I think Gender Bias is a very important topic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it forces us to confront ourselves and think heavily about why we believe what we believe. The topic relates directly to how a person clings to the idea of a self.
We start with a basic buddhist foundation, that what is taught as dharma is essentially correct.
We also hold a variety of beliefs which we have acquired from sources other than dharma,
such those regarding gender equality, or knowledge derived from scientific understanding.
But when we encounter something along the dharma path which seems to contradict those other beliefs (such as a reference to the western corner of the universe) this creates a conflict, because we don't want buddhism to be wrong. We want to be dharma followers, and we also want to be right.
We don't want to say, "I believe in something that is wrong" . So, we think we have to make a choice, or convince ourselves one way or another, or re-word things so that everything comes out nice. But wanting everything to come out nice is really in itself a desperate type of clinging. If something doesn't add up squarely, we can't feel comfortable identifying "me" with it.
It can be suggested with some confidence that for at least the past 2500 years, the social, religious and political traditions of most of human realm reflect an assumption of male superiority, and so it should not come as a great surprise to find gender bias occurring in the teachings of various buddhist traditions in this human realm. We can accept that tiny necks are characteristic of hungry ghosts, because we acknowledge great varieties of samsaric existence. All the realms have their problems and we sort of blame those problems on samsara.
But when we encounter conflicts withiin the human realm, and these conflicts reesult from how we understand and interpret the meaning of the dharma, we rarely blame the shortcomings of samsaric existence. This is where we don't want to acknowledge our own imperfections.
We could say, "Wow, the fact that gender bias (sexism) has become so much a part of Buddhist tradition really shows how insidiously penetrating samsara is!" Instead, there is a tendency to justify things which after all, may be misinterpretations, rather than acknowledge the possibility of misinterpretation. In contrast to this, (so I have heard) when HH Dalai Lama was asked how he would respond if science disproved a teaching of the Buddha, his reply was that what the Buddha taught was perfect...but somehow we must have heard it wrong!
The dharma is not a strict set of dogmas, but an applied practice. What validates the teachings isn't some miracle such as a burning bush or a virgin birth. You don't have to believe that when Prince Siddhartha was born he took seven steps and lotuses suddenly sprang up beneath his feet. What validates the dharma and makes it just as true now as it was 2500 years ago is that you can hold it to the fire, test it out and determine the validity for yourself.
The Buddha didn't say don't eat this or that, or keep your head covered, or burn incense every day and so on. He created practical rules to keep monks of his day out of trouble. But he acknowledged that imperfection is a characteristic of samsara.
I have a friend who is a monk from Thailand (living in the United States), who keeps his vows very strictly and gets very nervous around being near women, because he is not allowed to touch women. He asked me, "What should I do when women want to shake hands?" I asked him about this vow of his. he told me that in The Buddh'a's day, one of his followers followed a man and a woman into a temple, and, standing behind them, gave the woman a squeeze on the butt. This created an uproar, which led to all sorts of scandalous accusations and so on. So, the Buddha simply took a direct approach and said, basically, "okay, from now on monks may not touch women". But in various traditions around the world, the strict application of this vow is interpreted differently.
If we acknowledge the fact that we live in a constantly changing world, then the application of the teachings is going to reflect that, not only in terms of geographic location but also in terms of time periods. What may not have been acceptable 100 years ago is acceptable today, and maybe that's okay. So, I think someone could say "yeah, there is a lot of sexist baggage that has been picked up along the way", be okay with that fact, learn from it, and make adjustments. We don't have to rewrite history. We don't have to be right. But we do have to keep up with the times, otherwise how can we apply the dharma to the present (assuming, of course, that one wishes to live in the present)?
Profile Picture: "The Foaming Monk"
The Chinese characters are Fo (buddha) and Ming (bright). The image is of a student of Buddhism, who, imagining himself to be a monk, and not understanding the true meaning of the words takes the sound of the words literally. Likewise, People on web forums sometime seem to be foaming at the mouth. Original painting by P.Volker /used by permission.