The wall of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism that shut out women more effectively than the Blue House is finally beginning to crumble. For the first time in the history of Korean Buddhism, a Bhikkuni (Buddhist nun) was appointed to an executive position within the Jogye Order. Priestess Tak Yeon is the newly appointed Director of the Culture Bureau in the Jogye Administration. On the occasion of her appointment, The Women's News took a look into the 'patriarchal nature' underpinning Buddhism and its prospects for change.
Buddhism set foot in Korea some 1600 years ago, a length of time that quite boggles the modern mind. And during this long period, women were non-existent in Buddhist politics. The organization of the Buddhist Administration, considered the 'Blue House' of Korean Buddhism, testifies to this fact.
To this day, there was not a single woman in any of the important posts in the Buddhist Administration including the Bureaus of General Affairs, Missionary Activities and Education. The Religious Officers Law governing the qualifications of religious officers stipulates that "the requirements of a Bhikkuni correspond to those of a Bhikku (Buddhist monk)." This has led to a controversy regarding Priestess Tak Yeon's appointment. According to opponents, "the Religious Officers Law says that the directors and vice-directors of religious affairs must be of the Highest Ordination, which applies only to Bhikkus, and therefore the appointment of a Bhikkuni as Director of Culture is a violation of the Religious Officers Law."
The Jogye Order has put out a different interpretation, however, saying that "the laws governing officers of religious and administrative affairs do not place any restrictions on Bhikkunis assuming religious posts." And according to Han Ju-young, Chief of Research at the Buddhist Women's Development Institute, "Women were denied participation in the Central Council, the highest decision-making body of the Jogye Order, because of inequities in the Buddhist administrative system. Priestess Tak Yeon's appointment as Director of Culture will be the starting point of reforms to expand Bhikkuni participation in the Buddhist Administration."
At the core of Buddhism's gender discrimination lies the Eight-Point Principles for Bhikkunis (Eight Principles), in the same way that Confucianism serves as the foundation of the patriarchal system. The Eight Principles, which includes the rule that "even a 100-year-old Bhikkuni must bow to a young Bhikku who has just entered priesthood," has been criticized for strengthening male chauvinism in the Buddhist institution. As Priestess Se Deung of Unmun Temple points out, "The male leaders, who have assumed most of the important posts in Buddhist society today, focus on the Eight Principles. Many Bhikkus remain tethered to the Bhikku-centered mentality set out in the Eight Principles, and some Bhikkus in the leadership claim that the Eight Principles are the 'Teachings of Buddha' and refuse to yield any of their authority to Bhikkunis."
Professor Lee Hye-sook, who teaches Social Welfare at the Buddhist Graduate School of Dongkuk University, explains, "Whichever way you read it, the Eight Principles is clearly aimed at upholding the authority of Bhikkus and subordinating Bhikkunis to their control." Another example of gender discrimination in Buddhist laws is the procedure for women aspiring to priesthood. They have to follow 348 precepts compared to Bhikkus' 250, and must go through Bhikku training even after completing Bhikkuni training. But as many have pointed out, more serious debate is called for on this issue, since the Eight Principles is still widely considered as part of Buddha's Teachings. Priest Do Bub of Shilsang Temple explains that the Eight Principles were "first laid down for the purpose of offering minimum protection for Bhikkunis," but recognizes the "need to further adjust and refine the Eight Principles in line with the changing times." The priest also advises, "Debate concerning the Eight Principles should spread beyond just Bhikkunis to become a public issue that involves Bhikkus as well. It would be best to bring the debate to the Buddhist Administration."
Professor Kim Jeong-hee, who has started teaching 'Buddhism and Feminism' from this year at Ehwa Women's University, offers the following advice: "The Eight Principles, which has its foundations in the patriarchal system, is in fact incongruous with Buddha's original intentions. If we want to return to Buddha's Teachings, the Eight Principles should not be applied to today's reality, and Buddhist feminists should take the initiative in this effort."
Korea embraced Buddhism almost 1000 years before it accepted Confucianism. Institutions and practices cannot be changed overnight, but with the breaking of the unwritten law that Korean Buddhism has adhered to for 1600 years, changes have indeed begun. Says Han, "Many women have already become members of temple management committees and heads of lay Buddhist societies, and Bhikkunis are leading many Buddhist campaigns such as social welfare programs that increase their contact with the public." With the founding of the Buddhist Women's Development Institute in 2000 as a start, the women's movement has continued to spread within the Buddhist circle, leading to the creation of the Women's Committee within the Buddhist Citizens' Alliance for Economic Justice and a 'Bhikkuni Research Center' at Jungang Buddhist University. Another newly created group is an online study group aimed at supporting young Buddhist women's alliance (cafe.daum.net/sakyadita).
Priest Bub Jang, Executive Director of Administration, pledged during his election campaign to "enhance the status of Bhikkunis and expand the scope of their activities within the Administration." He also said that "Priestess Tak Yeon's appointment is a reflection of the changing gender ratio within Buddhist society and an answer to the call of the times." Park Jeong-gyu, Chief-clerk of Publicity in the Jogye Order, said, "Although past practices restricted Bhikkunis' participation in Buddhist administration, Priestess Tak Yeon's appointment will be the turning point for greater Bhikkuni participation."
Buddha's followers in Korea who have entered priesthood number about 12,000, of which half are women, and the majority of the 10 million lay Buddhists are women as well. The world of Buddhism seems no different from the real world beyond its walls, at least in terms of gender ratio. Instead of blindly emphasizing the inviolability of Buddha's Teachings, we should be able to recognize as Buddha those who remain unfettered by gender and reach enlightenment and help others to do so without prejudice or obsession. And by doing so, Buddhism will be able to move closer to its original purpose. "I believe Buddha would have admitted to the mistake of creating a gender discriminatory system such as the Eight Principles and letting it be passed down the generations. Buddhists in this age must lead the effort to eliminate gender discriminatory institutions and practices." Advice from Priestess Se Deung, coolly unconcerned about her infamous label of 'black sheep of Korean Buddhism.'