American Folk Buddhism (11)

Last Quarter Moon, Uposatha, June 12, 2012            Series Index

Please see my essay What did the Buddha think of Women? for an updated version of this post.

Gender Equality in American Folk Buddhism (2)

It is not always necessary to go back to the Buddha to discover the Essential Buddhist wisdom about things, but that is a reliable recourse. I think in the case of gender differences it may be necessary because some form of gender inequality is very pronounced in most Asian cultures and has penetrated even the circles of adepts who do not always represent the Buddha’s intentions accurately.

The Buddha’s position on gender equality is in fact remarkably clear and unsullied when we consider the Folk Culture in which the Buddha lived. But then he was the Buddha. But before we discuss the state gender equality in Essential Buddhism let’s look at the state of gender equality in that Folk Culture.

The status of women in Buddha’s India. From my reading I gather that in early Vedic India women enjoyed a status fairly equal to men, but that by the Buddha’s time it was in decline and declined further over the next millennium. India had also become a highly stratified society, in which each person is born into a social caste with no prospect of upward mobility. By the Buddha’s time women were generally in childhood subject to their father’s will, in adulthood to their husband’s and as widows to their son’s, having few rights to property other than to be something like property themselves. Women who were independent of masculine authority were commonly regarded as prostitutes, and that designation carried over frequently to nuns because of their relative independence.

It is worth considering also how ascetic practices may lead to additional antagonism against women. Ascetic traditions such as Jainism and later monastic Buddhism give careful attention to controlling the passions, in particular and particularly challenging sexual passion (see my “Sex, Sin and Buddhism” if the motivation for doing so as part of Buddhist practice does not yet make sense). Passions are interior factors of mind, yet we tend to externalize things. Just as when anger arises in our minds we like to think, “He made me angry,” and when we have doubts about our potential and motives for practice we like to think, “Mara is at hand,” in the same way when overwhelmed with lust but intentionally as a matter of practice trying not just to go with the flow like a normal person would, an ascetic could easily fall into the thought, “She made me lustful,” or “She has no right to look so darn cute.” (The rare female ascetic, by the way, could just as well fall into similar thoughts by substituting “he” for “she.”) Although there is a weakness in the practice of one who substitutes lust with aversion in this way, it can easily happen. What is more, communities of ascetics with this tendency who live in relative isolation from women could easily fall into encouraging a kind of collective antagonism toward women.

It is interesting that in American Folk Culture, in which the idea of curbing lust generally makes no reasonable sense at all, I often observe a further level of externalization. Monastic vows enforce a degree of gender separation as a matter of protecting the mind. If you are a woman and look like you are about to hug me, or even shake my hand, I will politely inform you that the monastic code prohibits this. Try it. However, I find that if I leave it at that, many so inclined women seem to be offended by this “blatantly misogynist practice.” That is until I reassuringly point out that nuns follow exactly the same rule, except that they substitute “he” for “she.”

The Buddha‘s Support of Women and Nuns. Across the board, the Buddha was the great leveler of social distinctions. Caste distinctions, for instance, disappear altogether in the Sangha; brahmins and warriors practice alongside drones and untouchables. Even distinctions between species are downplayed. Consistently the Buddha’s approach is one of boundless kindness and compassion toward all beings, even those who have done great harm, such as King Ajatasattu, who had killed his own father to seize his throne, yet is taken on by the Buddha as a disciple. The Buddha’s approach to organizing the Sangha was similarly kind. Although monks were expected to accept the authority of the Buddha and the Vinaya, punishment for transgressions were minimal and there was little in the way of a command structure.

The message that shines through in the discourses is in fact that the Buddha had nothing but kindness and respect for women, and this in spite of the Folk Culture in which he lived. How could it be otherwise? Here are some pointers to the Buddha’s attitude concerning women.

(1) The Buddha, on learning of King Pasenadi of Kosala was displeased that his queen had just given birth to a daughter rather than the desired son, reassured the king as follows:

A woman, O lord of the people, may turn out better than a man. She may be wise and virtuous, a devoted wife, revering her mother-in-law.” – SN 3.16

(2) The Buddha offered advice to householders which includes the respective duties of husbands and wives. Notice in the following that they are stated in reciprocal rather than hierarchical terms (the part about “ornaments” is cute).

“In five ways should a wife as Western quarter, be ministered to by her husband: by respect, by courtesy, by faithfulness, by handing over authority to her, by providing her with ornaments. In these five ways does the wife minister to by her husband as the Western quarter, love him: her duties are well-performed by hospitality to kin of both, by faithfulness, by watching over the goods he brings and by skill and industry in discharging all business.”– DN 31

(3) The Buddha clearly stated that women have the same potential for awakening that men have.

“Women, Ananda, having gone forth are able to realize the fruit of stream-attainment or the fruit of once-returning or the fruit of non-returning or arahantship”

The bhikkhuni Sona had in the Suttas an encounter with Mara, who characteristically tries to dissuade her from the path, in this case claiming a woman cannot attain awakening. Sona knowing better replies,

What does womanhood matter at all, when the mind is concentrated well, when knowledge flows on steadily as one sees correctly into Dhamma. One to whom it might occur, ‘I am a woman’ or ‘I am a man’ or ‘I’m anything at all’ is fit for Mara to address. – SN 5.2

(4) The Buddha trusted women to offer testimony as witnesses to possible sexual transgressions by monks. Accordingly we find two somewhat peculiar rules, the indefinite (aniyata) rules, in the bhikkhus’ Patimokkha that explicitly require consideration by a sangha of the testimony of trusted women. If these rules did not fly in the face of the norms the prevailing folk culture to distrust women the rules would not have been necessary.

(5) The Buddha created a parallel nuns’ order about five years after the start of the monks’ order. In the mythical encounters in which Mara suggests to the Buddha that he check out of worldly existence early rather than later, now that he had attained awakening, the Buddha replies that he must first ensure the survival of the sasana be firmly establishing a fourfold assembly (parisaa) of bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, male lay disciples and female lay disciples. Given how important completing the fourfold assembly was to the Buddha, the current missing tooth can only detract from the smile of the Theravada or Tibetan tradition.

Although women ascetics were apparently rare at the Buddha’s time, there was at least one precedent in the Jain nuns’ order. Not only did bhikkhuni ordination in Buddhism give women the opportunity to opt out of an oppressive patriarchal system, but to partake in almost equal partnership with their monk brothers in the Third Gem, which in the time of the Buddha must have been received as an enormous honor. It meant that Buddhist men along with women would now take refuge in a Sangha consisting of both men and women.

(6) The Buddha took care, like a wise parent, to protected nuns from dangers that beset nuns as they took on the itinerant ascetic lifestyle. These dangers came not only from highway men and rapists, but also from the poor fellow who would see some lovely creature, modest of attire, bald of head and dignified of deportment, enter the village day after day for alms, fall in love and then through slather of charm and sumptuous gift of meal undertake to overcome a few of her more irksome vows. The Buddha built protective guidelines into the Patimokkha in order to secure for the nuns in spite of their greater vulnerability the same opportunities on the path of practice enjoyed by the monks.

For instance, special rules prohibit that bhikkhunis accept or consume food offered by lusting men, others that they avoid certain situations that might compromise their safety, others that they maintain modesty of dress and never bathe naked, that they reside during the rains retreat in the protective vicinity of monks even while maintaining a respectful distance from them. Likewise special rules prohibit the bhikkhus, who though limited by vow are themselves often subject to the flames of lust, from giving gifts to bhikkhunis, traveling with bhikkhunis except under controlled conditions or visiting the bhikkhunis in their quarters unauthorized or at night.

(7) The Buddha also took care to protect the nuns from becoming domestic servants of the monks, for instance, ceding choice alms to monks or darning their robes when they might otherwise be meditating. The danger here is clear: Monks of limited attainment and raised into a patriarchal culture could easily fall into accustomed patterns of asserting male authority, and nuns likewise raised into that same culture could easily acquiesce, in effect having opted out of one patriarchal system only to find themselves falling in another.

The Buddha’s solution to this eventuality is to prohibit the bhikkhunis from certain behaviors of servant and more importantly to prohibit monks from accepting services from the bhikkhunis. The bhikkhunis’ Patimokkha, for instance, contains the rule:

Should any bhikkhuni, when a bhikkhu is eating, attend on him with water or a fan, it is to be confessed.

The bhikkhus’ Patimokkha was made even more thorough in this regard. It prohibits us from having cloth prepared or a robe washed by a bhikkhuni on our behalf, or from accepting robe cloth from a bhikkhuni except in exchange, or from accepting food that a bhikkhuni might have given or gained for us indirectly. In short, it systematically proscribes allowing a well-meaning bhikkhuni from falling into the role of serving us. It is instructive to observe however that nuns in Theravada countries quite commonly fall into the role of domestic servants to monks, exactly as the Buddha clearly feared. The reason that this is allowed to happen is that these modern nuns are not bhikkhunis, but of lesser ordination, and therefore fall outside of the rules that the Buddha formulated on behalf of bhikkhunis.

(8) The Buddha extolled the accomplishments of the bhikkunis. At least one nun, Dhammadinna, is found in the Suttas teaching in the Buddha’s stead, to which the Buddha comments that he would have explained the topic at hand in exactly the same way. The Therigati, a section of the Khuddaka Nikaya in the Suttas, is a collection of poems from early enlightened nuns said to be the only canonical text in all the world’s religions dealing first-hand with women’s spiritual experiences.

Gender Equality in Essential Buddhism. I fear the last couple of posts might strike one as a bit of a tangent. Some weeks ago I characterized American Folk Buddhism as concerned with gender equality and then segued into the question, How about Essential Buddhism? I hope by now I have established that in this regard American Folk Buddhism is in close accord with Essential Buddhism, and that much of Asian Folk Buddhism has not been. I conclude that,

Essential Buddhism is concerned with securing for women exactly the same opportunities and respect that men enjoy in spite of prevailing folk attitudes and in spite of inherent gender differences. – “American Folk Buddhism (11)”

The validity of this conclusion is clear in the courageous and systematic attention the Buddha gave to the potential obstacles to this purpose. The Buddha that shines forth from the Suttas is invariably one of complete purity of purpose, always looking for the benefit of all, really all, and incapable of even the slightest hint of bias or unkind thought.

Nonetheless the record of Buddhism in this regard is often besmirched and real evidence is often cited in support of this besmirchment, evidence that I have thus far conveniently suppressed except for one casual inclusion of the phrase “almost equal” above, but no longer! The evidence is largely in the degree of oversight or mentorship the Bhikkhu Sangha is given over the Bhikkhuni Sangha, and in the placement of nuns in a lower position in the hierarchy of formal respect. It is also in the history of much of Asian Folk Buddhism in which the nuns’ sangha is notably often invisible. Next week I will argue that this evidence is accounted for purely out of pragmatic considerations that had a certain force in the folk culture in which the Buddha lived, to the extent that it originated with the Buddha at all. What else could it be when everything else speaks of the Buddha’s consistent and systematic support of nuns and women?

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