame in which Buddhism started to spread widely in the 5th century, when it started to get textualised. This belief says that women being perceived as unequals, also gave them social restrictions that they may not be ready/could not break out of easily. It is not possible to say that every woman who knew she was not treated equally, was ready to be treated as an equal, since the societal conditioning was so strong.
Thus, the writers of the Vinaya Pitaka kept these aspects in mind, and wrote the extra rules for women. Venerable Suddhamma, a nun in the Theravada tradition, states:
“With only a few exceptions, every rule that the Buddha placed onto bhikkhunis alone (each rule not shared by bhikkhus) was requested by conscientious bhikkhunis for the welfare of the female sangha.” Furthermore, she adds, “reading the rules and living with them prove to be very different matters. Living with the Patimokkha rules does not crush one’s spirit but gives a liberating effect. Western people who read the bhikkhunis’ rules without this understanding tend to get the wrong impression.”
Along this discussion, comes the question, whether one can reach Nirvana in a woman’s body?
Beyond these rules, the Vajrayana and Mahayana schools of Buddhist thought, pose an interesting example in tantric powers of the Buddha. Ārya Tārā, also known as Jetsun Dölma is a female Buddha/Boddhiasattva who represents prosperity, virtues and success. So we do see an example of a woman Buddha. The Lotus Sutta too amplifies this belief.
It may be difficult to understand the place of women in Buddhism when there are these various answers available to us. However, it comes down to comprehending how the Buddha himself treated, and perceived women, and that was with equality, and respect.