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.