Ajahn Brahm: Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women in Theravada Buddhism

On December 1 1955, in Montgomery Alabama, an African-American woman refused to obey a bus driver’s order to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger. That simple act of defiance for the cause of social justice became one of the most important symbols of the modern Civil Rights Movements in the USA. That woman was Rosa Parks. The United States Congress called her “the first lady of civil rights” and “the mother of the freedom movement”. December 1 is commemorated in the US states of California and Ohio as “Rosa Parks Day”.

Rosa Parks became a Buddhist before she passed away in 2005 aged 92. One can speculate that this female icon against discrimination chose Buddhism because it is well suited to advancing social justice issues.

In this paper, I will discuss how Buddhism may advance the particular social justice issue of Millennium Development Goal No. 3: Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women. I will focus on the need for Theravada Buddhism’s current male leadership to clearly demonstrate its own commitment to MDG 3 through acceptance of the bhikkhuni ordination. Only then can it use its considerable influence to make our world more fair, one where people are judged on their character and not on their gender.

Gender Inequality in Australia and the Contributions of Buddhist Leaders

In a report on gender equity issued by the Council of Australian Governments on Tuesday 19 November 2013, the median salary of new female graduates in Australia was found to be 10% less than that of male graduates. Even though they were equally qualified, women received less pay than men. Thus even in a developed country such as Australia, gender inequality still persists. In less developed countries it is far worse.

My colleague, Ajahn Sujato, recently attended the 2013 Religions for Peace World Assembly in Vienna, sponsored by the king of Saudi Arabia. He reported in his blog:

One panel was devoted to the role of women in religion, and that was, predictably, powerful and moving. Rape, domestic violence, trafficking in women, forced prostitution, maternal mortality: these are all-too-painful realities for many women; and meanwhile male-dominated religious morality obsesses about correct doctrine and stopping gays. The suffering of women is rarely featured in religious discourse, and as one of the delegates said, when it is mentioned it is tepid and equivocal. Yet as those working in development know well, empowerment of women is the single most effective means of lifting countries out of poverty.

As Buddhists who espouse the ideal of unconditional loving kindness and respect, judging people on their behavior instead of their birth, we should be well positioned to show leadership on the development of gender equality in the modern world and the consequent reduction of suffering for half the world’s population. Moreover, if Buddhism is to remain relevant and grow, we must address these issues head on. But how can we speak about gender equality when some of our own Theravada Buddhist organizations are gender biased?

In Australia, the Anglican Christian Church represents 17.1% of the population (2011 National Census) and is maintaining its relevance by ordaining female bishops. In May 2008, in Perth, I was invited to attend the ordination of the world’s first female bishop in the Anglican Christian Church, Rev. Kay Goldsworthy. The media response to the recognition of women in the Anglican Church was overwhelmingly positive. Such initiatives shine a damming spotlight on other religions in Australia that still discriminate on the basis of gender. But it shone a positive light on Theravada Buddhism in Perth that has fully ordained nuns.

Unfortunately, other Theravada Buddhist temples and monasteries in Australia and in other parts of the world still adhere to excluding women from full membership of the Sangha. I will later argue that there is no legal basis in the Vinaya, the ancient Buddhist Monastic Code, to deny women full ordination. Moreover, when parts of Theravada Buddhism are generally considered to unreasonably prevent women from full membership of the Sangha, then they have no moral authority to speak on gender equality. They have lost the opportunity to speak for the empowerment of women in other parts of society and advance the Third Millennium Development Goal.

When Mahatma Gandhi was a law student in London, the landlady of his boarding house asked him to have a talk with her son. Her boy was eating too much sugar and would not listen to his mother when she told him to stop. Yet the boy had a fondness for the young Mr. Gandhi. She suggested that if Mr. Gandhi advised her son not to eat so much sugar then he might follow the good advice. A week or two went by and the landlady’s son was still eating lots of sugar. So she took Mr. Gandhi aside and asked him why he had not kept his promise to talk with her son. “But I did talk with your son” Mr. Gandhi replied, “but only this morning.” “So why did you wait so long?” “Because it was only yesterday that I gave up eating sugar”. Such was the reply of the great man.

Religious leaders, above all others, must practice what they preach to be taken seriously and for their advice to be effective.

The Power of Leading by Example

According to the latest figures from Wikipedia, there are between 506 million to 1,146 million Buddhists in our world. Even at the lower estimate that is a significant proportion of the global population. The vast majority of these look to their monks and lamas for inspiration, guidance and moral leadership. Moreover, many of these Buddhists are in undeveloped or developing countries where the empowerment of women is crucial for those countries’ economic development and social progress. In today’s highly connected world, words are not enough. Actions are demanded.

Master Cheng Yen, the female founder of the International Tzu Chi Foundation, is an example of the power of an ordained Buddhist Nun. Ordained in Taiwan in 1962, at a time when women had little influence in social policy, she is now regarded as an icon throughout her homeland as well as internationally. She has built state-of-the-art earthquake-proof hospitals in Taiwan, led the way in encouraging recycling of waste in her country, and established the largest Buddhist Relief Organization in our world. When I visited Tzu Chi Foundation in Taiwan in May 2013, I was shown how discarded plastic bottles were turned into blankets to be sent to natural disaster zones, such as the areas devastated by the recent Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Much of the work was done by retired men and women who gained meaning in their lives together with the considerable emotional and health benefitsthat such a social activity provides. They were enjoying their twilight years instead of wasting away at home. No monk or lama has done anything comparable.

For Buddhism to grow in our modern world, we need to do more than teach meditation, preach inspiring sermons, and make the Sutras available over the internet. We are good at studying, publishing and spreading the word of Buddhism. What we have not been very successful at is showcasing the compassion and selflessness of the Dharma by our actions. We have written many more words in our books than what few kind words we have spoken to the poor, lonely and desperate. We have built so many more temples than orphanages.

Female Leadership in Theravada Buddhist Countries.

Sri Lanka, a majority Theravada Buddhist country, can be proud of having the modern world’s first female Prime Minister, Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike, in 1960. Myanmar would have had its first female head of government in 1990 when Aung San Su Kyi and her NLD party won 59% of the popular vote in the national election, but the election result was not accepted. In 2013, Thailand elected their first female Prime Minister, Yingluk Shinawatara.

This shows that Theravada Buddhist laypeople can accept women in leadership roles. Why, then, can’t the Sangha?

Tradition

Theravada Buddhist monks, generally speaking, are very conservative. They often claim that they are the guardians of “Original Buddhism” from the time of the Lord Buddha Himself. They consider that one of their most important duties is to preserve these precious and authentic early teachings. In this context, what was the tradition in the time of The Lord Buddha with regard to women in the Sangha?

All monks of all traditions in all countries, and all Buddhist lay scholars as well, fully accept that there were fully ordained women, called Bhikkhuni, in the lifetime of the Buddha. Moreover, it is clearly stated in these early teachings that one of the goals of the Lord Buddha’s mission was to give the full ordination to women:

Ananda, once I was staying at Uruvela on the bank of the river Neranjara (present day Bodh Gaya) under the Goatherd’s Banyan tree, when I had just attained supreme enlightenment. And Mara the Evil One had come to me, stood to one side and said “May the Blessed One now attain final Nibbana, may the Sugata now attain final Nibbana. Now is the time for the Blessed Lord’s final Nibbana.”

At this, I said to Mara: “Evil One, I will not take final Nibbana until I have bhikkhus, bhikkhunis, lay men and lay women followers, who are accomplished, trained, skilled, learned, knowers of the Dhamma, trained in conformity with the Dhamma, correctly trained and walking in the path of the Dhamma, who will pass on what they have gained from their Teacher, teach it, declare it, establish it, expound it, analyse it, make it clear, until they shall be able by means of the Dhamma to refute false teachings that have arisen, and teach the Dhamma of wondrous effect.

Mahaparinibbana Sutta DN16.3.34–35

Theravada Buddhists should have an advantage over other major world religions because their tradition explicitly gives such equity to women. Christianity has no tradition of gender equality in their priesthood. Nor does Islam, Judaism or the various schools of Hinduism. Buddhism stands apart and ahead of its time in granting such status to women from “when I (the Lord Buddha) had just attained supreme enlightenment” at Bodh Gaya.

Therefore, full ordination of women is part of the earliest tradition. It is also the declared wish of the Lord Buddha

Obstacles to Gender Equality in the Theravada Sangha

There are two main obstacles to the acceptance of the Bhikkhuni Ordination in Theravada Buddhism: 1) Ignorance about who makes the decisions that govern the Sangha, and 2) Ignorance of the Vinaya, the rules established by the Lord Buddha that restrict what decisions may be made.

1. Many monks in Thailand argue that a ruling from the Sangharaja of Thailand in 1928 bans the ordination of female monks:

Announcement

“It is unallowable for any Bhikkhu to give the Going-Forth to Women.

Any woman who wishes to ordain as a Samaneri, in accordance with the Buddha’s allowances, has to be ordained by a fully ordained Bhikkhuni. The Buddha laid down the rule that only a Bhikkhuni over 12 vassas is eligible to be a Preceptor (pavattini).

The Buddha did not allow for a Bhikkhu to be the preceptor in this ceremony. Unfortunately, the Bhikkhuni lineage has since faded and died out. Since there is no more fully-fledged Bhikkhunis to pass on the lineage, there is henceforth no Samaneris who have obtained a proper ordination from a fully-fledged Bhikkhuni.

Therefore both the Bhikkhuni and Samaneri lineage has died out. So any Bhikkhu who gives the going forth to a woman to become a Samaneri, it can be said that the Bhikkhu is not acting in accordance with the regulations the Buddha laid down. In essence, he is following his own guidelines and diverging from the guidelines that the Buddha laid down. This is something that will jeopardize the Buddhist Religion and is not a good example for other Bhikkhus.

Therefore, all monks and novices in both Nikayas are forbidden to ordain any woman as a Bhikkhuni, Sikkhamana, or Samaneri from this day forth.”

Phra Bancha Somdet Phra Sangharacha Jiao Gromluang Jinawarn Siriwad (18 June 2471)
Official announcement from the Sangha Committee Meeting minutes, Book 16 p. 157.

As well as noting the antiquity of this ruling, it should also be pointed out that the Sangharaja of Thailand, together with the Thai Council of Elders (Mahatherasamakom), are only permitted by their legally binding constitution to rule on matters directly concerning the monks and novices of the main two Thai Buddhist sects, Mahanikaya and Dhammayuttanikaya. They are legally not empowered to rule on the affairs of other monastic groups, such as Chinese Mahayana monks in Thailand, nor on nuns. For those well meaning monks waiting for the Thai Council of Elders to decide on the legitimacy of Theravada Bhikkhunis, they will need to wait forever. The Thai Council of Elders is not legally entitled to rule on matters beyond its remit.

As the Late Somdet Phra Pootajarn, the then acting leader of the Thai Council of Elders, told me in 2009 regarding the question of Bhikkhuni ordination “Thai law does not extend beyond Thailand”. In essence, a Sangha in Thailand cannot rule on the proceedings of a Sangha in Sri Lanka, nor in Australia.

Indeed, the Buddha established that all Sanghakamma (monastic acts), such as the ordination of Bhikkhunis, are to be decided on by the local monastic community, defined as those monks or nuns within the same monastic boundary. Decisions or opinions of other monastic communities are not binding. Governance of the Sangha is devolved to each monastic community. This is the ruling of the Lord Buddha.

2. However, each monastic community is bound to act within the rules called the Vinaya. So are these rules an obstacle to Bhikkhuni Ordination?

The Thai Sangharaja’s 1928 ruling judged that a bhikkhu Sangha cannot give ordination to a bhikkhuni, because one needs other bhikkhunis to ordain a bhikkhuni. This is a moot point. In a recent publication “The Revival of the Bhikkhuni Order and the Decline of the Sasana” by the renowned scholar monk Bhikkhu Analayo (Journal of Buddhist Ethics, Vol. 20, 2013), the author argues that such an ordination is valid. In short, he argues that at first the Lord Buddha gave the bhikkhus authority to ordain bhikkhunis. Later, the Buddha gave authority for bhikkhunis to be ordained by a dual ordination ceremony; first in a Sangha of bhikkhunis and then in a Sangha of bhikkhus.

However, in contrast with the history of the bhikkhu ordination, where one finds that whenever a new ordination is allowed by the Lord Buddha then the previous method is immediately abolished, the original ordination of bhikkhunis by bhikkhus was not abolished by the Lord Buddha.

It is a general principle of Theravada Buddhism “Not to abolish what has been authorized by the Buddha” (one of the seven causes for the longevity of the Buddhist religion, Anguttara Nikaya 7.23, Digha Nikaya 16). This, then, is a strong argument for the legitimacy of ordination of bhikkhunis by bhikkhus alone.

It is generally regarded that the first bhikkhuni ordination of modern times was that which occurred in 1998 in Bodh Gaya. This was a dual ordination performed first by Chinese bhikkhunis following the “Dharmagupta” Vinaya and then by an international Theravada Sangha of bhikkhus. Was this legitimate?

There are four, and only four, ways that an ordination may be judged illegitimate:

  • 1. Simavipatti: when there is a monk or nun within the monastic boundary who should be present but is absent.
  • 2. Parisavipatti: when there is not an adequate quorum.
  • 3. Vatthuvipatti: (for ordinations) when the candidate is disqualified from ordination such as being underage.
  • 4. Kammavacavipatti: when the procedure is chanted incorrectly, e.g. an ordination ceremony being chanted without a motion and three announcements.

In regard to the Bodh Gaya ordination, there is no doubt that:

  • 1. All the monks and nuns within the monastic boundary were present,
  • 3. The candidates were well qualified, and
  • 4. The procedure was chanted correctly.

But was there a quorum? May Mahayana bhikkhunis qualify as a quorum?

There are no reasonable grounds to suspect that the Chinese Mahayana nuns who performed the Bodh Gaya ordination are not legitimate bhikkhunis. The records show that their lineage came from Sri Lanka. Their own ordination procedure does not fail for any of the four reasons given above. They perform the ceremony with all present within a boundary (which they call a “platform”). There is always a quorum. They ensure that the candidate is qualified. And the ceremony is enacted by the same motion and three announcements as in Theravada, albeit chanted in Chinese. They are bhikkhunis according to the Vinaya and so can ordain other bhikkhunis.

But what about a quorum of one sect (Mahayana) ordaining nuns of another sect (Theravada)?

Sects in Buddhism

The different sects of Theravada are called nanasamvasa in the Vinaya. They are separate communities each performing their own acts of governance (sanghakamma), even within the same monastic boundary. The Vinaya states that there are only two origins of separate communities (nanasamvasabhumi):

  1. A monk decides for himself to belong to a community separate from others, or
  2. The Sangha forces a monk out of their community by enacting the severe penalty of Ukkhepaniyakamma by a motion and three announcements.

Vinaya Mahavagga, chapter 10, verse 1.10

The second cause for a separate community is not used these days. This leaves only the first, that of personal choice. Put simply, according to Vinaya, a monk may choose to perform Sanghakamma with any group of monks he feels comfortable with. There is no legal impediment preventing a Theravada bhikkhu from performing a Sanghakamma with a Mahayana bhikksu. Indeed, it may be accurately said that there are no Theravada or Mahayana bhikkhus, there are just bhikkhus, according to the Vinaya, who happen to follow Theravada customs or Mahayana practices. Thus, a monk ordained in a Theravada ceremony may join a Mahayana monastery without needing to be re-ordained.

Thus, according to the Vinaya, Mahayana bhikkhunis may perform the first part of the ordination ceremony for a new bhikkhuni, and then she may take the second part of the dual ordination in a gathering of Theravada bhikkhus. This is what happened in Bodh Gaya. There is no reasonable argument based on the Vinaya to invalidate this. And what sect to those bhikkhunis ordained at Bodh Gaya belong to? They choose!

The Perth Bhikkhuni Ordination in 2009

Once there were Theravada bhikkhunis, it was relatively easy to arrange for the ordination of four women as bhikkhunis in Perth in October 2009. Even though it caused some trouble at the time, the bhikkhunis that were ordained are now recognized by all as bhikkhunis according to the Vinaya. As the old saying goes: “One cannot make an omelette without cracking eggs”.

The Bhikkhuni Sangha is growing. In Perth, the Dhammasara Nuns Monastery currently has 11 members of the Sangha with a waiting list of women from around the world wanting to ordain. Recently, a Thai TV channel visited Dhammasara and interviewed the bhikkhunis. In Thailand there are around 100 bhikkhunis (Murray Hunter, ANU, 2/1/2014) and in Sri Lanka around 800 bhikkhunis (The Sunday Leader, Sri Lanka, 3 March 2013). They may not be respected by all monks but they are becoming ever more respected by the lay Buddhist community, especially in Western countries. The Perth bhikkhunis are giving talks and teaching meditation. They are taking their place in the fourfold assembly of Buddhism as the Lord Buddha wanted. They are getting ample support.

The Need for the Current Leadership of Theravada to Embrace Bhikkhuni Ordination

It may be of interest to Thai monks to know that the Preceptor (pavattini) at the Perth Bhikkhuni ordination, Ayya Tathhaaloka, had visited Ajahn Maha Boowa at Wat Bahn That in Udon before the Perth Bhikkhuni ordination. Ajahn Maha Boowa invited her to stay in the female quarters overnight, and gave her ordination recognition by inviting her up onto the monks’ platform and then addressing her as a bhikkhuni, in front of the Sangha together with the assembled laity.

Many influential leaders in Thailand respect Ajahn Maha Boowa to such an extent that this incident may encourage other senior monks to accept the existence of Theravada bhikkhunis in Thailand. Such acceptance by Buddhist monk leaders will result in greater respect for the status of bhikkhunis among the lay Buddhist followers. Then those women will be empowered to lead in many other areas for the benefit and progress of their nation.

The Relevance of Bhikkhuni Ordination for the Third Millennium Development Goal

In a recently published paper by Emma Tomalin and Caroline Starkey (Sakyadhita newsletter, Winter 2012), the authors explored the role that Buddhism in Thailand and Cambodia plays in maintaining gender disparity in education and, “ultimately ask what is the relationship between the reassertion of women’s traditional ordination rights and female empowerment through education?” They noted that “Several scholars, both Thai and Western, have implicated Buddhism as one explanatory factor for the historical inequality between genders, particularly in the poorest areas.” Also that “Many advocates of the bhikkhuni ordination consider that that there is a direct relationship between the low status of women in many Buddhist traditions and the inferior status of women within Buddhist societies.

Thus, by restoring equity to women in the Theravada Sangha through the reinstating of the bhikkhuni ordination, we will be addressing the inferior status of women in many Theravada countries, promoting gender equity in education and, thereby, making a strong statement in support of the Third UN Millennium Development Goal.

By fixing our own house first, we have the considerable opportunity and moral authority through our books and sermons to inspire and encourage our Buddhist followers to also work towards gender equality in spheres other than religion. That will lead to a world with less violence, better health and more prosperity.

Ajahn Brahm, Perth, January 2014

Gangraped Nepal nun now faces expulsion from nunnery

The Times of India reports a harrowing story of violence and ignorance. Please read it first before coming back to this post.



This story is shocking: for a woman, from a powerless and disadvantaged background, who has chosen to live a life of simplicity in accord with the precepts of her religion, to be so abandoned by those who should be protecting her.

This story is by no means unique. I have heard of such cases many times. The rejection and denial by the Buddhist authorities in such cases only fuels more attacks. The nuns know that if they are raped they will be expelled, so they do not report the attacks, and men come to know that they can rape nuns with impunity.

The Nepalese Buddhist authority says that such cases never came up in the Buddha’s time, and appears to be arguing that one has to be a virgin to be ordained. This is an astonishing level of ignorance – repeatedly refuted in the comments to the article (the blog commenters know more about Buddhism than the authorities…). Half an hour with a Vinaya book would have showed him that rape did in fact occur in the Buddha’s lifetime, and the Buddha was very clear: there is no offence for the victim, and the perpetrator has committed one of the most heinous crimes possible.

But it’s not the factual mistake that is the real worry: it’s the disturbing way that a half-baked allusion to a mythical past somehow acts as a blanket excuse for such unfeeling dismissal. Supposedly ‘Buddhist’ ideas are being used to diminish compassion and justify cruelty.

Rape is no surprise. It is, shamefully, a part of human life everywhere. The incidence of violent crimes against women is horrific, no matter where or when you live. But there are things that can be done about it, starting with identifying that the rapist is the criminal, and he should be punished, not the victim.

It is a long road, and there is no simple solution. As people committed to Buddhism as a spiritual path, we need to recognize the close links between the status of women in the Sangha and the wider picture of violence to women. If the patriarchs of a religion treat women like this, how can they expect to set an example for the rest of society? The outcome of the consistent denial of women’s equality and refusal to recognize the fullness of women’s humanity is all too predictable. Recent figures from the UN reveal that over 60% of men in Thailand think it is sometimes justifiable to beat your wife, a figure that is second worst in the world.

Now Thailand has a female Prime Minister. Yingluck said in an interview that there is equality for women in Thailand; this is true in law, but far from true in practice. Hopefully her presence will do some good.

We need to get over surprise and denial. Rape and violence against women is a sign of a mind that is sick. But such minds do not exist in isolation. They emerge from a culture where women are routinely objectified, denigrated, regarded as lesser – the Tibetan word for woman means ‘inferior birth’.

Denigration of women runs deep in Buddhist culture: it is there in the absence of women’s voices, in the texts that speak of women as ‘black snakes’, in the refusal to allow women ordination, in the persecution of those who speak up about discrimination, in the routine beatings in homes of ‘good Buddhists’, in the abominable trade in sex slaves in Buddhist countries, in the silence of the patriarchs on women’s issues, in the monopolization of resources and information by men, in menstruation and other taboos on women’s bodies, in the meditations on the ‘repulsiveness’ of female bodies, in the patronizing control rules of the garudhammas or Amaravati’s ‘Five Points’, in the inane locker-room talk of Buddhist men, in the routine externalization of male desire projected as emanating from the feminine, in the denigration of concern for women as ‘Western feminism’. And it is there, in its most brutal and pure form, in the gang rape and subsequent rejection of a young nun from the lowest class of society.

Not that this is in any way a ‘Buddhist’ problem. It is a human problem, which finds expression in just about every form of human culture. Western culture demeans and reduces women in its own ways, but until we get our act together we can’t hope to help others.

I’ve been through a slow, uncertain, and sometimes agonizing internal process. I gradually came to recognize how I was participating in the sexism of the Sangha culture I had joined, and started trying to untie it bit by bit, and to do what I can to help others. It is not obvious; it is a corruption deeply embedded in culture and language, and it erupts in feverish emotion whenever the pattern of denial is challenged.

The more I raised the question to consciousness, the more I realized how bizarre it all is. To treat or think of women as in any way ‘evil’ or ‘lesser’ is to regard half of humanity as somehow built wrong. It is as absurd as to criticize the sky for being inadequate, or the earth for being wrong. We need to stop participating in this madness. We need to speak out. We need to stop complying. We need to act.

UPDATE: The Nepal Buddhist Federation, who’s representative is quoted in the article, appears to be a legitimate body which is doing good work in Nepal. If you’d like to help go to their website and leave them a message asking them to reconsider their policy regarding nuns who have been raped. Here’s the message I left:

I am writing concerning the recent article in the Times of India concerning a nun who was gang raped and subsequently expelled from her monastery. A representative of your organization was quoted as saying that a nun who has been raped cannot continue to be a nun. This is not true: the 1st parajika offence for bhikkhus and bhikkhunis is only for consensual intercourse. In addition, it is not a compassionate and helpful attitude, which as you can see from the many comments to the article, has caused a great deal of criticism of Buddhism. I humbly beg you to reconsider your policy and urge that nuns who are the victims of such heinous crimes be accepted and cared for in their communities.

When Ananda was a Woman

Ānanda is well known for his support for bhikkhunis, and his gentle, feminine character, which stands in contrast with the more heroic masculinity of ascetics such as Mahākassapa. His gender was, it seems, problematic for the tradition. The Mahānāradakassapa Jātaka (no. 544, 6.219-255. See also Dhammapada Commentary 1.327.) tells of the time Ānanda was born as the wise and beautiful princess Rujā. Stories of gender change, while known, are rare in Buddhism; and I know of no parallels for this wild story of sexual ambiguity.

Rujā is the faithful and honest Cordelia, who dares to speak the truth to her father the king when he had strayed from the path and there was no-one to show him the dangers of his choices. King Aṅgati ruled the kingdom of Videha from his capital Mithila for many years, until he received evil counsel from an ignorant ascetic. He fell under the view that there was no fruit or result of good or bad deeds, since there was nothing after this life. Accordingly, he neglected his former careful and charitable governance and gave himself over to the pleasures of the senses. No-one could bring him back to the path of righteousness except his only daughter, Rujā, who told her father of her own past lives and her strange kammic inheritance.

I remember seven past lives through which I have fared on, and after passing from here there will be a further seven.

In my seventh previous life I was born as the son of a smith in the city of Rājagaha in Magadha. I had a bad friend and did much evil. We went about sleeping with other men’s wives as if we were immortals. These actions remained laid up as fire covered with ashes.

By means of other kammas I was born in the land of Vaṁsa in a wealthy family of Kosambi, great and prosperous with much riches. I was their only son, and was always honored. There I followed a friend who was devoted to good works, wise and learned, and he established me in good purpose. On many nights I observed the 14th and 15th day uposatha. Those good kammas remained like a treasure hidden in water.

But the fruit of the evil deeds I had done in Magadha came around afterwards like a noxious poison.
From there, O king, I passed to the Roruva hell for a long time, where I was tormented by my kamma: when I think of it I cannot be happy. After experiencing wretched suffering there for many years I was born as a castrated goat in Bheṇṇākata. I carried the sons of the wealthy on my back and in a carriage; this was the specific result of the kamma of going after other men’s wives.

After that I took rebirth in the womb of a monkey in the wilds. On the day of my birth they took me to the leader of the herd, who cried out, ‘Bring my son!’ Grabbing me with force, he ripped off my testicles with his teeth, despite all my cries. Then I was born as a castrated ox among the Dasaṇṇas; though swift and fair, for a long time I pulled a carriage. Next I was born among the Vajjians, but was neither men nor woman, even though born in this human state, so hard to attain. All of these births were the result of my going after other men’s wives.

Then I was born as a gorgeous nymph in the Nandana Grove in Tāvatiṁsa heaven, adorned in bright colors and flashing jewels, singing and dancing in attendance on Sakka. While I was there I remembered the seven previous births, as well as the next seven. The former good deeds I did while at Kosambi have come around in their turn, and from now I will only be born as a human or deity. For seven births I shall be honored, but not until the sixth will I be free of my female gender. At that time I will be born as a supreme male deity in heaven.

In identifying Ānanda with this complex tale of moral ambiguity and gender transgression, the Buddhist tradition records its uncomfortable acceptance of the liberal tendencies that Ānanda demonstrated. The basic character is powerful and brave: she stands beside her father when all others had failed, just as Ānanda stood by the Buddha when he was attacked by the drunk elephant Nāḷāgiri, while all the arahants fled. Standing up to the patriarchy she is, or could be, a great female role model. This is undermined by her identification with Ānanda, and more so due to the dubious gender ambiguity of her past. She is not, it seems, standing up because of her true ‘feminine’ strength, but because she is, quite literally, a man trapped in a woman’s body. Her crime – or rather, the crime of the man who she once was – was adultery; that is, transgressing on another man’s property. The role of the women in the relationship is not considered.

The specific nature of the kammic reprisal is interesting: adultery is punished by gender confusion. It seems the point is that he in some way destroyed or attacked the masculinity of the husbands, which is established by their rule and control over their wives. If the women stray, this sends the message that the husband is not man enough for them. The transgressor is, accordingly, punished by having his genitals attacked, ripped off, missing, or replaced by female genitals. The severity of the punishment is gradually attenuated, until with the ripening of good kamma he takes a positive female form where he can be happy. The image of what constitutes a good female life is entirely a product of the male gaze: a happy woman, he assumes, is sexy and beautiful, dancing and singing for his pleasure. This text, unlike the early Suttas, takes it for granted that the male form is desirable and normative.

Rujā’s eloquent and moving testimony, however, is not enough to persuade her father, for as the text says, ‘while parents naturally love their children’s words, they do not thereby give up their old opinions.’ She did not give up, but made worship to the deities and begged for divine help. No less a being than the Bodhisatta in the form of a Great Brahmā answered her call. He appeared to the king in the form of an ascetic and engaged in a debate on virtue and its results.

The king, wittily enough, challenged the ascetic, saying, ‘If you are so convinced of the truth of the next life, how about you lend me $500 now, and I’ll pay you back $1000 in the next life!’ This incipient Marxist critique, however was refuted, as the ascetic said that no wise man makes a loan to an unreliable person – thus showing that ethics are just as relevant to our prosperity in this life as the beyond.

Reason was not enough, however, for this obdurate king, so the ascetic used his psychic powers to show him in detail the horrors of hells, seeing which the king broke down and begged for redemption. Thus Rujā’s quest was successful in the end, but she needed the help of the ultimate patriarchal authority to succeed.

Is this Sutta true?

Here’s one of the most notorious Suttas from the Aṅguttara Nikāya (AN 5.230).

Monks, there are these five dangers of a black snake. What five? It is aggressive, bears grudges, has terrible poison, is fork-tongued, and betrays friends.

Just so, monks, there are five dangers of a woman. What five? She is aggressive, bears grudges, has terrible poison, is fork-tongued, and betrays friends. Herein, monks, a woman’s terrible poison is this – generally, a woman has keen lust. A woman’s forked tongue is this – generally, a woman uses back-biting speech. A woman’s betrayal of friends is this – generally, a woman commits adultery.

And no, I don’t think this was really spoken by the Buddha. Deal with it.

What I’m interested in is to subject this text to the same elementary standard that the Buddha himself insisted on, and that we would apply to any other truth claims: does it stack up against the evidence? I assume it doesn’t, but I’d like to see the proof. Does anyone know of any objective, empirically based psychological studies that statistically examine possible gender differences between men and women in these traits?

Obviously, such psychological traits are heavily conditioned by culture, and it is impossible for us to do empirical research in the context the Sutta was formed. But by examining – and hopefully critiquing – these claims in contemporary cultures, we can at least challenge their universality.

Here’s a few studies to get us started.

In the case of aggression, gender differences are well known, although these refer more to aggressive behavior than aggressive psychological tendencies, which is what the word kodha in the above Sutta means.

In adultery, studies consistently show a greater incidence among men than women.

As far as bearing grudges goes, I haven’t found any studies, but in this discussion thread men and women share their experiences, and it seems pretty much balanced: both men and women sometimes have problems bearing grudges, sometimes not.

As for sexual desire, this study claims that: “All the evidence we have reviewed points toward the conclusion that men desire sex more than women… We did not find a single study, on any of nearly a dozen different measures, that found women had a stronger sex drive than men.”

Regarding backbiting, or negative gossip generally, this article (while the overall tenor is to criticize gender-based conclusions) cites an article with at least some gender-based differences – women tend to gossip more, although there is little difference in the ethical quality of the gossip; while this article suggests that men and women gossip around the same amount.

Over to you. Remember the rules of the game: referenced, empirical studies please, not anecdotes or opinions. (They are welcome in other posts, though!)