WHERE WERE THE WOMEN? THE MALE FACE OF ‘CONTEMPORARY’ BUDDHISM: Predominantly all-male panels of speakers at Global Buddhist Summit, Delhi 2023

“Imagine, you are all males entering into that totally female space. How does that make you feel?”—Sylvia Wetzel’s question to the 14th Dalai Lama about the inequality in Tibetan Buddhism (1993)

“You have got to learn to leave the table when Love is no longer being served.” ~Nina Simone.

Although I was happy to hear about the first Global Buddhist Summit, entitled Responses to Contemporary Challenges (from 20th-21st April 2023), in India, the home and birthplace of Buddhism, where Shakyamuni Buddha lived and gave many teachings, I was disappointed indeed to see in the media almost zero female participants seated on the main stage and as speakers on both days.

Although there are many excellent and qualified Buddhist females, who are scholars, practitioners, and translators within their traditions, I was informed that only three women were speakers at the event, none of who were on the main panels. One of the speakers was Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, (who recently announced her retirement from in-person teaching)  is almost 80 years old, a British woman, a well-known writer, practitioner and advocate of female empowerment and equality in Buddhism, who founded the nunnery Dongyu Gatsal Ling in India.  I also read that Ven. Bhikkhunī Lieu Phap Viditadhamma Theri, Secretary and Co-ordinator of the United Theravāda Bhikkhunī Saṅgha International and abbess of Suññatā Bhikkhunī Ārāma – Ni Viện Viên Không, one of the leading Theravāda Bhikkhunī nunneries in Vietnam spoke at the event, as did Dr. Barbara Maas, the Secretary of Environment & Conservation of the International Buddhist Confederation, Founder & Chief Executive of People for Nature & Peace Germany. 

After publishing this article Tathaloka Theri, an American, white woman who is a Buddhist nun and founding Abbess and Preceptor at Dhammadharini,  explained to me that:

“I was also myself a Summit invitee, with full support offered from the IBC, and am sorry I could not attend in person – I don’t know if this might have been so for other invited female Buddhist leaders invited as well. I appreciated the invitation and publicly apologized for not attending on my Facebook page two days ago straightaway when I saw the male line-ups, to try to help ameliorate the perception that not enough Buddhist women leaders were invited.  Who we especially missed were the Buddhist women leaders from East Asia. The Chinese delegation was notably not able to join. And Buddhist leaders from several East Asian countries close to China also did not join. It’s a shame, because East Asia has some of the most powerful and excellent Buddhist women leaders of great eminence – sorry not to see them there. That’s politics.”

Certainly judging by media coverage and photos alone, it looked like very few women, if any were actively participating in it. The photos were predominantly of male speakers and delegates, which is not surprising because there were only three female speakers in total. 

Yet, the Shakyamuni Buddha set up a four-fold community of monks, nuns, laywomen and men. They were equal members of the Buddhist community. The Indian Prime Minister, Modi gave an inspiring speech about Buddhism in India, and presented robes to a group of men, Thich Tri Quang,  the 43rd Sakya Trizin Rinpoche, and Drikung Chetsang Rinpoche.  However, no female was given robes. Other photos of the event revealed all-male dinners, with only monks and Rinpoches in attendance. 

This ‘glaring omission’ and unequal representation of women as participant speakers and hosted guests at the dinner seems to have either gone totally unnoticed by participants, observers and the media, or everyone was too caught up in the 14th Dalai Lama incident with the Indian boy to care or notice [1]. However, in the 21st Century, to have a conference entitled Responses to Contemporary Challenges with almost zero female speakers is beyond belief.

This lack of female speakers reminded me of the 4th Vajrayana conference in Bhutan last year, when there were also zero female speakers in the opening ceremony of five or six all-male speakers. When I politely asked the Bhutanese male organiser why there were no female speakers, he did not answer and seemed rather put out by the question. That conference was entitled  (wait for it) ‘Modernity in Buddhism‘. In addition, my presentation which was on the female, non-monastic roots of Vajrayana in India, was later not published and no reason was given for it. In fact, when I asked for a reason, I was either ignored, or abruptly and rudely told that they intended to publish all of them. However, it has still not been published. For those who would like to see and hear what I presented in Bhutan, please see the video here; the summary and transcript is here.

The phenomenon of all-male panels and conferences is nothing new of course. In fact, as I mentioned before, there is even a comic website aimed at exposing them.  Nonetheless, it is rather hopeless and uninspiring for women (or children) to see a religion dominated by men where women (and children) are still seen as being inferior to men and without any real respect for their voices, experiences, talents and bodies.  In any other sphere of life or work, and in countries and cultures that have reasonable gender equality, such a glaring omission would be seen as highly inappropriate, and even illegal. But within religious and Buddhist circles, no one seems to have batted an eyelid. That was one contemporary challenge that seems to be unworthy of notice or discussion for these male Buddhists! Even the keynote speaker, Professor Robert Thurman did not mention it as a potential issue there.

Sylvia Wetzel, scholar-translator, in 1993, asking the 14th Dalai Lama and others to imagine if all the Buddhist teachers, symbols, and those with power and influence were predominantly male, who would men feel in that same situation?

It also reminded me of an event in 1993, in which scholar-translator, Sylvia Wetzel surprised the Dalai Lama and her white, male colleagues, like Robert Thurman, Jack Kornfield and Stephen Batchelor with a very unusual visualization (see video here). She called on everyone present to imagine themselves in a Buddhist world in which all Buddhas, deities, and most importantly teachers were women. They were first in rank and made the rules. Now, she reminded them, “How would that make you feel as men?” The Dalai Lama didn’t really give an answer and said it was an interesting picture about which he would have to think more. Her western colleagues in Buddhism however caught her message loud and clear, and chuckled uncomfortably. The full transcript of her question I have typed up in the endnote below [2]. The question really is would the Buddhist men be so gender-blind if the shoe were on the other foot? Would they happily attend such an almost all-female speakers’ conference?

So, although the Global Buddhist Summit could have been a great opportunity for Buddhists to show how important and valuable women are within the Buddhist communities in helping respond to contemporary challenges, it became one endless show of men in monastic robes. Where is the inspiration for female and lay Buddhists in that?

Music? Superwoman by Alicia Keys and Woman by John Lennon.

Written by Adele Tomlin, 22nd April 2023.

All-male VIP dinner with the 14th Dalai Lama, 12th Tai Situ Rinpoche and other Buddhist senior teachers held at the Global Summit


[1] For the record, I sincerely respect and admire the Dalai Lama for his stance on compassion, non-violence and Dharma activities, and I do not think he intended any harm by his actions. At the same time, I do not believe any religious man (of whatever religion) has a ‘God-given’ right to put their hands or mouths on the bodies and lips of women or children, without genuine and fully informed consent. Whether it is Tibetan culture or not (which is debatable), any patriarchal cultures or people who still see men has having that right, are a thing of the archaic past, and have no place in the 21st century.  

[2] Sylvia Wetzel’s visualisation and question was:

“I would like to start the presentation of the role of men and women in the tradition of Buddhism in the East in the West with a short visualization. I would invite everybody here in the room, please imagine you are a male coming to a Buddhist center. You come into the main room and you see this beautiful Tara Buddha, this female Buddha on the wall surrounded by sixteen females in Buddha’s family.

You get a chance to talk to Her Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama who in fourteen incarnations always choose to have female rebirth. You hear about the 17th Karmapa who chose to be reborn seventeen times as a woman. You are surrounded by very high Rinpoches, beautiful, educated strong women. Then you see the big nuns coming into the room who are self-confident and outspoken. Then you see the monks coming in who are very shy and timid. Then you hear about the lineage Lamas of the tradition who are all female down to the female abbott of the center.

Then imagine you are male, and you approach a Lama and you are a little bit a little bit insecure and a little bit irritated, and you ask:  “why are there only female symbols, female Buddhas, female teachers, female lineage Lamas?”  This Lama tells you:  “Why do you worry? Men and women are equal. I mean almost. I mean we have some scriptures, which say a male rebirth is inferior but I mean it is just a compassionate perception of reality isn’t it? So that men have a more difficult time when all the leaders politically, spiritually, philosophically are women.

Then maybe this male student who was very sincere goes to another Lama or tradition and says “what about all these women? I mean I’m a man, how can I identify?” Then this teacher says don’t worry you just meditate on Shunyata, emptiness. No man, no woman, no body, no problem.”

Then you go even to a tantric teacher and ask him “Why all these women? and I’m a man I don’t know how to relate.” They say “Don’t worry you are a beautiful daka, you are so useful for all these practitioners’ energy and to help them get enlightened.” This is the visualization. So our question to Your Holiness is what would you recommend to your male students lamas to help overcome their patriarchal behavior in body speech and mind? “ See video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SD5xNvqQE-Y

7 thoughts on “WHERE WERE THE WOMEN? THE MALE FACE OF ‘CONTEMPORARY’ BUDDHISM: Predominantly all-male panels of speakers at Global Buddhist Summit, Delhi 2023

  1. My partner Cathy and all her friends were involved in the women’s movement in the 70’s and beyond in the US. They became leaders in NOW etc. I think you need to start organizing the women teachers and translators and lamas to protest this untenable situation. Some consciousness raising is needed.

    All the best in your efforts to raise awareness of this injustice.



  2. Yes, it is interesting to observe the lack of female participation. For myself, I consider this a teaching moment. I have chosen to attain enlightenment in a female form, because of the underrepresentation. Women should be represented to inspire female partipation in this tradition. With that being said, form is essentially appearance and doesn’t prevent us from attaining enlightenment. In fact, I believe Padmasambhava said that our bodies are more conducive to attaining enlightenment, so we should rejoice!

  3. Dharma sister,
    Upon further contemplation, take your dissatisfaction and organize a counter “demonstration” (I use that word very intentionally) by having a symposium yourself and invite all the women you feel should have been speakers and demonstrate what inclusion could look like for the male traditionalists. It’s an idea!👍🙏

    1. Thanks for your comments and support here Alisha, I certainly will interview and promote Buddhist women on my new podcast channel and on this website, as I have been doing already! It’s a great idea though for sure. Wonder how many male attendees there would be though, that is the quesion I and others have asked? Did you see Sylvia Wetzel’s pertinent visualisation and question to the 14th Dalai Lama in 1993 about just that?: https://youtu.be/SD5xNvqQE-Y

      1. Yes, I watched it. Thank you. 🙏 What I observe is neither side of the debate can understand the other’s perspective. Since we are female, and we are in the non-dominant position, we feel the sting of not being included in all the ways we would like. It can potentially be a deterrent to the path as Ven. Thubten Chodren shared. However, I also agree with HHDL in that women need to develop self confidence and start taking some initiative. If there is fault, I see both parties as responsible. The monks are ignoring the problem, which isn’t an example of good listening. I see listening as a compassion act. Unfortunately, women are holding onto their pain which seems like a fixation in the mind and is also a legitimate challenge to enlightenment. I could be wrong here, but it’s my observation. Also, aren’t there always challenges that are unique to every group or person? Aren’t the challenges meant to be used supports for our practice? Should I wait for others to make it right for me or should I make it right for myself? These are the questions I ask everyday.

      2. Exactly. Why do you think I created Dakini Translations? If they will not listen, just Do It Yourself! Leave the table, when love is no longer being served as Nina Simone said.

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