Ordained Buddhist Women in Britain

When I envisaged studying for a PhD, I always imagined myself going somewhere warm and sunny. I did not picture myself at 5am on a cold, rainy November morning driving alone on one of the largest motorways in Britain trying to find a Buddhist monastery in the dark. Yet after a chance meeting with a rather inspirational British Buddhist nun, I changed my PhD proposal and decided to focus on a study that was decidedly closer to home.

I am currently over three years into a part-time PhD which takes ordained Buddhist women in the British context as its focus. To date, I have interviewed and spent time with twenty-five women from six different Buddhist traditions, from all over England, Wales and Scotland. All of the participants in my study are either British nationals or women who have spent a significant amount of time living in Britain. ‘Ordination’ means different things within the different Buddhist groups and the aim of my research is to provide a multiple tradition study exploring the similarities and differences between groups and individuals. Not all of the women in this study follow the traditional vinaya monastic rules; some women take the same precepts as men in their traditions and some don’t; but at all times I have been interested in the perspectives of ordained women themselves and what they have to say about their lives, experiences, and motivations. I have taken a broadly ethnographic approach to this study, including both interviews and participant-observations, and I have been lucky enough to spend time with individual women and the groups they are affiliated with, witnessing parts of their daily lives and activities. Where I could, I participated in practices and helped out, including on one memorable occasion assisting a group of lay volunteers to dig a ditch on a (somewhat uncharacteristically) sunny day – an experience that I thoroughly enjoyed and which taught me a great deal.

The key questions of my doctoral study are centred on the impact of the British location on ordained women’s practices and experiences, alongside an analysis of how ordained women relate to ideas of gender equality, feminism and religious discipline (particularly focusing on religious dress). Principally, I draw on theories constructed within the field of sociology but am also influenced by anthropology and religious studies. I have begun to “write up” my findings to form the PhD dissertation, which I hope to complete by the end of 2014. My research has been funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK.

During the course of my research, I have been particularly curious about what drew women to Buddhism initially, and then what motivated them to ordain within the different traditions; to take what some might see as a radical step away from the mainstream expectations of British society. Amongst the ordained women in this study, Buddhism was described as providing answers to the questions they had about life, and as one explained “a way of dealing with the suffering of humanity that was incredibly practical”. Women described feeling strongly connected to Buddhism, to particular teachings and practices, and especially to communities or teachers, and for most these were significant in influencing both their early commitment and then their decisions to ordain. Whilst some explained that their initial engagement with Buddhism occurred over a number of years, others described more of a feeling of “epiphany”, and as one woman described, when she initially read the Four Noble Truths, “…it was really like a light streaming into a mind that had been dark for a long time”.

Prior to ordination, many of the women in this study had careers, owned homes and had a level of financial security, therefore making the decision to take ordination and change the focus of their lives highly momentous.  Of course, not all the traditions in this study require ordained people to give up careers, relationships or home-ownership, yet becoming ordained, in each tradition, is a significant step and one that is approached with dedication.  Most explain their wish to ordain in terms of an aspiration to focus “whole-heartedly” on Buddhist practice. As one participant explained to me:

I thought to myself, if I really applied myself to this, it doesn’t matter what happens in my life, the most horrible thing could happen or the most wonderful and I would be able to cope with it. Is there anything that could happen that this path doesn’t show a way through? And I couldn’t think of any.

Many of the women in this study made some changes to their outward appearance following their ordination. All but one of the women adopted a Buddhist name, and all but one group followed the practice of wearing robes and ritually shaving their heads.  As my study progressed, I became increasingly fascinated by ordained women’s attitudes towards their changes in dress, hair and name, and indeed was privileged to attend the 13th Sakyadhita Conference in India in January 2013 to present a paper of my early findings about these Buddhist practices in the British context.[i] Within this paper, I highlighted that when a woman in Britain wears Buddhist robes, shaves her head, or changes her name to one in Pali or Sanskrit, she is immediately separated from mainstream British society, which is, on the whole, unused to seeing people in Buddhist dress. Although the numbers of Buddhists has increased in Britain since the 1960s[ii], there are still only small numbers of ordained women, perhaps even fewer than 500 in all the groups in my study (and over half of these have ordained within one particular tradition).  Therefore, the discipline of Buddhist dress or name changes might not be well understood by the general (non-Buddhist) British population, and might even be viewed negatively, as a restriction on personal choice, autonomy and freedom. Yet, for the ordained women in this study, wearing Buddhist dress and changing your name is understood positively; as a practice that can liberate and provide spiritual aspiration – some described it as “freeing” them from an image about how they, as women, should look and act, allowing them space to focus on their Buddhist practice.  Of course, ordained women in Britain hold various views on Buddhist dress, hair and name changing (particularly amongst those who do not choose to wear robes), but as one ordained woman described it:

Making a clear statement about what you’re interested in…far outweigh(s) the possible benefits of looking like everybody else.

Any study of female ordination in Buddhism needs also to include an analysis of the controversial subject of gender equality. Whilst not shying away from some of the issues that have affected women (ordained and lay) affiliated with Buddhist groups in Britain, my aim is to represent the range of attitudes towards gender equality (including attitudes towards bhikkhuni/bhikshuni ordination) that are held by ordained women in this context.  In a study that draws on evidence from women in a number of different traditions, it is an on-going challenge to represent each with accuracy and enough detail. But my hope is that this research, when it is completed, will complement the few other studies of ordained Buddhist women in Britain and also provide some new insights, particularly into traditions which have not received much academic attention.   Ultimately, my study will provide an analysis of key features of the lives of ordained women, and will explore the opportunities and challenges faced by women living committed religious lives in the contemporary, ‘secular’ British context.

Caroline Starkey

Caroline Starkey

Caroline Starkey is a PhD student at the University of Leeds, UK (School of Philosophy, Religion and History of Science).  Her PhD research, which is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council UK, explores how the context of Buddhism in Britain shapes the practices of female ordination. Using ethnographic research methods with twenty-five women across six different Buddhist traditions, Caroline’s research examines the role location plays in shaping women’s religious practices, and analyses how ordained women relate to ideas of gender equality, feminism and religious discipline.  Caroline is also involved with Sakyadhita UK, and the UK Association of Buddhist Studies (www.ukabs.org.uk). c.starkey@leeds.ac.uk


[i] For more information about Sakyadhita and its work (including information about the conference), see their website: www.sakyadhita.org.

[ii] For more about Buddhism in Britain, see the thorough study by Bluck, published in 2006. Bluck, Robert (2006) Buddhism in Britain: Teachings, Practice and Development. New York: Routledge.

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