Nuns and Rape

There has been an international response to the horrific gang rape of a nun in Nepal as I reported earlier. It is terrible that it takes such an extreme case to draw attention to what has been an ongoing problem for many years. Nevertheless it’s good that something is finally happening. A new article suggests that the Nepalese authorities have finally offered to provide her with free medical care. There has been significant international interest in pursuing this case, and I will keep you up to date.

Here is an article I wrote a number of years ago in response to this issue. It is a revised portion of Chapter 4 of the book Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies (Santipada).


In some countries, such as India, nuns have been raped and subsequently forced or encouraged to disrobe, being told that they have broken the basic precept for their celibate life (pārājika 1), and can no longer continue to live as a nun. This has caused a tremendous degree of distress and trauma, and moreover creates a climate where nuns fear to report any attacks, which can further encourage would-be rapists. But the Vinaya is not so cruel, and deals with rape in a compassionate way, allowing the nun, who is the victim not the perpetrator, to continue her spiritual path.

The position of the Vinayas on this point is quite straightforward, so we will simply present some relevant Vinaya passages from the Vinayas of the three main traditions: the Pali Vinaya of the Theravada; the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya as observed in the Chinese and related Mahayana traditions; and the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya as observed in the Tibetan Vajrayāna tradition.

Theravāda

The Pali version of bhikkhuni pārājika 1 specifies that a bhikkhuni only falls into an offense if she acts willingly. This is confirmed by actual examples in the Pali Vinaya where a bhikkhuni is raped:

Now on that occasion a certain student was infatuated with the bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā. And then that student, while bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā had entered the town for alms, entered her hut and sat down concealed. Bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā, returning from alms-round after her meal, washed her feet, entered the hut, and sat down on the couch. And then that student grabbed bhikkhuni Uppalavaṇṇā and raped her. Uppalavaṇṇā bhikkhuni told the other bhikkhunis about this. The bhikkhunis told the bhikkhus about it. The bhikkhus told the Buddha about it. [The Buddha said:] ‘There is no offense, bhikkhus, since she did not consent’.1

Similarly, there are other cases of bhikkhunis who are raped, and in no instance is any offense or blame imputed to the bhikkhuni.2 This is entirely consistent with the application of the rule for bhikkhus, since whenever a bhikkhu had sexual intercourse or oral sex without his consent he was excused by the Buddha.3 Indeed, there is a series of cases where bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, sikkhamānas, sāmaṇeras, and sāmaṇerīs are abducted by Licchavī youths and forced to have sex with each other. In each case, if there is no consent there is no offense.4 This understanding is maintained in the Pali commentarial tradition.5

Dharmaguptaka

Unlike the Pali, the rule itself does not specify that the bhikkhuni is acting out of lust. However, this factor is found in the rule analysis, which specifies that a bhikkhuni must consent to penetration with sexual desire.6 Further, she must experience pleasure at the time of entering, remaining, or leaving in order for there to be an offense.7 This is made clear in the non-offense clause:

There is no offense if while asleep she does not know; if there is no pleasure; in all cases where there is no lustful thought.8

Mūlasarvāstivāda

Like the Dharmaguptaka, there is no specific mention of ‘desire’ in the rule formulation itself. But again the rule explanation makes the point clear.

If she is forced, then if she does not feel pleasure in the three times [i.e., when entering, staying, or leaving] there is no offense. The offender is to be expelled.9

This quote comes from the Chinese translation of the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya. I can’t read Tibetan, so I can’t confirm that the same passage is found in the Tibetan version, which is the normative Vinaya for the central Asian traditions. However, given how consistent the traditions are in this, as in all major points of Vinaya, there is no reason to think the Tibetan text is any different.

Who is to blame?

As suggested by the last case mentioned in the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya, in the case of rape, it is the rapist, not the victim, who is to blame. The Vinaya attitude towards rape of a bhikkhuni is uncompromising. A man who rapes a bhikkhuni cannot ever be ordained, and if they are ordained by mistake, they must be expelled.10 Similarly, a novice who rapes a nun must be expelled.11 The treatment of a rapist of bhikkhunis is treated in the same way as one who commits one of the 5 ānantarika acts (murdering one’s mother or father or an arahant, wounding a Buddha, and maliciously causing schism in the Sangha). Thus the rape of a bhikkhuni is regarded as one of the most heinous possible acts, with dreadful practical and kammic repercussions on the offender. When Uppalavaṇṇā was raped, the commentary tells us that the earth, unable to bear the weight of that evil, split in two and swallowed up the rapist, who immediately fell into hell. Never is the slightest blame attached to the victim of the rape.

The position of the Vinayas is thus clear and unanimous: there is no offense for a nun who is raped, and the blame must lie with the rapist. A nun, whose life is devoted to celibacy and non-violence, will feel shattered and deeply traumatized by rape. At that time she needs support from her friends and teachers in the holy life. As in all the Vinaya cases mentioned above, she need feel no shame or blame in talking about the rape honestly and openly with other nuns, and if need be, with monks as well. The friends and teachers of the victim need to extend the greatest possible compassion and support. They must clearly and consistently reassure the victim that she has done nothing wrong and has not in any way broken her precepts. It is important that the police are told about the rape, so they can try to prevent similar crimes in the future. The Sangha should investigate whether there is any ongoing danger to nuns in that situation, and should take steps to ensure their protection and safety.


1Pali Vinaya 3.35: ‘anāpatti, bhikkhave, asādiyantiyā’ti. NOTE: references to the Pali Vinaya are to the volume and page number of the PTS edition of the Pali text. References to the Chinese Vinayas are to the Taisho edition.

2Pali Vinaya 2.278, 2.280

3E.g. Pali Vinaya 3.36, 3.38, etc.

4Pali Vinaya 3.39

5E.g. Dvemātikapāḷī: chande pana asati balakkārena padhaṁsitāya anāpatti. (When there is no consent, but she is taken with force, there is no offence.)

6T22, no. 1428, p. 714, b5-6 : 比丘尼有婬心。捉人男根。著三處大小便道及口

7T22, no. 1428, p. 714, b12 ff.

8T22, no. 1428, p. 714, c7-9 : 不犯者。眠無所覺知不受樂一切無欲心

9T23, no. 1443, p. 914, b12: 若被逼者三時不樂無犯。逼他者滅擯

10Pali Vinaya 1.89

11Pali Vinaya 1.85

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21 thoughts on “Nuns and Rape

  1. Some rape victims involuntarily have their body respond even though they don’t want to. That is not their fault. Yet these rules sound like they would expel a nun if she unwillingly experienced any physical arousal during a rape, and it also means that someone would have had to ask her to disclose that. It can be very stressful for a rape victim to deal with a situation where their body involuntarily became aroused even though they were being raped, and a rule that condemns them by ousting them from the monastic life would seem to compound the confusion, self-blame, and the mistaken belief that they had somehow done something wrong. Essentially what it does is blame the woman if she experienced involuntary arousal, implying that such an experience was in her control when it wasn’t. Nothing that happens during a rape is the victim’s fault, and the rules should have been unqualified in this regard. Instead there seems to be this clause that if at any point it accidentally felt good against her will, and they even specify three stages to make it clear that this is at any point, then she is not considered blameless. Is there a rule that a man can’t have accidentally felt pleasure during a rape in order to remain in the order? I realize that the people writing these rules were men, and would not have known that women’s bodies can become involuntarily aroused, but they would have known their own bodies could do so, so why would they assume it wasn’t even possible for women, and kick women out of the order for it? I would appreciate any clarification someone could offer on this because it is putting me off Buddhism to think that one of the worst sources of self-shame for a rape victim would also be used to qualify whether a rape would condemn her to expulsion from her order.

    • Dear Rhiannon,

      Thanks for raising this point. You have put your finger on a very relevant point. Consent and pleasure are of course different things – if I’m on a diet and forced to eat chocolate cake at gunpoint, I’ll probably still enjoy the taste even if I really don’t want to. I believe that similar reactions can happen for men, too: involuntary erections in a rape situation.

      One problem is that the language is sometimes ambiguous. I have no doubt that the intent of the original rule as phrased for bhikkhunis is that she must give her consent for the intercourse to be considered an offence. Generally, the rules are similar for monks and nuns, and I believe the same basic principle falls for monks as well.

      In such a delicate and complex situation, however, there is much room for variation and interpretation. Given the difficulties we have with these issues even today, we should extend a little generosity to our ancient scriptures, and not insist that they accomplish perfectly what our legal systems are still unable to do.

      The biggest problem is not the root text, but the way this has been interpreted and applied. There is no doubt that the policy in many Buddhist traditions has been quite unacceptable, and the nun is seen as being to blame, and is punished.

      This situation, as usual, is far better in places that have full ordination, with educated, confident, independent nuns. One of the ironies is that the possibility of rape is used as argument against full ordination, when the reality is that it will help prevent rape by empowering women.

      While it is always a struggle to reconcile an ancient tradition like Buddhism with our modern ideals, the best way to improve things is to look to the fundamental teachings. Almost always these offer a wonderful basis for a wise, compassionate policy.

    • With the thing about feeling pleasure at any point during the deed, I was reminded of a similar but different thing in the Bhikkhus rules for passive contact in Sanghadisesa 2 (lustful touching). I’ll quote from BMC1:

      The bhikkhu’s aim. The Vibhaṅga lists only two possibilities here: the desire to partake (of the contact) and the desire to escape (§). The Sub-commentary explains the first as desiring the pleasurable feeling of contact. It also states that if, in the course of receiving contact, one’s motives change from desiring contact to desiring escape, the second motive is what counts.

      Of course commentators are free to say what they like, and they certainly exercise that freedom. Thus caution should be taken in taking commentaries – including the vibhanga – as authoritative.

      The actual experience of pleasure, is only one aspect of the offence. The offence can be mitigated for other reasons even if she experiences some pleasure, even in fact, if she consents in a limited sense.
      For example, the vinaya only applies to actions taken in relatively normal mental states. The vinaya does not apply to choices and actions taken while the mind is overwhelmed with pain, or while insane. It would be reasonable to say, that if a person is severely intimidated, to the point of emotionally breaking down, then they would no longer count as having a relatively normal mental state, and the vinaya would cease to apply. Thus for many extreme examples (involving kidnapping, extreme forms of duress, etc), the correct thing to do would be to declare no offence on the basis of “freaked out” state of mind. This of course does not apply if someone actually manages to maintain their cool despite the extreme circumstances, but such a person should be able to stay free of offence through that same restraint.

      • I’m glad that the “offense” can be mitigated even she consents in a limited sense, and I just noticed that in the original post in one version of the vinaya only consent with desire counts as consent, which might also offer some comfort to non-nun victims of the kind of rape where the guy talked her into it, possibly under the influence of drugs or alcohol, which is often not even recognized as the rape that it is in modern society, causing a lot of confusion and sometimes social stigma for survivors. (Buddhism also offers comfort to such survivors in the precepts for laypeople, in that it recognizes as immoral any sexual activity that causes suffering to another person.)

        And it’s good that mental state is a factor and, that, at least for men there is an understanding in some texts consent can be revoked. But I’m still a little concerned that someone made rules making any possibility of an offence on the victim’s part in a rape situation. I know it’s just one commentary but it’s just so specific, with the three points, that it just sounds someone would actually be asking a victim this, and it sounds like it would only reinforce the guilt feelings of any victim who accidentally felt pleasure at any of those points, and even go so far as to punish her for something she couldn’t help, when she would already be horrified that it had happened. Regardless of her mental state this would be a physical reaction. I guess I just have to chalk this up to human error- the commentator who wrote that and anyone who contributed to that thinking or agreed with made a misogynistic mistake. It’s very unfortunate the repercussions that mistake might have or have had on rape victims in whichever order that particular applied to. While Buddhism might have been enough to help the nun get through being treated that way after a rape, being ousted for something someone else did to her, something totally out of her control, in the name of Buddhism, might mean that she would be left to recover from a horrible event not only with no place to live, but also without feeling that she has any true refuge in her religion. I know that in one sense Buddhism teaches that everything is impermanent and unreliable, but the three jewels are supposed to be the refuge. I don’t know, I know it’s just one commentary but I just can’t help thinking about the real people it might have affected, and being concerned the very real atmosphere and attitude that produced such a commentary and what other effects that atmosphere might have had…

      • Hi Rhiannon,

        Thanks for the comments. It’s so important to keep asking questions and keeping the basis of compassion at the fore. All the scenarios you point to, and more, for how a rape victim can suffer are real, and I know of examples of all of these. There is no automatic arising of compassion and wisdom just because you’re a Buddhist, or just because you’re a monastic. And, the thing that seems hardest to really grok, it is very possible, and even quite normal, for people who are in some ways very wise and peaceful, to have blind spots that completely block them off from a compassionate response. We compartmentalize, and that applies to our Buddhist compassion too. No it shouldn’t be, but it all too obviously is. So every voice that speaks up and doesn’t stay transfixed by the semblances of religiosity is, in my book, a voice of Dhamma…

      • You’re right of course. And we do need to make an effort to make the sangha a more understanding and compassionate place. Sometimes this actually means going back to the basics of the dhamma and vinaya (ie correctly applying these principles, rather than doing so in a misguided way).

        The way that whether an offence is committed in vinaya generally relies on three factors: Intention, effort and result. For example, usually intention by itself is no offense. Intention+effort, is a light offence. Intention+effort+result is the full offence. But if there is no intention, there is no offense, regardless of result. So here we call sexual intercourse the “result”, and the question for whether or not there is an offence rests mainly on whether there was intention and effort to achieve that result. But do note that in vinaya, the offence still often occurs even if one changes one mind between the intention and effort, and the result, if the result is still caused by the intention and effort. For example, under Parajika 3 for murder, if a Bhikkhu intends to murder someone, sets in motion a plan which will cause their death, but then feels remorseful and tries to stop the plan, but fails, and the victim dies, the bhikkhu still commits parajika, because there was intention, effort and result caused by that effort. Thus if a monk or nun, intends to have sex, makes an effort to have sex, is overwhelmed by shame at the last moment and tries to stop, but the partner wont accept this and forces themselves onto the monk or nun, resulting in penetration, it’s still a full offense according to vinaya. That’s the only case in vinaya where a nun would be parajika when “raped”, that is when she actually intended to have sex, actually made an effort towards having sex, changed her mind, but her earlier intention and effort still results in sex. For a nun I think this is completely fair because nun’s shouldn’t be shopping around for guys in the first place (and it’s exactly the same for the monks).
        But if there was no intention, no effort, then there can be no offense. Likewise, if there was intention, was effort, but it was under a severely abnormal mind state, there is also no offense. The vinaya is silent on the matter of self-inflicted altered mind states, if a nun took powerful mind-altering drugs, and had sex while under the influence, she’d probably be let off according to vinaya – even if she intentionally took the drugs, unless she took the drugs with the specific intention of trying to exploit the “insanity loophole” and indulge in sex, in which case intention, effort and result would all be there. The fact that the result happens while insane or unconscious doesn’t actually matter if the intention and effort occurred while in a sane state of mind (in fact whether you enjoy the result or how you feel about it is generally entirely irrelevant, the question is, did you intentionally cause it to happen).

        The “intention, effort, result” paradigm, is generally the best analysis to use. Most of the time this will be enough to make it very clear whether or not a vinaya offense occurred and there’s not much need to go into all the details of the vibhanga (but it’s also just as much a mistake to use a more simplistic analysis!)

        Cross-examination is sometimes prescribed in vinaya, but only for cases where the monk or nun seems to be being deliberately evasive. It is not prescribed for honest monks or nuns who are doing their best to honestly describe what happened. It’s also not prescribed for monks or nuns who are emotionally weak and unable to bear the stress of cross-examination – even if they really are guilty – the prescription in that case is to go easy on them in the hope that their faith and trust in the sangha improves/recovers.

        Nandiya.

      • Dear All,

        Ven. Nandiya, you say:

        Thus if a monk or nun, intends to have sex, makes an effort to have sex, is overwhelmed by shame at the last moment and tries to stop, but the partner wont accept this and forces themselves onto the monk or nun, resulting in penetration, it’s still a full offense according to vinaya.

        I think this is incorrect. The act has to be directly connected to the intention. In this case, since the intention changes, there is no such connection, and there would be no offence. Being forced can never be the basis for an offence.

        Bhikkhu Brahmali

      • Bhante Brahmali,

        Thank you for your reply, but I still think I’m right, in that when a result is substantially caused by the prior intention and effort, a person can be (and generally is) still held accountable even if they changed their mind.

        To be specific the general case I’m talking about is “getting what you wanted, when you no longer want it”, this is not that hard to do for someone who is struggling to be virtuous but is still overwhelmed by defilements. And the case is recognized personally by the individual who recognises “This is what I wanted, this is what I struggled and exerted myself for” and they are also aware “I no longer want this”, it can be a truly mortifying experience to get what you wanted, when you have already realized it was the dumbest possible thing to want, but are powerless to stop because the situation has gone out of your control. But it would seem that neither the regret, nor the fact that the situation has gone out of your control, would obviate the offense nor the need for accountability.

        This would seem compatible with certain cases of parajika 2 and 3 where the result follows some time after the effort. For example if a monk intent on murder poisons someone, but then feels intensely remorseful, confesses what he did, and even tries to nurse the victim back to health – but the victim still dies due to the poison – the monk would still be parajika. Whatever the monk thinks and feels during that time when the situation is out of his control, is irrelevant to the offense, what matters is what he did when it was under his control, and in particular it’s the mind state at the time of the effort that counts, not the mind state at the time of the result.

        Hence I think that nun’s parajika 5 and 8 are defining accountability for a nun, at the stage when she still has control over the situation, what happens afterwards, at the point where she’s basically lost control to the man, is irrelevant for the offense – the rule formulations don’t say that in so many words, they say that in no words at all.

      • Dear Ven. Nandiya,

        You are quite right that if you set something in motion and then change your mind, but you’re are unable to stop it, you incur a parajika. For example, under parajika 2, if you incite someone to steal, but then you have remorse and you are unable to contact the person before the theft happens, you are parajika. However, there is an exception to this general principle. If you have incited someone to steal and you are able to contact them before the theft happens and tell them not to do it, but they still go ahead, then you do not commit an offence – no matter how short the time period prior to the theft. I hold the same applies for bhikkhu parajikas 1 and 3, and by extension the bhikkhuni parajikas.

        Ajahn Brahmali

    • What Rhiannon is raising is an essential point in our analysis. Rape is not sexual intercourse. If we do not understand this, then we must be graphic: thrusting a foreign object into another person’s body against their will is an act of violence and not of sex. Just because it is the sex organ that among other things gets thrust into a child’s mouth, anus or a woman’s vagina, does not make it an act of a sexual nature. It is an act of violence and a violation of a person’s body, both material and sacred. The act of forcing an object into a woman’s or a child’s internal spaces serves to rip tissue, cause superficial and internal bleeding, pummels internal organs and causes hermorrhaging of internal organs. It exposes them to fatal disease like HIV, syphilis, and even in their absence, severe bacterial infections and fatal sepsis in the internal organs and incontinence for the rest of their lives. Please do not confuse rape with sexual intercourse. If this is too graphic, please remove it. But sometimes people are too far removed from the reality of these things to analyse them effectively. If we are that far from reality it is time to remove the veil. _/\_

      • - by extension, to get caught in the pedantics of whether arousal occurred during the rape is not of use to anyone – I am sorry to say, it rather reinforces the harmful myth that women wish for violence to be done to them. Rape does not induce arousal, it is one of the most horrific violations of one’s physical and spiritual spaces and is usually followed by the double punishment of the woman (or man or child) by society- after her violation, resulting physical pain, dysfunction and illness, she gets rejected by her husband, family and community, robbed of her source of survival, and in several countries she gets murdered by her own family to spare their “honour”. We have to remember that our discussion here was prompted by a gang rape of a nun. And penetration while someone is unconscious or drugged is not legally considered consensual. People are considered to do things consensually when their bodies are in a position to respond. Here we see how “consent” can be open to all kinds of cultural interpretation, even in our own educated, less-discriminting societies.

  2. I think this is her karma, just try to help her recover, the victim will understand it…

    May Buddha’s teaching help her to overcome all of this …..

  3. Hi karuna,

    Actually maybe they should turn what you have said into an add for TV, like they do with smoking.

    Honestly if they can put adds advertising help for erections, tampons, on prime time “telly” while the happy family is suppose to be watching TV (trying not to cringe I would imagine, wouldn’t have happened when the Waltons was on I can assure you!) – I hardly think anything describing the realities of rape and the consequences could be too graphic., anyway if it is the truth why gloss over it.

    No definately would make a good add I think!

  4. Hi Bhante, are you aware of the White Ribbon campaign, an Australian movement by men to stop men’s violence against women? White Ribbon Day, aka International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, is tomorrow, 25 November. You and any other concerned men reading this might want to get involved, and encourage others to, also. Here’s the website for more info: http://www.whiteribbon.org.au/

  5. Dear Bhante & All,

    A question came to mind earlier….and I thought that perhaps this to be a good avenue to ask.

    The First Council consisted of 500 Arahants and after discussion pertaining to The Buddha’s allowance to forego minor Vinaya rules, they could not come to consensus over what should be taken out and what would remain. As such, all the rules were kept.

    If this council consisted of 500 enlightened beings, how is it that they weren’t enlightened enough to agree on such a matter? I would have thought that the attainment of Arahantship will grant the sufficient wisdom for these 500 venerables to be on the same page and to have direct insight into the important (and non-important) aspects of the Dhamma-Vinaya

    Metta,

    Sam

  6. Dear Bhante,
    just as an annotation, you are right in your assumption with respect to the Mulasarvastivada Lineage. Indeed if a nun was raped and she didn’t experience pleasure, there is no fault.

    Though not in a scholastic manner but in the meaning the rule is explained here:
    http://www.lamayeshe.com/index.php?sect=article&id=265

    »RAPE

    A nun had been raped, and sought guidance on the matter and regarding her vows from Rinpoche. Rinpoche sent the following reply.

    Since it was rape, the intercourse that happened was not your choice. It was force, like a torture. The other thing is that since you didn’t enjoy it, you didn’t experience pleasure. So, you have not broken the root vow.

    To break the vow, the goal should be pleasure and one should have the experience of that pleasure. That would complete the goal and break the root vow.

    There is detailed information available defining what entails a total loss of root vows. …«

    • Dear Tenpel,

      Thanks for this feedback.

      It is interesting that Lama Yeshe distinguishes between the goal to have pleasure and the experience of pleasure, and both must be present to break the vow.

      According to the Pali Vinaya, so far as I understand it, the issue is not pleasure at all, but the intention to have intercourse. People can have intercourse for many reasons which may have nothing to do with pleasure, such as begetting children (which was in fact the initial cause of laying down the rule), or to appease a spouse, or to win influence, and so on. But as long as the intention is to have intercourse then this can be grounds for a parajika offence.

      So the issue here is not pleasure, but consent (in Pali, chanda). I know that the question of pleasure arises in some of the Vinayas. This seems to me to be a later development, although I don’t know of a detailed study of the question.

      In any case, Lama Yeshe’s response makes it clear that without consent there is no offence.

      Incidentally, for our Australian readers, there is a certain awkwardness in using the phrase “root vow” in this context…

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