The Irrational Desires of Women

When we listen to monks discussing the ‘problem’ of bhikkhunis, or indeed any nuns, one notion that keeps popping up is that they want stuff. The nuns are always asking for things, pushing the boundaries. They’ll never be satisfied.

Being a bit of a history buff, I have been intrigued at how such ideas come about, how they take hold of a culture, and how they have manifested in different places and times. And there is no doubt that the trope of a woman’s desires has been a powerful idea through time and place.

‘What does a woman want’: the question that Freud could never answer. Every man tries to guess it, but we seem to constantly misfire.

Post-canonical Buddhist literature is replete with passages on the insatiable sexual lust of women. The Kunala Jataka warns:

All rivers are meandering; all forest contain wood
All women do evil when there is a safe opportunity

If there is a suitable time or secret or safe place, all women will do evil,
even with a cripple, if they can find no other man.

Fed on such fare for hundreds of years, is it any wonder that Buddhist monastic culture still struggles with images of women?

In Buddhist literature, women are the perpetual ‘other’, the only gender, for masculinity is the norm. Their bodies are objectified and subject to the male gaze; and in that male gaze the woman’s body itself turns from beauty to rot. It is vanishingly difficult to find cases where women find dispassion from seeing a vainly deceptive male body. In fact, the woman’s body is objectified for the woman just as much as for the man.

A story in one of the Chinese Dhammapadas (T 211) tells of the beautiful Padma, who was vainly in love with her own appearance. She wished to become a bhikkhuni, but abandoned her plan when she saw her own beauty reflected in the still water of a forest pool. An Indian Narcissus, beguiled by the illusion of form. The Buddha created an even more beautiful woman with his psychic powers who befriended Padma. The mind made form then decayed: ‘Her belly burst and worms came out.’ Padma realized disenchantment and went forth.

Thus it is not merely for men that a woman’s body is objectified, but even for a woman. This story reveals the extent that patriarchal ways of seeing condition women’s responses to their own femininity.

This kind of treatment of women’s bodies became standard in the later Buddhist literature. The early suttas do not objectify in this way, but teach us to contemplate ‘this very body’ (imam’eva kayo), reflecting that ‘this body is of the same nature’ (bhava, dhamma) as that of a rotting, non-gendered corpse that is imagined in meditation.

The overriding tendency to locate desire in the objectively depicted woman’s body is, to my mind, an indication of a profound shift in the mental approach of Buddhists, especially Buddhist monks. The woman now becomes responsible for a man’s defilements. He can safely project his own desires on to her, knowing that he has control of the cultural instruments that ensure she cannot answer back – at least not in an ‘authorized’ manner.

The notion of woman as full of insatiable sexual lust is common in patriarchal narrative. The blind seer Tiresias was one of the few individuals blessed with the peculiar gift of spending part of his life as a man, and part as a woman. (It’s complicated) One day Zeus and Hera argued over the important question of who has more pleasure in sex: the man, as Hera claimed; or, as Zeus claimed, the woman. They called on Tiresias, replied “Of ten parts a man enjoys one only.” Hera instantly struck him blind for his impiety.

In arguing this question, Zeus and Hera agree on that excessive pleasure is unwanted; they both want to minimize the importance of sex for them, and to impute their own desires to the other gender. In this they are the same; but Hera loses, since Tiresias speaks on behalf of the patriarchy. When men control the dialogue, it is woman’s desires that become the problem.

For me, perhaps the most profound reflection on this is a series of Jataka stories that revolve around a woman’s insatiable, irrational wish. For this, a special Pali word is used, dohala (dur-hadaya), which is used in no other context. The woman decides she wants something; she lies down and says she will not move until she gets it or dies. The man then embarks, without argument, on a dangerous adventure to obtain her wishes. Often enough, he fails. But when he succeeds, the result is quite unexpected: an amnesty is declared, the beasts are freed, the people are happy and the land is full of abundance. In these stories we see the woman’s desires in their connection with the power of creation. The desire that seems, from a limited perspective, to be selfish and irrational proves to be the greatest power of good, in tune with the forces of life itself. I won’t go into this in detail, but here‘s a talk I gave on the topic.

More prosaically, there’s a Sutta where the Buddha asks the question, ‘What does a woman want?’ (I can’t find the reference right now, can anyone help?) The answer: Sovereignty (issariya). It is not quite clear what this means exactly; but I think it means in practice that a husband should grant his wife responsibility and trust, especially in looking after the affairs of the household.

There is a remarkable parallel in the weird quest of Sir Gawain (told in Heinrich Zimmer, The King and the Corpse, pp. 88-95). King Arthur was forced, on pain of death, to find the answer to a most puzzling riddle: What is it that a woman desires most in all the world? He spent a year wandering the land, asking all, and learning what he could from every person. As the year grew to a close, he was still uneasy as he did not think he had found the right answer. He met a woman: the most ugly hag in the world, with snotty nose and hairy mouth, and yellow teeth like boar’s tusks sticking out over her lips, one going up, one down. She promised him the answer, if only she could marry the dazzling young knight, Sir Gawain. After suitably drawn-out complications, the deal was done; the other answers proved fruitless, and the king was spared his life when the hag’s answer was revealed: What we woman desire above all else is sovereignty.

But then Gawain had to endure marriage to the horrible hag. They ascended to the wedding bed. Gawain turned from the task in horror; then, steeling himself, he turned to kiss his new wife, and lo! she had become the fairest maiden you ever did see. He was overjoyed, but she told him that the enchantment that had turned her into a hag was still potent. She could be beautiful by day and ugly by night, or she could be fair by night and foul by day. It was for Gawain to choose. But he would not judge; so he asked her to decide which she would prefer. In joy, she told him: ‘Now the curse is lifted! I shall be fair and bright both night and day.’

So both for the Buddha and for the Arthurian romances, a woman’s wish is sovereignty. In Gawain’s case, he allows her the grace of choosing her own destiny, a right women have struggled with for millenia. It seems to me that Buddha did the same thing in establishing the bhikkhuni order. He did not begrudge them independence, autonomy, or power, but established and supported them. In this act he defused the potential for gender conflict.

Women want power, not because it is their innate nature, but because men deny it to them. As long as a culture is concerned to isolate and control women, it remains a patriarchy, and operates according to the basic mechanism of patriarchy as brilliantly summarized by Carol Gilligan: it divides men against women, and women against each other.

When we hear that women’s desires are the problem, we can be sure that patriarchy is present. The problem is not women, but desire. As long as the men hang on to their desire for power, for status, for maintaining the public perception of themselves as a innately blessed and superior group, this problem will not be solved. We will not be free of the hag – the fear of women in a man’s mind – until we listen to her advice, let go of our desires and fears, and entrust her with what she wants: sovereignty.

79 thoughts on “The Irrational Desires of Women

  1. Ven. Sujato

    If it is possible, you may want to disable the displaying of automatically generated “possibly related posts”. In the case of this article, it is displaying the following links, which you may not want tarnishing your fine reputation:

    * Would You Take A Pill To Increase Your Sexual Desire?
    * New Libido Gel Offers Staying Power for Women (*see a doctor if your erect…
    * Synchronicity?

    Interesting that there are no sexual references in your post, but it displays posts related to sexuality none-the-less. Just another sign of how women are objectified in society that any discussion of them automatically seems to infer sexuality.

  2. Bhante, some work has been done linking the low status of women in Thai Buddhism and the low status of women in Thai society, including the prevalence of coercive sex with girl children, the sale of girls into prostitution and the rise in trafficking of “purchased” women and girls within the country and for export. As you know, it is a very serious issue in Thailand (and pretty much everywhere else, but the cultural/patriarchal issues in Thailand are deeply entwined with the problem) … I do know that the ILO has done some work with the Thai clergy (who, I am not sure but I can find out- as it seems relevant to your query) regarding the spread of HIV, recognizing the very relevant role the local Wat can play in reducing harmful attitudes and practices that put people at risk. The last time I was at their offices in Bangkok I picked up a manual for monks on how to lead discussions on HIV with the community. 🙂
    Trafficking and prostitution are very sensitive issues for Thais or any SEA to discuss openly, but within communities – some at least- discussion of related issues is happening…Will take some digging when I have time (next week) Metta,

    • Dear Lisa,

      I would greatly appreciate anything you can contribute on this topic. I’ve been thinking vaguely of a more serious research article, so any information is appreciated.

    • Two organizations doing great work, both based in Chiang Mai, that you might wish to know about are The Sangha Metta Project and
      Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (HREIB)

      Sangha Metta Project

      For every person infected with HIV, at least half a dozen more are directly affected, among them parents, spouses and children.

      The impact on parents and spouses is serious because it not only means the loss of a loved one but in many cases, the loss of the family’s main breadwinner as well. The impact on children, however, means not only the loss of a parent and breadwinner, but also the loss of the child’s emotional support and security.

      Left with aged grandparents, they face the uncertainty of who will care for them if and when their grandparents pass away. Many are forced to drop out of school because their grandparents do not have the means to support them. Many more find themselves the new head of the family with the responsibility of caring not only for themselves, but also for their siblings and older relatives.

      If left unattended and uncared for, uneducated and untrained, the likelihood of them drifting onto the streets, being exploited and lured into the sex industry, or becoming drug addicts or traffickers is high. Without proper care and attention, they are open to a wide variety of risks as they grow and mature.

      As children are the future of the nation, the direct impact of HIV/AIDS on children has an indirect impact on the community, or the nation as a whole.

      A community whose children are uneducated and unskilled is weakened. It lacks the resources and skilled manpower it needs to develop both socially and economically. Without proper development, a community or nation can fall into economic depression and face a variety of social problems.

      The welfare of HIV/AIDS affected children is, therefore, everyone’s responsibility. Caring for these children is caring for the future of the nation, and our own happiness and well-being. Neglecting them is neglecting our own future and the future of the nation.

      The number of AIDS infected children and children orphaned or affected by AIDS now numbers in the millions. In Thailand, it is in the hundreds of thousands. No society anywhere in the world is spared from this tragedy.

      There is no one agency that can manage this problem alone. If the problem is to be solved, it requires the help of every person from every sector of society.

      Concerned about the impact that AIDS is having on children, Buddhist monks and nuns all throughout Southeast Asia have responded in a variety of innovative ways.

      Most every country in Southeast Asia is Buddhist and the temple is the center of the community. Community life revolves around the temple and Buddhist monks are looked upon as the spiritual leaders and moral support of the community. People put their trust in monks and turn to them for support and advice in times of crisis.

      For centuries, Buddhist monks and nuns have fulfilled their obligations to ensuring the health, happiness and well being of the community by supporting community development. Although this has been done mainly through education, a large number of monks, nuns and temples have also assisted with the economic prosperity and growth of the community by establishing social welfare funds, rice banks, buffalo banks and income generation activities.

      Though modernization and socio-economic development have brought many changes to the community, the role of monks has not changed. In this modern age, monks continue to be one of the community’s main pillars of support.

      With the arrival of HIV/AIDS in Thailand and other Southeast Asian countries monks and nuns have adapted their traditional role to respond to the needs of the community. They see the impact that AIDS is having on the community and recognize that if the crisis is left unmanaged it will affect future development, the peace, happiness and well-being of the community as a whole.

      To prevent the spread of AIDS in their community, particularly amongst the young, monks and nuns conduct HIV/AIDS awareness raising camps. During these camps, which are generally held in the temple, they educate young people on all aspects of HIV/AIDS and the socio-economic impacts. Using the life skills development and participatory learning approach, they equip the young with the skills they need to protect themselves from the dangers that come with modernization and consumerism, from temptation and from being lured into risk behavior. The monks and nuns do not work alone, but collaborate with other community leaders, the local health station and schools. In this way, activities conducted by monks and nuns become a community affair with all sectors of the community becoming involved.

      As more and more infected people progress from stage one to stages two and three, become symptomatic and ill, the impact that AIDS is having on children becomes greater. With their parents unable to work and earn an income, children find themselves having to drop out of school with the burden of either caring for their sick parents and siblings, or having to find employment to supplement the family’s income. Because they are uneducated and unqualified, the work they can do is limited providing insufficient income to meet the family’s needs. Stressed by the load that they are forced to carry at such a young age, these children become easy targets of drug traffickers and pimps.

      Monks and nuns have responded to this new need by diversifying the work that they are doing. Many temples have established education funds to ensure that these young children can stay in school and complete their education. Some temples conduct traditional fund raising activities on special days such at World Aids Day and Children’s Day, or at New Year. Donations are also received and distributed. Funds are generally distributed at the start of the academic year or the new semester. To meet the children’s material needs temples receive and distribute donations of textbooks, pens, erasers, and notebooks etc. as needed. Uniforms and clothing are also provided. And to ensure that children are receiving the nourishment they need, some monks and temples have set up milk banks, or collect consumer goods received as alms offerings, which they donate on home visits to families, affected by HIV/AIDS. For example, the chief monk of Doi Saket District, Chiang Mai, has established a temple cooperative to which all monks under his jurisdiction contribute from alms offerings. These contributions are donated to children in the area who are affected by AIDS, as well as other needy children.

      For children who are unable to complete their education, temples arrange vocational skills training. Examples of this can be seen at Wat Sri Suphan in Muang District, Chiang Mai where children and youth are able to receive free training as silversmiths, and Wat Hua Rin in San Pa Tong District, Chiang Mai, where training in tailoring is offered for free. As a result of these programmes, many youth are now able to earn extra money to support the family in its time of need.

      In the event that one or both parents die, leaving the child orphaned, temples respond by taking in young boys as temple boys or for ordination as novices. Nuns assist by caring for orphaned girls. In this way, the children are assured of a place to live, food to eat and an opportunity for education. Buddhist nun, Mae Chi Arun, who runs the Dhammajarini Foundation in Pa Sang District, Lamphun Province, is caring for a growing number of socially and economically deprived girls. Through her Foundation, young girls are able to complete their studies through the non-formal education programme, as well as receive vocational training. Without her assistance, and the help of other nuns at the Foundation, many of these young girls would be at risk of exploitation or end up in the commercial sex industry.

      Activities such as those mentioned above can be found not only in Chiang Mai, but all over Thailand, as well as in other Southeast Asian countries. Many temples in Battambang, Cambodia, for example, are supporting AIDS orphans, as well as children of mine victims. Monks and temples in Vientiane, Suwannaket, Luang Pabang and Bo Kaeo Provinces, Laos have also responded to the HIV/AIDS crisis and are caring for infected and affected children in a variety of ways. The same can be seen in temples Kyang Tung, Shan State, Burma and Xeshuan Panna, China.

      Through the help of these monks and nuns, many children who once faced a bleak and uncertain future are now guaranteed a good life in their community, and a future free from anxiety and the risk of exploitation and abuse. And as they grow and mature, it is the community and the nation as a whole who will be the ones who benefit.

      Human Rights Education Institute of Burma (HREIB)
      About us
      Written by Administrator
      Monday, 11 August 2008 00:42
      MissionTo empower people through human rights education to engage in social transformation and promote a culture of human rights for all.

      VisionHREIB envisions a society where human rights education is institutionalized as a potent tool for building a peaceful, tolerant and democratic Burma that respects and promotes all aspects of human rights for all.

      GoalsTo facilitate gender equitable, skills-based trainings on human rights at the grassroots level

      To strengthen the knowledge of the people of Burma by creating a clear understanding of international human rights laws and mechanisms, including the UN and key human rights treaties: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), the International Covenant on Social, Cultural, and Economic Rights (ICSCER), the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Refugee Convention, the Rome Statute, and the Genocide Convention

      To raise awareness of gender issues and how they relate to human rights and development throughout the various HREIB programs.

      To facilitate Training of Trainers (TOT) programs to build capacity in community organizations so that a pool of skilled trainers will be educating communities throughout Burma and in the border areas

      To produce accessible training materials, guides and other publications which further the mission of HREIB

      BackgroundBurma is a deeply wounded country. In rural areas, there is an ongoing civil war currently in its sixth decade. Greatly fuelled by successive dictatorships since 1962, the military targets women and ethnic minority peoples who suffer from systematic human rights violations including rape, murder, torture and slavery. Following the 1988 democratic uprising and brutal crackdown, the pro-democracy movement was taken to the border areas by many young people fleeing arrest and vowing to continue the struggle. As a result of the dictatorship’s brutal campaign against ethnic minority groups, hundreds of thousands have fled to Thailand with similar numbers in India and Bangladesh. Education is a basic right denied to the people of Burma.

      Due to these factors and the dictatorship’s tight control of information, there has been no material about human rights in any of Burma’s various languages. Human rights activities were introduced to the people following the 1988 uprising. However, most of the human rights education papers are written in English and best suited for people with an international education level. Common people from Burma have great difficulty reading English and understanding the complex language of human rights writing. Furthermore, before 1988, the military in Burma also strictly controlled all foreign published papers and censored all local publications. Thus, the people of Burma have been blocked from gaining knowledge about human rights. Human rights education was not used much as an educational tool for the grassroots people until the end of the 1990s, even though an increasing number of people were interested in human rights. However, the human rights papers of international organizations were the main resources available and generally were only effective in raising awareness among the intellectual people.

      There is now an urgent need to provide practical human rights education and capacity building initiatives to grassroots organizations and community leaders. The HREIB was formed to fill this void. We are the first organization with a primary focus on human rights and democratic leadership training. Since HREIB’s formation in 2000, the courses offered have been in high demand.

      The HREIB has introduced the informal, learner-centered pedagogy of human rights since 1999. This methodology is essential for empowering participants to gain mastery over their own lives by knowing and using their human rights. In order to reach to Burma ‘s diverse ethnic groups, HREIB has published educational materials in Burmese and other ethnic languages.

    • Thanks Visakha. I got my orgs mixed up – it was UNAIDS and they were probably supporting (I hope!) the work of this organization and others. “The Sangha Metta project has assisted in establishing similar programmes in six neighbouring countries: Bhutan, Burma, Cambodia, China, Laos and Viet Nam.”
      This is an older project and not sure to what extent they brought in the critical issue of a woman’s “sovereignty” over her own body_ as sexual violence within communities and relationships – as well as extreme poverty and bias against girl children (leading to porostitution) _ these are some of the key drivers of spread of the disease_ I doubt but I will check if they were successful in bringing this into the monks’ training. It sounds like it was limited to telling everyone to stick with the 5 precepts. A good start but the real world is a little more complex!!! Here is a manual developed my monks in Chiang Rai – which does suggest male responsibility more than I expected – but then blames the woman (prostitute) for luring him in! (Page 6, causes, mixing with evil people) Bless their hearts for trying. This is still worthy effort. Just needs some improvement. 🙂
      Still havent found the training manual in English_ Metta

  3. yes women desire sovereignty but our sexual desire is conditioned by our objectification – this is fine for nuns but for married lay people, both men & women, it is something of a problem.

    did you know there is currently an influx into sexaholics anonymous in Australia of women who use internet sex chat rooms (a relative told me!).

    • Hi David,

      I hope you don’t mind me replying even though you addressed Heidi.

      I think communication, camrederie, friendliness and a genuine desire for the welfare and happiness of the other person; as well as creating relationships as safe spaces where you can have arguements with the ever growing confidence/knowledge that it’s safe to do so.

      Thanks for asking the question. Great communication and great as a way of creating a sense of safety.

    • Hi Heidi,

      Thank you for saying this. I think you are correct.

      It is a monumental effort and at times thoroughly unpleasant to become aware of this horrid conditioning and then attempt to let it be or let it go.

      Perhaps one aspect of the answer to healing this problem is not letting sex get so very very important in a relationship. I remember years ago hearing a woman talking about her husband; she said first he was her best friend, secondly he was her husband, lastly he was her lover.

      Also I caught the end of a very interesting documentary last year where they were showing that most people are caught up with and judging themselves against the fantasy of ‘perfect’ sex portrayed in the media when in fact the reality is very different. Most people thought that what they perceived as their ‘dysfunction’ was evidence of something being wrong with them rather than the truth that such ‘dysfunction’ is actually the norm. I wish I could remember the name of this documentary. Does anyone know it?

    • belle, all i mean is that in this culture our sexuality is conditioned from a very young age by the soft porn in popular culture. in theory there is no reason why sexual desire & pleasure within a marriage cannot be wholesome – for example as envisaged in tantric philosophy as honouring the divine in each other but in the West we think that sex is supposed to be ‘dirty’ & ‘exciting’ & taboo by definition. i’ve noticed even a difference in my generation to my parents, my parents understood the connection between love & sex buy my generation is very confused & i think this is due to rise of raunch culture. i remember catching snippits of adult programs as a young child (nothing hardcore, just miami vice & tv like that) & just the objectification of women’s bodies generally in our culture (you can’t escape it, images & narratives everywhere) had a big impact on my mind. my sons at the age of 3 & 4 would dance around & say things like “i’m naked like a girl” or “sexy girls” (they cannot conceive that ‘sexy’ could be used to describe a boy or man at that age simply because what they know of popular culture – i wore make-up to a wedding once & my son said with incredulity “but mummy, you look like a sexy girl!).

      it is pretty disturbing really, my own sexuality was warped enough growing up & these days what kids are exposed to is even more full on!

  4. Dear Sujato

    A wonderful post. I never in my life expected to be discussing this subject in a Theravada context. Your post deserves some reflection, but it has connected with some ponderings that have been going on in me, so I thought I would just respond straight away and then maybe in a day or so.

    I had always wondered why the Buddha had made the bikkhuni sangha so separate, instead of having a “co-ed” sangha, but I think you are suggesting that by making the bikkhuni sangha autonomous he allowed the women sovereignty over themselves and at least some degree of freedom from the patriarchy.

    I was also struck by the connotations of the word “sovereignty”. It seemed a word that I would associate more readily with men than women at first. If I imagine a male sovereign I imagine his sovereignty being sovereignty over others – sort of “I’m sovereign, so you’re not”. I think all a woman wants is sovereignty over herself, which leaves her free to live in partnership with men. And with women too. I don’t necessarily mean a sexual partnership here, although that may be something that many or even most people want. I mean first and foremost a partnership as a human being with other human beings and not as the enforced occupant of a woman’s role as defined by men. I think that a woman’s sovereignty is more like “I’m sovereign and so are you. Now, what can we do together?”.

    I look back on these words and I’m aware that I am stereotyping drastically, but if I am to say it simply I can’t think of any other way. To discuss this we have to talk about “women” and “men” or Woman and Man, while being aware that I have a feminine side which I am more or less in or out of touch with, and women have a masculine side – we “inter-are” to use TNH’s word, both inwardly and in the public world. If I offend anybody (as a man, especially as a well brought up feminist man of the 60s and 70s, I might even get offended if I read this tomorrow before I’m fully awake!) please forgive me. I know no other way to talk about this at the moment. I think one thing that we may be doing in these explorations is constructing a vocabulary for ourselves about this territory – at the moment our vocabulary may be a little crude, imprecise and unrefined.

    I was struck by your remarks about how women are portrayed in the Jataka literature as insatiable sexual predators. These days it would probably be men who are cast in that role, at least in the Western European culture in which I live. But it is weird. If I am hungry, I don’t blame the carrot. If I’m thirsty, I don’t blame the water. But some men, if they are horny, blame women. (Do homosexual monks blame other male monks? A thought.) Some men apparently think that the possession of male genitals means that they are better at “enlightenment” than people with differently shaped genitals, so I suppose they would find it hard to admit that it’s those same genitals which sometimes may get a bit out of control and cause trouble. The blaming of women in this way turns women into sex objects as surely as a pornographer does, as I said in another post, except that instead of the indulgence in sexual fantasy and craving, there is sexual fantasy and aversion instead. But the narrowing down of a woman to one dimension of her being (well, actually, one dimension of the man’s perception – her being’s as multi-dimensional as it ever was) is similarly destructive, socially and (as far as I can see) psychologically and spiritually for the woman (and for the man actually – but I think the damage is far less). As a community, we are all damaged.

    I stayed at a Mahayana monastery recently and some things happened there which got me thinking about these topics long before I encountered this blog. The monastery has separate monks’ and nuns’ sub-monasteries but during large lay retreats the mix of accommodation means that sometimes women and couples are at the men’s monastery and men and couples at the women’s monastery. Even though the lay accommodation is far removed from the monastic residences, some of the monks (mostly the older ones) had a problem with women (even modestly dressed sworn-to-chastity women who were here to meditate, not to bag a monk) being in the male monastery. Interestingly the nuns had no problem with lay men living on their site. The monks are celibate and many of them happen to be homosexual, which is openly talked about and with which nobody has any problem. But it struck me that none of the heterosexual monks have a problem living with homosexual monks and none of the homosexual monks have a problem living with other men, even though their lust is presumably provoked all the time. It got me wondering if the separation of women from men in this monastery was about lust at all. Wasn’t it really about power and fear of “the other”?

    A certain incident happened. The monastics there do not have a Theravada Vinaya, but one of their rules is that a monk cannot be alone in a room or a confined space with a woman – there has to be another male present (another female won’t do, apparently, they might gang up). A lay woman went into the office to pay for something with a credit card and it so happened that the young monk on duty was there on his own. As soon as she came into the office, he ran round the desk, pushed her aside very roughly, almost violently, and ran out of the door. The woman and I were talking about this afterwards and we were contemplating the impact of this rule. The monk was actually a sweet guy in his early twenties, whose parents had left Asia and settled in the USA. He was first generation born in the USA and had been all the way through the education system there to degree level and then ordained in his ancestral tradition. He was a lovely guy and had been perfectly able to deal in a mature and sensible way with his mother, his grandmother, his aunts, his sisters, his sisters’ friends, his female friends, his girlfriends, women at college and women at work. Now the monastic rule meant that he was forced to run away from women and treat them as objects of suspicion and fear and even (inadvertently) be almost violent, which struck us as exactly the opposite of what the Dharma should be doing. The Vinaya rule also infringes the lay woman’s right under the European Convention on Human Rights to get equal treatment in a shop! In this case, it seemed to us, the Vinaya itself was creating the problem. Neither the monk nor the woman wanted to have sex in the office yet his Vinaya forced the monk to treat her as if she did (presumably on the desk or the floor – the chairs were those office ones with wheels on and no brakes so they would have rolled all over the floor and someone would have got hurt). Is it possible that the Theravada Vinaya in some circumstances also creates a problem that never existed?

    (I am also aware that sometimes segregation from the opposite sex can be of great help. I may joke about these things to make a point, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t take it very seriously. I think that this issue of how men and women deal with each other in a society which is evolving away from the old norms and forming new ones is one of the most important issues that we face. The latest part of the process really started in the West in the 60s and, although we’ve come a long way, we’re not there yet.)

    As a radical alteration to the Vinaya, we wondered whether a better way for a community to deal with undercurrents of lust wouldn’t to have a naturist policy. If everybody walked around seeing others’ bodies all day, bodies would soon become unremarkable and people would turn their attention to other things. The only real problems that we could see apart from initial embarrassment and a bit of vanity were the cold in Europe, sunburn in the summer, and mosquitoes in Australia.

    I spoke with some of the other lay men after this incident and I was surprised to find that a significant number would also have felt more comfortable in an all-male environment. I had no issue with the presence of women and the attitude of these (sincere and kind) men got me to thinking that maybe I was missing something, so I resolved to have a practice for a week not looking at or interacting with a woman if there was anything going on in me concerning how attractive or unattractive she was. After a day I ended up walking round looking at my feet and bumping into things, so I gave up, and the world opened up again, and I could notice not just undercurrents of attraction or otherwise to women, but the beauty of the way that a monk walked steadily and fluidly past, or the way that a woman talked to her sister with such attention, or the smell of the compost heap which was a bit odd but attractive in an awful way, and many other things beautiful and unattractive. It seemed that shutting down one channel actually dims all of them. It’s not the senses, or the object of the senses that’s the problem, or the vedana that may arise, or even the craving or the aversion if you can’t help it – it’s what you do about it, it’s how responsible your action is and, in the case of women for men, it’s how much you recognise that there is a being there who operates on many other dimensions besides the sexual one. Also, “hidden” inside sexuality is often a simple desire to connect in a real way beyond words. Sometimes sex or sexual desire can end up being a poor substitute for the real connection that was desired but somehow the way to it wasn’t known or found.

    I currently practice in a lay community of women and men and the subject of gender has never been discussed, so irrelevant is it. And we discuss everything if we need to. I have read somewhere that Santi is “co-ed” although I don’t know what that means in practice. Do these issues rise at Santi, and how do you deal with then if they do?

    My wife also makes me aware of how I can impose a “Western liberated” stereotype on a woman. As I said above, I’m a well brought up sixties man and expect to do my share of cooking, hoovering, washing up and so on, and I don’t expect my partner to run around after me. When we married, I was very uncomfortable at how much she would do for me and I tried to stop her, and got in big trouble. “I want to do these things for you! Let me! You work for us, so let me give to you how I can and how I want to give to you!” My sociologist self says it’s because she comes from South America which was under military rule until the 80s and which never had the sixties but, whatever, I’ve learned not to try and control how someone wants to give, even if it doesn’t fit my liberal stereotypes. I’ve also learned that a “traditional” role is not necessarily a subservient one, in fact far from it. She is a powerful source of great compassion and stability in the little society of our family.

    Those are my thoughts for now. Thank you so much for raising these topics in a way that enables us to “find our way into them”.


    • Dear David,

      My response to your post is not about religions but about the last paragraph where you talked about your wife.

      It just happened that my very liberated liberal friend and I recently talked about what a woman like her and me wants in a maritial relationship. Strangely, we both want respect and equal opportunity and ‘sovereignty’ so that we will happily do our utmost to please our partner and see him happy.

      So, David, I would say that your wife truly wants to do things for you because you treat her as an equal being, not because of her cultural background.

      You are a lucky man who deserves to be lucky.

    • Dear Dheerayupa

      Yes, I am lucky. I don’t know if I deserve it or if I deserve your kind words, for which I thank you.

    • David, this is very true & profound “Sometimes sex or sexual desire can end up being a poor substitute for the real connection that was desired but somehow the way to it wasn’t known or found.” I have been recently thinking about this after reading the novel “Seeking Nibbana in Sri Lanka”, a very good read.

      As for your wife, there is a big difference between a woman CHOOSING to serve & being in a position where she serves but has no choice.

      This is a biological differences in the sexes that i didn’t want to admit for several years but being the mother of young children it is unavoidable – girls have an innate desire to nurture. even before they can speak i see girl toddlers offering their food or the playground equipment. boys tend to take what is offered without so much as a thank you or even noticing the giver! my teenage experiences make a lot more sense with this hindsight . . .of course girls are just as egotistical & love to taunt, boss, etc. i could be limited in my perspective in this regard because i only have sons. it is nice to know that chances are as they grow into men they will appreciate kindness from a woman. in this sense i am glad i don’t have daughters as i see my girlfriends so confused in their relationships with men – their natural wholesome desires to serve & nurture clashing with the ego’s desire for recognition & control.

    • Dear David, This is wonderful and hilarious in parts. I think you might consider expanding or tweaking and submitting it to Shambhala Sun! I like how you have unpacked some of the energies behind sexual desire. I think it is only with this insight that we can begin to defuse all of the smaller fuels lighting the big fire, that we can begin to learn to act responsibly.
      In the last years I have been thinking about going forth, well, the most important thing is to start asking whether, how, one can live in community, and what kind of conditions I might bring to that experience.
      I went to a Catholic convent school for 5 years with nuns (they were wonderful) with only girl students. I can safely say, that I left with awkward skills in relating to the opposite sex. I am a confident person, but in a dating relationship with a man, I had not developed or had the chance to practice the right communication (and negotiation) skills .
      Being away from the opposite sex so much felt unnatural too, like half of life was missing.
      And then the teenage years come and the novelty and lack of practice in working with new arising energies made it all the more difficult to make clear decisions when the opportunities for dating began.
      I am much older now but I can say those cloistered years contributed in a small way to challenges later on. (Although the nuns gave us a great education, which has far outweighed this minor down side)
      I have wanted to try graduate from some degree of craving before going forth- (well it is also about ripening of Kamma, I am all mixed up between conventional and Dhamma language here) or at least to examine how I will stand up to some of the tests that may arise. It feels now after focussed practice on certain areas – some cravings are significantly diminished and I feel very happy with this because it has been a big struggle. However, I have not conquered greedy mind, so…are these forms of craving permanently diminished?
      I wonder if I could live in sequestered away from men and be with only women for very long periods of time. It’s not even physically healthy (for me. I think, but I am not sure.). Our hormones regulate according to other humans (when women are together alone for just a few months, our menstruation calendars start synchronizing.) We affect each other to that degree. Having the male presence kind of balances things out… and one can really enjoy the company of the full sea of humanity…it is not a joyful thing to be “separated,” or to be reminded that I am “us” and Muslims or Hindus are “them”. Or separated from nature and the animal realm in our midst. Separation feels unnatural…
      But – each to their own conditions, I respect that some men or women need that separation under some circumstances or for long periods of time. Maybe I will too.

    • Ooops. I just read the racy parts. I would maybe leave those out if you send it to the Sun. It is kind of sensitive for some people to hear of monastics and certain human cravings in the same breath…I mean that gently (even if the absurdity of it made me laugh 🙂

    • The story about the incident where the monk ran around the desk, and roughly pushed the woman aside as he ran out the door was interesting. The rule of not being alone with a woman was to avoid suspicion and misunderstanding by onlookers. Usually rules were laid down only after a certain incident . Ajahn Brahm mentioned about the background story before

      I believe other monks would have acted differently in this situation. For example, pick up the phone and tell someone to come in to help the customer in the store and step outside until another person comes. Another option would be to tell the woman that he will go get someone who can help her with the purchases and mindfully walks out to get someone else. The running and pushing wasn’t necessary or skillful at all. Maybe it is too sudden and it is the first time that he was faced with the situation, therefore don’t know how to approach it.

    • iMeditation

      Of course, the way that he dealt with the situation was unskillful and there were better ways that he could have acted.

      My point was, why can’t a grown-up man serve a grown-up woman in a shop, just because he’s a monk? It seems that the rule makes men and women behave with a suspicion towards each other that is only there because the rule put it there. Putting aside the unskillful actions of the monk, the rule itself was divisive and harmful.

      And, if the rule was put there in order to avoid suspicion and misunderstanding by onlookers, then it’s guaranteed to fail. If people want to gossip and make trouble they will find a way. I would have thought that a monastic environment should be one in which people are encouraged to assume the best, and not have their worst characteristics catered to.


  5. This has sparked off another thought already.

    If someone asked me “what do women want?” I would say “I don’t know” and so would most men that I know. I think that just means that we have to listen.

    But I wonder if women know what men want. I wonder if men know what they really want.

    • Indeed, Good Friend, if we want to know what others want, we can ask, and we can listen deeply.
      The Buddha and other great wise teachers have encouraged us “know thyself” – alas- there is ignorance – we do not know ourselves – we may never – but the practice is and look and listen deeply, no? 🙂

  6. On how to deal with their own sexual desires, those monks should read or re-read Ajahn Chah’s biography in which he told his disciples of all the ‘ineffective’ ways to deal with the problem, which includes not looking at women at all.

    It is reported that some of Ajahn Chah’s disciples asked him that the part about Ajahn Chah’s fight with his sexual desires be taken out of the biography, but Ajahn Chah insisted that it must be included.

    A pity that some of Ajahn Chah’s disciples have not learnt much from their teacher.

  7. Dear All,

    After reading everything from this blog,
    i began to get disenchanted with the ideas
    that Western Sangha hold high.
    All have not gone forth beyond “borders”.

    Their ideology of gender equality, democracy,
    human rights, total freedom, superiority complex,
    sexuality, egoism, power domination, insecurity,
    non-humility and self-centredness, are still very
    deep rooted.

    For me,there are many theravada monks that i highly respect
    that it is hard to name all of them, but the two monks that
    stood out for me that i highly respect and grateful for the
    Blessed One’s Dhamma till now are :-

    1. The late K. Sri Dhammananda Thera (Buddhist Maha Vihara,

    2. The late Luang Por Ajahn Chah (Wat Pah Pong,Thailand);

    who, in my opinion, had “gone forth” all of the above,
    as they practiced what they taught and taught what they
    practiced, like our Blessed One.

    Peace to all.

    • Indeed, Good Friend, Gender Equality is “deep rooted”: in the International Charter of Human Rights and Freedoms, the International Covenant on Social and Economic Rights, the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women; the ILO Declaration, The Millenium Goals and Declaration, and I could list many more. And almost every member of the United Nations is a party to these including Thailand and the UK and have ratified their national legislation to punish any organization, including registered charities; any government or enterprise who act against these rights, and that by the way includes the occupation of monk or nun practicing for his or her spiritual development.
      One of the leading forces behind the recent establishment of the ASEAN Human Rights Body is a Thai Gender Equality advocate. In fact, were it not for the gender equality advocates behind that movement there may not have been an AHRB. Something to celebrate.
      Peace back.

    • Dear Lisa,

      Sorry, you misunderstood and misinterpreted me.

      I am NOT referring to gender equality in the commercial world, i am talking about SPIRITUALITY WORLD.

      The commercial world is not a reality world, the spirituality world is the real, reality world – seeing things as they really really are and be at peace with what we are and be what we are and accept for what we are. Hope that explained my point.

      Peace back.

    • Interestingly, a few years ago i visited Ven K Sri Dhammananda in his office in Brickfields, KL. he was, as usual, behind his desk working, and I asked what he was working on. At 80 years of age, he was going through all his (very many) books, and taking out references to ‘man’ or ‘mankind’ and replacing them with ‘humanity’; taking out unnecessary ‘he’ or ‘his’ and replacing them with ‘he or she’ or ‘they’. As you say, great monk.

  8. Dear Ajahn

    We are very disgusted with your blog!
    It is not of any help.
    It only brings Buddhism down.

    Pls. STOP all these nonsense!

    • STOP all these nonesense…STOP bhikkhunis…STOP Western Buddhists….STOP this…STOP that….sounds like someone has totally lost control!

  9. An interesting thing I’ve noticed on this blog: those who do not like Aj. Brahm and Aj. Sujato tend to use pen names,… and most pen names refer to something good and ‘holy’.

    Just my humble observation.


    • Great observation Dheerayupa! They tend hide behind very holy names – I guess that gives them a sense of protection….however, the contents of their posts unmasks these individuals and their ideologies.

    • ‘Am slightly curious…

      I wonder who ‘we’ are?

      I wonder which bit(s) they find disgusting and why?

      I wonder exactly what is not of any help to them and why?

      And I wonder which bit(s) exactly they think are bringing Buddhism down and how?

      And I wonder what exactly they are referring to as ‘nonsense’ and why?

      Perhaps someone who is un-used to a discussion like this can suddenly find themselves overwhelmed before their mind has had a chance to really read and see what is actually being said. It is not a nice feeling to be so overwhelmed. I hope once they’ve calmed down they re-read it again gently.

      Thanks for this courageous discussion everyone.

  10. Dear Heidi,
    Yes, I would say tat the sexualisation of women through the media is actually quite crippling.
    I work with it by retreating from society. And certainly by retreating from the media. I am not a thick-skinned type and i find it overwhelming.
    Call me a coward, but i just find it really crippling.
    Crippling in a sense that it feels harsh, gross, heartless, abusive.
    I love what David said of his wife.
    How she is like a pillar of great compassion and stability within his family.
    Why i said i was not sure what you meant was because i was confused and confronted by you bringing up sexaholic and chatroom stuff here.
    Personally it is not something i am in touch with.
    But it sounds like alot of suffering.
    When i was fourteen i had anoerexia for several years and i know it was in part due to being terrified of becoming a woman in this society.
    I still have so much healing to do and confidence bulding in just being able to feel ok here .
    Best wishes.

    • May I share just one more thing? I made my first visit to Venerable Thay’s sangha, this evening, in the city where I live. He has expanded on the precepts (which Venerable Thay refers to as Mindfulness Trainings- I find that helpful too). So when people recite the precepts (which by the way is done once a month- followed by a sharing about how we have done) – practitioners are asked to read out the expanded version:
      The training around Sexual Misconduct is phrased as the training of “True Love”
      “Aware of the suffering caused by sexual misconduct, I am committed to cultivating responsibility and learning ways to protect the safety and integrity of individuals, couples, families, and society. Knowing that sexual desire is not love, and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms myself as well as others, I am determined not to engage in sexual relations without true love and a deep, long term commitment made known to my family and friends. I will do everything in my power to protect children from sexual abuse and to prevent couples and families from being broken by sexual misconduct. Seeing that body and mind are one, I am committed to learning appropriate ways to take care of my sexual energy and cultivating loving kindness, compassion, joy and inclusiveness – which are the four basic elements of true love – for my greater happiness and the greater happiness of others. Practicing true love, we know that we will continue beautifully into the future.”
      Beauty. Poetry. And really helpful!
      “…and that sexual activity motivated by craving always harms…”… but can there be sexual activity without craving? 🙂

    • Dear Lisa ,
      Thankyou SO MUCH for sharing these wonderful precept refection words that you and Thay’s Sangha ( THich Nhat Hahn , for anyone not sure)recite and aspire to practise.
      Very wonderful. And i will now actively reflect on them regularly also. And share them with those who may be interested .

    • Thank you Lisa! that is beautiful.

      but yes, the million dollar question, it sounds so good it theory doesn’t it. worth putting a lot of effort in to find out if it is possible in practice.

    • Re the Mindfulness Training on True Love.

      This was really brought home to me when i was working in a refuge for homeless teenagers. there was this 14 year old woman staying there, stunningly beautiful in personality & physical appearance, a poet, wise & mature well beyond her years. She did not suffer from the mental health or drug or self esteem issues that the other residents had but she was heart broken. Her father had left her mother for her mother’s best friend, her ‘aunty’, & in the resulting turmoil she was left with nowhere to live. She was a wonderful support to her mother & read me a heart-rending letter she wrote to her father – full of hurt & pain but also compassion & forgiveness.

      if everyone could meet this girl & hear her story i believe it would cure most of sexual misconduct. but instead we have mainstream articles & books that suggest extra-marital affairs can spice up your life, marriage, & bring happiness.

    • “… but can there be sexual activity without craving?”

      Well, yes, there can. Making love is about giving, not craving and taking. But it can really only be in a relationship which is about giving to each other.

      It’s struck me recently how poverty-stricken is the portrayal of sex in most Buddhist discourse. It seems to be viewed as unfortunate condition to which the spiritually unevolved are prone, which can only be a source of craving and suffering, and which works according to the laws of hydraulics. The unfortunate layman has to be provided with occasional but regular relief, rather like a cow whose udders are full needs to be milked or she will suffer. Women’s sexuality is hardly mentioned except as a temptation to men. The fact is that in most intimate relationships, it’s just not like that. It’s about presence.

      And I’m not speaking against celibacy. I’ve been celibate for long periods of my life and it’s been of great benefit.

      Just my experience.


    • Jason’s poem captures it really well, so I’ve taken the liberty of re-posting it here:


      On Relationship

      Only the true lover knows
      Fearless relinquishment.

      The frightened one
      Spurred on by vengeance
      Returns evermore
      To suffering’s source.


      “Fearless relinquishment.” Yes. How many celibate monks are really just “frightened ones”? (No offence to those of you aren’t.)


    • thank you David, for addressing this issue, Lisa’s question ‘can there be sexual activity without craving?’ has been playing on my mind for some time.

      i think it comes down to how we have been conditioned & in this area from my observation there is a generational difference here. a good friend was saying yesterday that she does not want to have sex with her husband after spending time with her neice & nephew because she feels pure & to her sex is dirty. This is a problem with many in my generation caused by the mainstreaming of porn, so many of us have this idea that sex should be new or illicit to be exciting. My parents had a completely different view of sex. It was about love, commitment & giving for them.

      I think it’s a shame as well that Buddhist literature does not give us lay people more guidance on this. It is sorely needed in this world of such temptations & vice 🙂 I will try to keep in mind what you have said about presence.

    • Dear Belle, I’m very sorry. I didn’t mean to be improper. I just meant it as an example of how women also objectify their bodies, adopting the prevailing view of sexual roles in order to obtain arousal & pleasure, to avoid the present moment & emptiness. The rise in women seeking help for sex addiction shows how this objectification damages both men & women. I think retreating from the media is a good strategy. It is not easy tho, just paying for petrol the other day with my children in tow i got them to look the other way so i could turn around all the ‘men’s magazines’ at their eye level. With metta.

    • Dear Belle,

      I cannot fully imagine the pain you must have gone through. I just want to say that I loudly applaud your courage in contributing in this forum. I also want to wish you all the very very best on your path of healing; may you find the pure Dhamma at your journey’s end.

      Lots of love.

  11. I have been following the posts on the Perth ordinations with great interest as for me it goes to the heart of Buddhism and the Buddha’s teachings.

    I asked myself some simple questions:
    Does anyone really believe in their hearts that women are not the equals of men?
    How it is possible for my minds weaknesses and strengths to have a source of anything other than my own mind?
    Can I accept a teacher who viewed women as something less than men?

    My answers were. Women are men’s equals in every way, I am responsible for my own thoughts and actions and I could not follow a teacher who taught discrimination, for as one bad apple poisons the entire barrel so does one bad teaching bring into question the integrity of all.

    I am surprised that historically the records show that the Buddha had to be coerced into accepting women as monks. I have however come to the view that the written records of all religions including Buddhism are written by men and women and as such, even with the greatest scholarly intention, are subject to misinterpretation in translation and to the prevailing cultural standards of the writers.

    For me all of the words written that are purported to have been spoken by the Buddha are only a guide to the truth not the truth, as they have been written by humans and therefore the only way to test their veracity is to put them into practice in my own heart…………….

    I for the life of, me cannot find anywhere in my heart that tells me that women are inferior to men and that the Buddha that I feel I know , would have needed to be persuaded to allow women to be monks.

    Can anyone in the Theradava tradition advise me from their heart, why a woman is less than a man and cannot be a good monk ?

    • Dear Wilc,
      Thankyou so much for your words and for the inspiring approach you take in investigating for yourself through the heart.
      Best Wishes.

    • You said: For me all of the words written that are purported to have been spoken by the Buddha are only a guide to the truth not the truth, as they have been written by humans and therefore the only way to test their veracity is to put them into practice in my own heart…………….

      Very well said indeed!! Sadhu!!

  12. Dear David,

    I really resonate with how you envision women feel about ‘sovereignty’…
    you said- “If I imagine a male sovereign I imagine his sovereignty being sovereignty over others – sort of “I’m sovereign, so you’re not”. I think all a woman wants is sovereignty over herself, which leaves her free to live in partnership with men. And with women too. I don’t necessarily mean a sexual partnership here, although that may be something that many or even most people want. I mean first and foremost a partnership as a human being with other human beings and not as the enforced occupant of a woman’s role as defined by men. I think that a woman’s sovereignty is more like “I’m sovereign and so are you. Now, what can we do together?”. ”

    Yes indeed.

    About Theravadin and Mahayana Vinaya- they are not different . It is the philosophical discourses and suttas studied by these traditions , as well as the aspirational vows that differ, not the Vinaya itself.

    Correct me if i am wrong here Bhante.

    • Mahayana monastics follow the Vinaya of one of the earlier schools, the Dharmaguptaka Vinaya in East Asia and the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya in Central Asia. There are various forms of ‘Bodhisattva precepts’ which they also take, but these are ‘on top of’ the basic Vinaya and, while they may affect the manner of practice, do not change the fundamentals.

  13. Bit off topic but I have been wanting to dig this out for weeks.
    Eckhard Tolle:
    “The suppression of the feminine principle especially over the past two thousand years has enabled ego to gain absolute supremacy in the collective human psyche. Although women have egos, of course, the ego can take root and grow more easily in the male form than in the female. This is because women are less mind-identified than men. They are more in touch with their inner body and the intelligence of the organism where the intuitive faculties originate. The female form is less rigidly encapsulated than the male, has greater openness and sensitivity toward other life-forms and is more attuned to the natural world.
    If the balance between male and female energies had not been destroyed on our planet, the ego’s growth would have been greatly curtailed. We would not have declared war on nature and we would not be so completely alienated from our Being.
    Nobody knows the exact figure because records were not kept, but it seems that during a three-hundred year period between three and five million women were tortured and killed by the “Holy Inquisition,” an institution founded by the Roman catholic Church to suppress heresy. This surely ranks together with the Holocaust as one of the darkest chapters in human history. It was enough for a woman to show a love for animals, walk alone in the fields or woods, or gather medicinal plants to be branded a witch then tortured and burned at the stake. The sacred feminine was declared demonic, and an entire dimension largely disappeared from human experience. Other cultures and religions such as Judaism, Islam, and even Buddhism, also suppressed the female dimension, although in a less violent way. Women’s status was reduced to being child bearers and men’s property. Males who denied the feminine even within themselves were now running the world, a world that was totally out of balance. The rest is history or rather a case history of insanity.
    Who was responsible for this fear of the feminine that could only be described as acute collective paranoia? We could say: Of course, men were responsible. But then why in many ancient pre-Christian civilizations such as the Sumerian, Egyptian and Celtic were women respected and the feminine principle not feared but revered? What is it suddenly that made men feel threatened by the female? The evolving ego in them. I knew it could gain full control of our planet only through the male form, and to do so, it had to render the female powerless…” pp 155-157 A New Earth

    • Oops big oops – Last sentence is very significant and should read not “I knew” but “IT knew it could gain full control of our planet only through male form…” well that’s a little radical – but if it was the grand scheme of Mara it has certainly worked…and the way out is…(you guessed it!!! REVERSE THE TREND!!!…)
      (I feel it is a little radical to suggest Mara/Ego can only take hold of the human realm firmly through male form- whereas, I would argue, that a significant imbalance in either direction would/could have the same effect – but then, perhaps I have not travelled the cosmos enough –

    • …Sooo really what I am saying here, is that what we are dealing with is the crux of the Mara issue as we are dealing with it in this era…
      ….to reverse the trend….is to do so in the material world…and in the spiritual traditions of our time…one cannot happen without the other… the window swung open in our lifetime…pushed open by our grandmothers and grandmothers around the world…supported by wise grandfathers…and that window is not open for much longer…
      …but…we cannot take it all onto our shoulders…all we can do is protect the Dharma…in a form…that keeps the feminine alive…
      Metta…and deep wishes for courage and awakening…

    • I would treat this analysis with caution. The Da Vinci Code and other popular texts repeat such claims, but the real situation is much more nuanced. The numbers of witches killed quoted by Tolle are way off. More likely it was several tens of thousands.

      I do think it is likely that there has been a shift in humanity’s religious orientation from the feminine to the masculine, especially with the arising of the axial age patriarchies. But this is by no means a simple or one-dimensional matter. The ancient goddess religions invariably involved sacrifice, often human sacrifice, and bears little resemblance to Tolle’s idealistic portrayal. Similar ideas can be traced as far back as Bachofen in 19th century Germany, and the scholarly debate continues; Marija Gimbutas was a recent powerful proponent of the idea of ancient matriarchal Europe.

    • Thank you Ajahn.
      I found it hard to imagine ancient religions being friendly to women.
      Several tens of thousands sounds like a lot!

    • Of course, even one is one too many. The witch hunts were a shocking episode in European history, but they can’t in themselves explain ‘Christian’ attitudes towrds women, as the majority of Christian societies have not performed witch hunts. A close review of the actual court cases shows that, in many cases, the witches were accused, not by priests or monks, but by other women.

      It’s a little like the Church’s ruling against Galileo; again this was unjust and anti-science, but in all fairness the Vatican did for a long time also support scientific endeavour. History is just complex, that’s all.

  14. David Conway :
    If I am hungry, I don’t blame the carrot. If I’m thirsty, I don’t blame the water. But some men, if they are horny, blame women. (Do homosexual monks blame other male monks? A thought.)

    This is a good point David. If we look at the men in prison, they are not allowed to interact with women in society. And yet , lust remains even when there are no women around to provoke them.

    Desire is the first of the 5 hindrances , and it is something deeply rooted within . Even if a monk lives in a cave in solitude with all the women removed but if the lust/ desire within him wasn’t properly dealt with, it can still hinder him on the path. Removing women from the vicinity is not a permanent solution. After a few years it would comes up again if the person does not have much success with meditation.

    In the Migajala Sutta, the Buddha said :
    “Migajala, even though a bhikkhu who dwells thus resorts to forest and groves, to remote lodgings where there are few sounds and little noise, desolate, hidden from people, appropriate for seclusion, he is still called one dwelling with a partner. For what reason? Because craving is his partner, and he has not abandoned it, therefore he is called one dwelling with a partner.”

    Without infatuation no bondage is generated, and the monk who is freed from the bondage of enjoyment is called ‘one who dwells alone.’
    “And a monk so dwelling, Migajaala, even though he may live near a village crowded with monks and nuns, male and female lay-followers, kings and royal ministers, sectarians and their followers — still he is termed ‘one who dwells alone.’ Why is this so? Craving is the mate he has left behind, and therefore he is called one who dwells alone.”

  15. It pains me to read the Jatakas so unhappily described. In these stories, women are variously portrayed — at times as courageous, supportive, nurturing, and often with spiritual aspirations as well. Rahulamata, Yasodara walked in harmony with the Bodhisatta on his momentous path through many lives — her great aspiration was to be the wife of the future Buddha. As Madhi in the Vessantara Jataka she mildly reproaches the Bodhisatta, not for giving their children away, but for underestimating her. Such generalizations as I have found here don’t do these stories justice.

    • I’m sorry if my comments have emphasized this side of the jatakas; as you say, they present many facets. Some of these are overtly misogynistic, others positive and empowering for women. The jatakas represent the full range of human situations, and one can find just about anything there. The strong misogynistic tendency should not be glossed over, as it helps us to understand the problems that contemporary women are facing. The tendency in the Jatakas is that when a woman does something good, that woman is praised as an individual; but when a woman does something bad, that is because of her womanly nature.

      I have, however, emphasized the story cycle of the woman with dohala, such as the Mora Jataka, which in my opinion offers one of the most profound meditations on the nature of femininity in all the world’s mythology. I hope to write more on this in the future.

    • Dear Ms. Visakha, good to see your name, we met years ago when you visited Bhante G. One could also mention the Jataka story in which the future Yasodhara and the Bodhisatta, parents of young children, were equally inspired by paccekabuddhas into wanting to renounce; Yasodhara went outside supposedly to get water, and never came back, running off to become a nun, and dumping the care of the children onto the Bodhisatta. Great story!

    • It’s the Kumbhakāra Jātaka (No.408) where the Bodhisatta was a potter in Baranasi, and met four Pacceka Buddhas who inspired him with stories of their own renunciation. Hearing those stories, both he and his wife had the desire to leave the world immediately. His wife deceived him and left home. He stayed behind until the children were able to look after themselves and then he too became an ascetic. The son at that time was Rāhula and the daughter was Uppalavannā.

  16. “The woman now becomes responsible for a man’s defilements.”

    This for me is the crux of the issue, and it’s an attitude that I personally REFUSE to give into. I will NEVER make another person responsible for the states which arise in my mind, in some cases I do recognize the desirability of a kind of joint responsibility, for example volitional actions which transgress the precepts and distress me. But I am disgusted and ashamed of any attitude which arises in my mind that would have me push away or put down a person just for the shape of their body or the sound of their voice. In my view, such attitudes ARE defilement of the mind. It’s ill-will plain and simple, putting it in the dress of rites, rituals, practices and rationalization doesn’t change what it is. Ill-will is wanting something to not be there.

    I always feel warm and fuzzy inside when I see a Monk treat a woman like a person. If he isn’t a non-returner and has to endure some feelings of lust and arousal that almost inevitably arise in a man around women, then I respect him all the more for having that willingness to endure burning feelings and restrain his urges (in favor of walling her out), after all those feelings soon pass (if they arise at all) while small acts of kindness and acceptance from a Monk can change a woman’s entire life for the better.

    When I first embarked on my monastic adventure, as a lay resident, I initially felt like I should avoid women and keep my distance. And just a few days ago, I happened to wonder “Why did I harbor that attitude?”. The answer surprised me, it was simply this vague idea that it was what I was supposed to be do. We are conditioned by the prevailing culture in these monasteries to push women away. Often this isn’t even questioned and the women even go along with it by pushing themselves away (which deeply pains me).
    Even at the time though (when I didn’t investigate where it came from), I realized that attitude in my heart was rotten. It was surprisingly difficult to dispel, it took weeks for me to be able to hold a conversation with the attractive young female guest. Mainly because of the idea that I “shouldn’t” be doing it, I had to go against that powerful emotional conditioning, approaching her and cultivating the willingness to reciprocate her extension of friendship was perhaps the greatest internal struggle I’ve ever faced, but also the most rewarding. And you’d better believe I got some blame for that too, some of the monks didn’t approve, but I knew I was secure in my precepts and love for the Buddha. So let the winds blow.

    When I really look at the Vinaya, when it comes to relating to women, the sanghadisesa rules seem to be telling the Monks don’t grope em’ and don’t speak lewdly to them. Somehow this has been conflagrated into treating women as if they’re toxic, better maintain a 10m distance just to be safe! Sadly, women tend to go along with this, even though it hurts them. Yet in reality a Monk could hug a woman to his chest and not fall into offense (Not that it should be done lightly or casually, because it looks bad, but if his motivations are pure, for example to comfort her because she’s experiencing intense pain, there is no offense for him. And if she falls madly in love with him due to that act of kindness she’ll probably become a Nun).

    Personally I resolve to absolutely never treat a woman badly, whatever she may do to me. For example, from BMC1 Pr1: “a bhikkhu wakes up to find himself being sexually assaulted by a woman, gives her a kick, and sends her rolling. The warning: This is how a bhikkhu still subject to sensual lust should act if he wants to protect his state of mind.”
    What troubles me; is the apparently glowing endorsement for committing violence against a woman!!! What’s with that? It seems difficult to conceive of any situation where violence might be endorsed against another man, but against women, well ya know, they only understand fear and violence?!! In MN21 – The Simile of the Saw, the Buddha roundly condemns violence (even violent thoughts!) – even if bandits are sawing your limbs off! Yet if a girl rubs her body against you, feel free to clobber her? The ‘lash out’ solution is certainly easy and convenient, but it’s not one we’re meant to be giving into under any circumstances, that is simply not the conduct of a samana.

    In reality coldness and hostility tends to be provocative of lust. Men know this all too well – if a girl plays hard to get (intentionally or unintentionally) she becomes all the more desirable and nothing is ‘hotter’ than an angry, flustered woman.
    In my own experience it’s no different for women, treat her coldly and with hostility and it can just stir her up, “he’s hot when he’s angry” – or if she’s actually completely innocent and one just perceives her as being corrupt, that rejection may cause her deep, severe, prolonged pain.

    I have never had any trouble at all with a woman whom I’ve been exclusively kind, gentle and respectful towards. I have received some very nice complements such as “You’d make a great husband!”, but a woman has never made inappropriate sexual advances towards me, and I would say this is out of respect for me and respect for herself.
    For the average woman, there is no shortage of men who would jump at the chance to have sex with her, but a man who actually respects her and listens to her? She will cherish her friendship with that man like a priceless gem and would do nothing to tarnish it. And if he is a Monk, she may well be motivated and inspired to enter the monastic life herself.

    We all do well to recognize that women are basically good (not only men, women should recognize this too!). This is obvious and evident. From my own experience I can not recall even a single instance where a woman has broken a precept in a monastery (I wish I could say the same for Monks!). I haven’t even heard a word-of-mouth story about a woman lustfully assaulting a Monk, it probably only happens in male fantasy. Women are perfectly capable of restraining themselves and, given half a chance, making an enormously positive contribution to any community.
    From where then comes this attitude that women are basically bad?
    All I can say is that it does not make any sense at all, it has no basis in reality, you could scour the earth and find little but groundless prejudice. It is simply defilement of the mind.


  17. Interesting reading…..please don’t stop this nonsense!!

    Women want ‘sovereignity’, which according to the Oxford dictionary means to be ‘exempt from external control’ ….I’m not so sure. On a superficial level, yes this seems to be the case. Although I don’t think this wanting sovereignity is gender specific, but it is definately more of a challenge if you happen to female rather than male. And that is working on the premsiss that to be exempt from external control is even vaguely possible anyway..

    Perhaps on a deeper level women, like men, crave one thing. Peace. A deep sense of ‘sabaiiness’, freedom from suffering both on a personal and also on a global level, a sense of contentment and dare I say, love…. which is not specific to anything or anyone but merely that sensation which is independent of a sense of ‘self’ which obliterates that sense of ‘self’…..

    Um…as a female do I want sovereignty over myself? ….I don’t think this is possible given what I understand of buddhist philosphy and even more impossible given what I know of buddhist monastic systems!

    Anyway, just some thoughts with metta..

    • Your right anandaroad … please do not stop the flow of free thinking ‘nonsense’ (definition I assume courtesy of Buddhist Group!!)

      I too leapt for the dictionary to confirm the definition of sovereignty and was not happy with it in the context of Bhante Sujatos thought provoking post

      As with most translations from pali to english I would think that “sovereignty” is a best of a bad bunch option

      My humble thoughts are that independence, peace, freedom from suffering, to love and being loved are all part of that definition

      With Metta

    • The Pali word is an abstractive from issariya, from issara, ‘lord, creator god’, so i think ‘sovereignty’ is a fairly good rendering.

    • Hi Bill and Anandaroad, I think the difficulty you are having with the word “sovereignty” is related to the fact that it is usually used in a political context, and Bhante’s discussion follows this in discussing women’s desires for power and the reasons for them. But I don’t think the Buddha was saying that women essentially want political power, or sovereignty over others, or even over themselves.

      Like men, women desire all sorts of things – sometimes admirable things like peace and love and the restoration of the four-fold sangha, but other times, speaking for myself, less lofty things (just today, for instance, I had the seemingly irresistable desire to pick a fight with someone – but that’s another story).

      In saying that women want sovereignty, I think the Buddha and the hag in the story of Gawain are not giving us a straight-forward answer to the question ‘what does a woman want?’ – they’re setting us a riddle. And Gawain shows us the answer to the riddle: it’s the obvious (yet surprisingly hard to see) fact that if you really want to know what a woman wants, the best way to find out is to ask her.

      No amount of scholarly or psychological analysis, however insightful, can substitute for asking her this question. Not even the Buddha can answer it, in any concrete sense – because in the matter of a woman’s desires, he’s not sovereign; no one but the woman is. Her desires are the subjects of her own little, sometimes peaceful, other times turbulent kingdom, and she is responsible for ruling them. (Not to say she’ll always do such a great job of this – well, it’s a challenging task…)

  18. On the salubrious effects of granting sovereignty to women, see this article from Sunday’s New York Times:
    It is a look at the rebuilding of coastal communities in South India since the tsunami five years ago. Aid workers rebuilt communities, but they stipulated that the new houses had to be titled in the women’s names. It has transformed the fabric of those communities.

    I imagine granting women equal sovereignty within Buddhist communities might have a similar benefit.

    • Thanks so much, David, what an inspiring article. Shiva did his work of destruction, giving a clean slate for Vishnu to rebuild. It’s hard to accept, but deep positive change rarely comes without great price.

  19. Bhante,

    Is this what you were looking for?
    “A woman’s goal is a man, her ambition is for adornment, her resolve is for a child, her desire is to be without a rival, her fulfillment is authority” (A iii 363)

    With Metta

  20. Brilliant Bhante! This article brings legend, mythology and archetypal powers and reality to the table. Yes, I was at a meeting with Ajahn Kovida and the three senior monks of Chithurst. We were trying to understand what had happened that all of a sudden the tables were turned, the carpet pulled from under out feet, there was no discussion and no one had even had the courtesy of letting us know in good enough time to talk things through as a group of sisters. The answer the explanation and the reason all rolled into one was: “Nuns were insatiable”.

  21. Hi Everyone,

    David mentioned that he heard that Santi is ‘co-educational’ and asked for clarification as to exactly what that means.

    Santi is a monastery set in 150 acres of pristine eucaplypt forest in the Southern Highlands of New South Wales. It bestrides the Morton National Park which rolls on seemingly forever in a course of misty valleys and ridges.

    The grounds are divided into a womens’ section, a mens’ section and common areas. The whole community comes together to work in the mornings, and participate in other joint activities such chanting, meditation, dhamma talks, classes and meals which, of course, occur in the commons areas.

    To those who would like to know what gender relations are like here, I extend a warm invitation to come to our beautiful monastery! Santi is a very ehipassiko kind of place.


    • Hi Jason

      I just wanted to add my support to your comments

      I had visited Santi a number of times for single day visits and was thoroughly impressed with the community there, different nationalities as well as genders all coming together in harmony

      I was fortunate enough to be able to stay for an extended weekend a few months back and found the community worked wonderfully well together, we were Buddhists first and foremost and gender was not an issue at any stage, for me it was a pleasure and an honour to be so readily accepted by all there

      I certainly feel privileged to now be a lay member of this inspirational community

      With Metta

  22. Those assuming women are some how less ‘whatever’ than a man, forget it is their mothers who brought them into the world, (and in most instances)fed, raised, nurtured and cared for them. Wow, what a lady! If she could do all that, why can’t she be offered the same opportunities for spiritual development as a man would?

  23. Doesn’t this discussion extend to gays, lesbians and transgendered people as well? There aren’t just two fixed sexes with everyone falling neatly into one or the other. To my understanding Buddhism doesn’t have the hangups (or at least any justification for those hangups) that other religions do.

  24. Perhaps a little off the point…? But i wanted to say, Absolute truth can be used very ignobly sometimes. For example, an esteemed monk may reply- ” No man, no woman. No monk , no nun…” and yes, he is correct in an absolute sense. But if this is a reply to a question about discrimination towards women and nuns, it is a misuse of truth. Not helpful at all.

  25. i was thinking about this a lot while on holiday, & also read feminist anthropolgist/midwife Shelia Kitzinger’s book “ourselves as mothers”.

    when i sat down to meditate, instead of being able to meditate, a lot of ideas came into my mind.

    before i always used to think it such a cruel sexist injustice that women were demonised by religion and culture. i put it down to simply one of many means to oppress women, and believed it was all a fabrication. men were afraid of women’s sexuality and envious of their reproductive power – that’s why these notions of women being insatiable creatures bent on destruction flourished.

    But while i was sitting i could see the shred of truth that was taken up & used against women as a gender. going back to Lisa’s comments, i think ego in women has the potential to use the feminine in it’s search for power, and that if you were to say that the female ego was less strong than the male ego that would be the same as saying women have less propensity for enlightenment (sorry i know this is confusing).

    of course men & women both have sexual desires, but these manifest in different ways. for some women the idea of have power over a man’s mind can be a potent aphrodisiac. This is why women have been fed this whore/virgin dichotomy for so long. by conditioning women to sublimate their sexual desires, whether through clitoral mutilation, stigma, beauty propaganda, the medicalisation of childbirth or praise for ‘good women’, the ‘dangerous’ female is kept at bay. so it does serve some moral purpose but it would be better for women to understand their desires & overcome them this way.

    take the burning of witches for example. the vast majority would have been innocent of trying to do harm, but surely there were a few women who let the power of their position (as midwives, healers, etc) go to their head, some that murdered babies.

    i guess what i’m saying is that i feel less aggrieved by the popular characterisation of women as insatiable & destructive in religious literature, because i can see from looking deeply that it is not a complete & utter misrepresentation, not a total figment of patriachal imagination and, actually, as a woman on the path, it is quite useful for me to recognise these inherently female egoistic patterns in myself, rather than purely dismissing them as offensive sexist rubbish. i thought i was such an innocent little lamb, wronged by the bible & other religious literature, but it wasn’t QUITE as simple as that.

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