American Folk Buddhism (13)

First Quarter Moon, Uposatha, June 19, 2012            Series Index

Gender Equality in American Folk Buddhism (4)

Karl Marx famously stated, “I am not a Marxist!” I think this statement was in response to the popular understanding of Marx’s teachings that arose even in his lifetime, a Folk Marxism that no longer accorded to his satisfaction with what Marx was trying to get across. This was inevitable, since most radicals of Marx’s age were simply not as smart as Marx was. And yet Marx as a revolutionary had to come to terms with the Folk Marxists to aid in the birth of new economic order.

The Buddha did not have in his vocabulary the ist-word needed to state, “I am not a Buddhist!” in his lifetime, but like Marx he had to come to terms with a Folk Buddhism. Who were these Folk Buddhists? They were those who had imperfectly assimilated the Buddha’s message, those who took refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha, yet whose understanding was still very much shaped by the (in this case, patriarchal) popular culture. Why did the Buddha need to come to terms with the Folk Buddhists? They were the bulk of his disciples. Although they might be of limited understanding one day, the next day through his influence their understanding might be greater. Some of them would become the adepts of the future, and the rest could be gently turned in a more positive direction to their great benefit. They were also the ones who provided for the material needs of the Sangha, the donors of food, robes, shelter and medicine that afforded the monastics the generous opportunity of the very pure form of practice he propounded.

This week I wish to consider how the Buddha, in navigating this interplay between Essential and Folk Buddhisms, may plausibly have spun off an early form of gender inequality as a practical means of establishing a sustainable independent nuns’ order. Although he was apparently wildly successful in realizing the Essential ideal of equal opportunity for nuns in an inhospitable culture (as we saw in the Ashoka’s India last week), he may also have created a precedent in the Vinaya that historically would encourage the opposite result. This account may be as speculative as many others, but see if this does not seem plausible.

Establishing the Monks’ Order. Before the nuns’ order came the monks’ order. Now aside from being a man of limitless kindness and compassion, the Buddha was a practical man of threefold brilliance. The first aspect of his brilliance was his own awakening, his insight into how things really are and the perfection of the human character. This second aspect of his brilliance was his teachings, his ability not only to express what he had attained but to provide a program of study and practice that others might grow in understanding and go on to replicate that attainment. The third aspect of his brilliance was the design of a community that provided individuals with the optimal conditions for study and practice and that would sustain, propagate and transmit Essential Buddhism for future generations. When we take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha we are acknowledging this threefold brilliance.

Now the Buddha’s establishment of a sustainable Bhikkhu Sangha was aided by precedent. Wandering mendicants were very common in India in masculine form, and their aspirations were respected, at least enough for people to offer alms to help sustain them. Nonetheless the Vinaya reveals a pragmatic Buddha that had to be very attentive to the relationship of the bhikkhus to the Folk Culture, in particular that it blend with its values and habits, maintain a respectful reputation and yet follow a strict discipline in accordance with his teachings. He imposed a uniformity of appearance on the monks so that people could recognize them as his disciples and thereby know what to expect and learn how to relate to this particular group. It has been suggested that in developing the governance of the Sangha he wanted to circumvent government (royal) interference by demonstrating its ability to regulate satisfactorily the behavior of its members. His overall achievement in governance is remarkable: that its gentle policies and regulations have survived as governments and empires have risen and fallen and survives today as possibly the oldest continuously functional organization on the planet.

The give and take between Essential and Folk Buddhism is exemplified in the story of the sneeze that I related a number of weeks ago: The Buddha sneezed. A monk said, “may you live long,” which is like our “Bless you” or the German “Gesundheit.” The Buddha replied, “Do you think by your saying that that I will live longer?” “Well, uh [shuffle shuffle], no.” “Then don’t say it!” And so it was, the monks quit blessing anyone who sneezed. The Buddha here assumed the Essential Buddhist position, that in which monks do not offer blessings or spells in the manner of the Brahmins. However laypeople then began to complain that when they stood in the presence of a perfectly good monk, the monk would not bless them as was the norm in Indian culture. So the pragmatic Buddha rescinded the rule, saying, “Monks, laypeople are superstitious. They need to hear, May you live long.” He here had tactfully given way to Folk Buddhism where harmony was at stake.

A large portion of the monks’ precepts were in fact either proposed by lay people or enacted in response to criticism from lay people, as long as they did not conflict with important principle of Essential Buddhism. Most of the rules of etiquette in the Patimokkha are like this, according to their origin stories in the Vinaya. So to a great extend the laity had considerable influence over the character of the Sangha according to their own culturally conditioned expectations. “Design-a-Monk®. The institution of the yearly three-month Rains Retreat (vassa) was, as another instance, in response to lay criticism that the Buddha’s disciples were out sloshing about stepping on crawling things during the long rainy season while other ascetics resided in one place for the interim.

At the same time the Buddha kept the life of the Sangha consistent with Essential Buddhist principles where it mattered. When he saw monks engaged in potentially competitive behaviors, such as endearing themselves to laypeople in order to obtain more or better alms, he prohibited such behaviors. He also eliminated caste distinctions within the Sangha, even while this would almost certainly have displeased many of his supporters. Luckily in this case the presence of multiple castes in the Sangha would have been largely hidden from daily awareness under the uniform attire and bald heads of the monks.

Establishing the Nuns’ Order. Establishing the nuns’ order required even more tact. There was apparently little in the way of a tradition of women among the ranks of wandering mendicants, except for recently among the Jains. This alone would suggest that much of the public that was already supportive of monks would be less supportive of nuns and would therefore make it more difficult for the nuns to receive adequate alms to support their practice. Unfortunately, unlike caste distinctions the presence of two genders in the Sangha could not be hidden from daily awareness under uniform attire or bald heads. Furthermore women were across the board expected in Indian society to be under the guardianship of men, except for the “loose women.” This circumstance might indeed improve the potential for garnering alms, at least from men, but would hardly be conducive to nun’s practice nor to their safety, nor to the reputation of the Sangha. Furthermore, the nuns would need a lot of coaching; few would have experience in the intense spiritual practice of the mendicant or yogi (although the monks’ order itself was but a few years old, many of its members would have had decades of ascetic practice behind them before joining the order). Also the nuns would be at a disadvantage in general education, education having been largely neglected for women of all social classes. Finally, the Jain experiment with nun ordination seemed not to be working out so well due to a “decay of morals” (as Ven. Prof. Dhammavihari puts it) stemming from mingling monks and nuns to an extent that they were finding each other far more interesting than sitting under a tree following the breath.

According to what we learned two weeks ago the Buddha clearly wanted to offer women the same opportunities for monastic practice that his monks enjoyed since their potential was no smaller. Nonetheless it is already apparent why the Buddha would have balked when pressured to establish a nuns’ order or why he might have feared the consequences for the longevity of the Sangha: He may not yet have formulated a satisfactory solution for how a nuns’ order was going to survive in this hostile environment.

Yet the Buddha relented and a hallmark of the Buddha’s solution was to uphold a clear separation between monks and nuns in order to avoid the weaknesses of the Jain monastic order. Nuns should have a quite independent order that would discourage romantic interludes and flirtatious behaviors vis-a-vis the monks, as well as discourage both genders from falling into well-worn domestic roles, which would generally be to the nun’s disadvantage. In order to achieve this the nuns would have considerable independence, be responsible for their own internal affairs and governance, maintaining harmony, etc. Once the nuns order was launched and the first nuns began to attain a level of seniority they would also be able to ordain their own new nuns.

In spite of the relative separation, the Buddha’s solution also engaged the monks’ order in a supportive role, first to bring the nuns up to speed in terms of doctrine and practice and second to help protect the reputation and welfare of the nuns in this hostile society. This required the engagement of senior monks as teachers to “admonish” the bhikkhunis. Also monks living in the vicinity of monks would provide the nuns with some degree of protection from the dangers of the outside world. (We discussed already two weeks ago the restrictions on monks targeted to protect the nuns from misconduct on the part of some of the monks).

Although the engagement of the monks’ in this supportive role was to be controlled and limited, the Buddha’s solution involved some PR: maintaining the public appearance of guardianship, of the bhikkhunis living under the wing of the bhikkhu sangha. This would help dispel the notion that these were loose women. I imagine that the public awareness of just how much independence the nuns in fact enjoyed might also even arouse envy of women lay Buddhists who were under the constant thumbs of menfolk more than symbolically.

If this was, as I speculate, the Buddha’s solution to eking out an independent bhikkhuni sangha in a society hostile to this purpose, the Garudhamma rules would appear as an effective means of implementing this solution, as harsh as they seem at first sight from the perspective of our more gender-neutral culture. Notice that according to these rules the bhikkhus are substantially in a position of responsibility, not advantage, in this arrangement; the most substantial relationship between the two sanghas is the “admonition.” Furthermore the Vinaya takes special care that that relation not become abusive. For instance, an admonishing monk cannot show up among the bhikkhunis in the late hours, and must have certain qualifications, described as follows:

A monk who is entrusted to preside over their welfare should conform to perfect standards of moral virtue. He should also possess a thorough knowledge of the teaching of the Master and know well the complete code of the Patimokkha covering both the Bhikkhus and the Bhikkhunis. He should be of pleasant disposition, mature in years and acceptable to the Bhikkhunis, and above all, should in no way have been involved in a serious offense with a Bhikkhuni. – Vin.IV.51

Of course this bimonthly admonition would have most practical value in the early years of the bhikkhuni sangha, after which they would be expected to have acquired a level of competence similar to that of the monks, but no expiration date seems to have been foreseen. Oversight by the bhikkhus over actions of the bhikkhuni sangha such as ordinations (the Garudhhama rules were listed last week) may have had a practical function at first until bhikkhunis were up to speed, but would have quickly assumed a purely symbolic function along with the first Garudhamma requiring a gender-based hierarchy of respect (the prohibition of a nun from abusing or reviling a monk fits in here, though monks were already prohibited from abusing or reviling nuns or anyone else). These would not have seemed like harsh demands in the society in which the Buddha lived, where such hierarchies of respect were common, for instance, between castes, or fashioned within the bhikkhu sangha itself strictly according to ordination date (regardless of maturity or previous ascetic experience). In fact there is relatively little in the way of opportunity for abuse or oppression by the monks, only service.

We do not know to what extent the Buddha is the author of the Garudhamma. Various inconsistencies call into question the account in which he declared them after Mahapajapati requested ordination. Yet even if much of the Garudhamma was added after the Buddha’s death, for instance, during the First Council, it may well have been with perfectly good intentions, that is, to strengthen not weaken the bhikkhuni sangha. This seems highly plausible to me. As mentioned India seems have been on a trajectory of every increasing patriarchy by the time of the Buddha, with forces increasingly aligned against the Bhikkhuni Sangha. The practice of sati, the self-immolation of widows on their deceased husbands’ funeral pyres, for instance, would not be known in India until several hundred years after the Buddha. This leads one to wonder to what extend trying to uphold the bhikkhuni sangha as the folk society became increasingly patriarchal, might in fact have contributed to the eclipse of Buddhism in India, roughly as the Buddha is alleged to have predicted.

The ongoing and greatest historical difficulty with the Garudhamma is that they belong to an ancient Indian Folk Buddhism, not to Essential Buddhism, yet have scriptural authority and as such have persisted and been applied in cultures in which they made no sense, most of which were probably not as patriarchal as ancient India. In some societies the Garudhamma have probably had the opposite of their intended effect, the weakening of the nuns’ order by justifying symbolically a level of gender inequality that might not otherwise have occurred to anyone. It is ironic, for instance, that in Burma, which is known for its relative high degree gender equality, described by an anthropologist around 1970 in a book I read recently as having “among the most emancipated women in the world,” that where gender inequality is most evident is within the Buddhist institutions and practices. This does not seem to bother people in Burma much, but consider how this translates into lost opportunities for spiritual practice for a large part of the population over hundreds of years as well as into the loss of many teachers and role models for the rest of the population that a vibrant nuns’ order would have secured.

Finally Back Home. If the Buddha were alive today, and had awakened in, let’s say, uh, Austin, Texas, founding a monastic sangha of any gender would be difficult. There is no significant precedent, for instance, of monastic support in the folk culture to build on. However certainly there would be no Garudhamma, for rather than protecting the nuns’ sangha a Garudhamma would degrade it. The gender equality called for in Essential Buddhism and in the Buddha’s deepest kind and compassionate resolve is already endorsed by American Folk Buddhism. To the extent that the Sangha observes procedures that have even the appearance of significant gender inequality damages the reputation of the Sangha in this folk culture. Somebody recently turned the Buddha’s alleged prediction cleverly upside down (I’ve lost the reference): If the perception of gender-inequality in the monastic Sangha in the West is not quickly resolved, we can expect that this Sangha will not survive for more than fifty years. Considering the already fragile condition of the Western monastic sangha I find this very plausible.

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