Since Buddhism reached American shores in the nineteenth century, women have been a part of the transmission of the dharma (Buddhist teachings) as students, lay people, teachers, nuns, academics, artists and activists. Women from a wide array of backgrounds and interest areas continue to shape the face of Buddhism in the U.S. - from women who encountered Buddhism during the women’s movement in the 1960s, to ordained women founding temples for large immigrant populations, to young women using Buddhism and art as a tool for changing the world, to women carving out a space for Buddhism in colleges and universities. As Buddhist scholar Rita Gross is careful to note, the experiences of women in Buddhism in the U.S. are wide and varied.
In the 1980s, women began to gather formally to discuss their experiences within Buddhism in the U.S. These gatherings provided groundwork for on-going conversations about the role of women in Buddhism. Today, whether they are ordained women passing on the dharma to others as teachers or they are social activists grounded in Buddhism, women are negotiating their roles within Buddhist communities. Buddhist nuns and teachers are paving the way for a formal role for women within the tradition by pushing for more female ordination and the wider recognition of women teachers - both in the U.S. and internationally. Race relations, interfaith dialogue, prison ministry and political activism are important foci for Buddhist women’s social activism. Women Buddhologists (Buddhist scholars) are incorporating their Buddhism and their academic interests in and outside of the classroom at colleges and universities around the country. Buddhist women artists are finding ways to use Buddhism as an instrument of creativity which enables one woman to illustrate the interconnectedness of humans and the earth and another woman to draw together many unheard voices of young people in Buddhism. The future of Buddhism in the U.S. will continue to be shaped by the wide-ranging activities and work of women who are discovering innovative ways to claim space within the tradition.
The intent of this report is to give snapshots of interesting things women Buddhists in the U.S. are doing - it is not comprehensive coverage of women in Buddhism in the U.S. The research is based on journal articles, books, email and verbal conversations and interviews with several Buddhist women in the U.S.
—Kate Dugan, Pluralism Project Research Associate