Buddhism and Women’s Equality

Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism and the Soka Gakkai International both teach about women’s equality and women’s enlightenment. When the Buddha first started to spread his teachings approximately 2,500 years ago across the Indian subcontinent, his message corresponded with the pre-existing cultural traditions of the time – particularly in regard to women.

Shakyamuni Buddha taught over a period of many years (starting in his thirties), but his early teachings or sutras, specifically stated that women could not attain enlightenment – this status was reserved exclusively for men. The Flower Garland Sutra states, “Women are messengers of hell who can destroy the seeds of Buddhahood.” At that time women were also expected to abide by the “Three Obediences,” which state: “when young, a woman must submit to her parents; when an adult, she must submit to her husband; and in old age she must submit to her son.” These accorded with the prevailing cultural traditions of the time.

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The SGI and Nichiren Daishonin’s Buddhism consider the Lotus Sutra to be the Buddha’s highest teaching. Shakyamuni preached the Lotus Sutra as his complete and whole teaching. He emphasized that everything he had taught prior to the Lotus Sutra was merely an “expedient means” leading up to the highest teaching, the Lotus Sutra. In the Lotus Sutra, a specific example is given of a woman (girl) attaining enlightenment, and the Buddha’s disciples are encouraged to believe in her ability to attain enlightenment.

Nichiren Daishonin, the 13th century Japanese priest who thoroughly studied the Buddha’s teachings and scriptures, also emphasized this point, realizing that Shakyamuni intended to make the attainment of enlightenment a possibility for all people, without distinction based on gender, race, social standing or education. This was a radical teaching for the time, both during the Buddha’s time in India, and during Nichiren Daishonin’s time in Japan. The equality of men and women is still a radical teaching even today in some parts of the world.

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