Is it bad to be reborn as a woman?

I have just been reading Anālayo’s recent article on ‘Karma and Female Birth’ in the Journal of Buddhist Ethics. This is an area that interests me, since it intersects with a puzzle about jātaka stories, namely why the Buddha-to-be is always male. I have argued (in my 2011 article for the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion: ‘In the Footsteps of the Buddha? Women and the Bodhisatta Path in Theravāda Buddhism’) that the idea that the Bodhisatta is always male probably developed out of a simple lack of interest in the karmic causes of sex-change. In Buddhist stories of past lives men remain men and women remain women, with no indication that such lack of variation is in any way karmicly or soteriologically significant. It is only later on, in commentarial materials, that the idea that female birth is restrictive and the result of bad karma rises in prominence.

In his article, Anālayo asks whether or not female birth is considered to be the result of bad karma in early Buddhist texts. He uses Chinese sources as well as Indic ones, and indeed the bulk of the article is taken up with presenting the multi-life stories of the nuns Bhaddā Kaccānā and Bhaddā Kapilāni from the Ekottarika-āgama. The latter story includes the revelation that the senior nun had been male in a past life, and had specifically aspired to become female. As Anālayo concludes, these stories suggest that female birth did not have negative connotations in the early Buddhist texts.

While I enjoyed Anālayo’s article, and am grateful as always for his wonderful efforts in making Chinese sources available to those of us unable to access them in the original, his examples are of course only one part of the complex picture of women’s roles and attainments within Buddhism. For a man to aspire to be reborn female and not then regret it is a rather rare occurrence in Buddhist literature, and the reverse is certainly more common both in literature and in life. Nonetheless it is great to see the picture being broadened to include these intriguing Ekottarika-āgama stories and the excellent female role models that they provide.


About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
This entry was posted in Buddhism, Buddhist texts, gender, reviews of scholarship. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Is it bad to be reborn as a woman?

  1. I would be interested in knowing how Buddhism compares to Hinduism on this question and others on the status of women. Based on my experience in the Hare Krishna movement and my reading of the Mahabharata being born as a woman is considered to be a bad thing, though perhaps not exactly a punishment. We had heard that if a man is too attached to his wife at the time of death he would be reborn as a woman. If a married couple had a daughter the guru might suspect that they were not following the regulative principles as well as they might. We interpreted the story of Kardama and Devahuti (where Kardama manifests nine bodies when making love to her) as meaning that women are nine times as lusty as men.

    My experience is that the women I met in the movement were as good or better devotees than the men, but that was simply experience in no way backed up by scriptural authority.

    • Thanks for your comment. I don’t know the Hindu context as well as the Buddhist and Jain ones, but there is definitely a strand of thought in all three traditions that says female birth is the result of bad karma. If you think about it it makes sense logically – being a woman at the time was much harder than being a man, one’s experiences are understood to be largely (if not exclusively) the result of one’s karma, and so being a woman must be the result of worse karma than being a man (though still better karma than being a mouse or a plant). However, even if this much seems totally logical, it is still another step to say that therefore women must be less capable or less pure than men. On attitudes towards women more generally in early Indian Buddhism I really like Alan Sponberg’s article ‘Attitudes toward Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism’ in Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender (SUNY Press 1992).

  2. alex says:

    Is this true only in terms of early Theravāda Buddhism? The Chinese bodhisattva Guanyin (or Avalokiteśvara) which is generally portrayed as a female.

    • Hi Alex. Yes I was talking primarily about Theravada Buddhism, where the commentarial tradition makes it impossible for a woman to become a bodhisatta, and impossible for a bodhisatta to be reborn female. The Mahayana position is more complicated as you still need to be male to be a Buddha, yet there are female bodhisattvas. That said, the female bodhisattvas seem to be female mostly because they are embodiments of feminine ideals (Prajnaparamita, for example) or because they map onto existing female deities (as has been argued for Guanyin – for Avalokitesvara, her Indian equivalent, is actually male). Oh, and of course in Mahayana terms gender is only illusory anyway. It is complicated! Naomi

  3. Sharan says:

    The vedanta stresses that the soul is neither male nor female. When birth on the physical plane occurs, the primary form preferred by the soul is male. In the perfect condition, this male form is that of the ‘ardhanari’ (a male with a balanced sexual nature; i.e., half-man, half-woman). However, this ideal condition is rarely achieved and when the male dies, the soul takes rebirth as a female. The form of birth keeps alternating until the soul exhausts its material energy and achieves nirvana. Since the female form follows that of the male, in yogic systems, it is considered inferior to the latter. However, in practice, female practitioners are not discriminated against.

    (Compare this with Buddha’s prediction of the precipitation of moral corruption with the commencement of the nunnery. Buddha allows women to become nuns but explains that this development will lead to faster moral degeneration in later human history.)

    In the essence of all major streams of Hinduism, human life is sacred because of all life-forms in the universe, life on earth is the only instance of the living being being endowed with a will to change one’s destiny, and this ability, it is said, has to be used for spiritual upliftment. To teach humans the path to spiritual balance, the Divine essence takes birth as ‘shiva’, the quintessential ‘artha-nari’, the perfectly balanced individual. As shiva, the divine generally takes a male human birth and achieves union with his inner ‘shakti’ to balance the male form of his birth with his dormant female nature.

  4. Brian says:

    I think the situation today is reversed, according to the Buddha Speaks the Ultimate Extinction of the Dharma Sutra, it is said that:

    ”When the Dharma is about to disappear, women will become vigorous and will at all times do deeds of virtue. Men will grow lax and will no longer speak the Dharma.”

    “Because of excessive licentious behavior they will quickly exhaust their seminal fluids and will die at a young age, usually before sixty years. As the lifespan of males decreases, that of females will increase to seventy, eighty, ninety, or one hundred years. ”

    Furthermore, the Buddha also predicted overpopulation in the Dhamma-ending Age:

    “The masses will toil and suffer while the local officials will plot and scheme. No one will adhere to principles. Instead, the human race will multiply, becoming like the sands of the ocean-bed.”

    Link to Sutra (highly recommended read):

    So I believe that as our world is in the Dharma-ending age and time of the five turbidities, it is pointless to worry about whether gender is a handicap as there is currently so much other karmic obstacles of all types afflicting everyone, both men or women. Thus, all that matters is that enlightenment is possible for everyone (i.e. Vow 18 of Amita Buddha’s Infinite Life Sutra) as long as they sincerely resolve to attain it.

    However, all who achieve liberation (e.g. Arhatship, Paccekabuddhahood, Pureland rebirth, Bodhisattvahood or Buddhahood) will become a Sage with the standard “avatar” (I say this because Sages have transcended attachment to form) of an eminent man with the 32 features of a Great Man. Nevertheless, they can take on any other form to convert all kinds of sentient beings. So Guanyin Bodhisattva takes the form of a female because to a lot of people, compassion is associated with that gender (i.e. nurses, mother). In the Ghost realm, Buddhas must take the form of fearsome Ghost Kings or else they won’t be able to command the attention of the karmically challenged audience.

    Lastly, the Earth Store Bodhisattva was originally a woman called Bright Eyes, whose sincere filial piety, mindfulness and faith caused her to become one of the most eminent great Bodhisattvas. I recommend you read her story in the Earth Store Sutra:

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