The question of whether women have equality under Buddhism is not an easy one to answer. One must consider the Buddha’s teachings, the various schools of Buddhism, and the cultural influences that are pervasive from one Buddhist country to another. In addition, the various schools of Buddhism differ in their selection of texts to live by. The ideals presented and the day-to-day reality often vary, so it is a very complicated question to answer.
Dr. L.S. Dewaraja has written a paper on “The Position of Women in Buddhism.” Her tack was to examine the position of women in Buddhist societies versus non-Buddhist societies in Asia, and she began by examining the life of women in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Burma and Tibet.
Delving into the observations of various European’s writing about their time in Asia (c. 1700’s-1900’s), she notes that the consensus was that women were treated with a degree of equality that caught these authors by surprise. In Sri Lanka, women were not treated as slaves and mistresses, but as companions and friends by their husbands. Writers on Burma reflected on a surprising degree of independence, which was contrasted by the subjugation and seclusion of women in India and China. Similar liberties were noted about Thailand. From this data, it appears that Buddhism had played a positive role in fostering equality for women, not usually seen in Asian countries.
Traditionally, especially where Hinduism was present, women were initially viewed with respect and could participate in religious ceremonies. However, once the Brahmins dominated the society and the teachings of Manu (the first human being to have ever lived, perhaps corresponding to Adam) were embraced, women were prohibited from reading the Vedas, a woman could not worship or sacrifice by herself, and could only reach heaven through complete obedience to her husband. Manu perpetuated the idea that women were prone to evil and were sinful. Buddha’s teachings on salvation through one’s own effort, is not gender based and was, therefore, contrary to the culture of the time.
In ancient India, women were considered on the same level as the lowest caste. Their birth was considered a misfortune, and they were considered a burden on the family. These notions continue for many to this day.
Portions of the Pali Canon show “women as responsible for the downfall of the human race,” but generally speaking Buddhist interpretation “shows lust in general, rather than women, as causing the downfall.”
Buddhism does not view marriage as a sacrament, so there are no religious restrictions or consequences. However, Buddha did comment on marriage, by setting up a reciprocal relationship with duties for each partner:
In five ways should a wife as Western quarter, be ministered to by her husband: by respect, by courtesy, by faithfulness, by handing over authority to her, by providing her with ornaments. In these five ways does the wife minister to by her husband as the Western quarter, love him: her duties are well-performed by hospitality to kin of both, by faithfulness, by watching over the goods he brings and by skill and industry in discharging all business.
Even for the Western mind, these are reasonable ways for spouses to treat one another and their marriage.
However, in practice, women are often viewed as inferior, as in Burma, where it is customary for women to pray that they will be reborn as a man. In the Mahayana school, it is believed that a woman can attain enlightement, but not while she is in the female form. She must reincarnate as a man. These attitudes loudly communicate that being female and the female form are somehow inferior.
Also in practice is polygamy. Historically, polygamy was viewed as a symbol of wealth, bringing men respect in their community and the ability to amass wealth. World-wide, polygamy is legal in over 150 countries. Polygamy is not permitted in developed countries, but it still exists in developing countries. Due to acts of forced marriage, domestic abuse and neglect, it is considered a human rights abuse, and the U.N. recommends an end to polygamy throughout the world. In the countries permitting polygamy, only polygyny (one man with multiple wives) is permitted. Legally, it occurs primarily in Muslim and African nations, with one exception: Burma (Myanmar).
Tibet has the largest polyandrous (one woman with more than one husband) community in the world, and polyandry is also common for Buddhists living in Ladakh, Bhutan, and in other portions of the Indian subcontinent. Traditionally in Tibet, having multiple spouses was not viewed as having sex inappropriately, and nomadic Tibetans in Nepal have practiced fraternal polyandry (one woman with men related as brothers). Until 2010, Thailand legally recognized polygyny.
While the ideal in Buddhism is for men and women to be free to equally study and practice the Buddha’s teachings, in reality woman are still treated directly and indirectly as inferior, and Buddhism is not a safe-guard from polygamy, which is considered a human rights abuse.
 As quoted by Dr. L.S. Dewaraja from Dialogues of the Buddha, trans. C.A.F Rhys Davids, part III, 181-182.