Can a female laity be the leader and spiritual teacher of a monastic community?

-A A +A
Ngung Chia Siew (Dr.) M.A. eLearning student, International Buddhist College, Thailand Than Hsiang Buddhist Research Center, Malaysia.


Over the years, the relationship between sangha and laity has become closer. Laity volunteers are now common in temple activities. Laity are needed to the handle money for the temple as precepts prohibited the sangha from doing so. Nevertheless, the divide between laity and sangha remains clear – i.e. laity provides the sangha material needs while the sangha teaches laity the Dhamma. Laity’s involvement in the sangha affairs remains at the administrative support level.

When a female laity was appointed to be the leader and spiritual teacher for a monastic community in Taiwan, two issues arises – namely, (1) the relationship between laity and sangha; (2) the status of female in Buddhism. The leadership role of a monastic community is clearly administrative and thus, can be filled by laity regardless of gender. The focus of this research paper is therefore to examine the suitability of a female laity to take on the role of a spiritual teacher.

The precepts have stated that confession pertaining to the 92 Pacittiya and denouncing some of the 13 Samghadiesa can only be carried out in front of another monk. Other precepts prohibit the teaching of more than six consecutive words from a Pali Dhamma to woman and no monk should make a trip or spend a night under the same roof with woman. These rules meant that a female laity spiritual teacher cannot execute the disciplinary and Dhamma teaching duties expected from a spiritual teacher.

There have always been differences between genders since Buddha’s era. Nuns have been subjected to more precepts and must observe the Eight Garudhammas. In some Buddhism sect, there is no more female sangha and in Tibet, female cannot be appointed as sangha head. Regardless of religion and society, the gender divide / discrimination has always been a difficult issue. Even in modern day context, gender divide is still common e.g. women must cover up their faces in some religion. In Asia societies, the gap of masculine-feminine divide remains significant. Thus, a female spiritual teacher might face executional and operational difficulties.

Buddhism is however a very democratic religion. When consensus cannot be obtained from contemporary thoughts, a new school can be formed. Thus, the great diversity in Mahayana Buddhism from Tibetan practice (with precedent in laity religious leadership e.g. Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, a monk of 27 years taught as laity for 17 years) to the Han Zen (with precedent in female religion teacher e.g. Moshan, a nun, taught both male and female sangha). However, the combination of “laity and female” and “part-time Dhamma learner (i.e. laity) teaching full-time practitioner i.e. the sangha” is unprecedented. It is therefore recommended that a new school should be formed since the practice of a female laity spiritual teacher for a monastic community cannot fit perfectly into the existing Buddhism organisational framework.

Female laity; Spiritual leadership; Sangha laity relationship; Laity spiritual teacher; Female leadership