Sexism, Andocentrism, Misogyny

For this post I’d like to examine a little more closely some of the issue around the problem of discrimination against women in the Sangha. This is a hard topic, and there will be much inner resistance to accepting my conclusions here. All I can ask is that the reader be aware of their own responses, and to reflect that the writer, too, has dealt with similar responses over many years in working with these issues. For this piece, I will concentrate on the ‘normal’ form of sexism, where it is men who discriminate against women.

Sexism

First up, what is ‘sexism’? I would give the following definition: sexism is irrelevant or disproportional discrimination against a person based on their gender. Sexism is by definition wrong, since it harms women by depriving them of their full humanity. In a more subtle sense, sexism harms men too, since men’s sense of security is maintained by harming the ones they love.

To illustrate. The Buddha said that one should not judge a person by whatever caste they belong to: whether khattiya, brahman, vessa, or sudda, a person should be judged by their deeds, not by their birth. In the same way, one should not judge or discriminate against a person simply because of their gender. As bhikkhuni Somā said: ‘Anything who thinks “I am a man”, or “I am a woman”, or “I am anything at all” is fit for Māra to address.’ (Samyutta Nikaya 5.2). In the early Buddhist scriptures it is Māra who espouses sexist views, not the Buddha.

There are certain cases where it is quite proper to discriminate. For example, it is a valid question to ask whether a pregnant woman should receive maternity leave from her work. The same question could not be asked of a man. Of course, a man might receive paternity leave, but that is a different matter. In such a case, to grant maternity leave to pregnant women would be discrimination based on relevant grounds and would not be unethical.

There would still remain the question of proportionality. How much leave, and under what conditions? There is no clear cut answer to this. However, anyone would agree that one day is too little, while forty years would be too much. These options, while relevant discrimination, would be rejected as being disproportional.

In this sense, the structural position of the Theravadin Sangha is clearly sexist. There is no relevant grounds for discrimination. The Buddha, and the entire tradition, asserts that women are equally capable of living the holy life and reaping the fruits. Nor is there any proportion in the Sangha’s response. The details of legal procedures, the reluctance to change traditions, are no adequate grounds on which to deny women their capacity to fully live the spiritual life if they so choose.

I would like to make a further distinction. Sexism may be divided into two aspects: andocentrism and misogyny.

Andocentrism

Andocentrism is seeing things from a male point of view. Our language embodies this, for example, when we use ‘he’ or ‘man’ to refer to all people, not noticing how this excludes and marginalizes women. Andocentric culture treats the male as the default gender, and woman is the ‘other’. In an andocentric system, women are excluded from resources, education, opportunities that are routinely available to men. This may happen simply through social conditioning, or it may have to be reinforced by rules and laws.

We often judge how andocentric an institution is by what percentage of women are involved, and what positions they reach. By this standard, the modern Theravada Sangha is one of the most absolute forms of andocentrism ever achieved, with a complete denial of women’s involvement at any level.

Since andocentrism is essentially a social construct, it must be changed through social means. This social change will, in the first instance, be driven by those who suffer most from sexism, that is, the women. Like Mahapajapati, who disobeyed the Buddha’s instructions, repeatedly ignored his advice, and dressed in the ochre robes without an ordination, women will have to disobey the patriarchs if they expect to achieve change. Successful change will, however, also need the help of the patriarchs themselves, in this case the monks.

I would suggest that there are three essential things that the monks must do. First, admit that sexism exists and that it is wrong. Second, work energetically to overcome sexism. Third, to listen and respond to the voices of women. This is, I think, all it takes. It is not impossible. It does not involve any complex moral issues or radical new innovations. It just requires the application of some good moral sense to address an obvious and harmful injustice in the world.

Misogyny

Whereas andocentrism is primarily a social phenomenon, and is defined by the absence of women, misogyny is a psychological phenomenon, defined by the presence of hatred against women. Misogyny is a neurosis, a deeply held pattern of irrational fear and loathing against women. Typically it develops in response to trauma involving a woman, either in infancy or, from a Buddhist perspective, in past lives. The trauma may be the result of the evil acts of a woman, for example if a mother abuses her son, or the woman may be entirely innocent, for example if a son conceives a jealous hatred of a newly-born sister.

The essential characteristic of misogyny is that it takes the perceived faults and the evil of one woman and projects that on all women. Of course, we all do this; projection is a simple fact of human psychology. We have all had good and bad experiences of men and women, and these condition our future expectations and thoughts of other men and women. This is normal; but when the pattern becomes fixed and extreme, and when it results in harmful patterns of behaviour, then it is appropriate to treat it as a neurosis. Since we experience the opposite gender as ‘other’, projection plays a particularly potent role in inter-gender relations.

This kind of tendency is found through the Buddhist literature, for example the Jātaka stories. Whenever a man does something bad, or a woman does something good, that man or that woman is praised or blamed accordingly. But when a woman does something ‘bad’ (even when it is the man who has acted immorally) then ‘womankind’ is blamed. The Jātaka stories, and other forms of popular Buddhist literature, are replete with misogyny. It is frankly impossible that these attitudes should simply disappear from Buddhist culture, which prides itself on its continuity with tradition.

A man who is suffering from misogyny is cut off and alienated from a part of himself. He cannot accept the feminine, and denies and represses this aspect of himself. This affirms a basic tenet of Buddhist ethics: since all beings are equally deserving of respect, when any person harms or diminishes any being they also harm themselves.

Misogyny is a subtle and elusive thing. Our society no longer tolerates open expressions of misogyny, and so it tends to go underground. One can hear it in the relaxed, private ‘boy’s talk’, but it rarely emerges in the sphere of public discourse. And of course, the misogynist is the last person to see their own prejudice.

Nevertheless, I think it is clear enough that a certain percentage of men are misogynist in the sense I have described. And of those men, a certain percentage will enter the Sangha. It is only natural that a misogynist will seek to enter a context where his exclusive valorization of the masculine is supported, where he need rarely encounter women, and when he does encounter women they are contained within a hierarchy that subordinates them, gives them no power, lets him dismiss their voices, and exalts him as a being of superior spiritual status.

It may come as a shock to hear that some Sangha members are of questionable mental balance. Nevertheless, it is really quite obvious. Here I will speak only of the Western Sangha. In traditional Buddhist lands, there is a strong cultural support for men who wish to join the Sangha. Hence, in my experience, there is no particular tendency for the monks to be either personally misogynist, or to have any other mental problems more than is normal. In Western Buddhism, however, most people are drawn to it only after experiencing deep trauma. In any Western Buddhist center, you will find a large number of people who have had, or are having, severe psychological difficulties. That is why they come.

And for those who wish to join the Sangha this is even more noticeable. I would guess that more than half of those who are interested to join the monastic Sangha, in my experience, have some kind of clinical level psychological or personality disorder. Many of these disorders make it difficult to live the holy life: schizophrenia, depression, anxiety. People with such problems tend to not last in the Sangha.

But there are certain kinds of disorders that are positively nurtured by the monastic environment, in particular narcissism and misogyny. As far as narcissism goes, the history of Western Buddhism is littered with the trainwrecks of unrestrained guru-worship. Misogyny has not been so obvious, as it has been sheltered by the assumed legitimacy of the andocentric Sangha structures.

It should be clear enough that misogynists would normally be drawn to andocentric institutions like the Sangha. They would tend to reinforce the bias that is already present, to make it more extreme, and to actively, if unconsciously, seek to harm women through their position. In return, we would expect that the andocentric institution would tend to reinforce misogyny, justifying it, activating latent misogyny, offering role models and the bonding that comes in a boy’s club, and turning a man’s basest instincts into an exalted spiritual value.

Nevertheless, this might not always happen. The personal problem of misogyny and the institutional problem of andocentrism are relatively independent. It is possible, for example, to have an andocentric institution that does not contain any misogynists, or to have a misogynist who is independent of any institution. When a misogynist does join the institution, it may result in a variety of effects.

For example, more blatant displays of misogyny might alert the other members of the institution; they might be personally disgusted, and this might bring them to reflect of the role that they are playing within the institution, and to want to do something about it. I know this happens: it is what happened to me.

On the other hand, a misogynist might join the Sangha. On the surface they embrace the values of the Sangha and are practising for liberation; underneath they are fearful and damaged, needing a place to hide from women. But healing takes place, sometimes time is all that’s needed. The isolation and protection from women might actually be beneficial for someone who is genuinely unable to cope. After a while, they develop more stability and confidence. The original unconscious motivation for ordination has died away, and they might disrobe, get married, and enjoy a healthy normal relationship with women, which was not possible for them before joining the Sangha.

The crux of the problem comes when the andocentric institution and the misogynist ally forces. This occurs especially when the misogynist comes into a position of power. Of course, this is exactly what they want. They can build up the walls, continually reinforce the separation from women, and help condition new generations of monks to affirm and perpetuate the old patterns. In the long term, all this will not help the misogynist at all. They are simply exaggerating their original problem, and when the day comes that the walls tumble down, they will crash all the harder.

The problem here lies not with the individual, but with the Sangha. Since the Sangha as an institution is still in denial over the problem of sexism, it refuses to recognize misogyny, and is quite happy to place misogynists in positions of power. Once there, the ‘normal’ institutional practice of simply ignoring, marginalizing, and excluding women will extend to an active suppression.

One problem that arises here is that there have to be women present to fulfil the misogynist fantasy. Women must be attracted to the monasteries, gratified and supported, so that they can stay and be abused. If there are no women in the monasteries, how can they be kept in the kitchen? This is a translation into a spiritual setting of the same dynamic that perpetuates abusive marriages.

The Future

The problems that I am bringing to the fore in this essay are painful and uncomfortable ones. They are not easy to accept, even though they are really quite straightforward. I have struggled with these issues for many years, and am grateful that the current bhikkhuni controversy has cleared the air, making me feel that I can speak openly about issues of such grave importance.

The facts are undeniable. The modern Theravadin Sangha is an absolutist form of andocentric institution. The Buddhist tradition, for example the Jātaka stories, contain abundant misogyny. These tendencies will continue until there is an active effort to overcome them. When we see within the Sangha a consistent deconstruction of these forms of sexism; a recognition of the value of women’s voices in shaping our future; and an active effort to dismantle and reshape the modern forms of the Sangha institutions, relying on the egalitarian model of the Vinaya; then we will have reason to believe that things may change.

Until that time, we can expect that good men and women all over the world will turn away from Buddhism, be disillusioned with the Sangha, and doubt the value of Dhamma practice. As the Buddha said to the Kalamas: ‘You are doubting in a doubtful matter’.

55 thoughts on “Sexism, Andocentrism, Misogyny

  1. Dear Venerable Bhante Sujato,
    I am deeply amazed by this analysis you have so bravely and intelligently and carefully thought about and shared.
    It seems like a document that should be in every monastery for reflection… why not? Indeed, why not?
    Thankyou for taking the time and energy and heartspace and thought to raise and educate about these topics. I personally didn’t even know what andocentric meant !

  2. Really Bhante, i must say again, am so deeply effected by your efforts in this particular essay. It is somehow a real relief that a MONK has written this sort of an essay, with such obvious thought and sincerity.

    • I am told that many many monks are aware of the painful inequality…. I think change is in the air….

      May all beings be free from suffering,

      Bryony

  3. Ouyporn Khuankaew is a Buddhist educator and practitioner living in Thailand. She conducts workshops and retreats for Buddhist women in South and Southeastern Asia, in Thailand Cambodia, Burma, India, Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet. Her broad experience shows how culturally ensconced male dominance has perverted Buddhist teaching, particularly around the notion of karma. Buddhism is often romantically viewed as the gentlest of religions, and it is true that it is not conducive to Crusades or Jihads, but its teachings can be used and are used to torture women in cruel ways that rob them of their spirit and hope. Ouyporn Khuankaew counters all of this in her work and her writing with the traditional teachings of the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Noble Path, giving these traditional teachings a new and healing meaning for women.

    http://www.awid.org/eng/Issues-and-Analysis/Library/Buddhism-in-Thailand-a-report-on-the-struggle-for-women

    BUDDHISM IN THAILAND: A REPORT ON THE STRUGGLE FOR WOMEN TO BE ORDAINED IN THE THERAVADA BUDDHIST TRADITION

  4. Interesting thoughts, Bhante! I have no idea whether studies and numbers would confirm your assessment, but based on probablity and patterns I have noticed regarding some – albeit not all – Christian practitioners and theologists, I would imagine that there is some likelihood in your suppositions.

    I guess this is generally a problem with self-enforcing structures and organizations, be they religious or political or economic in nature. If I remember my basic knowledge of organizational theory correctly, such structures only break once the internal structure cannot be held against external pressure (based on different dynamics).

    if that was true, the public image, opinion and financial support – or lack of it – will be drivers of change, not so much appeals and arguments.
    Sounds like a plattform for smart campaigning …

  5. Nice article. Thanks!

    Do you think, Bhante, that at least some of the conflict of perspectives arises from how a male experiences and works with the practice of celibacy?

    Celibacy, an immensely challenging and precarious practice as you know, doesn’t seem to be part of the discourse here, nor in the articles of the Forest Sangha – even though the people involved in making decisions have all committed to the practice of celibacy on an impeccable and rigorous level. Many laypeople who have known Theravada monks and nuns for years have been shocked, years down the track, when they first heard that monastics aren’t allowed to masturbate! The first sanghadisesa is definitely not a widely known rule :)

    For most bhikkhus I know, the practice of celibacy is not just challenging, it’s something that requires a willingness to die to a mountain of frustrated wanting on a regular basis. Being ‘burned alive’ is the most accurate description, I have heard.

    Perhaps the idea of ‘keeping separate’ stems from the Elders’ lifetime of working with sexuality in a certain way, involving a buffer of seclusion, in order to make the practice workable. Do you think that on the surface this could look like misogyny, but is actually coming from a more complex place, involving also the great demand to relate to one’s sexuality within such a strict container as Theravada monasticism?

    After all, to practice with contained sexual energy for a few years is one thing – but a lifelong commitment to it is another… Many great beings have rightly called it ‘the most difficult thing for a human to do’. For me it’s useful to keep this in mind when feeling for the heart-context of those making decisions. Just in order to be listening clearly and deeply enough to real living people, rather than getting caught in my perceptions of a ‘them’ that’s obviously ‘wrong’ and out of touch.

    Granted, to me this doesn’t justify insisting on gender inequality just because ‘The Buddha established the Bhikkhuni order as junior to the Bhikkhu order’, (why not just say, ‘Well, times have changed’?) but perhaps some of the underlying resistance has to do with everyday things like not wanting to have to be all that ‘integrated’ with members of the opposite sex, when you’re working with containing and transforming those primal drives in the heart that long for sexual intimacy. And long they do! I know males in their 50s who have disrobed because they couldn’t contain unexpressed sexual energy anymore… As they say in the U.S, ‘It ain’t no cake-walk!’.

    Respectfully,
    A.

    • ‘monks aren’t allowed to masturbate!’ How do they survive? Reminds me of that Seinfeld episode … .

      But I digress.

      I’d just like to drop in a few thoughts, coming from a young male who has lived and intends to live for at least another 5 or 6 years at Santi Forest Monastery, which is, to borrow the term, ‘co-educational’.

      The relationship of men to their sexuality is sooo badly stereotyped. Everyone is very different in this regard. While some men will need to overcome a ‘mountain of frustration’ in order to faithfully live the holy-life, to others, celibacy is no more an issue than not being able to eat after noon.

      It may be the case, similar to the comparatively high rate of misogyny, that unhealthy ways of relating to sexual desire are prevalent in the Western Sangha. And, of course, these two things are not unrelated.

      We should not forget, however, that the purpose of celibacy in the context of Buddhist monasticism is not suppression, but understanding. The practice of celibacy provides an opportunity for monastics to step back from the cycle of urge and gratification that drives the insanity of samsara for long enough to realise that sex – and sensual pleasure generally – isn’t all its cracked up to be, if you’ll excuse the pun.

      Those who see sexual desire as a problem to be avoid, suppressed, crushed, pathologise a natural part of being human. No wonder they’re frustrated! But if the arising of sexual desire is conceived as an opportunity for untangling the tangle, then the energy is transformed, conferring the gift of good health and vigour.

      This reminds me of the sutta where a would-be follower approaches the Buddha to report that he has cut off his genitals. The Buddha says something like, ‘Foolish man, you have cut off what you should have kept and kept what you should have cut off!’

      Quite a ‘Doh!’ moment.

      Getting back to Seinfeld. In the episode where Elaine chooses to go celibate, her intelligence experiences a sudden and dramatic increase. The wisdom of Jerry.

      >j<

    • Thank you Anagarika Jason. As Belle says, you seem to have a great attitude.

      I wish you all blessings in your practice!

    • Sadhu X 3 Brother Jason for your enlightened views on ‘sexuality’, especially the quotation of the Buddha “‘Foolish man, you have cut off what you should have kept and kept what you should have cut off!’

    • Dear Asoka,

      Thanks for the reflections. I think that the questions around sexuality are certainly an issue. The whole problem with bhikkhunis could be seen as a misplacement of sexual frustration. And a frustrated or twisted sex drive is certainly a factor in misogyny. In a way, however, I tend to avoid blaming sexuality, as it is too obvious. I think that the issue is really addressed very openly and clearly in the Buddhist texts and teachings, and there’s not too much to add. But things like misogyny are not really acknowledged or mentioned at all in the Suttas, yet they are undeniably real. These are the things that we need to bring to awareness. Hopefully once this is done they can be addressed without too much angst.

    • Dear Bhante Sujato,

      I can see your point about sexuality being discussed seemingly exhaustively in the Buddhist texts, to the point where you might feel there’s no need to add anything more… but Asoka’s comments also helped me think about this differently.

      One thing that has struck me about Theravadan monastic culture, particularly the texts, is how much talk there is about sex, and also how often women are depicted in highly sexualised ways. This can be read as misogyny (it’s hard not to, sometimes!) but it can also be read, in light of Asoka’s remarks, as an expression of the difficulties men have with the practice of celibacy. Seeing it this way allows compassion and understanding (and a sense of humour) to displace the anger and bewilderment that tend to be provoked by seeing these texts simply as expressing hatred of women.

      In a way, these texts allow someone like me (a lay woman) a relatively unusual and very educational opportunity to listen in on an all male conversation, warts and all. But that’s a wasted opportunity if I react as if the comments are directed to me, or to women in general.

      For example, the passage in which the Buddha is supposed to have said that the longevity of Buddhism will be halved if women are ordained, since they can be compared to various crop diseases, seems incomprehensibly misogynistic if read at face value. But if you read this passage as expressing fear that male sexual desire in the presence of women may not be able to be skilfully contained, and may result in damage to the monastic way of life, so the crop diseases represent this force of male sexual desire, not the women as such, then the passage starts to make a lot more sense, at least to my mind. It is no longer an expression of hatred addressed to women, but an expression of anxiety addressed to other men.

      You write that “The essential characteristic of misogyny is that it takes the perceived faults and the evil of one woman and projects that on all women.” I would like to propose another possibility – an essential characteristic of misogyny is that it takes the perceived faults and evil of the self and projects that on to the generalised other of women. And to go on adapting your text, sometimes the self may really be at fault and need help to change, but sometimes the sense of evil may be an illusion built purely of unfounded fears that only need to be seen clearly to be dispelled.

    • Dear Justine,

      Thanks for the comments. I’m a little surprised that you see the Buddhist texts as an ‘unusual’ opportunity to listen in to an all-male conversation – I would have thought there were all too many of these in circulation. But the point is well taken. Except I would suggest that the ‘perceived faults and evil of the self’ that you speak of are really the ‘unperceived faults and evil of the self’. As you say, in some cases merely seeing this is enough; in other cases it would take much more than this.

      There is a genuine issue involved in the common scholarly description of Buddhist texts, for example on the ugliness of the body, as being sexist, since the body depicted is almost always female. This is very true; and yet, just as the (monk) authors of the texts are depicting the woman’s body as ‘other’ (and hence lower, irrational, toxic…) so too the scholars are depicting the monks as other (and hence lower, irrational, sexist…). This avoids the basic point the passages are about, which is to look at the way we get infatuated with our bodies by a very pervasive development of selective perception.

      The passages on the entry of women into the Sangha being like a disease are quite rightly to be read, as you suggest, as a psychological projection. But that reading does not exhaust the text: for the imagery and emotional charge of the passages draw on deeper things, and i would see their final meaning (if such a thing exists) as existential rather than psychological.

    • Dear Bhante Sujato , re: your response to Justine (whose comment’s i can’t see…)
      It is clear to me and to many that you have so much to teach on these very pertinent matters within Dhamma studies and within society…which really cannot be separated.

      Thankyou again. I am not just spouting praises, but i have nothing else to say.

    • Dear Sujato

      Is it possible to expand on what you mean by “I would see their final meaning … as existential rather than psychological”?

      Many thanks

      David

    • yes – i’m currently expanding it into a 500 page book…

      But a little briefer: when i use these words here, a psychological issue is one that concerns how we feel or think or act in a given situation. An existential issue concerns life and death. For example, the idea of a disease entering a crop immediately involves the idea of death – both death to the crop and death to the society that is dependent on it. The cycle of the grain is used, since neolithic times, as a chief metaphor for the process of life-and-rebirth. Psychologically, we respond to this cycle in one way or another. We like it, or don’t like it, or are confused about it, or whatever. But no matter what our response to it, existentially we participate in it – or not.

    • Dear Bro,
      Monks/nuns are cultivating their minds through meditation to cut off all sensual desires/urge/pleasures which is the only way to get approval for a passport to Nibbana. If a monk/nun still have this “fire” in their mind that cannot be put off with water, then it is better to enjoy as a layperson, indulge in and giving in to sensual desires and needs whenever they knock at your door. Those vowed celibacy had to have proper sila and mind training to observe and note the “burning fire” coming and allow it to burn and exhaust itself into ashes instead of putting “petroleum” into the burning fire to ignite the fire more.All sex fantasy ignite from the mind. Masterbation is like sex using the mind to work and sex is using the body & mind to work. What difference? Sorry, this is facts of life (SX18)

    • Hello Asoka,

      I came accros the posting (ancient now) and well, I just had to make a response. While I have every respect and admiration for men who have chosen the Noble path, put on robes and adopted renunciation, there is a point here I really feel I must address (from a womens perspective).

      Yes, I understand that the sexual impulse is a primative desire and at times can feel all too consuming. But, there is a reason we CHOOSE celibacy. It is not to deny ourselves anything, but to use that energy, as powerful as it is, to transform it, into spiritual energy. Then we realise the true benefit of living a spiritual life.
      When we have tamed that intense energy and raised the energy to higher levels of being, we have conquered it.
      We are spiritual warriors, we have to deal with want we have and change it. That is the Noble path. Of course it’s not easy.

      If you really feel you can’t change it without imposing
      segregation of others, ill-will towards them, subjugating them as a entire species, or denying others their spiritual existence, well then, prehaps you should not be a renunciant. Perhaps, it is healthier psychologically to disrobe, find a wife, and live a very, very spiritual life as a layman householder. There is definitely no shame in that. Many laymen (and laywomen) are great spiritual teachers and are often more accessible to the normal folk in the world who can find the robes are bit confronting.

      I guess what I am trying to say is there is some selfishness in this attitude. A man can’t control his sexual energy so all women should be separated and not
      allowed the ability to become monks. A man is denying the spiritual welfare of others, because he can’t control his own “Johnson”. That’s a bit lame don’t you think?

      There ARE other ways besides misogyny and sexism. Try exercise, try yogi breathing to raise the energy (it is very powerful energy so use it for good). Try purifying the mind. Think of women that you see as sisters, Mothers, NOT evil temptresses who will tempt you from your pure and spiritual life. Seriously, that’s a bit of a irrational stereotype isn’t it?

      Be around women and remain pure in mind, that is the real challenge of a spiritual warrior. It can be done, Ananda said he never had a lustful thought for 25 years. Change yourself, not eliminate women from the equation. Because guess what, that solution is just escapism, its not addressing the real issue that resides in the mind. And you know what that means? Yep, you have to come back for another life to address it. Maybe even, if you’re lucky, as a woman ;-)

    • I forgot to add that an ayurvedic diet and herbs are also beneficial for calming the body. Yogis have been doing this for hundreds of years and it works.

    • Hi Anne

      “A man is denying the spiritual welfare of others, because he can’t control his own “Johnson”. That’s a bit lame don’t you think?”. Hear, hear.

      “Think of women that you see as sisters, Mothers, NOT evil temptresses who will tempt you from your pure and spiritual life.” I don’t think it even needs thinking. Women actually are our sisters and mothers. Obviously. How can anyone ever forget? I really don’t understand. It must take some effort to keep ignoring the obvious and thinking of them as not our sisters and mothers, so the answer must be to stop making the effort and just look at the obvious, at the way things really are (which is, by the way, my favourite translation of the word “Dharma”).

      David

    • Yes, this clinging and attachment to FORM, in this context gender, seems rather counter productive to their spiritual endeavor!

  6. Ace :
    if that was true, the public image, opinion and financial support – or lack of it – will be drivers of change, not so much appeals and arguments.
    Sounds like a plattform for smart campaigning …

    As to campaign strategy: As a healthy version of Buddhist monasticism establishes itself in the West, a new generation of postulants, female and male, who see ordination not as a way to retreat from themselves and others, but a way to fulfill their highest potentials and aspirations, will emerge.

    They will take up the challenge of change that Bhante Sujato has so eloquently articulated.

    >j<

  7. Ace, I agree with you that lack of support (especially finance) will be a driver of change.

    Monastics cannot survive without laypeople’s support. The Buddha made sure of that. That’s why He did not allow monks and bhikkhunis to grow their own food. If they are good monastics, they will get respect and support from lay communities. (Though some Thai men in monk robes are good at deceiving people — that’s another totally different issue to discuss.)

    Though some good monks who live in forests or harsh conditions, without laypeople nearby to give support, could still survive coz their good kamma is seen by heavenly beings who would lend them support.

    So, yes, we lay people have to open our eyes to investigate what monastries should receive our dana.

  8. Dear Anagarika Jason Chan,
    Thankyou very much for so openly and intelligently and courageously addressing the interesting and relevant point and questions that Asoka brought forth. (THankyou also Asoka.) Jason, you seem like a very balanced and wholistic Dhamma practitioner and i wish you and the new generation of monastics that will spring up around you, all the very very very best .
    Your attitude seems a wise and sustainable one Jason. Well done.

  9. Respecfully Bhante,

    If we have 2 gender Sangha i.e a Bikkhu Sangha & a Bikkhunis Sangha with each given autonomy and separate entity, both are sexists too i.e. The Bikkhu Sangha with no females and the Bikkhuni Sangha with no males.The best solution is one Sangha with both Bikkhus and Bikkunis and support of male and female community, so Buddha’s 4-fold revived (a much healthier Sangha and community like a family, a patriach a matriach and their children). A wonderful complete Spiritual family!

    Genders are carved by our kammas!

    We need to let go of this issue and move on instead of getting more and more emotional that hinders our rationale and reality.

  10. I believe in some lives we take birth as female, and as male in others. Either gender we happen to take birth in, the Noble Eightfold Path should be available to us regardless of gender.

  11. Thank you Bhante,
    I applaud your accurate and clear observation and personal courage to admit this underlying tendency in the Buddhist (and probably all the others) monastic structures.I have to admit that even most of the Suttas are also andocentristic.How would you advice to work with this aspect of the teaching if one having female body? I has been practicing Theravada 17 years and I have enjoyed to read and contemplate the Suttas very much. But over the years I found it increasingly difficult to get heartfelt aspiration when most of the Suttas are refering to the monks. Now I am just trying to use word “practitioner” when I read it. Thank you again, With deep respect and appreciation.

    • Dear Kuzandolma,

      Yes, that is very true. In some respects the andocentrism of the Suttas is a mere artifact of the redaction. No doubt there were bhikkhunis and lay people present when many of the discourses were given, but these are typically not mentioned. This imbalance is to some degree rectified in some Mahayana suttas. In we change the suttas when reading, putting the feminine back in, we are simply undoing the changes that were made by previous generations of editors.

    • Thank you for compassionate and clear reply and for all what you have been doing to support the feminine in the Buddhist tradition. With deep respect and appreciation

  12. Once again AS, thank you for articulating in this public forum some of those structures of thought, speech, psychology, and habit that underlie all of what we have been discussing these past weeks. Like rain on dry land your argument helps to keep the discussion at a deeper level. As we see repeatedly, the core issues can get so easily displaced. Until we can collectively sustain contemplation of them we won’t acquire the understanding that prompts shifts in the direction of health.

    I’ve witnessed much banter back and forth on these pages about being ‘political’ or ‘disrespectful’ and so on. I acknowledge that contributors are grappling genuinely with all this material. But until we can overcome the reflex to deflect attention away from the core issues (via appeals to cliched ‘buddhist’ behaviour) we’ll continue to miss the mark.

    It can be difficult to acknowledge the sexism (androcentrism, misogyny) that inflects our cultural heritages. Particularly difficult for some, perhaps, to see that practising buddhists also have these blind spots; that the suttas are overlayed with sexist frameworks introduced over time. But once we reflect on this and see it for what it is, we are empowered to discern through practise and shared discussion that which is core and that which is to be avoided. We are all involved in a practice of enquiry, after all. Leaving your ‘head’ out of it – avoiding ‘lapses’ into analysis – is in my experience a grave if common error. This practise of awakening takes everything; it requires hearts, minds, bodies to be present simultaneously and alert, available and alive.

    When the ‘anti-political’ view can see itself also as a view, the work can progress.

    I find it a matter of integrity that we enquire into the conditions of our practise and heritage: is there a culture in which some young Thai girls are sacrificed to the sex trade so that young boys can ordain for their family’s ‘merit’? Would you be Ok with that? Are some conservative and fearful men taking control of the sangha at the expense of the health of the fourfold-parissa? Would you be satisfied with that? How do the present mundane conditions of the path we choose to practise influence our approach to practise, and what responsibility do we have to address them?

    If you see a monastic with robes in tatters, or a leaking roof in their kuti, a physical wound or illness, would you offer to provide supplies to support them? And if so, then where do you draw the line between that kind of problem requiring a solution and the damage done to the sangha – your sangha – by the systemic exclusion of women from full and equal participation?

    I’d agree, AS, that the condition of women in Thailand is intricately linked to the absence of bhikkhnis and other women spiritual elders. It’s not that they do not exist – Ajahn Kee Nanayon has been regarded as one of the greatest buddhist teachers in Thailand – but they exist outside the system because they are not welcome within it. And outside of the system, unfortunately, they can not perform the same role-modelling functions as within that system.

    I’d add though, that the presence of women spiritual elders in Australia and the west – bhikkhunis and others – is not only about religious freedom. It is needed within our broader culture too, and would impact significantly on the deepening understanding of a fuller way of being human and awake both for women and for men.

  13. Bhante, In all of the years of living in a monastery and the years before, I have never seen anything that is as accurate a description of what we are dealing with as what you have written here. I can say that for me I don’t need references and other sources to verify its authenticity. I have lived it. Further, it points directly at a substantial part of the problem; dealing with psychological patterns which are unconscious is not straight forward. It is my conviction that when there is the willingness and the support to look at where these patterns reside as internal phenomena, and un-hinge them there, that is the ground from which change can occur. Until a sufficient amount of that ground has been covered, no matter what happens as external form, the internal patters will repeat.

  14. Dear Ajahn Thanasanti,
    Hello :) I was just thinking of you and hoping you are well.
    Deep gratitude for your words here, and i agree with you.
    I feel such compassion in where you come from.
    Best wishes and respect,
    Belle

  15. Bhante, a brilliant analysis and a great discussion. Your articles give me hope.

    I just came from a retreat with Ajs Amaro, Anandabodhi and Metta in which the issues of the Five Points and the Bhikkhuni ordination were discussed openly and passionately. It was a truly amazing experience to have the unspoken spoken and the painful issues that have been closeted for decades discussed often loudly and painfully and without inhibition by a group of 60+ retreatants and these teachers. On the final day, Aj Metta astounded many of us by addressing the issue of women who want the approval of men so badly that they discriminate against and actively work to undermine other women.

    While it’s true that the Bhikkhu sangha sets the standards of discrimination, sexism and misogyny, there are women who have internalized these beliefs and collude with the male prejudices. They are fewer in number but their affects on other women can be devastating.

    One of the worst aspects of institutionalized sexism is self-blame and self-loathing. Always feeling lesser than, always wanting to be invisible so as not to draw attention to yourself, never wanting to say or do the things that are tacitly proscribed. If a woman cries, she’s too emotional; if she doesn’t like something, she’s too demanding; if she’s really good at something, she’s trying to prove herself, or is too competitive, or worse, she’s ambitious. The list goes on.

    Women who live with sexism, androcentrism and/or misogyny walk on eggshells all the time. They are like unwanted guests, feeling they are lucky to be there but knowing they will be blamed and admonished for any perceived misstep. Women are told to hold their tongue, watch their minds and learn to surrender and be content. It’s a wonder that they have the strength and sanity to struggle for change.

    • Dear Sarana,

      That’s a very hopeful and encouraging report. I assume it would have been a very different experience than most people would have expected at a ‘retreat’! But, while a silent space for meditation can work wonders, sometimes the things unsaid can leave deep scars, too.

      Your remarks remind me of something that Carol Gilligan said, it was something like: ‘Patriarchy divides men against women, and women against each other.’

      To be frank, I am astonished that there are women who still persist with the Dhamma. There must be so much faith, so much dedication, to want to pursue something, even though it marginalizes one’s gender so terribly. Underlying it all, I think, is a sense that the Dhamma itself, however we may experience that, is free of these limitations.

    • From a female perspective, a personal observation: The appeal of Buddhism still lies in the observation that prior to enlightenment, humans are still caught by their web of delusions and conditions. As such, I can “ignore” gender discrimination as unenlightened without having to discredit the Buddha’s techings.

      It definitely makes me wary regarding structures of authority, though. So, the “trainwreck of … guru-worship” you mentioned made me smile, because this is something I find totally inconceivable an approach for myself in Buddhism. If any outcome would be “blind faith expected to lineage, hierarchy or personal guru authority, THEN Buddhism would lose me.

      Fortunately, in this day & age, we have the means to go back to the Word – albeit with translation risks – to his words ourselves.

    • Great to hear this news of the open retreat discussions Sarana. From there AA kindly consented to our request that he deliver (on the organisers behalf)the petition package and all other collected materials on the issue to the WAM in Thailand. Hopefully with his experience of the feedback in the US he, together with one or two other Western elders that I know of who are somewhat sypathetic, will also be able to express their concerns about this process and hold some refelctive space against the conservative [read:anti] forces there.
      Exciting for Sr’s Anandabodhi and Metta to be able to step into the US scene with open dialogue in that way. There was some of that possibility when I was living over there 8-10 yrs ago, but it was shut down pretty quickly then. Its taken this long to re-emerge in the open but now with a much greater force for change behind it. May change be successful for the benefit of all involved, male and female alike.

  16. DEAR BHANTE -
    YES,YES,YES. You say it so well. I thank whatever good fortune i have that through your understanding and voice on this, i am starting to feel safe enough again to
    keep going.

  17. Thanks Bhante. Thanks for writing all this.

    When I started to practise seriously it was because I loved the Dhamma teachings I was hearing, enjoyed the meditation and found both these useful in my life. My love for this Path increased as I observed and supported some very fine monastics; they endeavoured to keep their rules and live a life which revolved around meditation; because of them my faith and inspiration grew; because my faith grew, other aspects of my practise suddenly found new energy. Because I was having such a good time being a Buddhist, I forgot to be a feminist.

    But for a woman born into a traditional Buddhist family, I am one of the lucky ones. Partly because of the nice parents and the kind husband. But mostly because the monastics I supported understood that fine balance between ‘guarding the doors of their senses’ and being welcoming and safe. Whenever I did a retreat at Bodhinyana Monastery, despite hardly ever laying eyes on these solitude loving monks, I felt safe and cared for.

    Nevertheless I too heard sexist and misogynist comments made by the odd lay man here and there (never from the monks). I would generally hold my tongue, no mean feat for me, I can tell you. Once I fired up and ended up apologising. It felt so mortifying to lose one’s cool.

    But the worst thing of all was a feeling in my chest somewhere; sort of a like a nasty big rubber band, squeezing. This physical feeling directly related to a view I had held for goodness knows how many lifetimes; that it was normal for me, as a woman, to not have a voice, a real chance or any real sense of worth that would ever be reflected back to me.

    As I said, I think I am one of the lucky ones…I am not abused or exploited. The people I am surrounded by sincerely and often indicate that they value me as a human being, support my Buddhist practise and listen to me when I speak (even when I am a grouch). But do you know at what moment that awful rubber band disolved into nothing? It was after reading Bhikkuni Sudhamma’s letter (the one where she refutes A.T’s letter). I was reading the last section where she wrote about how the beautiful, compassionate, wise Lord Buddha wanted the Bhikkuni Sangha to be protected, supported, thrive; as I read this section, wave after wave of joy went through my being and I cried with joy as I realised that I COULD DO IT! Realising that I have the potential to be so much better than I am now…it was huge. But even huge-er was the realisation that I BELIEVED IT. I might have thought it before, but I’d never believed it.

    I feel an energy and a power and a happiness around being Buddhist that I never felt or had before. This is the result of the actions of Ajahn Brahm, Ajahn Sujato, Ajahn Vayama, Ven. Nirodha, Ven. Seri, Ven. Hassapanna and all the Bhikkus, Bhikkunis and laypeople who were present at the ordination on November 22nd. You did not just do it for yourselves. Your actions have effected me incredibly; I hope I can re-pay you all by not being negligent with my practise.

    Anumodana.

  18. Bhante, thank you for your article, it is so well written and reminded me of my own monastic experience.
    I stayed in a monastery for a rains retreat and had the most wonderful experience of spiritual growth and awakening of my life to date. I was the only woman staying in the community. A new abbott had arrrived the month before,(the previous abbott had invited me to stay for this time, before he knew he was going to move on else where). The new abbott, fair enough didn’t know me and one of the senior bhikkhus who knew me, offered to support me if I were in need of support. So I was allowed to stay.
    In the early days I really struggled with the way the abbott treated me, sometimes kind, sometimes quite dismissive and rude,it was very confusing. I eventually decided that I could continue to suffer and take things very personally or I could see the abbott as an enlightened teacher who was using a direct method approach to teach me the dhamma. I eventually surrenderd to the whole process and used each moment saying to myself, I wonder what the buddha’s take on this would be and used the experience as a teaching.
    It was just such a special time and one that I am most greatful for, as I know not too many people will have had the opportunity that I had. I felt that I had touched the heart of the buddha.
    I was eventually allowed to attend the vinaya class and was mostly accepted into the community for the 3 months and treated with respect and kindness. Sometimes with one or two individuals the misogyny was rife, but I decided to ignore it, mind my own businesss and let them get on with it. Sounds easy writing it here but it was very painful at the time.
    As a result of that experience I did explore further the possibility of ordaining into a womens community. After some time in the community, it became apparent to me that given my own pyschology, I would not thrive well for any length of time and left.
    I wear the robe within and use the teachings on a daily basis as I am sure most people do and perhaps do not realise that they are doing this.
    To think 15 years ago I travelled half way around the globe to live within a community with female mendicants and now this is possible in one of my home countries, how wonderful.

  19. I was interested in your comment that ‘it is Mara who espouses sexist views, not the Buddha’. If one takes the suttas and vinaya as authentic and authoritative Buddhavacana (and it would seem that all the ‘for and against’ arguments about women’s ordination are based on the belief that the vinaya is) then I would be interested to know your opinion about Anguttara Nikaya V, 260 (PTS edition), where the Buddha says that women are as revolting, smelly and dangerous as black snakes, which I think would qualify as extremely sexist. Should we not use textural analysis, an understanding of history and common sense to judge which parts of the Tipitaka are early and late, more authentic and less so?

    • Dear ven,

      thanks for the comments, and the very germane question. for the record, i personally think perhaps 80% of the Suttas should be regarded as fairly authentic, but only perhaps 20% or less of the Vinayas. Ever since Oldenberg in the 1800s, text-critical scholars have been in agreement that the Vinaya is, generally speaking, substantially later than the Suttas. In fact, the style and substance of the Vinayas bears closer comparison to the Abhidhamma than the Suttas; the Parivara, in fact, describes the patimokkha as ‘Vinaya’ and the vibhanga as ‘Abhivinaya’. While there is considerable agreement between the many extant patimokkhas, which, taken together with many other considerations, strongly suggests the patimokkha is early and authentic, the background stories, word-analyses, etc., almost completely disagree between the different versions. I would put the date for the compilation of the bulk of the Vinaya material at between 200-400 AN, with the Pali, on the whole, tending to be a little earlier than most of the other Vinayas.

      Re the infamous Black Snakes suttas, I agree these are highly sexist. Ven Analayo has pointed out that they seem to be a development peculiar to the Pali tradition. Most scholars, in addition, would tend to regard the Anguttara as somewhat late, and more subject to interpolations than some other parts of the canon.

      What is perhaps more surprising is how few such texts are, in comparison with the wealth of outrageous misogyny offered in, for example, some Jatakas and Mahayana sutras. This is another indication that sexist tendencies tended to grow in the later strata of the texts.

  20. Sadhu Bhante for a wonderful exposition, so clearly layed out. Yes, this is the discussion and enquiry that the bhikkhu sangha need to take up, which, to date, they have [for the greater part] been so resistent to. It seems like it will be a long, uphill battle to reach an acceptable outcome, but all great expeditions and history making moments must begin with challenging the status quo and exposing the attachments and dependencies [and neuroses] we’ve become accustomed to. This is honest practice, honest enquiry, working to see where ‘views’ have infiltrated and taken root, and to muster the courage to let-go and move beyond.
    Buddha-dhamma 101, no?

  21. I don’t know why other women persist in the dhamma–it’s not because they are all masochists and/or have poor self-esteem. My relationship with the dhamma feels personal and private– internal and not reliant on anyone’s approval–of course I’ve grown into that over many years. And it’s possible that it’s developed out of necessity. For so many years the response that my femaleness made my proximity inappropriate was very confusing. Finally I realized it was about them, their projection, and had nothing to do with me.

    And as matured, the cognitive dissonance of monks who on the one hand taught that our bodies are not self yet the female was somehow her body became laughable — in a disappointing way. I think there is now a critical mass of mature practitioners who’ve had it with the double speak.

    Jit–the energy that is now pushing for change in the bhikkhu sangha came about because you and many other women (and some men) set the wheels in motion. We owe you a debt of acknowlegement and gratitude. I know it, as do many others.

  22. just wanted to say thanks for lifting the lid Ajahn – and thanks for the discussion everybody – something of a relief to name and place that which is usually silent and displaced.
    Surely the process of Awakening must lead one to inner integrity regards every aspect of relationship and action – and to sensitivity and compassion.
    So therefore – what practice is happening (and how is Awakening / enlightenment understood) that leads to such partial & potentially abusive results?
    The fundamental split between ‘worldly conditions’ and ‘transcendence’ seems to lead to a certain disassociation which closes off a fuller and more integrated Awakening..
    In the Heart Sutra – form is emptiness, emptiness is form – within samsara is nirvana, within male is female..within female is male..
    Perhaps there is not only a need of an ethical, compassionate, psychological challenge to the status quo – but a real inquiry as to how ‘enlightenment’ is ‘held’..

  23. Thank you Thanissera.
    You point out not only the conundrum with how on earth did we get here, but the way forward which is to re-examine some of the basic ways that enlightenment is held in the first place. Through that process, look at what needs challenging in the status quo. For me, the way forward is the crux of the issue at hand. What Ajahn Sujato has said describes misogyny as a deep rooted pattern based in trauma. And I would agree that it is a deep rooted pattern that isn’t attended to easily as much of it is beneath conscious awareness. Since androcentrism and to some extent sexism are endorsed by the way the tradition is commonly held, though not in keeping with the original teachings, and in many places misogyny goes unchallenged it is going to take a reinvestment in first principles of Buddha Dhamma along with fresh eyes to use the tradition in order to get out of the patterns of sexism, androcentrism and misogyny that have been perpetuated within it. I envision a multidisciplinary approach, with people “out” of the soup giving perspective along side those who are committed to being “in” it to see this from fresh eyes and move out of some of these patterns skillfully. What interests me is how to create an inter disciplinary approach to deal with all of this stuff.

  24. Dear Bhante,

    Thanks for taking the time to reply. Your response is very helpful and thought-provoking, especially the suggestion that the Buddhist texts are better read for their existential significance rather than what they might indicate on a psychological level. This seems right to me, especially considering how recent the discipline of psychology is and how old these texts are. And I can see that a psychological interpretation runs the risk of being reductive and offensive, although of course this was not my intention and I’m sorry if this was the effect of my words. It’s helpful to realise how many false paths can tempt one in even the most genuine search for understanding – how easy it is to revert to strategies that are more about trying to control what appears threatening, rather than really creating the conditions for understanding to arise.

  25. May I also say thank you Bhante Sujato for your clear light and strong direction in making Noble change in this beautiful path to enlightenment. :-)

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