Monks and the Feminine

C.G. Jung, Aspects of the Feminine.

p.21 (#401)
… spiritualization always means the retention of a certain amount of libido, which would otherwise be immediately squandered in sexuality. Experience shows that when the libido is retained, one part of it flows into the spiritualized expression, while the remainder sinks into the unconscious and activates images that correspond to it…

p. 22 (#402)
The detachment of libido from the object transfers it to the subject, where it activates the images lying dormant in the unconscious.

I’m still reading Jung, and finding here and there glimpses of understanding. I feel a bit of a klutz, groping around in the dark for some understanding of the things that are in me and around me. I’m not at all sure I understand what Jung is getting at, yet there are things that illuminate some of the basic problems that i have been struggling with. People still ask me, ‘How come some monks have such negative attitudes towards women?’ and after all this time, I still really don’t know. But in these couple of fragments, perhaps, I’ve grokked another little piece of the puzzle.

First up, the usual disclaimers (skip to the next paragraph if you’re not interested.) I’m writing from a normative male hetero position, so if you’ve got perspectives to share from other viewpoints, please do. These thoughts are rough, still in the process of formation, and no doubt somewhat crude. That’s what blogs are for! I’m still, as in my recent post on Letting Go the Hero, trying to understand something of the group psychology of the Sangha, especially the Western Sangha. That obviously includes me, so this is partly autobiographical. However, despite my long time in the Sangha, these are not really issues that the monks discuss among themselves, so I am really unsure how generally they can be applied. This is a set of thoughts, which are of course informed by my experience, but not based on detailed empirical study.

Before we start, a little point on terminology. We are used to using the word libido in the Freudian sense of ‘sexual energy’. However Jung, in a manner characteristic of his critique of Freud, used it much more broadly, to mean ‘psychic energy’ in general, including sexual energy – as in the first quote above – but typically much broader.

The discussion in which the above quotes occur is called ‘The Worship of Woman and the Worship of the Soul’. In Jung’s thought, the soul in men is the anima, the internalized image of woman. Jung is concerned with the relationship between external forms of devotion to the feminine, such as the worship of Mary in medieval Europe, and men’s relationship with actual women, on whom the idealized anima is projected. His discussion here is complex, and I don’t understand all of it. Nevertheless, the basic dynamic he is expressing here seems clear enough.

When a person desires an object, there is a movement of psychic energy (libido) towards it. they become invested in that thing, consumed with a need to possess it, and fixated upon it. This happens with any object of desire – chocolate, beer, gambling, cars, whatever. If a person is not able to restrain that desire, they are doomed. This is what we call addiction. The object becomes, not just one among many things that might provide some passing pleasure to leaven life’s struggles, but the purpose of living itself. So it is essential, regarding any object of desire whatsoever, that restraint and moderation be found. We learn this from the cradle. It is not an exclusively ascetic or monastic principle, but something that everyone must develop.

If there is sufficient restraint regarding the object of desire, one’s psychic energy is not so completely bound up with that, and there is excess energy for higher things – whatever that may be. It may be simply having a responsible attitude to work, or the energy to invest time into one’s family, or any relatively refined and selfless activity. Or, of course, it may be activities of a distinctly spiritual kind, such as meditation.

Jung’s point here is that whenever such development happens, it is never completely simple. While on the one hand there is a genuine development, such development never really uses 100% of the available libido. Some of that is cut off where it sinks down and remains in potential form in the unconscious. It’s like squeezing a balloon in the middle – it bulges out at both ends.

Actually, any energetic transformation is similar, if you think about it. When we burn a log, the potential energy that has previously be fixed in the wood is liberated and can be used for a variety of good purposes. But there’s always ashes left behind and these have to be dealt with.

This process happens in monks in more-or-less the same way it happens for anyone else. The difference is not of kind but of degree. We undertake our vows of celibacy and so on, which require a huge redirection of our psychic energies, in a way that is far more drastic than most ordinary life experiences. The restraint of monastic life does indeed liberate a tremendous energy, which I felt very strongly as a young monk. There is a burning enthusiasm, sense of certainty, dedication to the task, willingness to undertake ever more ascetic practices to free up even more energy. It is this energy that the Indic tradition calls tapas, the burning fervor of asceticism, which is rightly believed to have such potency that it can unseat the very gods themselves.

Let us consider the process more carefully. A young man feels attraction, desire for women, who is perceived as an object external to him. Normally that desire leads him to an intimate relationship, with sexual, emotional, intellectual, and other dimensions. Prior to entering into such a relationship, however, he already has an image of woman in his mind, the anima. He projects this image onto the women he meets; while it is true that our encounters with all people are colored by our subjective projections, this is even more strong in the case of members of the opposite sex, who are perceived as ‘other’. In the relationship itself, he encounters the gap between his idealized woman and the actual woman he experiences, and his ability to negotiate this, together of course with the woman’s corresponding process, determines the outcome of the relationship. In other words, not only is there an external relationship between two people, there is an internal relationship in each person, between the feminine (or masculine) as imagined (the anima/animus) and as experienced in the other person.

This relationship moderates the man’s experience of the feminine; his fantasies, whether sexual or spiritual, become more mature and moderate as his love grows and he understands more of what she is in herself, rather than his projections.

Now, there is the decision to go forth. This comes, it may be, when the development that a sexual relationship formerly supported becomes stuck. Instead of leading him upwards to greater love and empathy, it becomes restrictive and binding. He withdraws from intimate sexual and emotional connection with women. The energy that formerly was directed to this external relationship is strongly restrained, and directed upwards. No longer loving just one woman, he loves ‘all sentient beings’. A variety of spiritual teachings and practices are employed to enable this transformation. The Sangha offers a supportive community where his choice is valorized and his development applauded.

During this process, notice how the specific objects and activities of the mind change, but the common factor is energy. In relationship, one brings tremendous energy to another person in thought, speech, emotion, behavior. When one ordains, or undertakes a similar spiritual transformation, this energy is redirected to ones’ spiritual practices. And the result is an energy of consciousness, a realization of purified, bright states of mind. This is a general feature of spiritual transformation, not just the specific case of monasticism that I am considering here.

And then there are the ashes. What is left behind? In general, all one’s negative thoughts, experience, or emotions regarding the feminine. As I have said before, any development leaves something behind – the sesa – and this is not necessarily a problem, as long as we deal with it. Empty out the trash every so often, no worries. Nevertheless, there often are problems, depending on the situation. And the monastic situation is no different.

It seems to me that there are a number of potentially problematic areas here. The most general is simply the size of the transformation. It’s a big shift, and the energies involved can simply overwhelm our coping mechanisms – which one can see in many of the monastics who choose to disrobe.

More specific to this context, however, is that as monks we see ourselves as Heroes of Consciousness. We’re out there on the cutting edge, battling defilements, getting those cool states of altered consciousness, not like those defiled laypeople still blindly trapped in their attachments. We’ve let go a lot, and to compensate we identify strongly with our new situation, our communities, our Awakened teachers. It is hard for us to think that the painful and difficult practices we do may, in fact, have a cost. So we excessively focus on the higher development which we are so heavily invested in, and strongly disidentify with the rubbish that has been left behind. We really don’t want to know. This disidentification strengthens the tendency, already mentioned, to see ones’ own feminine side, or at least the shadow of this, as ‘other’ and hence to project it out from the unconscious onto actual women.

This is even further exaggerated due to another factor, that is, the lack of meaningful relationship with real women. When entering the monks’ life, one does not merely stop having sex with women, one hardly even sees or talks to them at all. This is especially true in the first few years of monastic life, when restraint of sexuality is a dominant force in shaping the lifestyle. This means that ones’ ability to empathize with and understand real women remains largely frozen at the point when one ordains. After that, ones’ anima is essentially split off from relationship with real women, and takes its own course. It is free to idealize or demonize women without the complicated business of dealing with actual women.

If ones’ anima was essentially healthy and balanced before this, there should be no problem. Obviously, however, this is often not the case. In any group of men there will be some whose relationship with the feminine is troubled and unhealthy; this is also true of monks. It is possible that among monks this may be even higher than the general population, as men come to monastic life seeking a refuge from women, but I don’t know whether this is actually the case.

So, as an result of the spiritual transformation of ordination, monks will have a residue of negative attitudes around women. This will presumably last until Awakening. In many cases this will be expressed through simple, normal means: dreams, negative emotions, crude locker-room chat, and the like. When it is recognized for what it is, the monk understands it is unwholesome and lets go. No big deal. In some cases, however, either because of the strength of the problem or the inadequacy of the means of dealing with it, it is not recognized and will form unhealthy patterns of thought, emotion, and ideology.

A word of caution here: don’t reify this tendency. I’m not saying this is a dominant force, or that there are not many other issues to consider, including a monk’s relation to his masculinity. I’m trying to understand why there has been such an outcry of opposition to bhikkhuni ordination among some circles of monks. The conventional explanations in terms of legal proceedings are manifestly inadequate to account for the tremendous energy that was unleashed; and, what’s more, the even more tremendous energy of the support for bhikkhuni ordination clearly touches on something far deeper than simply the existence of a few woman practicing meditation in a forest somewhere.

So, what’s next for our woman-challenged monk? Projection. When he detaches his libido from his relationships with real women – as described in the second quote above – the energy becomes internalized as a magnification of his own feminine. The shadow side of this sinks into the unconscious, where it becomes ‘not mine’. As long as it is undisturbed, he can rest assured, since the development of the higher feminine – through, say, metta meditation and the like – is in fact taking place quite well at the same time. However, with the proper stimulus, his unwholesome attitudes are expelled from his unconscious and their energy, which may be very great, is experienced in the external object, that is, a real woman or women.

This projection is not formless – for example, it is not sheer emotion – but is shaped by various symbols or images that characterize the feminine. These images lie very deep in the psyche, and appear in countless forms. Context gives them specific meaning. Perhaps the most pervasive feminine image is the vessel. In medieval thought this appears as the Holy Grail – which may be identified with Mary’s virginal womb – but at the same time it is the witch’s cauldron. In this article, in fact, Jung argues that the late medieval scourge of the witch hunt was an outcome of the excessive idealizing of Mary.

p. 20 (#399)
‘Since the psychic relation to women was expressed in the collective worship of Mary, the image of woman lost a value… In the unconscious the image of woman received an energy charge that activated the archaic and infantile dominants. And since all unconscious contents, when activated by dissociated libido, are projected upon external objects, the devaluation of the real woman was compensated by daemonic traits. She no longer appeared as an object of love, but as a persecutor or witch. The consequence of increasing Mariolatry was the witch hunt, that indelible blot on the later Middle Ages.’

This is an interesting point. One would expect that a man’s confusion regarding women was primarily sexual, and that the bad woman would therefore be imagined as the whore – which of course does happen a lot; think of the voluptuous man-eating yakkhinis of Indian legend. Here, on the other hand, it is not the enticing, beautiful whore on whom the daemonic feminine is projected, but the repulsive witch. She is not sexy, despite that fact that she is usually suspected of unnatural congress with the devil. It is the witch who is specially subject to the hatred of spiritual man, since she operates within the same sphere. She has a source of spiritual authority that competes with his, and claims to have powers of miraculous healing and salvation that he would claim for himself alone.

Now who, I wonder, is the modern-day witch? Let me nominate one candidate: the feminist! If you hang around with western monks at all, you’ll hear this term, used in a reflexively negative sense. It’s enough to say that a person or ideology is feminist for it to be dismissed.

Like the witch, the feminist is decidedly unsexy, all hairy armpits and saggy boobs, like a classic hag of old. Her strength is not in her appearance, which implicitly valorizes men’s desires, but in her voice and her intellect. She speaks, boldly and intelligently, and does not recognize the patriarchy’s right to monopolize discourse. She intrudes on men’s domain, and does not apologize.

Just as the witch so feverishly imagined in medieval minds had little or no relation to what the women were actually doing, the stereotypical feminist has little in common with what empowered women actually do. I’m an unusual monk: I’ve actually met feminists! Yes I have, and I lived to tell the tale. I’ve even listened to them teach, read their books, and discussed things with them. They didn’t eat me up – they didn’t even shout me down with their shrill ideology, blame men for all the world’s ills, or stomp on me with their jackboots.

As a matter of fact, I have found that most feminists have a very reasonable take on things. They have lived through experiences we men have not, and have learned something from that. They have struggled to make sense of inequalities and injustices, and often have some pretty insightful things to say about them. The quality of discourse around gender issues that I have experienced in feminist circles is way, way more sophisticated and powerful than anything I’ve ever heard on the topic from monks. I’ve been so impressed that I have no hesitation in saying that I’m a feminist; and, dare I say it, if the essence of feminism is the recognition that women experience special forms of suffering and injustice, and that we have a moral obligation to work to overcome this, then the Buddha was a feminist as well.

It is hard, however, to find a monk with anything good to say about feminism. This makes its way into the Buddhism mainstream, dominated as it is by the voices of the monks, and so feminism is deprecated in Buddhism generally – I am speaking here, of course, of traditional Buddhist countries. Even those who support bhikkhunis and want to improve women’s lot rarely identify themselves as feminists, even though this is precisely what they are.

As a result, there is a disconnect with feminist discourse, and a pretty universal tendency to project negative attributes on to feminism. Feminism is, of course, originally a Western idea, although it has produced many great improvements for Asian women as well. Nevertheless, the modern bhikkhuni ordination movement, although it started in Asia and is an attempt to practice in accordance with ancient Asian customs, is often decried as ‘Western’ due to this association with feminism.

I’ve probably said too much about this connection with feminism – I don’t mean to imply this is the sole way that the daemonic feminine is projected out by monks. I have focused on this for one reason. Feminism has one great advantage: it offers a simple solution. It is easy enough for monks to get hold of some feminist books, listen to some talks, and, better yet, have some discussions about feminism with women. Not from a defensive position, just wanting to learn. The same would apply to teachings by nuns or by women generally. If the problem is disconnect from real women, and projection of negativity onto them, then learn to engage with positive, enlightening expressions of femininity.

I remember when we acquired an edition of the Therīgāthā – verses of the ancient Awakened bhikkhunis. One of the monks rejected it, energetically pushing it away and mocking any suggestion that it might have anything worth reading. (He’s since disrobed, by the way.) When you’ve seen this sort of thing often enough, you cannot avoid concluding that there is a deeply held energetic imbalance at work. Listening to women’s voices won’t solve the whole problem – but it’d be a pretty good start.

22 thoughts on “Monks and the Feminine

  1. In the previous post on a related topic, Bhante wrote:

    “The monks have found themselves by subduing their voice, and they don’t consider that maybe the women have to find themselves by expressing their voice.”

    Dear Bhante,

    I only half agree with the first part of what you said:

    “The monks have found themselves by subduing their voice”

    We move in a world where the virtues lauded by the Buddha are muted in our cultural, social, economic and political forms. They happen to be virtues which are considered culturally, socially to be feminine: patience, loving kindness, compassion, letting go of various attachments to identity (for women – often in the name of survival and caring for offspring- she has to be by the nature of power dynamics and economic distribution in the world – more flexible, in order to keep providing for herself and her offspring- in so doing, she is forced/permitted to let go of any preconceived notions of what a woman is “supposed” to do).

    In this day, these things are considered almost universally to be signs of weakness and NOT masculine: having a flexible concept of self-identity, loving-kindness, compassion, etc. Culturally, politically, socially, it is NOT widely accepted for men to embody these things. If they do, they are seen as feminine and not getting with the pack so to speak. A man must not give sign or express these things or he will be punished, socially, economically, politically.

    It is accepted culturally for women to embody these things and they are permitted to do so. The Buddha would have us believe these things come naturally for both men and women. Wouldn’t he? Therefore, I agree the Buddha was a feminist, in the sense of “liberating” all of us from associating this quality with this male form and that quality with that female form. (This is not to say that in real life there aren’t differences between men and women- saying men and women are the same is not feminism nor is it liberation nor is it practical. But our true nature offers both male and female the possibility of cultivating the same qualities. That is what the Buddha said or implied, isn’t it?)

    When men commit to this path, they are giving voice to these things. They are consciously embracing what has been subdued and prohibited for men in the mundane world and allowing these things to grow and flourish.

    The second part of your statement reads:

    “and they don’t consider that maybe the women have to find themselves by expressing their voice.”

    I would also disagree with this – to an extent:

    One of the reasons I think so many women are drawn to Buddhism is because so much of the teaching resonates with us. We find our voice so clearly in the Buddha’s teachings. Those same qualities that we have been permitted/forced socially to cultivate, such as patience, compassion, loving kindness, letting go, yet qualities that are not valued in the mundane world. A voice that is muted, ruthlessly, in social, cultural economic, political and spiritual spheres. It resonates with the Buddhas teachings. It is given time, space and value.

    Now, if I am not mistaken, a skilled teacher mirrors the student and there is also resonance in this student teacher relationship. The student is “witnessed” or met. Not in a self-cherishing light, but a spiritual witnessing or “holding” or “meeting” that triggers resonance (which is akin to voice) – it inspires faith and confidence in the student that he or she is capable of cultivating higher virtue (remarkably, in these traditionally perceived “feminine” areas) and confidence in the student that he or she is capable of deep transformation- and to go for it. In essence, the student is inspired to feel capable of resonating with the truth in the heart – voice! And here are the tools. Go!

    There is also an unconditional love and acceptance there in the teacher student relationship. These are all (remarkably, “feminine” and) conducive to finding one’s voice.

    John O’Donoghue (Irish priest and poet) said the greatest privilege is to be midwife to the birth of the human spirit – and that is what our teachers are – they help us through a difficult, beautiful and miraculous spiritual birth. (let’s not get into childhood and growing up for the time being! That is quite another more complex matter 🙂 Even one small awakening is something that no controversy or bickering or disappointment at the Sangha level can erase! The birth has taken place and my (mostly) male teachers were midwives to that.

    What I am suggesting Bhante, is that from personal experience, the majority of male monastics get it … the majority of monks I have had the privelege to receive teachings from (Asian, Western, TF or other) get it – this matter of finding voice for what are traditionally feminine paramita (if you will).

    And most are quite capable of getting it – because the Buddha’s teachings are about giving voice to that which is muted – to resonating with the breath – to resonating with the truth in the heart – that which is muted in the mundane world – the male-self- female- other world we live in (since the plough was invented 10,000 years ago).

    What was shocking was to realize that this deep wisdom, cultivating the “feminine” and “unconditional” love stops when the teaching rises up and crashes against the mundane world. The borderline we touch on here being when the female student actually wants to take the teachings to heart and take it all up as a vocation. Then it gets complicated! And it gets conditional. What a pity. For this long suffering world.

    So now you are unearthing the causes and dynamics of that clash between the nice spiritual teachings and their marriage with the mundane world. You have raised so many threads in this one thread, I do not know where to start! Certainly dealing with sexual energy must play a role. Certainly dealing with the layers of social conditioning is another. Certainly, looking deeply into aeons of deeper collective conditioning (which might explain the completely irrational fear and dismissal- and the power of it) could be another.

    But wished to present a case that male monastics get it. “They” get voice and “they” get the “feminine” – which for all the new age discussions around divine feminine sacred masculine remain for me, as the Buddha taught them –neither masculine nor feminine in their essence but only in the identities that have risen up around them over the last 10,000 years of social, economic, political construction, and the collective upodana that has gained in energy – indeed a stranglehold around our consciousness…

    May ths provide some nutriment for awakening 🙂


    • Hi Lisa,

      Thanks so much for this and later comments.

      I’m not quite sure what to make of your remarks; basically i agree with them, but they seem to exist in a curiously tangential relationship to my original point. I discussed qualities that are characteristic of the culture at Wat Nanachat and related monasteries where I ordained, and you responded by saying that the Buddha emphasized ‘feminine” virtues. I don’t have a problem with that – although I would rather say that if we are to consider Buddhist qualities through a gender lens (which is not really necessary in the end) then he encouraged a balance and integration – which may well mean a provisional emphasis on the feminine for those over-masculinized – or vice-versa. My own experience is that the aspects of metta and so on were rather less emphasized, and in fact could be treated with suspicion, while the masculine issues I discussed were the focus.

      You say that when men ordain they ‘give voice’ to these feminine qualities – but this not what I meant at all when I talked about giving up voice. I meant it in a straightforward sense: that the culture teaches us to devalue our own opinions and thoughts, and to be cautious in expressing them. Sure, I get your point, there are feminine qualities which we have the chance to nurture – great, that’s not a problem. And I also should be clear, I am not criticizing the fact that our voices are devalued – on the contrary, it is perfectly useful and valid as a developmental tool for some people – like myself. It’s just that it is the wrong medicine for some others, including, I suspect, many women.

      As for your second point, while once more I agree with the principle of what you are saying, it doesn’t reflect the experience of women in Buddhist monasteries I have stayed in, nor the experience of most Buddhist women I have discussed this with. If your experience is different, fantastic! The reality is, however, that in the Buddhist world at large, women’s voices are excluded, ignored, or marginalized. And, while you may have been lucky in your encounters – or maybe just have great paramis – most monks don’t get it. Imagine what would happen if the Wat Pa Pong Sangha were to actually invite some nuns and/or laywomen to take part in a discussion about bhikkhunis! To you or I this might seem terribly basic, but in those circles it is simply unthinkable.

      I should note as a sidebar here that I am not necessarily talking about the teachings of any particular Ajahn, although you can find these things quite commonly in Dhamma talks. It’s more the underlying culture in the monastery.

  2. To the point on flexible self-identity around vocation I would like to add:
    The monastic life takes up a more feminine form of vocation: how does the socialized masculine reconcile this?
    In the world of gender relations, we see the male “worth” (external and internal) tied very closely around producing and providing economically. A man’s value – whether anyone agrees with it rationally – and many of us dont- including the ever morphing world economies – is tied to his role as breadwinner, whether we like it or we dont ike it.
    Whereas the monastic vocation (unless you are a master “producing” books, translations and Dhamma talks) is a receptive vocation. One is receiving the four requisites and “not producing anything.”
    In some communities – especially where monastic life is not deeply rooted culturally – is this contradiction rationalized or “compensated” by superimposing or importing patriarchy, militaristic hierarchy and rejection of the feminization of the monastic vocation?

    • (The proliferation continues! 🙂
      What I am suggesting by ephasizing the aspect of vocation is that the sexual, while deserving attention, is not the only layer, perhaps not even the most powerful.
      I am suggesting that the form and the identity struggle that takes place withinn the practice in that form remains the most powerful.
      Vis a vis the mundane world, the Buddha’s teachings, if we grafted them onto the current world canvass, woud be placed squarely in the feminine (just as we could say it fits squarely in the camp that is liberal. But please erase these comments if they are not fruitful to our long term survival)
      Indeed I would go as far as saying that anyone who takes the robes is rejecting modern prescriptions around what is masculine and what is femininine and reducing them both to ashes. I would venture therefore to say that anyone taking the robes is embracing feminism in its true form and purpose.
      And then dealing with the social and psychological fallout afterwards as the realization sinks in.
      (But please let’s not forget the joy that comes with liberation from these knots)
      By ensuring that the form remains a masculine form, does that make it more masculine?

  3. While I initially hummed and hawed at the idea in this post, I also remembered what it was like for me earlier in my practice, particularly when I decided to embrace celibacy as a spiritual practice.

    Some of my basic reasoning was, if I was to content myself with one woman, then I would only be able to love her. But if I were to be celibate, then I could love as many women as I wished, and I could love men too – by breaking free from the masculine mold, I could indulge in the delightful feeling of ‘love’, unobstructed by conventions. In brief, I embraced celibacy because I could love anyone I wished – that love not bound up by anything except the awareness “this is a being like me”.

    Whether this is comparable to the libido thing, even with it’s rather broad definition, I do not know. In particular, the love is purified of arousal. Giving up that sexuality gives heaps of energy and happiness and opens the floodgates to wisdom development (sexuality is the most terrible set of blinders).

    Now regarding feminism, in my mind, feminism is about the empowerment of women – and this is excellent. However, when anything is bound up with anger, greed, or stupidity, then it turns bad. Feminism is no exception.
    As far as I can tell, it is feminism bound up with anger which primarily gives feminism it’s bad name. Although perhaps feminism bound up with stupidity could also be a major factor. For example, some feminists are so attached to ‘being’ the ‘inferior’ which needs to fight back, that they are simply totally unequipped to actually deal with genuine respect from men, in short, they CAN’T deal with being respected by men – and feel the need to attack those men who respect them most strenuously – in order to uphold their world-view where they are despised by men – even if it requires EARNING that despise through atrocious behavior. This I consider to be the classic trick of delusion – trying to force reality to match views. Personally, I am very well-experienced with that trick, in that I would strenuously attack women who accepted me in order to uphold my view that I ‘deserved’ to be rejected – I am more than certain that at least some of the feminists I have met were doing exactly the same thing, probably their adoption of feminism and their angry and stupid behavior came from the same root, poor self-esteem, they (rationally) adopted feminism because it seemed to offer a way-out, but (irrationally) attacked men in order to maintain their low self-esteem and state of rejection. I would not say feminism itself is at fault there. But nevertheless, an encounter with such a feminist will leave a lasting impression, and in particular a man could easily conclude that feminists thoroughly deserve the contempt with which they are often held, especially if he actually tried to give that person a chance. (Note: People can only maintain anger and stupidity for so long, persistently respecting such a person will eventually result in them integrating the idea that they do deserve to be respected)

    I didn’t mention greed – but also obviously feminism can be bound up with greed, probably most obviously in ‘one-upmanship’ over men, where equality is not enough – the feminine must be superior. This quickly turns into the need to put men down, since reality is largely one of equality of ability between the genders. Again reality needs to be made to play along with the views.

    But if feminism is just about empowerment of women – or even more specifically, enabling women to reach their potential (ultimately, arahantship!), then I don’t see how anyone can have anything bad to say about it.

    • Dear Blake,
      Does this love get automatically purfied? Are some people more adept at this than others? Should we be more engaged, explicit and proactive in developing practices that deal with sexual energy skillfuly or is it inevitable that something somewhere will get suppressed and is there a build up of energy after many years of suppression…
      Is this something that gets skillfully discussed in monasteries or is it kept secret, deepy personal and swept under the carpet?
      …without explicitly skillful means (again a reference to Thay – where his communities allow creative undertakings such as music and calligraphy (not that this is suggested necessarily as a means for dealing with sexual energy and there is an explicit statement under precept 3 “I promise to take care of my sexual energy” as a condition for being able to keep the third precept…) can it morph gradually into anger or violence? or in an otherwise obscured direction such as the one Bhante suggested or other more miserable directions such as those we have seen in the catholic church?

    • Hi Blake,

      I find what you say here very interesting. I also have a somewhat ambivalent relationship with feminism. On the one hand, I’m very grateful for the work of ground-breaking feminists and the opportunities they have opened up to me, and I have found some wonderful insights in feminist writings, especially those focused on the richness of feminine experience, and the importance of extending social justice to all (the poetry of Adrienne Rich comes to mind, out of so many possible examples).

      There is a lot of wisdom to be found in the perspectives of those who have transformed suffering and experiences of oppression into a path of exploration and a struggle for justice. As Bhante’s remarks suggest, I think this positive transformative impulse is at the core of both Buddhism and feminism. And I wholeheartedly agree with him that for monks or men in general to read some feminist writings – or just some writings by women – could only be a good and productive thing. For men actively and openly to listen to women, whether identifiably “feminist” or not, seems essential to me, in improving relations between the sexes. Of course, women need to listen to men (and each other) too – but I think it’s fair to say that women are more likely to be socialised to do this anyway.

      On the other hand, I can also connect with what you’re saying here. I’ve seen bullying behaviour justified in the name of feminism, from people who as you say seem to be motivated by anger, caught in a delusional picture of irredeemably antagonistic relations between the sexes, and more interested in power than liberation. I’ve also had a hard time dealing with hostility from people who identify me with powerful, aggressive feminists whose successes have been their failures. Feminism is not just a philosophy and a body of literature, it’s also a battle for change in powerful structures. And in any battle some (possibly all, leaving aside arahants) people will tend to act on anger, greed and delusion at some point, rather than a fundamentally peaceful desire for justice and harmony, even if this is the core inspiration for the movement.

      Finally, to come back to your opening point – you say that if you were to content yourself with one woman as a partner in life, you think you would only be able to love her, instead of being able to extend your love ever more widely as you wish to do. I think that to cultivate true love and deep contentment within one relationship (whether sexual or not) builds an energy of love that cannot help but spread out to others, so there is not necessarily any conflict here. In any case, the wish to extend your capacity for love beyond conventional limits is a very beautiful goal, and it is inspiring to see you express this. You might enjoy a book by Thich Nhat Hanh about his experience of this process called Cultivating the Mind of Love.

      With much metta (even if I have doubts about whether it can be quantified :),

  4. Bhante,

    very interesting post! As someone who’s not a fan of Jung – I find his ideas about these archetypes being embedded in sub/consciousness odd and his association with Nazism disturbing – you’ve taken his work and done something really fascinating with it here.

    One thing I’d posit in relationship to all this is that it seems to me that there are problematics in defining particular qualities or characteristics as masculine or feminine (here again an idea which appears in Jung) – even if we say that they are present to different degrees in everyone, this, I would argue, can’t help but perpetuate the problem because it will always have inherently a certain association of ‘rightness’ between, say, women and nurturing love and kindness, or men and strength, and hence make those who do not fit this mold outsiders. There is a kind of essentialism or dualism operating here, in other words.
    Obviously society holds these views and so people come to embody and valorise them, and obviously there are biological differences between the genders which will impact on perception & behaviour (although it’s although worth remembering that, according to good ol’ Wikipedia, somewhere between 0.1 & 2 percent of babies are of ambiguous gender – not an insignificant proportion).

    Something I was reading recently (as so often, I forget what) pointed out that a transition takes place from the Pali canon where mostly it’s the body (of indeterminate gender, though obviously the male perspective is mostly assumed in the Pali canon) that is the object of meditation on loathsomeness, whereas as the tradition develops it becomes the female body specifically in its role as the object of the male gaze (as in, for example, the Bodhicaryavatara – and, also, making disappear the fact that men may feel lustful attraction for each other as well as or instead of only for women – something that I have certainly found not to be recognised in the teachings of more than a few male monks). Have you read John Powers’ “A Bull of a Man” on gender issues in the Pali canon? It looks really fascinating on these kinds of issues…

    • Hi Chromatics,

      Thanks for a thoughtful response.

      On Jung: There’s something about the way he approaches things that i find very insightful and reflective, i guess there’s a subjective quality that attracts me as much as his ideas.

      Re archetypes: I agree this notion is problematic. Jung seemed to suggest that the archetypes were in some sense biological, a racial memory encoding the collective experience of humanity in DNA. But he was not really interested in this, he was mainly looking at the actual psychological events he was confronted in his work. He explictly identified himself as an empiricist, who spent many years carefully gathering and examining evidence (his own introspection, his experiences with patients, his studies of alchemy and so on) and then made some generalizations. i don’t find his biological interpretation of archetypes persuasive: it seems to me an attempt to hitch his odeas onto a then-modern scientific theory, but the coupling of ideas is not really scientific, since its hard to imagine how it might be tested. From a Buddhist point of view i would say that the archetypes are better understood through rebirth. If we take seriously the notion that we have been born countless times before, what kinds of impressions would that leave in our mind? Clearly, most of the particulars are lost for most people. What would remain are the general outlines, patterns that recur in life after life; birth, ageing, and death; love and separation; relationships with mothers and fathers, and so on. And it is precisely these things that are Jung’s archetypes.

      Jung’s association with Nazism? please enlighten me! In his own writings he discusses eloquently the evils of Nazism and inquires into the collective psychosis that allowed it to happen.

      As to reifying gender, I agree, this is a problem. But the fact is we are presented with gender as a problem in our culture at large, and especially in monastic culture, which powerfully constructs gender. So it has to be addressed and understood, while at the same time moving towards the transcendence of gender, which is basic prerequisite of the spiritual path. I am not aware of a definite statement by Jung on this matter, but his student Neumann definitely agreed that gender tdid not exhaust the possibilities of human transformation.

      I haven’t read “A Bull of a Man”, but I hope to some time. My impression from reviews, however, is that it seems to overstate its case. While it is welcome to look at the constructions of masculinity, it is essential to note that the texts themselves point beyond this. A good example is the Sela Sutta (MN 92). The brahman Sela meets the Buddha, and praises his glorious appearance. He then ordains, becomes an arahant and sees the Buddha again. This time his praise is entirely spiritual, with no mention of the Buddha’s body. Thus as an unenlightened person Sela was inspired by the Buddha’s appearance, but not as an arahant.

    • Dear Bhante,

      thanks for your thought-provoking reply!

      I hadn’t considered archetypes in the light of rebirth – this is definitely an interesting concept.

      You sent me back to my references on the question of Nazism! I’m not an expert in the history, but as far as I’m aware Jung seems to have had a complex relationship with Nazism/anti-semitism – maybe comparable to some extent to D. T. Suzuki & the Japanese establishment during WWII and after?

      I found an article by Frosh with a general discussion, that’s free online here (but you have to register):

      It gives a historical summary – which seems even-handed, from what I can tell – of Jung’s relationship to antisemitism and Nazism during the period before and after 1933, and his problematic statements about them afterwards, in relation to his circumstances throughout.

      In short, it seems that his actions and words were mixed – that he took some actions helpful to Jewish individuals and analysts, but also that he made antisemitic comments (they’re given here, and also in Zaretsky’s engaging socio-cultural history of psychoanalysis, ‘Secrets of the Soul,’ which I think is where I first came across this material) and promoted his own methods as an ‘Aryan alternative,’ as psychoanalysis underwent incorporation (in which he participated) into the Nazi state and its exclusive, racial/ist ideals.

      From reading reviews of ‘A Bull of A Man’ I had the same response as you – postmoderns, amongst whom I usually include myself, delight in what Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick calls ‘paranoid reading,’ i.e. the employment of suspicion as an all-purpose intellectual tool and exposure as its purpose – EKS suggests that, rather, we should inquire into what knowledge does, rather than what it is, which seems, at least to me, to chime very well with Buddhist teachings. So I thought that ‘A Bull…’ sounded like it might lean too far in this direction, but nonetheless I’d like to check it out – it’s definitely an interesting endeavour and hopefully a contribution to ‘thinking gender’ in Buddhism, an issue in which you’ve been so positively involved in action & dialogue.

      With metta,

      Rowan (Chromatics)

    • Hi Rowan,

      Thanks for this, I’ll definitely have a look at the article on Jung.

      You say: “EKS suggests that, rather, we should inquire into what knowledge does, rather than what it is” Could you explain some more on that?

      Strangely enough – synchronistically? – I just read the following in Jung’s Aspects of the Feminine; the original article, “Woman in Europe”, was published in 1927. It is without doubt the least attractive of Jung’s writings that I have read. Jung is talking about changing attitudes to marriage. He argues that women of his day, many of whom could not marry because of the shortage of young men after WW1, were carrying the unconscious burden of societal trauma, experienced as the frustration of their natural wish to be in a relationship with a man. This, together with the increasing availability of contraception, leads to a psychological tension in society as these women observe marital “bliss” from the outside.

      The possessors of that bliss must be ousted, not as a rule by naked force, but by that silent, obstinate desire which, as we know, has magical effects, like the fixed stare of a snake. This was ever the way of women. (Aspects of the Feminine, p. 63, #251)

    • I must say, it’s not only women, but also snakes who are on the receiving end of character assassination here – there they are, going about their serpentine business, when humans decide that they represent the pinnacle of moral undesirability…

      The EKS essay (which is found in her book of essays ‘Touching Feeling’ – which also has an interesting essay about her practice of Tibetan Buddhism and, more generally, Buddhist pedagogy) I think is worthwhile reading for anyone with an interest in text-critical studies. The point she’s making about being (content) as against doing (process or effect) she describes as opening a space

      “for moving from the rather fixated question ‘Is a particular piece of knowledge true, & how can we know” to the further questions, “what does knowledge do – the pursuit of it, the having and exposing of it, the receiving-again of knowledge of what one already knows? How, in short, is knowledge performative, and how best does one move among its causes & effects?”‘

      This also chimes for me in terms of the debate between ‘secular’ and ‘religious’ Buddhists (rather unsatisfactory terms, but you know what I mean) – the question of whether to employ knowledge, as it is understood in the West (i.e. empirical/demonstrable rather than experiential) as a ‘proof test’ of non-materialist Buddhist belief and accept or reject on that basis – or whether to (also) look at those beliefs – which remain, at least initially, faith-based rather than personally experienced for the majority – in terms of their consequences & meaning for action and practice.

      This distinction also reminds me of Sue Hamilton’s ‘Early Buddhism’ where she argues that the Buddha’s teaching is a phenomenology and was never intended as an ontology – in other words, a processual ‘does,’ not an ontological ‘is.’

      Of course, all this isn’t to say that the modernist truth-finding exercise isn’t crucial – to me we’re in a blossoming ‘Higher Criticism’ period where scholar-monks such as yourself, and also academic scholar-practitioners, are looking at the Tipitaka and related canonical texts both as Dhamma AND in terms of text-historical authenticity – which of course feed into each other and have a reciprocal relationship with practice. It’s exciting!

      With metta,


    • it’s not only women, but also snakes who are on the receiving end of character assassination here

      well, thank you for sticking up for the snake.

      And thanks for the explanation. For me the critical thing is not that one or other of these approaches is better, but that there must be, as always, balance and integration. In academic studies it may be that the concern is overmuch for finding out “facts”, but in spiritual circles the problem is that people just don’t care what the facts are…

  5. Lisa Karuna :
    Dear Blake,
    Does this love get automatically purfied?

    Well, this is how I see it. Lets say there’s a woman, who is young and attractive, but she is also intelligent, creative, insightful, self-confident, wise.

    So in my mind, there will be a hodge-podge of feelings/emotions. The most noisy and coarse will probably be sexual attraction. But there will also be a recognition of her qualities (expressed through action) which make her worthy of respect. Respect, is a much more powerful driver of ‘love’ than sexual attraction.

    If I succeed in generating the perception that she is a sage, then that respect (for a sage) will absolutely dwarf feelings of sexual attraction, and because that feeling arising from respect, is pleasant and liberating, the mind prefers it and makes much of it and sexual lust gets pushed out and cannot arise anymore with reference to her – since it is the respect which automatically comes up. In that way the ‘hodge-podge’ is purified of sexual arousal.

    This does require that the woman ACTUALLY have sage-like qualities, however. It’s a much taller ask to generate respect to a woman who generally acts in a way provocative of lust or anger. Admittedly, in my experience, most women are smarter than they act, and it’s not hard to draw that intelligence out so the mind has something a bit more interesting to work with.

    But perhaps the most important thing for me personally – is that I was willing to ‘suspend disbelief’ and actually recognize a young woman as being capable of being wise. This was of great fruit and benefit to me (because sages are rare in this world and beggars can’t be choosers).

    Are some people more adept at this than others? Should we be more engaged, explicit and proactive in developing practices that deal with sexual energy skillfuly or is it inevitable that something somewhere will get suppressed and is there a build up of energy after many years of suppression…

    Well inevitably some are more skillful than others.
    I think we should always be more engaged with issues surrounding sexuality. In my experience, making something “the mystery” or “the taboo” simply increases the minds obsession with it.

    Is this something that gets skillfully discussed in monasteries or is it kept secret, deepy personal and swept under the carpet?

    It’s basically blasphemy. If you talk this way you’ll get labeled as having issues and get lectures on how women are evil.

    …without explicitly skillful means (again a reference to Thay – where his communities allow creative undertakings such as music and calligraphy (not that this is suggested necessarily as a means for dealing with sexual energy and there is an explicit statement under precept 3 “I promise to take care of my sexual energy” as a condition for being able to keep the third precept…) can it morph gradually into anger or violence? or in an otherwise obscured direction such as the one Bhante suggested or other more miserable directions such as those we have seen in the catholic church?

    Well, regarding skillful means, I consider that a reverence for the vinaya is absolutely essential. It is the fence on lust and anger.
    Take for example, Monks Sanghadisesa 4 – suggesting to a woman that it’s meritorious to have sex with a monk, is a sanghadisesa offense.

    While that offense may sound funny, it’s REALLY important to have utmost respect for a rule like that one and not go anywhere near such speech.

    If a man does not harbor utmost respect for the vinaya, then I could see him getting into all sorts of trouble, if he generates positive feelings towards pretty women.

    A love of celibacy is also very helpful, but that love of celibacy is generally much easier to maintain when there’s not much choice – when there is a choice, and lust comes up powerfully, then that is where the vinaya is very helpful.

    I admit that I do prefer to practice dangerously – I’d prefer to be in a situation where I need the vinaya to survive, rather than in one where I can’t possibly break the vinaya.

    Overall, I’m cautious about recommending the kind of practices I find beneficial – this is not because it wouldn’t be beneficial to others, but because it’s easy to misrepresent. If I do ever talk about sexuality, I will also include talking about a love of celibacy and vinaya. Probably, ultimately, the best way to manage sexual energy is to be openly celibate and praise celibacy – then there wont be any confusion, it’ll be clear to everyone what is and is not okay.

  6. Dear all,
    I find this a very interesting topic to discuss, though i’m not very articulated as Bhante and Lisa Karuna. Thank you, Lisa for many insightful ideas (not Papanca, anyway!). First to B.S, the ashes of Tapas in ascetic or spiritual practice should become relics. i learn that recently people can turn human remains in form of ashes to diamond by compressing them under very hight temperature & pressure. This is how holy persons do, by the heat and will of tapas, they turn ashes into relics. I say this not figuratively but literally. But we, the imitators of holy, not quite well transformed libido force into Metta, karuna, mudita and upekkha yet,the ashes turn into aches! That is why some monks that BS met, and some feminists that Blake encountered behave in such a disgraceful way. I still love this ancient nun’s talk to Mara:

    “What does womanhood matter at all
    When the mind is concentrated well,
    When knowledge flows on steadily
    As one sees correctly into Dhamma.
    One to whom it might occur,
    ‘I’m a woman’ or ‘I’m a man’
    Or ‘I’m anything at all’ —
    Is fit for Mara to address.”
    [Bhikkhu bodhi translation from Pali, Gradual Saying,Bhikkhuni vagga)
    She did not claim being a feminist at all. Why on earth such a need? Is that the social injustice, the cultural biases, the economical conditions demand ‘manly’ or masculine qualities and dismiss ‘feminine’ that cause women more suffering then men? Biologically, women are more receptive to suffering then men. They have menstruation, child-bearing, child-birth, child rearing, etc. Culturally, they are expected to be more humble and gentle even when she has to do more works then men, and not to express their resentment or anger at this unjust assignment (if they are wives & mum at the same time; at this point, i feel how lucky i am as a nun!). Look at this:
    Bhikkhuni Sumangalamātā
    “So freed! So freed!
    So thoroughly freed am I —from my pestle,
    my shameless husband & his sun-shade making,
    my moldy old pot with its water-snake smell.”

    But feel ashamed for not being able to do this:

    “Aversion & passion
    I cut with a chop.
    Having come to the foot of a tree,
    I meditate, absorbed in the bliss:”What bliss!”
    [Thig. 2:3, translated from Pali by Thanissara Bhikkhu, Access to Insight]
    Psychologically, most women prefer not to be the leader, but taking a more humble or lesser role as assistant, adviser, etc. Even when some women try to be the leader or spiritual teacher, still she finds it hard to get supports and loyalty of people around her. That makes her more vulnerable to be controlling and ironically, the controlling tendency itself diminishes her role as a good leader or spiritual teacher.
    Why many monks do not want Bhikkhuni exist? I think, this is because of Macchariya (stinginess/selfishness) as concern to attainment, teaching and resources. If there are competent bhikkhunis, they have to share all these things, and they feel somewhat losing the absolute power. This, in M 22 (the simile of water snake), it is described as the fear to loss something that has never been yours.

  7. p.21 (#401)
    “… spiritualization always means the retention of a certain amount of libido, which would otherwise be immediately squandered in sexuality.”

    I actually disagree with this 100%. (maybe for young folks it is true); Yet in older folks (I’m 50 now) you can have a very high libido; and enjoy sexuality; …..and still have a higher and higher level of spirituality as you age. (a oneness with all living beings too) I believe that we are Spiritual Beings having a Physical Experiences; and are meant to enjoy the physical aspects of our beings.. (well some of us).

    I am practicing celibacy more the last year.. but more because of the lack of men in my age group that have a high level of E.Q. Emotional Intelligence. Too many are spiritually lacking due to divorces; and other issues; .. and MOOD DRUGS are the number one drug in America now. It is a pill for everything. It seems like the single ones have not worked on their divorce issues;.. and all the good ones are in solid marriages (which is a wonderful thing of course in society). I feel like my brothers are not in a good place spiritual; as least the ones my Karma is making me meet. (they drink too much and change partners too much; and it is with any degree and income .. i have the opportunity to have dated from all social levels..)

    It has been a good lesson for me to practice acceptance and become non-judgmental; and be filled with compassion more of late for my brothers ; than with resentment. Good lesson that is helping me reach a higher level of Peace. The Universe brings lessons we should learn in our journey.. toward enlightenment.

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