American Folk Buddhism (12)

New Moon, Uposatha, June 19, 2012            Series Index

For an updated version of the following post, see my essay What Did the Buddha Think of Women?

Gender Equality in American Folk Buddhism (3)

I hope last week I made persuasively the point 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.

From this we can see that the trend in American Folk Buddhism toward gender equality seems to stand in close accord with Essential Buddhism. Buddhism also stands in support of a broad social movement in Western culture and that movement reciprocally supports a correct understanding of Essential Buddhism. Great!

However, what I presented as the proper understanding of this issue in Essential Buddhism is not what everyone East and West thinks of as Buddhism. Many observers compare Buddhism critically with the Catholic Church with respect to gender inequality as just another institution in which patriarchy has run amok. Many even accuse the Buddha personally of sexism! This week I want to begin to look at how the record of Buddhism become besmirched in this way, because it has implications for our regard for Essential Buddhism in the West. Also the contrasting situation in much of Asia is very illustrative of the tension that can arise between Essential Buddhism and Folk Buddhism when Essential Buddhism challenges the dominant culture as it often does and as it does in the West with respect to other issues. With respect to gender we see how badly the message of Essential Buddhism has shipwrecked on the rocky shores of Asian Folk Cultures for which Buddhism has otherwise generally been a civilizing force.

Gender Inequality in Buddhism. The commonly cited and worrying instances of gender inequality in Buddhism include the following.

  1. Isolated statements attributed to the Buddha in the Discourses that seem to disparage women.
  2. The Garudhammas, special rules allegedly imposed by the Buddha on the founding of the Bhikkhuni Sangha that entail an unequal relationship between the two sanghas.
  3. The alleged reluctance of the Buddha to create a Bhikkhuni Sangha and his prediction that the lifespan of the Sasana would thereby be cut in half.
  4. The historical track record of Buddhism, including the many instances in later Buddhist texts that disparage women along with the relative invisibility and neglect of the Bhikkhuni Sangha historically.

Here is an example of a isolated statement in the early discourses that disparages women:

Venerable sir, what is the reason that women neither come to the limelight, nor doing an industry see its benefits?”

Ananda, women are hateful, jealous, miserly and lack wisdom, as a result they neither come to the limelight, nor do an industry and see its benefits.” – AN 4.80

Whoa! Where did that come from? Does that sound at all like last week’s Buddha?

In fact this exchange is tacked onto the very end of a sutta which begins with the theme of “non-sensual thoughts, non-hateful thoughts, non-hurting thoughts and right view” and furthermore seems to bear no relationship to anything else in the sutta. Yet there it is, tacked on. The ancient Suttas have a complex history with much editing and insertion often by lesser minds long forgotten. The Suttas must always be read for the system that shines forth, the consistent message. What is remarkable is that wayward passages are not even more common. We have to conclude that such a remark was a later insertion and not the words of the Buddha.

The Gardudhammas are a set of eight rules allegedly imposed by the Buddha in response to his step-mother Mahapajapati as her lobbying on behalf of the establishment of the Bhikkhuni Sangha finally succeeded. They are recorded in the Vinaya as follows:

  1. A nun who has been ordained even for a hundred years must greet respectfully, rise up from her seat, salute with joined palms, do proper homage to a monk ordained but that day.
  2. A nun must not spend the rains in a residence where there are no monks
  3. Every half month a nun should desire two things from the Order of Monks : the asking as to the date of the uposatha day, and the coming for the exhortation.
  4. After the rains a nun must ‘invite’ before both Orders in respect of three matters, namely what was seen, what was heard, what was suspected.
  5. A nun, offending against an important rule, must undergo manatta discipline for half a month before both Orders.
  6. When, as a probationer, she has trained in the six rules for two years, she should seek higher ordination from both Orders.
  7. A Monk must not be abused or reviled in any way by a nun.
  8. From today , admonition of monks by nuns is forbidden, admonition of nuns by monks is not forbidden. – I.B. Horner, Book of the Discipline, V.354-55

As in the case of isolated statements, there is evidence that suggests that these rules, or at least some of them, are not authentic. See, for instance, Ajahn Sujato, Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies, which can be googled on-line and is very thorough. Ven. Sujato makes an intriguing case that the Buddha might have imposed these rules specifically on Mahapajapati to curb her Sakyan pride. Although many inconsistencies have been pointed out with other statements in the Vinaya and with the equivalents or lack of equivalents in the Bhikkhuni Patimokkha, this research is as yet inconclusive and still a topic of much contention. Because the Garudhammas have been taken seriously throughout the history of Buddhism they certainly shaped historical Buddhist attitudes toward women and demand close evaluation.

The Vinaya also tells us that Buddha at first resisted Mahapajapati’s lobbying effort until Ananda interceded on her behalf and elicited the famous statement from the Buddha reported last week that women’s capabilities for attainment and awakening were equivalent to men’s. It should be noted that the Buddha never refuses to found a Bhikkhuni Sangha, he simply puts Mahapajapati off with the words, “Don’t ask that.” But after he agrees to begin ordaining nuns he expresses some immediate regret concerning his decision.

If, Ānanda, women had not obtained the going forth from home into homelessness in the Dhamma and discipline proclaimed by the Truth-finder, the Dhamma would have lasted long. The true Dhamma would have endured for a thousand years. But because women have gone forth . . . in the Dhamma and discipline proclaimed by the Truth-finder, now the Dhamma will not last long. The true Dhamma will endure only for five hundred years. Even, Ānanda, as those households which have many women and few men easily fall prey to robbers, to pot-thieves . . . in whatever dhamma and discipline women obtain the going forth . . . that dhamma will not last long. Even as when the disease known as white bones (mildew) attacks a whole field of rice, that field of rice does not last long, even so, in whatever dhamma and discipline women obtain the going forth . . . that dhamma will not last long.

Even as when the disease known as red rust attacks a whole field of sugar-cane, that field of sugar-cane will not last long, even so, in whatever dhamma and discipline women obtain the going forth . . . that dhamma will not last long. Even as a man, looking forward, may build a dyke to a great reservoir so that the water may not over-flow, even so, were the Eight Garudhammas for the nuns laid down by me, looking forward, not to be transgressed during their lives.”

Strong words. Again, some scholarship has questioned the authenticity of this statement. For instance, it is unusual for the Buddha to make a prediction about future history, one that also turns out to be way off base. During the First Council, a meeting of monks after the death of the Buddha to go over the teachings, some of the monks are reported to have reprimanded Ananada for his role in lobbying for the establishment of the Bhikkhuni Sangha.

In any case the early Buddhist Sangha seems to have thrived and by the time of King Ashoka, the 3rd Century BC emperor of much of India and great exponent and supporter of Buddhism, nearly to have achieved gender equality! King Ashoka gives us a unique snapshot of the state of Buddhism in India a couple of centuries after the Buddha through his edicts and stone inscriptions, the earliest written texts related to Buddhism. In these many contemporary monks and nuns are named for their accomplishments as teachers, scholars and good works, including Ashoka’s own daughter, Ven. Sanghamitta, who founded the bhikkhuni sangha in Sri Lanka. What is striking is how prominent the nuns are in these inscriptions, apparently appearing almost as often as monks, evidence at least of King Ashoka’s high regard for the Bhikkhuni Sangha. Yet after King Ashoka there is suddenly hardly a mention of bhikkhunis in the historical literature; their role as teachers, philosophers or sisters of great attainment is hardly known. Moreover the Bhikkhuni Sangha died out in much of Southern Asia and was never established in Tibet.

Sources of Inequality. So, what happened to the Buddha’s enlightened perspective toward women and nuns that we discussed last week? This includes his high regard for women’s capabilities for spiritual attainment and his thorough efforts at nurturing and protecting the nuns’ sangha that nuns might have exactly the same opportunities for practice as their monastic brothers. Can we reconcile that perspective with the Buddha’s reluctance to establish the Bhikkhuni Sangha, with the unequal garudhamma rules (assuming at least part of the traditional account is authentic), and with the lower status of nuns in much of the traditional and modern Buddhist world?

It is clear that the source of the apparent contradiction has been one way or another an ongoing tension between the Essential ideal and the Folk Buddhist understanding of the roles and capabilities of women. Folk Buddhism has managed to overrun Essential Buddhism at certain points. I have no doubt that much of this has manifested in creative editing of the ancient texts. However, I would like to consider an alternative perspective to the apparent contradiction that may clear up whatever remains after later editing has been accounted for.

The monastic Sangha is a complex institution. Although it provides the nun or monk with a valuable opportunity for study, practice and independence from the normal concerns of society so that the monastic soak in the Essential perspective, the Sangha functions within the context of a wider Buddhist community drenched in the Folk perspective. First the monastic Sangha is fragilely dependent on the lay community for all of its material needs. And second, the monastic Sangha traditionally provides the teachers for the lay community. This requires that the Sangha harmonize with the wider community, while called upon to uphold Essential Buddhism also functioning in a Folk Buddhist context.

The Buddha in establishing the monastic code showed every sensitivity to this dual perspective of the monastic life, holding firm where the integrity of Essential Buddhism was at stake, yet giving way to the expectations of a Folk Buddhist community where harmony and the reputation of the Sangha requires it. At least some of the gender inequality of Buddhism may have arisen in this context. Next week I will provide a speculative but plausible scenario for how this might have played out in the Buddha’s design of the monastic code.

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