Did the Buddha really teach that women can not attain Enlightenment? This has been a fairly common misconception for a long time. As far as I know, it is based on one statement found in Majjhima Nikaya 115; Bahudhatuka Sutta; The Discourse on Many Elements, “It is impossible that a woman would be the anutarra sammasambuddha.

The same Sutta also states that a woman can not be a Wheel Rolling King, an Indra, a Brahma, or a Yama. I gather that it is simply a statement based on the sexist, patriarchal views of ancient India. It was no more controversial, in that context, than to say a man can not be wet nurse or get pregnant. Gender roles were clearly defined.

Moreover, women were not the only ones precluded from being the sammasambuddha. The cause awakened ones {pacceka} could not be the sammasambuddha. Nor could the any of the the four kinds of disciples  {savaka} of the Buddha. Evil men, such as serial killers were also disqualified.

Think about it for a moment. Savaka is the name for those who hear the Buddha-Dharma preached and then take faith. Therefore, none of the Buddha’s own disciples could become the sammasambuddha. Does this mean that the Buddha’s disciples could not attain Enlightenment? If so, then why did the Buddha preach the Dharma? Was it to prevent people from attaining Enlightenment? That is absurd.

The obvious answer is that one need not be the anutarra sammasambuddha to attain Enlightenment. There must be other ways to wake up? Indeed, the teaching of the Nikayas is that there are three ways to attain Enlightenment; and therefore, three kinds of Buddhas. The sammasmbuddha is but one kind of Buddha. All three kinds of Buddhas attain the same Unbinding (nibbana / nirvana), the same Purification (visuddha, vishudhha), the same Liberation (mutti / mukti). Only the manifestation of Bodhi {being awake} is different/

In very simple terms; a sammasambuddha is one who wakes up through his own efforts; without Dharmic instruction, and also teaches others how to wake up. Moreover, he must be the first person in remembered history to do so. There can not be another sammasambuddha until the Dharma taught by the current one is completely forgotten.

Of course, the Dharma exists before the sammasambuddha wakes up and teaches it. It is just that, prior to that, no one had discovered it and succeeded at teaching others. Moreover, it also still exists after a sammasambuddha’s Dharma dispensation (Buddha Sasana 佛教) is lost to history {or herstory?}.  Someone will inevitably rediscover it and teach others.

After the sammasambuddha teaches Dharma, others will, of course, rediscover it on their own. Also, others discovered it and woke up before the sammasambuddha. People who wake up through their own efforts, without Dharmic instruction; but, due to timing or other factors, can not teach it, are called paccekabuddhas / pratyekabuddhas.

Still others, the savakas / shravakins, are able to wake up by practicing Buddhism. Those who wake up after receiving Dharmic instruction are called anubuddhas.

The sammasambuddhas, paccekabuddhas, and anubuddhas are all Buddhas.  Allm of them are arahants / arahts. They all attain unbinding, purification, and liberation. However, after the Buddha’s passing, the unique Enlightenment of the sammasambuddha gradually became conflated with Enlightenment Itself.  The awakening of the paccekabuddhas and anubuddhas came to be viewed as incomplete and undesirable. It was even scorned by some.

Finally, the notion that the sammasambuddha must be a man is clearly sexist. It is rooted in the same kind out of thinking we saw in the more recent past; such as a woman can not be a doctor, and a man can not be a nurse. However, Buddhism, other than aberrant strains, has never taught that women could not attain Enlightenment.

Moreover, the Lotus Sutra does not actually fully overturn the traditional sexist notion. The example usually cited is the Dragon King’s daughter. She possesses the cintamani jewel in her hands, indicating she is Enlightened. However,  in order to become a sammasambuddha, she has to go to another world, as there can only be one at a time, and transform into a man.

I think the lesson of the story is that we can only wake up, find the precious jewel, in our present form. This not a new revelation of the Lotus Sutra. The same teaching is found in the Nikayas.  Dhammadinna the Nun {see (MN 44}, a female monastic attained arhatship. As did Angulimala the serial killer {see MN 8 }. Moreover, AN 6.119 and AN 6.120 appears to identify 19 householder disciples who become arahants / arhats.

BTW, I have a hunch, only a hunch, that Metteyya, who it is said shall be the next sammsambuddha,  in the far distant future,  might be a woman.