The female body in early Buddhist literature


  • Céline Grünhagen University of Bonn


Body, Human, Gender, Women, Theravāda (Buddhist school), Sex, Equality, Nirvana, Salvation, Buddhist literature, Self, Suffering, Mind and body, Enlightenment (Buddhism), Karma, Samsara, Social norms, Feminism


In this paper the author presents Theravāda Buddhist perceptions of the female body and their impact on sexuality, gender equality and salvation. In doing so the author draws on a selection of texts from the Buddhist canonical literature, which are relevant to the Theravāda tradition. Early Buddhist literature reflects an understanding of the female body as being more closely connected to the material world and the cycle of reincarnation, due to its biological qualities. This has a severe impact on the woman’s status and her chances of attaining enlightenment. Considering the early teaching of individuals possessing equal capacities to attain liberation, no matter what sex or social background, Buddhism as it developed over time failed to translate the equality of the sexes into a social reality. In fact, the perception of a distinct female ‘nature’ which was deemed a hindrance could not easily be erased from the collective consciousness. It is, however, important to note that Buddhist countries are subject to diverse influences that affect attitudes towards the female body, sexuality and the status of women—thus one has to be very careful with generalizations regarding norms and practices. Over time the negative attitudes and restrictions have been questioned; social changes have given way to new interpretations and perspectives. Pondering religious and cultural implications of the Buddhist attitude towards the body and its sex while also considering, for example, modern Mahayana Buddhist interpretations—especially by Western Buddhists and Buddhist Feminists—can lead to an acknowledgement of its potential of interpreting anattā, selflessness and an equality of capacity to practice Dhamma in favour of a general sex and gender equality.



How to Cite

Grünhagen C. (2011). The female body in early Buddhist literature. Scripta Instituti Donneriani Aboensis, 23, 100–114.