While all religions and cultures have exhibited negative attitudes toward women, “Buddhism can certainly claim to have the least discriminatory attitudes against women,” says the Venerable Dr. K Sri Dhammananda. “ There is not the slightest doubt that the Buddha was the first religious teacher who had given women equal and unfettered opportunities in the field of spiritual development. The Buddha had opened the gates for the full participation of women in the field of religion by making them eligible for admission to what was known as the Bhikkuni Sangha - the Order of Nuns - which truly opened to women new avenues of culture and social service and ample opportunities for public life. This had brought them to a recognition of their importance to society and greatly enhanced the status of women.”
Historically, women played an important role in the expansion of early Buddhism. Famous early women Buddhists included Bhadda, a powerful debater and teacher renown for her memory of previous lives; Visakha, a wealthy patroness and benefactor of the sangha; Dhammadinna, a nun whom the Buddha described as having “discerning wisdom”; Khema, a former queen who gave up a royal life to become a nun and one of the Buddha’s senior disciples and who gave dharma lessons to a king. Sanghamitta, the daughter of King Asoka, who established Buddhism in Sri Lanka.
Currently, there is a growing awareness of a distinction between Buddhism and the Dharma. Buddhist is a constellation of the institutions and orthodoxies that have developed over thousands of years. However, the Dharma contains the fundamental teachings of the Buddha and a succession of teachers. Joan Sutherland Roshi, a teacher in the Zen koan tradition correctly observes: "There is nothing in the dharma—as opposed to some of the institutions of Buddhism—that limits women’s participation."