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Contemporary Buddhism, Vol. 3, No.

2, 2002

Women in Engaged Buddhism


Claudia Romberg
Free University, Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Introduction The introduction of the notion of the ideal equality of all human beings by Buddhism represented a change of attitude towards women compared with that obtained in Indian Brahman society at the time of the historical Buddha (565485 BCE). The patriarchal family system of the Brahman tradition (around 800400 BCE) subordinated women in all aspects of life to men: Day and night women must be kept in dependence by the males of their families and must be kept under male control [] a woman is never t for independence (Das 1962, 152). Only as wives of Brahmans could women assist in sacred rites, but they were not allowed to study Vedic texts and were considered incapable of reaching salvation. The rigid caste system did not offer any path to salvation that women could travel independently (Rau 1957). With the emergence of Buddhism in ancient India, the situation changed. The historical Buddha did not make any social reform efforts to overcome this strict and invincible caste system, but tried to create a second world where these distinction are not relevant any longer. All human (and in the Mahayana tradition even all sentient) beings, feeling the suffering of life and, once conscious of that suffering, deciding to enter the Buddhist sangha, lose their social identity as members of the four castes just as all great rivers vanish when owing into the sea. They are capable of liberation from samsaric suffering, regardless of their social status or sex. But the fact that no social reform efforts were made, either by the historical Buddha or by Buddhist communities in later times, reveals that there must have been a certain tension between the doctrines that describe idealized circumstances and actual social situations. In this paper, I shall try to show that no form of discrimination has any theoretical foundations in Buddhism. However, although I can hardly present solutions for existing injustice, I shall try to point out the theoretical basis for a possible reconciliation of opposing views concerning discrimination in general, and the problem of gender in particular. I shall try to illustrate existing tensions on three different levels. First, I will sketch problems that exist on the level of society. Was Buddhism in its early form a religion open to individuals of all social classes? Was it possible for members of the female sex to enter the Buddhist community and thereby to enter the path to salvation? Second, I shall describe forms of femininity that are prevalent in Buddhism, and answer the question whether it is possible to attain salvation as member of the female sex. As Diana Paul has pointed out, Buddhism is like Judaism and Christianity [] an overwhelmingly male-created institution dominated by a patriarchal power
ISSN 1463-9947 print; 1476-7953 online/02/020161-10 2002 Taylor & Francis Ltd DOI: 10.1080/1463994032000068564

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structure. As a consequence of this male dominance, the feminine is frequently associated with the secular, powerless, profane and imperfect (1985, XIXXX). Male Buddhists created certain images of femininity and, in accordance with these images, established normative rules of behavior for women within the Buddhist community. Third, I will investigate the possibilities Buddhism offers for a more activist approach toward society and social ethics. Could one draw conclusions from Buddhist teachings that help to overcome social injustice? Does Buddhism formulate certain rights that should be valid in secular society as well? Is reconciliation between existing injustice or discrimination and idealized teachings possible? Is any specically feminist approach to socially engaged Buddhism likely to succeed? Early Buddhism Buddhism was not intended to be a religion for the masses. The historical Buddha taught a path to salvation that each individual could go on independently. The aim was to overcome suffering and rebirth by means of meditative practice and good behavior, but it was never meant to change society as a whole or to offer salvation that can be reached without own efforts.1 Buddhism teaches a radical responsibility for ones own deeds and for the karma accumulated by them. In deciding to enter the Buddhist community, one takes the rst step toward this salvation by ones own efforts. But was everyone allowed to enter the sangha? Not in the rst place. Men could enter the sangha, but even though women were regarded as capable of reaching salvation, they were not allowed to enter the community until the Buddhas aunt and stepmother Mahaprajapat wanted to join it. When the disciple Ananda requested it on her behalf, the Buddha reluctantly granted his request (not hers), but put the nuns order under the control of the monks. The nuns had to obey the Eight Chief Rules that made them dependent upon the monks for the proper performance of most of their ceremonies and the authorization of them all. For example, the nuns had to pay reverence to the monks, but the monks were not obliged to make salutations in return; nuns had to spend the rainy season under observance of the monks, and were not allowed to admonish the latter. When the Vinaya, the monastic rules, were instituted, the nuns had to obey 311 rules, compared with 227 for the monks. In this early stage of Buddhism it was practically difcult for women to enter the Buddhist order. Although both men and women had to undergo medical examination in order to restrain sick persons from entering, only women had to have their sexual organs examined as well.2 Few members of the community were from the lower social classes. High demands concerning intellectual abilities partly restricted illiterate people, and especially women, from becoming members. The Thergata, a collection of poems written by nuns, shows that a large number of the women who entered the sangha in the early period of Buddhism were noble women of good education. This short description reveals that the ideal equality of all human beings was not put into practice on the level of the Buddhist institution. Women

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not only suffered discrimination in secular Brahman society, but in the Buddhist sangha as well. Reasons for this can be found in the embeddedness of Buddhism in the Indian Brahman culture and the different forms of femininity described in the Theravada and Mahayana traditions of Buddhism.3 Buddhist attitudes toward women There are basically three general attitudes toward women in Buddhism. The rst teaches that female rebirth is a result of negative karma accumulated in a past life. This view is strongly inuenced by the Brahman background and the general position of women in ancient society. A second view imagines a Buddha to be male and, therefore, makes male rebirth or a sexual transformation necessary for women. The third view is that gender is irrelevant for salvation in the sense that gender is one of the traits of the ego, which need to be transcended. Empirically, all three stances are part of Buddhism. Within the corpora of the oldest Buddhist literature, the Pali canon and other Theravada literature that is transmitted in Sanskrit and Classical Chinese, the rst view is the most prevalent. The scriptures often speak disparagingly about women: in the Cullavagga, the Buddha is said to have stated that the Buddhist dharma will deteriorate earlier because women became part of the sangha. The Anguttara-Nikaya is very detailed on all the bad characteristics of women, and in the Theragata (a collection of poems written by monks) women are described as great temptresses and the cause of all suffering. With the development of the Jataka literature, the position of men and women became particularly polarized: being born male was a visual proof of ones moral and spiritual superiority. These images were frequently regarded as unalterable and permanent. It is not clear whether these passages are true accounts of the historical Buddhas opinion or whether monks added them in later times. It is reasonable to assert that these descriptions say more about the worldliness and the fear of men, who seem to confuse objects of perceptions with their own mental fantasies about them, than they do about actual (mis)behavior by women. In order to avoid these fantasies, monks were taught to meditate upon women as female corpses, a practice that mirrors the difculty men had in pursuing the strict practice. The fact is that Indian Buddhists believed that women were by nature more deeply involved with worldly existence than men because of female fertility. Motherhood was generally considered a wise and compassionate form of femininity, but mothers with their unconditional love for their children, involving strong karmic bonds, were regarded as the least capable of attaining salvation. Sexuality, too, was closely associated with women. As the most dangerous samsaric force, strong bodily desire evokes the greed for another becoming, for another unredeemed rebirth. The mysterious and destructive form of femininity had to be controlled by the male-dominated Buddhist institution and this is expressed in the Eight Chief Rules and the 311 monastic rules for nuns. Despite all social and institutional restrictions, the aim for both men and women within this early form of Buddhism was to become an Arhat, an

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enlightened human being that has already escaped the cycle of death and rebirth. Lists in the old Pali canon show that quite a number of nuns became Arhats, and the Thergata speaks of awakened women, too. Since the formation of Mahayana Buddhism in the rst centuries CE, the situation changed. The aim was no longer to become an Arhat, but to become a Buddha, imagined as a male being, the aforementioned second view. The 32 characteristics of a Buddha (P. lakkhana, Skt. laksana) include the hidden, male sexual organ. This shift made, in fact, the situation for women worse, because a doctrinal foundation was laid for the necessity of changing the sex before being able to become enlightened. Nancy Schuster Barnes suggests that imagining a Buddha to be male was due to Hindu inuences from the important literary works of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana that were written at the same time (Schuster Barnes 1987, 121). Within the Mahayana Prajnaparamita literature, the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, a (minor) philosophical discussion started on whether or not a sexual transformation for women was necessary in order to become a Buddha (i.e. to become awakened). Within this text corpus it is asserted that all apparent characteristics of beings are illusionary, for everything is in and of itself empty of characteristics. It is only on the level of unenlightened beings that these distinctions exist. And [] if all phenomena are impermanent and insubstantial, then there are no self-existent entities with inalienable and unchanging characteristics such as maleness or femaleness (Paul 1985, 217). This represents the third stance. But due to different concepts of femininity prevalent within Mahayana Buddhist literature, we nd examples of women who reach enlightenment with and without sexual transformation. A well-known example of a female being that changes into a male being rst and then into a Bodhisattva4 is related in the legend of the Daughter of the Dragon King in the twelfth chapter of the Lotus Sutra (Skt. Saddharma pundarka-sutra). It dramatically illustrates that changing the female body into a male one, a preconception resulting from the view that women cannot attain enlightenment in their female bodies, is in itself illusionary (Paul 1985, 185ff). The legend in the Lotus Sutra relates that the Bodhisattva Manjusr, known for his great wisdom, praises the spiritual achievements of the eight-year-old daughter of the Dragon King. When she appears in front of the Buddha Sakyamuni to profess her faith, the haughty Sariputra reminds her that women cannot realize Buddhahood because they cannot become Bodhisattvas in the rst place. Through her great mental abilities she then transforms herself into a male being, becoming a Bodhisattva immediately (Kato et al. 1975, 21114). Since all phenomena, including bodily appearance, are void of innate characteristics, transformation is possible and supports the doctrine of Emptiness (Skt. sunyata). An example of a female being becoming a Bodhisattva without sexual transformation is found in the Vimalakrti-nirdesa-sutra, admired by the Chi nese since the fth century and in Japan since the sixth century CE. The basic teaching expounded in the text is the doctrine of Emptiness, stressing that all phenomena are neither arising nor ceasing, and are without distinct and

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innate characteristics, inconceivable, equal and non-dual (Paul 1985, 222). Vimalakrti, the main character of the Sutra, is a householder, who reaches Buddhahood even earlier than most of the monks in the text. A goddess resides in his house and engages in discussions with the eminent monk Sariputra about the Buddha Dharma. She argues that it is absurd to hold the position of innate distinctions among phenomena. Finally, she can prove that sexual transformation, as a form of discrimination, is counterproductive to understanding the nature of Emptiness. Both Mahayana views of a Bodhisattva with or without sexual transformation stress the fact that enlightenment is not attained on the basis of gender. Although these stories show that a difference between male and female was still maintained, they stress the fact that the outward appearance (i.e. gender) is not a constitutive part for the capability to reach enlightenment and supreme Buddhahood. From the very moment of attainment one no longer speaks of a being with a certain gender, but of a Bodhisattva who has transcended the worldly, be it sex or the like. Strictly speaking, a Bodhisattva could, philosophically, be considered genderless. However, believers did not obviously share this view and the conict has never been resolved.5 Later developments of Mahayana Buddhism as Chan or Zen Buddhism in China and Japan emphasize that sexual appearance is irrelevant to enlightenment. The difference between enlightenment and delusion is one single instant of impeccable thought and, since enlightenment has no visible characteristics, the sex of one who realizes enlightenment is of no importance. In Zen Buddhist literature, one often nds stories about fully enlightened nuns who make fun of monks who cling to sexual distinctions by pointing them to the concept of Emptiness, and thereby indirectly making them aware of their discriminative attitude towards women.6 In other Zen anecdotes, lay women and ordained nuns alike help men to realize enlightenment by using, like Socrates in Greek philosophy, a maieutic method.7 In other cases, Bodhisattvas on the verge of enlightenment are compared with mothers about to give birthan interesting comparison considering the Theravada view that mothers are the least capable of reaching salvation (Macy 1977, 31920). In thirteenth-century Japan, Dogen Zenji (12001253), the founder of the Soto Zen sect of Japanese Buddhism, explains in the chapter entitled Raihai tokuzui (Prostration to Attain the Marrow) of his major work Shobogenzo (Storage of the Eye of the Right Dharma)8 that, on the level of enlightenment, men and women are completely equal. He writes that one should not discuss man or woman when dealing with a person who has attained the Dharma. Men who do not want to recognize the female capability of attaining supreme Buddhahood are stupid people who insult the Dharma (Nishijima and Cross 1994, I, 77). He even admits that all prejudices concerning the inferiority of women are the results of false association of women with sexual greed: Furthermore, nowadays extremely stupid people look at women without having corrected the prejudice that women are objects of sexual greed. Disciples of the Buddha must not be like this. If whatever may become the object of sexual greed is to be hated, do not all men deserve to be hated too? [] if we hate

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whatever might become the object of sexual greed, all men and women will hate each other, and we will never have any chance to attain salvation (ibid., 78). This seems to be the most modern and liberal view on the relation between the sexes that I found in Buddhist texts. By recognizing hatred resulting from fear or greed as the main reason for discrimination against women, a rst step toward the elimination of that mental action is made. Only respect for life and compassion for all living beings that suffer can remove hate. Dogens statement can also be applied to life in secular society, where this respect for and compassionate helping of others is regarded the basis for a good life as a lay follower. This leads us to the third question about the possible relevance of ideal or idealized Buddhist teachings in society. The social relevance of Buddhist teaching It is commonly known that philosophical denitions of a particular religion are not always identical with its actual societal appearance. Since there is no religion apart from the secular world, Buddhism also took shapes that did and still do not necessarily follow its basic teachings. Buddhist institutions in history have failed to put certain basic Buddhist teachings into practice. Moreover, in most of the Asian Buddhist countries the merging with indigenous thoughts or the dominant patriarchal structure of society and religious institutions lead to unfavorable situations for women. To give some examples, the karma theory was used in Japan even by Buddhist institutions to strictly maintain the social status quo of the oppressed outcasts (J. burakumin). Under the inuence of patriarchal Confucianism in East Asia, women leaving the house and entering the sangha were regarded as failing in their duty to sustain the family and bear children. In Thai society, women acquire maturity through marriage and childbirth, while men attain maturity through renouncing the world and becoming novice monks for a certain period of time. Since the transmission of the Buddha Dharma to the West (late nineteenth century), a new period of Buddhist culture has started. The striving for a so-called political correctness, for a non-discriminatory society, for the equality of all human beings, for the actual execution of human rights, gave rise to a new assessment of Buddhist doctrines. This modern form of Buddhism, commonly called Engaged Buddhism, tries to reconcile religious conceptions with social ethics and human rights. Buddhist communities in the West try to adapt traditional Buddhism to modern Western societies.9 In Asia, reasons for reform movements result from the contexts of colonialism, westernization, poverty, foreign invasion, and so on.10 Engaged Buddhism is, in a certain sense, a result of the great tension modern Buddhists felt between theoretical and idealized concepts, and the way these concepts have been used. As I said, I am not seeking solutions for existing, concrete problems of discrimination, but when thinking about possible answers to these problems on a theoretical level, the structure could be as follows. First, Mahayana Buddhist sources show that sexual difference is of importance only on a secular level. Philosophically speaking it is irrelevant because everything is in and of itself

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empty of characteristics. There is nothing that can be called a distinct self. Yet, this doctrine of no-self (Skt. anatman), together with the doctrine of dependent origination, does not provide a foundation for notions of autonomous, individual human personalities as a basis for modern human rights and justice.11 This is one of the reasons for the frequently criticized weakness of Buddhism in terms of ethical concern.12 Still, the fact that Buddhism denies the existence of an autonomous, individual self does not necessarily mean that the human person is not important. Anatman means that a self is constructed of non-self parts, built by past dispositions and memories, together with present social and other conditions. Similarly, society itself is empty: In Mahayana thought it is clear that society is empty of selfhood and is constructed of non-society parts, i.e. human persons. Thus society and person are interactive; they are mutually constructive. From a Buddhist perspective, since society and the human person are interactive, it is fundamentally wrong to conceive them as adversarial [] the value of the one cannot be nally separated from the value of the other [] Thus, in the end, in Buddhism neither the human person nor society may rightfully dominate, or negate in its behavior, the other. Consequently, it is best to see nal importance resting on the values that Buddhism embraces: an end to suffering and the nurturing of awakening in all. Both society and the individual are equally answerable to, should serve and contribute to, these values (King 2000, 2978). Second, the cessation of the suffering of all living beings is the foremost aim, formulated in the Bodhisattva vow not to enter nirvana until all living beings are released from pain and evil. Suffering is regarded as an absolute evil. There are two conceptions of the good within Buddhism: rst, the elimination of all suffering (as formulated in the Four Noble Truths); and second, the realization of enlightenment. All forms of Buddhism consider human birth as rare and precious because of the inherent possibility it provides to reach Buddhahood. As Mahayana Buddhism asserts that all beings (not necessarily human) carry the seed of Buddhahood within, a concept known as Buddha-nature,13 then no distinction can be made concerning the carrier of this seed, be it a man or a woman. Third, from these basic statements several imperatives for social behavior can be concluded. First, to respect human life as the only possibility to attain enlightenment and overcome suffering. Second, not to harm others and not to make them suffer even more through inappropriate, disrespectful or discriminatory behavior. Third, to help other people, in accordance with the Bodhisattva vow in a compassionate way, by all means possible. Traditionally, a sort of social ethics comparable with the Biblical Ten Commandments is articulated in the ve precepts for lay followers of Buddhism: (1) To abstain from killing, (2) Not to take what is not given, (3) To abstain from misconduct in sensual actions, (4) Not to engage in false speech, and (5) Not to use any intoxicating drugs. Regarding the aforedescribed mutual constructiveness of society and the individual, these rules, again, are not only good for the individual, but for society as well. All these rules support the striving of the individual for the perfection of his/her Buddhahood within, and help to overcome social injus-

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tices. All Buddhist social activism is an expression of the compassion for suffering beings that develops more and more as one engages in the process of making real ones embryonic Buddhahood. Suffering beings are suffering beings; Buddhism makes no distinction in that regard between human beings, animals and, for many modern Buddhists, the planet (King 2000, 307). With an explicitly feminist Buddhist approach toward enlightenment, sexual difference is categorically emphasized. But this, we have learned from the scriptures, frustrates and is counterproductive to true religious insight, and thus would be a regression. Therefore, a reconsideration of the Buddhist doctrine that we all are human beings with the innate possibility to reach enlightenment is of utmost importance. In this sense it would probably be better to speak of a teaching of equivalence of the sexes because equality implies a sense of sameness, whereas equivalence allows for physiological and psychological differences without implying any hierarchy of difference.14 The foremost aim of Engaged Buddhism is to put this equivalence into practice. Reforms are likely to succeed in this sense as long as they come from within the tradition aiming to realize particular Buddhist ideas not only on the level of the individual believer, but on the institutional level alike. From the institutional level, the next step toward reforming secular society can and will be made.

Notes
This paper was delivered at the conference Religion, Conict and Reconciliation hosted by the Free University, Amsterdam in March 2001, and is published here by kind permission of the publishers (Gort, Jerald D., Jensen, Henry and Vroom, Hendrik, M. (eds). 2002. Religion, Conict and Reconciliation: Multifaith Ideals and Realities, Amsterdam, New York: Rodopi). 1 There are, of course, other forms of Buddhism that teach the power of the other. For example, Pure Land Buddhism in East Asia teaches the reliance of the believer on the grace of Buddha Amitabha. 2 See Pitzer-Reyl (1984, 45) and Horner (1930, 167). I was not able to nd any explanation why such an examination was necessary. 3 Please note that neither tradition exists as a homogenous whole, but comprises various, sometimes even contradictory, philosophical developments. However, for the sake of convenience, I shall use these terms in order to refer to the earlier (i.e. Theravada) and the later (i.e. Mahayana) forms of Buddhism with their different goals of salvation. 4 The term Bodhisattva indicates one who practices the teaching of Buddhism in both other-worldly and secular ways. Instead of becoming a Buddha immediately, this person vows to save all beings and works with compassion for suffering beings. 5 Because of an ongoing discussion on the position or function of women within Vajrayana Buddhism, I will not go further into this matter. For a general, but recently criticized description of women in Tantric Buddhism, see Shaw (1994). 6 See, for example, the story of the nun Myoshin, Chief of the Business Ofce, who was not taken seriously by seventeen visiting monks. After having heard their discussion of the parable of the ag moving in the wind, she explains to them the deeper meaning of the ag, the wind and the mind in terms of the concept of Emptiness (Nishijima and Cross 1994, I, 734).

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7 See the examples of the Mo-shan Liao-ran and her disciple Zhi-xian, or the old woman selling rice cakes and Tokuzan, Master of the Diamond Sutra. 8 Nishijima and Cross 1994, I, 6983. This chapter was probably written around the year 1240. However, Dogen seems to have changed his attitude later in life when, in his late writings, he states that a nun who has served the sangha all her life has to bow before a newly ordained monk. This represents the Theravada view. It is not clear whether Dogen actually changed his mind or whether these later texts are apocryphal writings, added during the establishment of a male-dominated Zen Buddhist institution. On the authenticity of Dogens writing see Heine (1997). 9 Since the 1980s one can observe several reformatory movements from within the Zen Buddhist sects in Japan as well, led especially by the Buddhologists Hakamaya Noriaki and Matsumoto Shiro, who call themselves Critical Buddhists. However, no activist approach has yet been formulated by them. I also count the engaged movement of the Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh as a Western Movement, because he teaches in and operates primarily from France. 10 For example, liberation movements in Asia are TBMSG (Trailokya Bauddha Mahasangha Sahayaka Gana), initiated in the early 1980s by disciples of Sangharak shita who were working among B.R. Ambedkars followers in India or the Sarvodaya Shramanera Movement led by A.T. Ariyaratne in Sri Lanka. See Queen and King (1996). 11 Skt. prattya-samutpada; dependent origination implies arisal from conditional cau sation; since everything, all phenomena arise from causation they lack an essential self-nature (S atman) and are thus impermanent, void. 12 Ichikawa Hakugen (19021986), for example, states that the ethical pitfall latent in the Zen approach to society directly derives from misinterpretations and false applications of key Buddhist ideas (Ichikawa 1967, 1970). 13 For a detailed discussion of the concept of Buddha nature, see King (1991). 14 Formulated in Alan Sponbergs (1992) outstanding article Attitudes toward Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism, on page 12 he refers to Brresons (1981) book Subordination and Equivalence: The Nature and Role of Women in Augustine and Thomas Aquinas (originally published in French 1968). Sponberg prefers to distinguish further between equivalence and inclusiveness, because the latter asserts neither sameness nor a lack of hierarchical differentiation.

References
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Macy, Joanna. 1977. Beyond Wisdom: Mother of all Buddhas, in Gross, Rita (ed), Beyond Androcentrism, Missoula: Scholars Press, pp. 31533. Nishijima Gudo and Cross, Chodo (trans). 1994. Master Dogens Shobogenzo, 4 vols, Woking, Surrey: Windbell Publications Ltd. Paul, Diana Y. 1985. Women in Buddhism. Images of the Feminine in the Mahayana Tradition, Berkeley: University of California Press (rst published 1979, Berkeley: Asian Humanities Press). Pitzer-Reyl, Renate. 1984. Die Frau im fruhen Buddhismus (Marburger Studien zur Afrika- und Asienkunde, Band 7), Berlin: Verlag Dietrich Reime. Queen, Christopher S. and King, Sally B. (eds). 1996. Engaged Buddhism. Buddhist Liberation Movements in Asia, Albany: State University of New York Press. Rau, Wilhelm. 1957. Staat und Gesellschaft im Alten Indien nach den Brahmana-Texten dargestellt, Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz. Schuster Barnes, Nancy. 1987. Buddhism, in Sharma, Arvind (ed), Women in World Religions, Albany State University of New York Press, pp. 10533. Shaw, Miranda. 1994. Passionate Enlightenment. Women in Tantric Buddhism, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press. Sponberg, Alan. 1992. Attitudes toward Women and the Feminine in Early Buddhism, in Cabezon, Jose Ignacio (ed), Buddhism, Sexuality and Gender, Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 336. Correspondence address: Claudia Romberg, Oskar-Haffmann Str. 44, 44789 Bochum, Germany. E-mail: claurom@attglobal.net