When Womanhood Matters

Sex Essentialization and Pedagogical Dissonance in Buddhist Discourse


  • Bhikkhunī Dhammadinnā Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts




early Buddhism, essentialism, gender, sacred feminine, sex-change, Theravāda


This article further articulates Sponberg’s (1992) seminal identification of four distinct attitudes toward women and the feminine in Buddhism, by including a sub-typology of ‘essentialist misogyny’. Textual and institutional voices in the Buddhist traditions are traced that testify to a process of essentialization of the female sex or gender that is first constructed as an entity, ‘womanhood’, and then devalued. This trend is already documented in the early Buddhist texts, where it stands in contrast to the soteriologically normative nonessentialized view of femininity. The discourse develops with misogynist positions taken in medieval Theravada works. It is further continued, albeit under an opposite agenda, that of the ‘Sacred Feminine’, in contemporary Western Buddhism. Such contemporary instances of an essentialized feminine exemplify how doctrinal and religio-historical tensions are renegotiated leading to the emergence of new incarnations of the Theravada, and Buddhist in general, scriptural canon, which in turn overwrite previously emerged ‘practical canons’.

Author Biography

Bhikkhunī Dhammadinnā, Dharma Drum Institute of Liberal Arts

Bhikkhunī Dhammadinnā is the Director of the Āgama Research Group. She studied Indology, Indo-Iranian philology and Tibetology at the University of Naples ‘L’Orientale’ and at the International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology at Söka University (Tokyo), and obtained her doctorate in 2010 with a dissertation on the formative phases of Mahāyāna ideology in Khotan. Her main research interests are the early Buddhist discourses and Vinaya texts. She has published extensively in these fields and has edited several volumes.


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How to Cite

Dhammadinnā, B. (2019). When Womanhood Matters: Sex Essentialization and Pedagogical Dissonance in Buddhist Discourse. Religions of South Asia, 12(3), 274–313. https://doi.org/10.1558/rosa.39890