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!)