Review: Eminent Buddhist Women

Eminent Buddhist Women Edited by Karma Lekshe Tsomo

Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2014 267 pages, ISBN: 978-1-4384-5130-5, $29.95

Buddhism teaches non-gendered values of loving-kindness, compassion, liberation, and spiritual attainment, yet there has been unapologetic male dominance in Buddhist history for more than two thousand years. Eminent Buddhist Women gives historical precedent and gravitas to those who claim that there were (and are) eminent Buddhist women who have significantly contributed to how Buddhism is known and practiced across Asia and in the West.

Because only men have historically been honored with the honorary title of Eminent, this book expands the definition to include, “influential, important, notable, and superior” women who were not given positions of authority, but are still worthy of the title.

To celebrate the diversity of voices, traditions, and issues facing Buddhist women worldwide,

the book contains twenty short chapters and is organized by region: South Asian, Southeast

Asian, Tibetan, and the West. Many of the chapters began as papers presented at the 2010

Sakyadhita International Conference on Buddhist Women held in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

Sakyadhita has been working for the reclamation and revaluation of the role of Buddhist

women in multiple texts and traditions since 1987.

An important contribution of the book is that it connects the recovery of Buddhist women’s

histories with current efforts to rescind restrictions placed on Buddhist women. As Tsomo

states, “There is nothing in the Buddhist scriptures to prevent such a revolution and much to

support it.” Some of the chapters directly refute the claim that Buddhism views women as

spiritually inferior to men. In “My Sister’s Future Buddhahood,” medieval Pali texts are analyzed

that describe a female princess who gives white mustard oil to a begging monk and is predicted

to become the future Buddha Gotama.

Other chapters challenge assumptions that historical Buddhist women accepted the restrictions

placed upon women’s spiritual development, education, and leadership. “Two Generations of

Eminent Nepalese Nuns” profiles Buddhist nuns who, against all odds, received education,

created monasteries, and had many devoted disciples in the legendary homeland of the

Buddha. Tsomo herself reminds us that the Buddha’s aunt led the first march for women’s

rights in recorded history when she and five hundred noble women marched barefoot for the

right to have a women’s sangha. When the Buddha acquiesced but only if the women accepted

additional restrictions that reflected cultural norms, Tsomo points out that his aunt tried to

change the most egregious requirement that nuns subordinate to monks as evidence of her

awareness and determination to address gender injustice.

This edited collection is important for the reclamation of lost histories of Buddhist women as

well as for its feminist commentary to recast and reinterpret known histories and texts. It

concludes with an essay by eminent Buddhist scholar Rita Gross. With its short chapters and

vivid retellings, Eminent Buddhist Women is an appropriate text for undergraduate and

graduate courses in Buddhism as well as classes examining women, gender, and religion. This

scholarly work also inspires, supports, and instructs those seeking greater gender equity in

Buddhism today as it documents the successful strategies employed by Buddhist women and

their religious communities to achieve Buddhist knowledge, agency and opportunity within

their Buddhist traditions and cultures.

Dr. Elizabeth Ursic

Professor of Religious Studies, Mesa Community College

Co-Chair AAR/SBL Women’s Caucus