Women and Buddhism
with Professor Jan Willis

The Buddhist community has always consisted of men and women practitioners—of monks and nuns, laymen and laywomen, in that order, largely in deference to the social and cultural structures and conditions of its birth. However, the question of women’s place and standing within Buddhism has remained a problematic and often contentious one. In this short seminar, we investigate why this has been so, and explore the complex and changing status of women—in relationship to Buddhist literature, doctrine, and practice. In addition, we look at some women practitioners themselves with the aim of understanding the ideals and concerns which sustain, drive, and empower them.

Course Requirements

  • Registration for the entire course is required.
  • Students will need to acquire the books listed below, links to the other readings will be posted on the website:

(i)     Dharma Matters by Jan Willis

(ii)    In Search of Buddha’s Daughters by Christine Toomey

(iii)   The First Free Women by Matty Weingast

  • Reading of all class materials prior to each session.
  • Thoughtful engagement with the materials and verbal contributions to discussions.
  • Three short essays (one-page, typed, double spaced). These will be read and “graded” by Professor Willis.

Required Assignments

  • Thoughtful and Engaged attention and contributions to class discussions.
  • All the details for the required weekly reading and writing assignments are provided in the Syllabus. Please review the requirements before registering for the course.

About the Teacher

Jan Willis, Ph.D. is an author, activist, scholar, professor, and long-time Buddhist practitioner. TIME magazine named her as one of six “spiritual innovators for the new millenium”, and Ebony called her one of its “Power 150” most influential African-Americans.

Dr. Willis is Professor Emerita of Religion at Wesleyan University and now Visiting Professor of Religion at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA. She received her B.A. and M.A. in Philosophy from Cornell University, and her Ph.D. in Indic and Buddhist Studies from Columbia University. She is the author of The Diamond Light: An Introduction to Tibetan Buddhist Meditation (1972), On Knowing Reality: The Tattvartha Chapter of Asanga’s Bodhisattvabhumi (1979), Enlightened Beings: Life Stories from the Ganden Oral Tradition (1995); and the editor of Feminine Ground: Essays on Women and Tibet (1989). 

Additionally, she has published numerous articles and essays on various topics in Buddhism—Buddhist meditation, hagiography, women and Buddhism, and Buddhism and race. Her best-known work is her personal memoir, Dreaming Me: Black, Baptist, and Buddhist—One Woman’s Spiritual Journey. 

Dr. Willis is one of Lama Yeshe’s earliest Western disciples and sees him as one of her root spiritual mentors. She grew up in the Jim Crow South of 1950s and 1960s and took part in the Civil Rights movement. While traveling through Asia in the early 1970s, she met Lama Yeshe and discovered a path to healing the wounds of racism: “[Buddhism] has helped me in real ways to find what I was looking for as a young person in a world that was violent,” she explained. “It showed me how to locate deep wounds that racism caused in my early life … and having found them, how to heal them.”