The songs of the sisters
The Therigatha of the Pali Canon is said to be the first spiritual text in the history of the world composed by women. Inevitably, some of its stories and poems confront the issue of gender and spirituality. For example, Mara, embodiment of distraction, approaches Kisa Gotami while she is meditating in the Forest. He comes up to her with a grin, and says “what are you doing here crying in the forest, are you looking for a boyfriend?” But she sees through him at once:
I know you, time waster, you are Mara.
I have finished looking for men.
I don’t grieve,
I don’t weep —
and I’m not afraid of you,
The mass of darkness is shattered.
Having defeated the army of death,
of [longing] I dwell.
And Mara curses under his breath and flees.
[Kisa Gotami Sutta, SN 5.3, Thanissaro’s trs modified.]
The Therigatha tells of another Buddhist woman, Soma. She was also meditating under a tree, and Mara comes up to her: “who do you think you are, a woman, thinking you can attain enlightenment. No woman with her two fingered intelligence can possibly make spiritual progress!” Apparently “two fingered intelligence” refers to the ability to tell whether the rice is cooked or not by rubbing it between your fingers. He is trying to insult her by saying that she is only good cooking in the kitchen, although personally I think that getting the rice right is a pretty impressive achievement. She replies “what difference should a woman’s state make, when the mind is well concentrated, when knowledge is rolling on, when she rightly has insight into the Dharma? To one for whom the question arises, “am I a woman or am I a man in these matters?”… to such a one is Mara fit to talk!”
So with the first woman, Mara’s game was to try to interest her in sex. She was concentrating on meditation, and he started talking about boyfriends. But she would have none of it. The second time, he tries to instil doubt in her about her ability to move towards Awakening, simply because she is a woman. But she points out that Awakening has nothing to do with gender.
In this post I want to look a bit more deeply into gender in traditional Buddhism. My main motivation for covering this topic was because I wanted to do a little bit of research myself, and understand it better. Why was I interested? Well, gender always seems interesting. And we often have such strong opinions about it! When I gave a talk on the topic, someone present said ‘yes, I’ve got extremely strong views about gender issues!’ The post has turned out to be predominantly about women in Buddhism.
Sometimes it seems that men and women are just human beings with slightly different shapes, and the issues that we face in life are very much the same, and what we can achieve is also very similar. At other times it seems that there is a great distance between men and women, we seem to see things so differently, and we treat each other badly. On a large scale, it seems in particular that women have been denied their rightful place in many spiritual traditions.
Women in early Buddhism
In ancient traditional India, women were strongly pushed into their roles as wives and mothers. In fact the religious tradition that was gaining ground at the time of the Buddha was Brahminism, which later developed into what we now call Hinduism. And that denied any spiritual role to women — they weren’t even allowed to listen to Brahminical teachings.
But some things were changing. Many people were questioning the old ideas, and some of them left home to become wandering philosophers, looking for teachers and debating with each other, and practising all sorts of weird practices. Some of the wanderers were women. And amongst the wanderers, one new religion was starting called Jainism. The founder of Jainism, Mahavira, formed an order of nuns, though many of the Jains denied that women could gain enlightenment.
While Mahavira was still alive, the Buddha started his teaching career. He launched his two great legacies, the Dharma — a system of training towards awakening — and the Sangha, a spiritual network of people co-operating with each other. Against the old-fashioned ideas of the time, his Sangha included women from its very early days. But when he formed an order of full-time homeless celibate wanderers, the bhikkhus, it seemed that he was reluctant to also form an order for women. Having said that, it does seem that some of his early women disciples were full-time wanderers, but this was probably before he had set up a systematic order of Bhikkhus with their rules, and ordination procedure and so on.
So there is a story about how the women’s order started. It is very difficult to tell how much of this story is historical fact. Some of it may well have been invented by misogynistic monks later. I think these events are of interest and relevance to men as well as women.
Formation of the bhikkhuni Sangha
About five years after the enlightenment, the Buddha’s foster mother Prajapati, the woman who had brought him up after his mother died, came to see him. She was very keen to become a celibate homeless wanderer, with a rulebook, like the monks, and a number of her friends and colleagues were also interested. But the Buddha refused.
So Prajapati gathered together all the women she could find who wanted to become what we would now call a nun, and they went on a sort of protest march, already dressed in the robes stained with earth that the monks used to wear, and asked the Buddha again. He continued to be reluctant, but his attendant and friend Ananda asked him whether women were capable of gaining enlightenment. He said yes indeed they are, their spiritual potential is no different from men’s. And he was persuaded to change his mind. So he allowed an order of nuns (bhikkhunis) to form. However he subordinated the nuns to the monks. Monks as well as nuns always had to be involved in nuns’ ordination, the nuns had to defer to the monks, and at first they had to confess any transgressions to monks as well as nuns.
Prajapati happily accepted the special rules, and so many women were ordained as nuns, and left their homes to live the celibate life. After a little while Prajapati got fed up with having to defer to the monks, and she asked the Buddha to change this rule, but he would not do so. He said that in the same way that a household mainly consisting in women is in greater danger from robbers than one with plenty of men, he wanted to safeguard his order by having it dominated by men. He doesn’t really explain what the problem is. But I think it is fair to say that this male domination has been the case in most periods of Buddhist history. This seems very strange to us today, I think. It’s so difficult to consider it in an open way. Would it be a problem if monastic Buddhism was dominated by women? Would it even be an advantage? Would it be a problem if women became dominant in our Triratna Buddhist Order?
It is very interesting that when Sangharakshita founded the Triratna Order, he decided not to follow the Buddha’s example. He gave an equal ordination to both men and women, and he did not institute a mechanism to ensure that men will remain dominant. However, I should say that he was untraditional in another important way as well. The order he founded is not monastic — you do not have to be celibate to be an order member, and maybe that is a factor as well.
The traditional Buddhist monastic order actually has two separate orders, one for men and one for women, although they do interact, and when they do the men are allowed to dominate. But in general they conduct their affairs separately. I mentioned that at the beginning women had to confess any breaches of the rules to both men and women, but after a while this rule was changed, and confession just happened within the men’s or within the women’s order. However, unlike monastic orders, the Triratna order is not divided into two, it is one single order, though quite often men and women order members will meet separately or have separate retreats. And nearly always, the preceptors who ordain women are women, and the preceptors who ordain men are men.
Sexism in traditional Buddhism & the Pali Canon on women
The most important conclusion for me is that the Buddha agreed with what the nun Soma said when she defeated Mara — gender has no bearing at all on enlightenment. It is not a spiritual issue. This itself is perhaps controversial, in that some people feel that there is a special women’s spirituality and a special men’s spirituality. Of course there may be some differences in what men and women most benefit from, differences in the best circumstances to go for, but the principles are the same. We are all self-aware human beings with the same kind of mind.
Karma Lekshe Tsomo, a western Tibetan nun, produced an excellent book called Sakyadhita: Daughters of the Buddha, and she says that “spiritual development is essentially an individual affair. Institutions may limit women’s participation in the outer sphere, but no one can limit their inner development.”
Nevertheless, the Buddha did establish differences in the institution of the monastic Sangha, and these differences probably seem unfair to us now. But in the Buddha’s time it was a wonderful innovation for women. At last they could escape from the constrictions of their family lives, and be pretty much independent, pursuing their own spiritual practice and forming their own communities. Indeed, several of the most prominent teachers during the Buddha’s lifetime were women, and their pupils and disciples included men. Women were involved in the spread of Buddhism and in the exploration and the teaching of the Dharma. It is sometimes suggested that the bhikkhuni Dhammadinna played an important role in clarifying the whole area of conditionality, the most important philosophical principle of Buddhism. Those women Buddhists who chose to continue living with their families also played an important and outspoken role in the development of Buddhism.
Disadvantages of being a woman?
So we’ve seen that spirituality is the same for women and men, and the differences in early Buddhism were differences in how the institutions were set up, not in how men and women were regarded. However we do see two forms of sexism in early Buddhism, which persist to this day. The first form of sexism seems to be the classic antagonistic feeling that some religious men have towards women, putting them down, even being rather afraid of them. In some Buddhist countries this attitude became stronger after the time of the Buddha, and conservative views of male dominance were transferred from the societies where Buddhism travelled into Buddhism itself.
The second form is, in my opinion not really sexism, though it easily melds with the first form. There are a number of texts in which monks are told to regard women as unclean, unattractive, dangerous and manipulative. This sounds terrible! But you will also find texts in which women celibate disciples are encouraged to regard men in the same way! So what is going on here? It seems rather extreme, but it is actually simply an attempt to help young celibate men and women dedicate themselves to their practice, and deal with the temptation to break their vows of celibacy or to get involved romantically with members of the opposite sex.
Now, is there any difference between how men and women might approach leading a Buddhist life?
It is quite often said in traditional Buddhist texts that there are significant disadvantages in being a woman. For example, in his good wishes towards people practising Buddhism in the Bodhicharyavatara, Shantideva says that he hopes that all women will be able to become men in future lives. He doesn’t even explain why — he just takes it for granted that that would be better! I suppose that if you are encountering prejudice, you could say that it is better to be a man than a woman. But apart from prejudice, the Buddha listed five specific disadvantages:
- A woman has to leave her relatives when she joins her husband’s family
- she has to suffer menstruation
- and childbirth
- and “she waits upon a man” (Samyutta, IV, 239).
Note that three of these are biological. Two of them are socially conditioned, but until recently we had our own versions of them in Western society. A woman might not have to move in with her husband’s family, as was the norm in the Buddha’s society, but she used to be expected to sacrifice her own aspirations for the sake of her husband’s career and ambitions; and also be subject to him in some respects.
The traditional view that women are generally at a disadvantage in trying to commit to a Buddhist life is still held by some Western Buddhists, including Sangharakshita and some influential members of the Triratna Order, though most in Triratna would disagree with this, I think. (Once committed, Sangharakshita’s opinion is that there is no disadvantage.)
However, if you are an independent, celibate woman like one of the Buddhist nuns, only one of the five issues (menstruation) will apply to you, and that one only up to the menopause. Nevertheless, for many women, as well as men, it must have been a very hard decision to renounce the possibility of having children and a family in order to lead a full-time spiritual life. Many made the decision after their children had grown up, and that is still often the case amongst Western women practising Buddhism. Is this is still a bigger issue for women than for men?
Karma Lekshe Tsomo, who did decide on the celibate option, is very grateful to the Buddha for setting up a celibate order for women. “Out of compassion, the Buddha created an alternative community for women which freed them from familial constraints and encourage their spiritual pursuits.” [p23] She says that childbearing reduces one’s options in life: “the major disadvantage of a female rebirth [is] a vulnerability to pregnancy and the responsibilities of parenting which falls largely on the mother”, and makes meditation quite limited for 15 to 20 years. And she concludes that “ordination is even more advantageous for women than for men. Asian Buddhist nuns are well aware of this and candidly say ‘we are so lucky to be nuns. We don’t have to have babies.'” [pp20-21]
So the Buddha lists these five disadvantages of being a woman, including pregnancy, childbirth, and the restrictions of married life; but what are the comparable disadvantages in being a man? Suggestions have included sexual obsession, competitiveness, recklessness, poor communication skills, unawareness of emotions, and inconsistency.
Is gender fixed and definite?
We saw that when Kisa Gotami sent Mara packing, she told him that gender has no bearing on spiritual practice. Nevertheless, we see some Buddhists believing that it is preferable to be a man. This debate seems to have been a live issue in many Buddhist societies.
Once a ruler came to see the Buddha with his new baby girl, lamenting that he hadn’t had the boy he had hoped for. The Buddha told him that in many ways it is better to have a daughter than a son.
Later, a number of Mahayana sutras feature impressive enlightened females. I say females rather than women, because some of them are said to be goddesses! Shariputra asks one of them in the Vimalakirti Nirdesa Sutra why on earth she had not been reborn as a man given that her spiritual attainment is so high. She doesn’t answer him in words she simply waves a sort of magic wand, so that he finds himself in her body, and she occupies his body, much to his dismay. The changing of sex is to demonstrate that gender has no fixed existence. She says that she has sought femaleness for many years but has not found it, and emphasises that being male or female is only a matter of appearances and convention. There is no need to transcend femaleness to reach spiritual excellence, nor is there any need to be attached to femaleness.
In another story, the Bodhisattva Tara is advised that she would be better taking the form of a man. But she replies that there is no such thing as a man, a woman, a self or a person, and she took a vow to remain female in all her lives as a bodhisattva, because of the scarcity of female teachers and role models.
Tara challenges the very labels ‘man’ and ‘woman’, and indeed when I gave a talk on this topic in Stockholm, one person in the audience said that scholars have identified fourteen different genders! There are examples in early Buddhist texts of trans-gendering: people who changed gender, man to woman or woman to man, and this was no obstacle to spiritual progress. There are also examples of people of intermediate or undefined gender.
The Mahayana examples of the danger of identifying with one’s gender too strongly go right back to the Buddha’s own early teachings. Once he said that he wanted to talk about bondage and lack of bondage:
A man attends inwardly to his masculine faculties, masculine gestures, masculine manners, masculine poise, masculine desires, masculine voice, masculine charms. He is excited by that, delighted by that. Being excited & delighted by that, he attends outwardly to feminine faculties, feminine gestures, feminine manners, feminine poise, feminine desires, feminine voices, feminine charms. He is excited by that, delighted by that. Being excited & delighted by that, he wants to be bonded to what is outside him, wants whatever pleasure & happiness that arise based on that bond. Delighting, caught up in his masculinity, a man goes into bondage with reference to women. This is how a man does not transcend his masculinity.” And the Buddha says exactly the same with regard to women, and says this is how they do not transcend their femininity. But if you don’t want to get bonded to what is outside you and derive your satisfaction from that bond, then you need to try not to get caught up in your masculine or feminine side, and not to get excited by the features of the opposite gender in other people. Thus a man does not go into bondage with reference to women, and a woman does not go into bondage with reference to men, and each can transcend their masculinity or femininity. [Saññoga Sutta: Bondage, translated Thanissaro Bhikkhu, condensed.]
Single sex activities: advantages and problems
I personally think that this difficulty of identifying too much with one’s gender is the main advantage of single sex activities. This may seem strange — it might seem that the best way to transcend one’s own gender would be to ignore it and freely mix men and women together. I think that definitely should be a part of one’s experience — it would be dreadful to spend one’s whole life only with one’s own gender. But have you ever spent time just with women or just with men? Did that have a different flavour to it? I find that I can be more myself, and forget about being a male. Recently I led a retreat in Sweden which was just for men. One guy said he thought it was not in any way different from a mixed retreat. But several of the others said they really valued being just with men sometimes.
If you practise the Dharma, it is worth considering how you personally have found trying to practise with different mixes of people, especially on retreat. Have people’s views on gender got in the way? Do you find yourself holding fixed views on gender issues? And can you rejoice in your masculine or feminine characteristics, something I think we probably need to do before going on to transcend gender in the way that Tara suggested?
However, men also need to learn to relate to women simply as human beings, and women need to learn to relate to men in the same way, I would suggest. This sounds so straightforward, but it is more difficult than it seems. One of the reasons is that when we are with the opposite gender we tend to shrink back into our own gender sometimes, as if we are playing a role. Sexual attraction, if any, is only a part of this. So why not try celebrating your gender, and spending some of your time in male or female only company? If there turn out to be no benefits, then you can stick to mixed groupings when the experiment is over.