One of my academic research interests is how women contributed to the development of Buddhism and specifically, Shin Buddhism (Jodo Shinshu). In this article, I would like to discuss the Sutra of Queen Śrīmālā, and the Vimalakīrti Sutra, which were composed in early Mahayana Buddhism, and later, in the Contemplation Sutra. Each sutra addresses the potential of women to attain Buddhahood.
The Sutra of Queen Śrīmālā: Queen Śrīmālā, whose parents were devout Buddhists, met Śākyamuni Buddha and expounded the true Dharma in front of the Buddha and made her vows. Buddha happily accepted her wisdom and declared she would become Buddha at the end of life without any condition to change her gender.
The Vimalakīrti Sutra: The Vimalakīrti Sūtra depicts an interaction between Śāriputra and a female deity who transforms his body into that of a woman’s. The deity tells Śāriputra, who is puzzled to have lost his original form, that enlightenment is not determined by one’s physical form or appearance. This was a lesson in the teaching of emptiness, another word “sunyata.” I like how the female deity challenges Śāriputra to see that Buddahood is equally attainable regardless of sex or gender.
The Contemplation Sutra: This sutra describes Queen Vaidehī who felt grief and despair about dealing with her wicked son, Ajātaśatru. She finally kneeled down and tore up her necklace, and begged for Śākyamuni’s help:
Tathagata, World-honored One, in the past you used to send Ānanda to come and console me. I am now filled with anguish. World-honored One, you are majestic and exalted, and so in no way shall I be able to see you. I beseech you, send Mahāmaudgalyāyana and the Venerable Ānanda to come to see me.
She bowed towards the Buddha in the distance.
Then the Buddha appeared in the royal palace.
World-honored One, what evils did I commit in the past that I should have such a wicked son? Also, what karmic relations could have caused you to become a relative of Devadatta?
I beseech you, World-honored One, please explain to me in detail a place that is free of sorrows and afflictions. I wish to be born there. I do not wish to live in this defiled world. Buddha showed her the innumerable worlds of the ten quarters.
Queen Vaidehī chose Amida’s land of bliss to be reborn. In response to her request, Śākyamuni Buddha shows her the thirteen ways to meditate and the nine states of human beings. Vaidehī and her five hundred female attendants listened to the Buddha’s teaching. They were able to envision the boundless features of the land of utmost bliss, the Amida Buddha, and the two bodhisattvas. Vaidehī rejoiced in her heart and attained great awakening with clarity of mind along with her five hundred female attendants who awakened to the aspiration for the highest, perfect enlightenment and to be born in that land.
These are only some examples of sutras that convey women’s potential to attain Buddhahood. Such stories became more popular in Pure Land Buddhism including ordinary people. Thinking about our founder, Shinran, and his wife Eshinni, she had no doubt she would attain Buddhahood at the end of life along with her husband in Amida’s land of bliss. Eshinni deeply encouraged her daughter Kakushinni and other children to hear the Buddha-Dharma with an open heart and mind, and recite the Nembutsu, Namo Amida Butsu, in gratitude.
Namo Amida Butsu,
Rev. Dr. Mutsumi Wondra