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.
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 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.
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 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’.