A Female Future Dalai Lama? What Are the Real Prospects?

As a Buddhist clergy, 25-year student of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama (HHDL), and female feminist, I always welcome statements from HH highlighting the social position of women, such as those reported this week by The Huffington Post.

One thing that the international audience should bear in mind, which was not addressed in the HuffPo report, is that the reception of socially-progressive words of His Holiness among general international audiences and what kind of reception such words would receive among Tibetan society in general, and the Tibetan Buddhist patriarchal clerical culture in particular, are for all practical purposes two completely different entities. For the vast majority of Tibetan male clergy, the idea of looking for a female reincarnation of any Tibetan lama successor is still utterly inconceivable, and to this day, is rarely practiced. That is, when a senior Tibetan Buddhist male lama dies and his students and clergy start looking around for successors among 1-2 year old babies, they rarely look around at girl babies for prospects.

In other words, the only way these statements of HHDL, which he has been making for several decades now in response to this question from international audiences, would have any real credibility in Tibetan society is if HHDL leaves instructions both orally and in writing to look among girls for his successor. Even with such written instructions, as in the case of the present Karmapa’s succession, much controversy can ensue.

But even if this step was implemented, the logistical ecclesiastical infrastructure of HHDL’s own monastic system has thus far incorporated few reforms to integrate women clergy in positions of parity and equality, let alone leadership. This can be readily observed during public religious ceremonies, where female devotees are still seated behind instead of alongside men, and female religious leaders are not seated alongside male abbots; attention to women by administrative offices of male Buddhist clergy compared to men; and distribution of other resources such as education and capital resources in Tibetan Buddhist religious and civil society. (His Holiness often takes steps to include representation of women religious leaders in international functions, but such moves are not often seen in Tibetan ceremonies in India, where they would be considered radical if not scandalous.)

But we also need to view the situation of Tibetan Buddhism in its proper perspective. If we look across the landscape of all of the traditions of Buddhism, we will find that the situation of women in Tibetan Buddhism is neither the best nor the worst case scenario, and that all of the traditions need social reform in order to credibly uphold the teachings of equanimity and awakening taught by the Buddha to both genders in the four-fold sangha he established 2500 years ago.

Furthermore, a culture of feminist sensibilities has barely begun to awaken among Tibetan Buddhist clergy, male or female. Gendered and in some cases male chauvanistic dogmas are still taught, without any contemporary reflexive discourse questioning the suitability of such scriptural presentations as religious praxis. True, such discourse is now quite well-established in international academia among religious scholars of Buddhism, but there is little evidence that even the structures for continuing dialogue on such matters are yet in place in Tibetan society, let alone engaged in regularly. His Holiness’s own socialized perspectives on gender suggesting a preponderance of compassionate sentiment among women compared to men might serve as a good example of the nascent status feminist discussions of religion hold in Tibetan society. On the other hand, HHDL was citing his own empirical experience, based on his own sociocultural experience from an older generation, in a culture where gender roles remain heavily socialized. (Moreover, as a founding patron of the Mind and Life Institute, if scientific evidence indeed can be found to support HH’s claims, none of us can blame His Holiness for not trying to find it!)

Neverthless, great strides have in fact been made with respect to gender in Tibetan Buddhist social culture. The traditional educational qualification of Geshe (akin or a master’s degree or doctorate but without the dissertation or broader general education in world history, humanities, etc. that academia’s doctoral degree entails) is now available to women, and several nunneries now offer this kind of training. Similarly, nearly a decade ago, His Holiness the Gyalwang Drukpa, the head of the 800 year-old Drukpa lineage of Tibetan Buddhism, took the radical step of using his senior position to elevate the social position of Buddhist nuns by establishing a monastic community for them as one of his own principal monastic seats, and training the nuns personally in practices and for roles formerly only open to monks. Moreover, the Tibetan Women’s Association has evolved tremendously since its founding in 1959 to advance women’s welfare and development in Tibetan society.

With these developments in mind, when we evaluate female-friendly statements from senior Tibetan Buddhist religious leaders, to understand properly the reality of the contexts such statements represent in Tibetan Buddhism, we have to ask what actions are being taken, if any, alongside verbal statements; if such statements are being made to Tibetan audiences of male religious leaders in addition to international audiences; and what kind of discourse is going on in Tibetan society, if any, to eliminate prevailing dogma and customs of discrimination of women in Tibetan Buddhist social culture.

Whatever the answers to these questions, there is no doubt that every statement by His Holiness the Dalai Lama promoting women’s issues is generally a good thing for everybody. Furthermore, we should never forget the traumatic disruption that the exiled Tibetan community has resiliently endured in its attempts to preserve its unique cultural traditions over the past 50 years outside of Tibet. As I have written in the past, when we consider the very real concerns for preserving this ancient and precious religious culture from extinction, Tibetan society quite naturally prioritizes efforts to conserve and secure what has existed in the past. This otherwise noble effort constitutes a very significant inertial resistance to efforts for reform, including those respecting gender. Given this profound disadvantage, when we compare Tibetan Buddhism to other world religions and spiritual traditions, and His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s statements on women to those of other leaders, I think it is reasonable to assess Tibetan Buddhism and His Holiness as yielding outstanding performance (albeit with plenty of room for long-overdue reform). Therefore, we can legitimately rejoice alongside others when we see that His Holiness the Dalai Lama continues to receive honorary degrees from universities all over the world recognizing the outstanding performance of Tibetan Buddhism and her leaders, despite enduring a continuing history of unfathomable challenges at home in Tibet and around the world in exile.

Image sourced by Flickr: On the stage, HH the Dalai Lama, with HH Karmapa, senior male clergy, monks, nuns [nuns NOT shown in photo-we might wonder why not?], during Kalachakra for World Peace ceremony, Washington D.C., USA; licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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