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Vimalakirti Sutra Teaches Male/Female Duality = Emptiness

DakiniDakini Veteran
edited January 2015 in Philosophy

There is a misconception among Western as well as Asian Buddhists that the Buddha taught that a male rebirth is more suitable for achieving Enlightenment, than is a female rebirth. But there are sutras that teach that male and female are irrelevant, as they are just as much a construct of the mind as any other phenomenon. One of these is the Vimalakirti Sutra.

Chapter 7 of the Vimalakirti Sutra, a long treatise on Sunyata (Emptiness), concludes a teaching in this vein with the words, "In all things, there is neither male nor female".

The Buddha's disciple, Sariputra, asks a goddess why she doesn't change her form to male. She responds by magically transforming him to a female, and herself to a male, and asks him why he doesn't change himself back to male. Sariputra responds that there is nothing to change. With this experience, he learns that male and female don't exist on a supramundane level, and therefore a female rebirth can't be an obstacle to gaining Enlightenment.,Luk,1972.html



  • The Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra is full of twists and turns. If you read the entire sutra you will encounter some points which appear to be simple but require long study to be understood. The translation by Charles Luk of the Wei Mo Chieh So Shuo Ching is the one I work with.

  • @grackle I added a link to your preferred version. Thanks for the recommendation. :)

  • Thanks for adding the link @Dakini. This wonderful sutra is complementary to the Heart,Diamond and Surangama sutras.

  • DakiniDakini Veteran
    edited January 2015

    @grackle said:
    Thanks for adding the link Dakini. This wonderful sutra is complementary to the Heart,Diamond and Surangama sutras.

    How so? Could you explain, if it's not too involved? (By all means, share! :) )

  • By becoming aware of all four plus the Sutra of Complete Enlightenment you will have touched on most of the core teachings. At least as far as Chinese Mahayana is concerned. Think of the 84,000 dharma doors. So many ways of seeing are nesscessary or our vision remains in the Saha world. The world of obscuring dusts that hides our real nature and prevents our entering the Dharma treasury. Think of the Buddha's Blacksmith Shop. He is still teaching us to forge our very own hammer of karuna and chisel of prajna to break our chains. Well I've probably given a most inadequete and inferior explanation.

  • @grackle So you're saying that in the Ch''an tradition, that group of sutras forms a sort of complete cannon of the basics?

  • I think that you would have to add the Lankavatara as far as Ch'an goes. But the Chinese Mahayana includes many other teachings. It is daunting.

  • sovasova delocalized fractyllic harmonizing Veteran

    Please consider adding the translation by Robert AF Thurman to your list. Nirdesha Sutra.pdf

    He uses the word "void" where it is now typically more clear and accepted to say "emptiness" or even "boundlessness" -- aside from that, it's a great translation.

    The Vimalakirti Nidesa Sutra is truly profound. Thanks for starting this thread, this is an important equality (or perhaps better stated as a "lack of distinction") to notice and understand.

    The play of life is wild and free, it does not restrain itself to our notions of possibility.
    Clear or cryptic?

    Buddhism is really revolutionary when we see that basic unquestioned and non-inquired accepted formulations of life and society, like "male and female" as two ends of a spectrum, are questioned.

    When we see that all beings share the "common bonds of impermanence and suffering" then it is far easier to un-project our notions unto reality. Consistent practice must be key, because such clarity can wax and wane if one's practice vacillates.

    But again, I am happy and rejoice in the progress of my fellows, be they male/female/queer/trans/he-shes, or truly beyond any notion of segregation in the deepest way.

    Stay beautiful, organic, and undefined. (=

  • Thanks, @sova. The last link in my OP is Thurman's translation. And thanks for pointing that out, about his using the term "void" for "emptiness", I hadn't noticed that. My TB professor in college always used the term "void", never "emptiness". Way back when TB studies was new in the West, that was considered the more accurate translation, for whatever reason.

  • Some points to consider:

    Buddhism was heavily influenced by the developing Jain culture. The Buddhas pre to enlightenment starvation routine and then vow to sit till enlightened is reminiscent of some Jain practices. Jain Jihadhis like to re enter nature ideally by sitting in a forest and reintegrate into the environment, through meditating into a living recycling unit.
    They are extremely naked traditionally, very vegan and ahimsa orientated to the point of not washing off body bacteria. Dogs and women can not achieve enlightenment. Weirdos.

    If not for the Middle Way we would likely be Jains rather than Buddhist head cases.

    So when reading sutras we might bear in mind the type of mentality and social setting can be very different to our own. For example in the Vimalakirti Sutra the highly realised lay follower gets Buddhas top alpha-Arahats and devis to visit under a feigned malaise. A good and skilful tactic for a realised being. An affectation for others . . .

    In a story telling culture, mythical endeavours are no more truth or lies, than every movie contains documentary unfoldment of actual events by the filmed participants.

    The important potential is in the effect.

    Non duality is a profound teaching. No enlightenment should be without it. In fact without it enlightement is nothing . . .

    . . . and now back to the null and void . . .

  • pegembarapegembara Veteran
    edited January 2015

    In this early Buddhist text, the Buddhist nun Vajira negated the presence of a "being" or "thing". That being the case, the question of male, female, young or old doesn't arise in the ultimate sense.

    Why now do you assume 'a being'?
    Mara, have you grasped a view?
    This is a heap of sheer constructions(sankhara):
    Here no being is found.

  • @Dakini said:
    There is a misconception among Western as well as Asian Buddhists that the Buddha taught that a male rebirth is more suitable for achieving Enlightenment, than is a female rebirth.

    It is a prevalent limitation, reinforced by the usual patriarchy of the Buddhas time right up to the present.

    Apart from talking to the religious fabrications in a culture, any awake being, girl or boy has to work within the expectations of potential Buddhas.

    In the Buddhas era a holy man left the family life and did not bring his horse, wife or favourite drinking goblet with him.

    By the time the early Mahayana heretics started making up stories, some things had changed.

    In the present era, dharma centres in the West and East are often supported, taught by and practiced in by women.

    The Buddha trancended gods and gender, culture and being an incarnation of Vishnu, who will bring his horse next time . . .

    When Buddhists fill cups with offerings or sutras, they are making mundane or comprehensible the transcendent.

    . . . and now back to the dharma . . .

  • @lobster said:
    .By the time the early Mahayana heretics started making up stories, some things had changed.

    Could you elaborate on that? What had changed?

  • ^^^ heretics is a (volitionally) charged word. I consider myself a heretical Mahayanist. The Goatarmour Buddha (my ex-fiancé) taught a message according to the needs of:

    • the prevalent culture
    • the potential of his and others interaction
    • the possibility and requirements of awakening

    After some generations following the Buddhas death, a group of awakened individuals, path walkers if you will, realised that new projections of the dharma; a different emphasis was required. This always happens both on an individual and social/cultural level.

    In our individual understanding we undergo a deepening for example on the issue of gender or right speech. We have to be very aware of how easily we are provoked, prepared to ignore or superseded in our awareness.

    Let me give you another example, humility is a virtue so pure that to have it exposed is tantamount to wrong speech or looking on Tara as a Dharma Babe (oh but she is . . . :p). Or perhaps to look at sutras as sacrosanct or superficial is not covering all the possibilities . . .

    Hope this answers some questions, not necessarily what you asked but then I am no scholar . . .
    What further insight have you gleaned from these sutra?

  • @lobster said:
    What further insight have you gleaned from these sutra?

    Well, just discovering that this teaching exists was revolutionary! And made me happy. :) The teachings about female rebirth being inferior have been discussed on this forum from time to time over the years, but somehow this gem was missed! So now one wonders how to reconcile the two. Of course, some scholars would say that it couldn't have been the Buddha's teaching that women couldn't reach Enlightenment, so that part must have been edited in by someone else. But it seems to easy to just dismiss as a "later addition" what we don't like of the teachings. So I was hoping this might generate some discussion.

  • federicafederica Seeker of the clear blue sky... Its better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than to speak out and remove all doubt Moderator

    @Dakini that part must have been edited in by someone else. But it seems to easy to just dismiss as a "later addition" what we don't like of the teachings.

    That has never been done without some form of substantiation or clarification, so it has never, therefore been an 'easy dismissal of teachings we just don't happen to like'.

    There is much evidence to support that view.

  • Well, there's debate as to which texts are "earlier" vs. "later", the earlier ones generally being believed to be "original". And the relevant part of the Vimalakirti Sutra (possibly the whole sutra) is said to be significantly later than the passages that say a female rebirth is inferior. Though our friend, Stephen Batchelor, does toss out the earlier texts as inauthentic, and an influence from Hinduism or simply social conditioning.

    These debates about what is authentic and what isn't often are contested among scholars, and these debates can rage on for decades. Still, it's refreshing and pleasantly surprising to learn about this teaching, that male and female are empty constructs, and meaningless in realm of Enlightened Ones, and in the journey to it. :) It's certainly consistent with the Buddha's other teachings, and therefore has the ring of truth.

    But if you have some evidence to share that supports the position that the lines saying women can't achieve Enlightenment, and related texts, please feel free to post some references.

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