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Karma Lekshe Tsomo Addresses the Global Ethic Assembly

Karma Lekshe Tsomo addresses the Global Ethic in Action Assembly at the 2023 Parliament of the World’s Religions in Chicago, USA.

Aloha, everyone. Namaste and tashi delek. Congratulations, you are alive. 

So today I’ve been asked to talk about gender ethics and I guess that’s because I can be counted on to speak up for gender ethics on any occasion. I could also be talking about environmental ethics because I’ve just flown in from Hawaii and you’ve probably read the news. 

So what I’d like to note is that economic ethics, gender ethics, environmental ethics, personal ethics, ethics of all sorts are interrelated. We put them in different categories and the principles are set out very nicely so that we can understand each one on its own terms, but they’re all connected, right? 

When we talk about gender ethics, we have to recognize that the world’s religions are not all equitable. It’s often the case that women do a majority of the work. Well, let’s start internationally. According to the United Nations, 60% of the work in the world is done by women, but only 20% of the resources in the world are in the hands of women and only 1% of the land. 

So obviously we’re out of balance and in order to create a peaceful, harmonious world, we need to bring things into better balance. So take for example, I’m representing the Buddhist tradition. Not all of the Buddhist traditions have full ordination for women. What this means is that women do not have access to authority and power and power in a good way in the religious sense of the word.

We can meditate, we can pray, but when it comes to getting things done, women don’t always have access to the tools because they are often systematically excluded, especially in terms of education. It has been the case that historically women have been excluded from religious institutions.

In the Buddhist world, education was in the monasteries, and those monasteries were only for men. So how did the women learn their own traditions? Because they don’t have access to education then, they rarely evolved as teachers. And heaven knows we need more and more people teaching loving kindness, compassion, wisdom, in the world, ethics in the world. So it stands to reason that women need access to education. And then we can be better servants of humanity. And so we’ve been working on it. We have, in 35 years, through the Sakyadhītā International Association of Buddhist Women, we’ve made great strides.

And now women are really moving forward and have access to a lot more education than before. Many are emerging as teachers, and it’s beautiful to see teachers, women becoming teachers of other women and also of men. So this has been a great breakthrough. But we’re still facing challenges in terms of ordination.

So if human rights include religious rights and women don’t have access to the tools of their religious traditions, then women don’t have full human rights. You see the logic, right? If we don’t have access, full access to our traditions, then we don’t have full religious rights. Therefore we don’t have complete human rights. Our human rights are being denied. And it’s not just in the Buddhist tradition as we know. And it’s not in all Buddhist traditions. 

In some traditions, women do have access to full ordination. So it’s possible the Buddha himself gave ordination to women. So what went wrong? We’re trying to, yes, to recover the Buddha’s original intention to include all people. And when we talk about gender equity, we have to talk not only about women and men but also to spirit people and also trans people. Are we really as open-minded as we think? We need to examine ourselves also. And then we can also become, because all of us in a sense, even if we don’t take a position as a religious leader, just by being here, all of you are leaders in your own traditions. Sometimes quiet leaders have more effectiveness in the world because they speak quietly and people listen.

So I urge you all to think about these issues and to do the best you can to create gender equity in the world for peace, compassion, and harmony. After all, it’s love that’s our common denominator. Thank you.

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