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Examine the role and status of women in Theravada Buddhism, and examine how this contrasts to how Theravada Buddhism is practiced in the west

Theravada Buddhism is the oldest surviving form of Buddhism and the most traditional, initially practiced mainly in Southern Asia - predominantly Sri Lanka and Thailand it is now practiced in the west and throughout the world. This essay will look at the role of women in Theravada Buddhism then, now and in the west.

The status of women in Theravada Buddhism has changed throughout the history of the religion from its foundations (approximately 5 BCE) to today. At the time of the Buddha's existence women lived a life of sub-ordinance; obeying and serving their families and husbands and civil rights such as divorce were only instigated by the husband. Therefore women had little power in Asian society. Willis states that women were second-class citizens, inferior to men in all situations (Willis 1985: 61).

A consequence of this cultural exchange has led to the Sri Lankan government's aim to support the development of Theravada nuns and many women have taken the 'Dasa-Sil-Maniyo' order - the mothers of the ten precepts. These women live monastic lifestyles without being ordained and this order has spread throughout the world into the west. There are meditation centres and temples in the west where these women and others like them can live and work and there are women who have undertaken special training and become Theravada Buddhist trainers of meditation techniques and dharma.

From this discussion it is apparent that the role of women in Theravada Buddhism is not clear-cut. The scriptures are clear on the elevation and possible state for the women in Buddhism but social and governmental control has for a long time controlled the development of women in Asia. Now that Theravada Buddhism has spread throughout the world the role of women in the religion has been questioned and is adapted depending on the social constraints within each particular country, paying observance to the traditional role of women in the religion. The teaching and practicing of the dharma remains the paramount issue but the ways in which it is transmitted always remain and important point for discussion. There appears to be a cultural exchange between Buddhism and western society. Where Buddhism brings forward new religious thought and practice, the west is encourages the elevation of women in the religion and from this, the two different worlds are learning and enriching one another.

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