Feeding the Hungry Ghosts: The Search for Gender Equality in Buddhism

What is it like to be surrounded by things that taste so good, seem so right, and yet the plate is pulled away from you again and again?  Ask women who have tried to be vocal, or equal, in many Buddhist spaces and they will tell you they know how it feels.


By Kellie Schorr


“The Buddha in the Corner” is a six part series based on the six realms of existence in the Buddhist Wheel of Life as they are found in everyday experience. In the Bhavachakra (Wheel of Life) there is a Buddha in the upper right hand corner pointing to the way out of the cycle of suffering.

So hungry. You are so hungry.

Stumbling through a lush banquet where everyone else seems to be gorging themselves on bowls of spiced soup so rich and hearty the steam rising from the tables drives you nearly mad with desire, you walk through this setting of delights, eyes watering, as your tiny mouth opens and closes. Your dry lips make a smacking sound as they touch. The impossibly thin throat you have quivers at the sight of food all around you and your overly large stomach groans for anything—for everything.

There’s nothing you can eat that will satisfy the gnawing hunger. You continue to wander.

In the Buddhist Wheel of Life the Hungry Ghost Realm, said to be populated by beings with small mouths and enormous stomachs who exist in perpetual hunger yet cannot eat, seems the most hellish realm to me, even though there is a Hell Realm that is supposedly worse.

What is it like to be surrounded by things that taste so good, seem so right, and yet the plate is pulled away from you again and again?  Ask women who have tried to be vocal, or equal, in many Buddhist spaces and they will tell you they know how it feels.

“Traditional Buddhism does not care about your liberal issues. It’s anti-woman, anti-gay, and anti-abortion,” a comment from an angry man responding to me in a Facebook post said. “You better get used it.”

“Okay,” I replied with a wry smile, reflecting on my experiences as a lesbian Buddhist who is against abortion but pro-choice, “I’m used to it.”

Starving in the Grocery Store

Many western Buddhists are converts who began the Buddhist path because they were looking for spiritual food that didn’t make them feel judged by others, bloated with social expectations, or ill from hypocrisy, politics, and calloused opportunism. Becoming a Buddhist is a lot like walking into one of those super fancy boutique grocery stores with coffee bars, wide aisles and the freshest fruit on earth.

Kindness? Check.

Compassion? Check.

Patience? Check.

Not being guilted about sin? Check.

Joy? We carry it in bulk.

But then…

  • “If you want to reach enlightenment, you should pray you come back as a man.”
  • “My lama touched me inappropriately. They said I should feel honored to get his attention.”
  • During an online teaching, a middle-aged woman made a comment that was ignored. A young man repeated exactly what she said and was told by both leaders he was “very wise and helpful.”
  • “Where’s the proof it was assault? Did she enjoy it?”
  • “Nuns have more vows than monks because they carry the burden of not attracting men sexually and leading them off the path.”
  • A female Zen teacher and sangha leader was told she needs to be more “feminine, softer and not so sure of herself” although male teachers were never told this. [1]
  • When a woman went to a female senior teacher and reported she had been raped by a center director, the response was, “If that’s true, I suspect you were into it.”

If that last example sounds extreme, perhaps it would help to know the senior teacher was nun and best-selling author Pema Chodron, who not only admitted and apologized for her response but added Shambhala was “characterized by a lot of drinking and a lot of sex,” and a “free love culture.” When women complained the common response was, “What’s the big deal? … That’s just what he’s like.” [2]

Eventually the path which offered spiritual calm and mental clarity turns into just another store that failed its health inspection; handing you a bag of food too spoiled to eat.

We continue to wander.

Don’t Shop Hungry

So what’s a hungry ghost to do as we walk through the Buddhist world so sure we are on a good path and yet so famished for equality?  We follow the advice every shopper knows—don’t shop hungry. Tips for a fulfilling experience:

  1. Don’t eat delusions. Truth is, as an adult you could eat a pan of fudge for lunch and whipped cream for dinner and no one would stop you. This is called “The Magnificent Path of Gastric Regret.” There are plenty of delusions out there for you to consume:

“It’s just Tibetan Buddhism.” (No, it’s Zen, Chan, Insight Meditation, Theravada, et al…)

“I’ve never had a problem in my sangha.” (Maybe, just maybe, it’s not always about you. Just a thought…)

“This is a western/modern issue, traditional Buddhism has thrived for centuries without these discussions and problems coming up.” (Yes, and suffering/samsara is even older than that. Let’s seek liberation.).

“It’s in the sutras! Ancient texts are inherently sexist.” (The same path that encourages us to study these texts also encourages us to live in the present moment where we are aware of these things and can change them. Middle road, anyone?).

  1. Find the good food you can. The great news is that there are teachers, lamas, places and initiatives that are actively representing or working toward gender empowerment.

Read and hear the voice of female teachers and scholars: Roshi Joan Halifax, Dr. Rita Gross, Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo, Tara Brach, Ven. Thubten Chodron, Angel Kyodo Williams, Dagmola Kusho Sakya, Pema Khandro Rinpoche, Lama Tsultrim Allione, etc. (Note: This is list, not an endorsement nor exhaustive and is admittedly western. Find female teachers who you connect with at the heart level, wherever they are.).

Support groups and places that engage in dialogue and the practice of equality: Sakyadhita International Association of Buddhist Women, The Center for Transformative Change, and Ngakpa International’s Dakini Mountain are a few examples of groups moving forward for social change.

  1. Learn to Cook

The most important voice in promoting gender equality on the Buddhist path is your voice. You don’t have to be a woman, a lama, run a conference center, or be able to say those names in the Heart Sutra correctly in order to add compassion, wisdom and joy to the journey of all beings—male, female, transgender, non-binary, genderqueer, intersexed, and other expressed identities.

Show up, speak out, and love.

We will often hear people say, “enlightenment has no gender.” That’s true. But as human beings still finding our way around the dusk of our awareness, we all have some kind of identity that helps us understand ourselves.

How do we feed the hungry ghosts? The Buddha in the corner points to inclusion.


[1] Blacker, Melissa Myozen, “A Woman of Zen.” Lion’s Roar  Sept. 2018. Print.

[2] Lion’s Roar Staff, “Pema Chödrön apologizes for dismissing allegation of sexual assault from young woman.” Lion’s Roar Sept 23, 2018.


The most important voice in promoting gender equality on the Buddhist path is your voice. ~ Kellie Schorr Click To Tweet


Photo: Pixabay

Editor: Dana Gornall


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