The Imaginariums of the Nuns: Days That Are Past and Futures That May Yet Be

Here’s the paper I presented at the recent Sakyadhita conference in Yogyakarta. It may be the last piece of writing I publish for a while, so enjoy.

Nuns exist only in the imagination. When I close my eyes, and focus on what is real, there are no nuns there. Nor, for that matter, are there any monks, or lay people, or anyone else. So if we are to talk about any of these kinds of people, we are telling a story—a story that has some relation to fact, we hope, but where the facts are filled in with copious amounts of imagination.

We imagine a past and call it “history.” We imagine a future and call it “vision.” We imagine the present and call it “reality.” Or, to be sadder but more accurate, in Buddhism we mostly just imagine a past and say that’s “the way it is,” and we never imagine any future at all.

But if we are to have a future, it will be a future with nuns, and specifically with bhikkhunīs. The alternative is to let Buddhism be owned by the patriarchs, who coopted the Dhamma, used it to accumulate power, prestige, and real estate, and who hang on to these things even as they fade away into irrelevance. But this is no future at all. There is tremendous vitality and energy within the Buddhist world, we can see it in so many ways everywhere we look. And none of it, none of the spark, the renewal, the creation of possible futures, is happening within the halls of the patriarchs.

I became interested in the bhikkhunī issue when I noticed, as many people do, that most of the people who come to learn and practice Dhamma are women. Why is this so? One patriarch in Thailand, so I heard, said it was because all the dedicated men have ordained as monks. Ridiculous; the same phenomenon is seen everywhere, in places where there are few monastics of any sort; and anyway, it’s the same in other religions as well.

I asked a man at my former monastery in Thailand, and he said, “It’s because the men are working hard and have no time to come to the monastery.” “Funny,” I thought, “I always seem to see women working hard in the villages and men lounging around all day.”

So I did something very few monks ever seem to think of: I asked a woman for her opinion. She said, “It’s because the men prefer to go gambling, drinking, and whoring while their wives are at the temple.”

Tempting as it is, I don’t think that’s really the answer either. These are just imaginariums: worlds we live in that we build from our own thoughts and ideas. These worlds have some relation to the facts, but they are flexible and uncertain.

In my own imaginarium, the real reason why most spiritual seekers are women is because they are disempowered. It is because the opportunities for them in other spheres of life have been successively blocked or restricted. In addition to the absolute barriers of overtly sexist cultural constructs, there is the more subtle, pervasive, and ultimately more damaging “soft sexism,” which does not actually stop women from doing anything, but adds a grit to whatever women do, slowing them down, and making everything more work than it needs be. Everything is harder for women than it is for men.

So, they end up turning inwards. Let go of the external: you’ll never change it anyway, right? Change yourself, that’s the real Dhamma anyway.

Last year we had a series of sutta discussions in Sydney and invited a panel of young people to help out. One of the guys was seriously manspacing. You know what I mean: men taking up too much space—an unconscious assertion of male privilege. One of the women politely asked him to restrain himself, as it was seriously difficult for them to fit at the table. One of the other women jumped in and said, “Shouldn’t we just take this as a practice and let it go?” This is an example of how patriarchy gets internalized and women become its best defenders. Meanwhile, the guy did shrink his space—by about an inch or two. He was still taking up twice as much space as the women, apparently oblivious to the fact, even when it was pointed out. And the women exhausted their energies on the issue by disagreeing with each other. This is how the patriarchy wins.

When we talk about Buddhist history, we talk about what we imagine. The facts, such as they are, are barely relevant. A patriarch once said to me that we can’t have bhikkhunīs, because “It’s been like this since the beginning”.

When I started working on this issue, I took this attitude as a challenge and investigated the history of bhikkhunīs. Like others before me and since, I found that this simply was not the case. In the beginning, there were bhikkhunīs. There were also bhikkhunīs when Buddhism went to Sri Lanka and, according to our oldest records (the Sri Lankan vinaya commentaries, found in both Pāli and Chinese), there were bhikkhunīs when Buddhism was founded in Suvarnabhūmi (Myanmar/Thailand). But when I tried to bring these and many other findings to the attention of monks, I was disappointed to find they were not very interested. Patriarchs are proud of their history and try to maintain everything exactly as they imagine it was. When the facts at our disposal disagree with these imaginations, they are brushed aside. The past is not a reality; it is just another imaginarium.

I was very naïve. I thought that if the monks could learn about the situation, we would respond in an informed, compassionate manner. How wrong I was! What struck me was how little reason there was in the discussion, and how much energy. Whenever bhikkhunīs were mentioned, otherwise reasonable men came up with all kinds of absurd, irrational statements, pushed by a palpable psychic force: a compulsive need to deny the reality of bhikkhunīs at all costs. Many of the patriarchs are, it seems, quite willing to destroy themselves and their religion in order to deny bhikkhunīs.

I wrote a book about these things and I called it White Bones Red Rot, Black Snakes. It is the longest and most complex thing I have ever written or probably ever will write. I like it, but I think hardly anyone has read it. It’s a book about myth, about magic, about taboo, about bodily fluids, about imagination, and about darkness—all things that do not sit easily with how we like to think about Buddhism. But the gist of the book is simple. I’ll summarize it point by point, so you don’t have to read the whole thing. (But you should. It has very nice pictures.)

  1. How we think about bhikkhunīs in the present is conditioned (not determined!) by how Buddhists thought about bhikkhunīs in the past;
  2. How bhikkhunīs were thought of in the past is part of how women were thought of in the past;
  3. How women were thought of in the past includes dark and bright aspects; and
  4. All this happens in the minds of men.

If we are to imagine a future, then there are many things it may be, but one thing it must be is fully human. We can no longer let half of humanity arrogate the Dhamma to itself. The future of the Dhamma is human, and that is all of us.

The sight of a monastic is one of humanity’s most recognizable, powerful, and durable symbols. It was the sight of a monastic—the robes, the shaven head, the bowl—that inspired the bodhisatta, Prince Siddhartha, to go forth from home to homelessness, in the hope of putting an an end to suffering. Probably each of us has had a similar experince of this symbol. I have a very old, very dim memory—just a half-grasped echo—of a nun, a Buddhist nun, on a television show, probably Australian ABC, probably a documentary made in the 1970s. That is my earliest image of a Buddhist monastic. I don’t know who she was, but thank you: your image was mysterious, challenging, and haunting. You made a difference.

Monastics bear these signs externally. And that, for men anyway, is very easy. You can go to Thailand, show up at any of 1,000 monasteries, and get ordained this weekend. No problems, no questions. You’re a bhikkhu and you are the genuine heir to the Dhamma—or at least that’s how a male monastic’s external image is perceived. Inside, of course, is another matter.

This is an area where women are the experts. Women are used to being judged and judging on appearances. Femininity is a performance, to be beholden and to be criticized, by men and women. If you are a human being who happens to be female, becoming a monastic is a decision to stop the performance of femininity. For monks, whose monasticism is also a performance, this is not easy to accept.

Mahākassapa sometimes doesn’t get have such a good reputation when it comes to women’s issues. He comes across as a bit of a grumpy old monk who doesn’t think too much of women. One of the many pleasant surprises I came across while writing White Bones Red Rot Black Snakes was that his story, as imagined by the Buddhist community, reveals a powerful and moving insight into how femininity is performed

To be very brief, when Mahākassapa was a young man, his family wanted him to marry. But he didn’t want to, so he set an impossible task for himself. He made a beautiful statue of gold of the perfect women and he said he would only marry a woman who looked like that. Well, that was no easy matter, but messengers set out across the country, exhibiting the statue in markets and town squares. Nowhere could they find a woman so beautiful. One day, an old nursemaid came up to the statue and gave it a slap, thinking it was Bhaddā Kāpilānī, the daughter of her family, who apparently matched this ideal image. And so the marriage was arranged. Bhaddā, it turned out, was no more interested in marriage that the young man was. The two exchanged letters, but the letters were intercepted and destroyed by their families. (Notice that both were equally literate.) The two were married, but agreed to live a chaste life, with a garland of flowers lain between them in bed. When the time came, they went forth and both became arahants.

There is an interesting coda to this idealized love story. The story is found, so far as I know, only in a Tibetan source. Even as a nun, Bhaddā was so stunning that when she went to the village for alms, she had to endure the catcalls of men. So on her life’s journey, she was joined to Mahākassapa, because of her appearance. She was all image, like a statue. Through her connection with him, in a relation of mutual support and respect, they both found a path to a truer inner reality. She let go of her image and consciously chose the external signs of a renunciant to announce her inward journey. Yet the men making catcalls did not respect her choice any more than the patriarchs today respect the choices of women. When Mahākassapa heard about this, he offered to help. “Stay, Bhaddā,” he said. “You shouldn’t have to put up with this. I will collect alms for you.” Here we have, so far as I know, the first time in history that a man helped a woman deal with sexual harassment in the workplace.

Ask people who work in the field of development and they will tell you that the key to prosperity in any country is empowering women. A Google image search for “meditation” yields images mostly of women. (The images are usually white, slim, pretty young women, signaling that meditation has a diversity problem. But that’s a topic for another time.) It is obvious that if the future of Buddhism is to take a healthy form, it will include women.

We can continue to imagine a past where there were no women, or where women were content to offer food and wash robes for the monks. And we can long for a future where this simple, reassuring bit of fantasy is the only reality. But this future will never exist.

In our minds now, the future has the same dreamy haze as the imagined past. The difference is this: In every moment, that dreamy haze collides with the reality of the present. We’re tumbling headlong into a future and our dreams are constantly being exposed in the pitiless light of day. If we imagine a past where women are forever the lesser and the “other,” we’re in for a bumpy ride. But if we imagine a past where humanity is lived, in all its depravity and glory, then maybe we can start to imagine a future for Buddhism that is living.

History is on our side. We don’t have to do much of anything, just stay the course. The day of the patriarchs is over. But there is one thing that, more than anything else, can derail the future for nuns. And that is if the nuns start acting like the patriarchs.

We—and here I mean the monks who have supported the nuns—have given everything so that women can live as fully ordained nuns. To do so, we received no support from our peers and we have had to go against the power structures and hierarchies of our respective orders.

We are happy to do that, because we know that those hierarchies are not the Dhamma. They are not vinaya. In large measure, in fact, they are the exact opposite of the Dhamma and the vinaya. The notion that the sangha should be governed by a politically appointed hierarch, authorized by an act of Parliament, and imposing his will on the sangha, is a feudal system of governance that was reinvented in modern times. Yet in recent months, we have seen monks in Thailand—even so-called “forest” monks—marching on the streets of Bangkok to protect their right to be governed by a feudal hierarchy.

The vinaya as taught by the Buddha is all about collective ownership, decision making by consensus, and the rule of principle. No monastic has the power of command over any other. All monastics must participate in important decisions. It is the sangha, and the sangha alone, that has the power when it comes to making decisions in accordance with the vinaya. The vinaya gives nuns the power to choose their own destiny: to make their own decisions, to build their own monasteries, to run their own communities, and to do their own teaching.

Buddhist nuns now have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to do away with the feudal hierarchies. Don’t choose hierarchy over vinaya. Don’t choose to let this happen, and then, when it doesn’t work out, undermine your own authority by asking monks to fix it.

Let’s be clear: top-down hierarchies do not work. They create dysfunctional, sclerotic, out-of-touch institutions. In countries like Thailand, people talk of the need to reform the sangha hierarchies. But reform is what is done to correct something that is basically okay and needs to be improved. What the hierarchies need is not reform, but abolition. They’re dead weight. Get rid of them and Buddhism will be much better off.

This why the Buddha deliberately set up his sangha: to undermine hierarchy, by rejecting the preeminence of the brahmins and the nobility, by empowering every single member of his sangha. Let the Buddha’s sangha be your sangha, and let the Buddha’s vinaya be your vinaya. Hierarchies serve only the desires of men to control real estate and other worldly assets. In Buddhism, vitality comes from those who reject the hierarchies and work outside them.

Let me leave you with one of my favorite lines from the pātimokkha:

evam samvaddhā hi tassa bhagavato parisā yadidam aññamaññavacanena aññamañña-vutthāpanena

For this is how there comes to be growth in the Buddha’s following, that is, with mutual admonishment and mutual rehabilitation.

Pali bhikkhuni saṅghādisesa 16, bhikkhu saṅghādisesa 12.

45 thoughts on “The Imaginariums of the Nuns: Days That Are Past and Futures That May Yet Be

  1. Dear Bhante, thank you so much for this empowering blog. I read it with pain in my belly. Please let us know what we can contrinbute to make this stronger. With Metta, Ingrid

    • I’m so happy to hear of your belly’s pain! And no I’m not a sadist! It means something is hitting home.

      I know exactly what you mean, I’ve felt the same pain myself. It’s the pain of separation, of growing up, of life’s hard lessons. If I look for it, it’s still there, or the echo of it is. It’s hard when we hear that our refuge is not the sanctuary we hoped for. But it opens up something much better: be you own refuge, and be the refuge for others.

    • Hi Ingrid and Bhante,
      I just wanted to say that I’ve also felt the same. There have been many I times that I’ve been hurt (sometimes really hurt) by the sexism and misogyny that I’ve witnessed in the Buddhist community and in Buddhist texts. This may have been the result of having had high expectations of Buddhism and a sense of entitlement about how women should be treated (the latter only seems to increase as time goes by).
      I also loved your thoughts on hierarchy, Bhante. Incidentally, there’s a little bit of research in psychology about differences in the ways that hierarchies form in male groups and in female groups. Anyway, have a great retreat, and hopefully see you on the flip side.
      Metta,
      Beatrice

  2. Dear Bhante Sujato, this was truly a mind blowing article/speech. Thank you ever so much! I just hope that those men that need to to read it will, but alas probably not. I am not a monastic, but I have followed the contrubuition that Ajahn Brahm, Ajahn Brahmali, and yourself have given to the Bhikkunis. Without ” you guys” the Bhikkunis would not be where they are today. They have work to do, but will over time manage well. I wish you a peaceful retrat in Taiwan and will miss your bloggs! Much metta Helen

  3. Well said! After much reading on “buddhism”, I ´ve come to understand that what first came as a philosophy which was meant to free human beings has been most of the time turned into a new religion, with it’s saints and gods. Funny that those patriarchs who have read and still study so many essays don’t even realise how illogic their practises are and sad that when they realize it, they prefer to turn it down for the sake of materialistic comfort. Thank you for this meaningful essay.

    • Thanks, Sophie.

      According to the Mahaparinibbana Sutta, after the Buddha died, the next day the nations almost went to war over his relics. That’s how long it takes: one day! But if corruption is always there, renewal is, too.

  4. Sadhu! Thankyou ajahn for a truly rich and inspiring ‘departing’ message. Appreciate the story of the ‘statue bride’ . Tis not unheard of nowadays for a marriage of convenience between 2 kalayametta, true spiritual friends whose aim to support oneanothers practice is the greatest vow…help in the workplace!

  5. Read while crowded yet alone on a bus through bangkok. Hit hard. Thank you Bhante for being the voice to remind us, inspire us, teach us. Most of all thanks for the strength to just keep going, even when it feels like there’s nowhere to go. Thank you and may your retreat be fruitful and peaceful. Metta.

  6. It seems that this article reproduces some of the typical fallacies of feminist theories. 2 things stick out:
    1) “A Google image search for “meditation” yields images mostly of women. (The images are usually white, slim, pretty young women, signaling that meditation has a diversity problem.”
    Some result of a Google search doesn’t necessarily mean a lot. By that same logic, a million other things have a diversity problem. The google search result is influenced by what pictures are offered (which is mainly driven by profit-orientation, not evil patriarchy), idiosyncracies of the algorithm, and your own search habits (Yes, that means that a 70-year old black disabled trans-woman might get very different results than you do.).
    Here is another example of people making up ridiculous conclusions from google searches:
    http://slatestarcodex.com/2013/04/04/lies-damned-lies-and-facebook-part-2-of-%E2%88%9E/

    2) Everything is harder for women than it is for men.
    No. There’s obviously lots of advantages you get by being a woman (But not “everything”, obviously). Denying that is just turning a blind eye to reality. Maybe the situation is not as clear in Thailand though.

    “This is an area where women are the experts. Women are used to being judged and judging on appearances. Femininity is a performance, to be beholden and to be criticized, by men and women. If you are a human being who happens to be female, becoming a monastic is a decision to stop the performance of femininity. For monks, whose monasticism is also a performance, this is not easy to accept.”
    After reading that several times, I still don’t understand what this paragraph is about. Are you saying that Monks disapprove of Nuns stopping their performance of femininity upon ordaining?
    Are you implying that men are not being jugded on appearances and men are not expected to behave in a certain way (a “masculinity performance”, if you want to call it that)?
    Are you denying that being a Monastic always entails its own kind of performance, regardless of being a monk or nun?

    But I don’t want to complain only. The article has some good points.
    Here’s a suggestion to what we could actually do: Make it possible for women in south-east asia to ordain in “western” countries. Here, equality problems are 90% solved, but waiting for south-east asia to catch up might just take some more decades. This way, a whole generation (not all of them because of language problems, but a significant part) of women can be enabled to go forth. Maybe it accelerates the process in south-east asia when they notice that a significant part of their population is just leaving. Well, or they will start to build a wall.o_O

    • Hi, thanks for the comments.

      Just briefly, the Google search wasn’t meant as a proof, but as an example. Take another example: look at articles on meditation on the covers of major magazines like Time. Or, for that matter, pretty much any “New Age” or spiritual book, ad for meditation classes, and so on.

      As for making ordination available: bhikkhuni ordination in the modern Theravada tradition was done in Asia (Sri Lanka, India) long before it was done in the West. Now it’s happened, or will soon be happening, in most Asian countries with a significant Buddhist community, with Myanmar a major exception.

  7. it’s weird that this should at all be any issue in the Western world, in Asia the Sangha is heavily influenced by their social ‘norm’, which with respect to the status of women is quite backward in comparison with the Western society standards

    or are you speaking universally?

    speaking of countries where the Sangha is governed by state bodies, i’m not sure whether this entity can still be called a Sangha, so there’s essentially no reason to look back at a discredited organisation

    • in Asia the Sangha is heavily influenced by their social ‘norm’, which with respect to the status of women is quite backward in comparison with the Western society standards

      So they say. But many Asian women have told me how shocked they were to see the treatment of women in the “Western” monasteries in England.

      speaking of countries where the Sangha is governed by state bodies, i’m not sure whether this entity can still be called a Sangha, so there’s essentially no reason to look back at a discredited organisation

      Interesting point. We have, I think, a very primitive idea of what Sangha is. If you do the ordination procedure, you’re Sangha. But what if the entire edifice is governed by principles that, at every turn, are in direct opposition to everything the Buddha ever taught? What if the people running that organization have no real interest in practicing, and in fact do not believe that enlightenment is real or possible? At one time, they even took the bit about practicing to realize Nibbana out of the ordination procedure. This is the reality, yet such people are not only regarded as “Sangha”, they are treated as if they had some sort of authority or relevance in understanding or practicing Dhamma. Maybe it’s time we stopped.

  8. The sheer quality of most of the Bhikkhunis in Thailand and in the west should strongly suggest how critical it is that Theravada not just accept, but promote the training and ordination of women. I still hear excuses from some well known Theravada monks as to why the ordination of women is difficult or impossible. I find this kind of rhetoric disingenuous, as well as self defeating for the future of traditional Buddhism. The talent and diligence of women training in Theravada, along with the significant history from the earliest days of women in the early Sangha, should direct all of us to support and encourage the ordination of women, as well as support a sāmaṇerī movement for girls, in Thailand and the west. Thank you Bhante, for this inspiring article as you enter the rains and then your travels. This gesture really tells where your heart is, making this your final article before your retreat and travels.

  9. “White Bones Red Rot, Black Snakes…It has very nice pictures.”

    Yes, it really does :))

    Awesome article Bhante Sujato.

    However….

    I’m reminded of the tale of 3 monks from the Buddha’s time…I think it was Venerables Kimbila, Nandiya and Anuruddha and how they lived in such harmony and were of “one mind”…blending like milk and water. I think this is a beautiful ideal which can be very real. But I also think it has to be worked at…earned almost. Like when you’re in a good marriage. You work at it…especially in the beginning and middle and you earn understanding, respect and deep friendship…you learn tolerance, patience, self-respect and forgiveness…you earn longer and longer stretches of that peaceful harmonious feeling of being closer to being “of one mind”. And you learn the skills to deal with things when disagreements arise in the future. It’s worth it. Because it creates a container of safety, trust and ease…where everyone has a good chance of letting go where it really counts – the cushion or the chair, with her eyes closed.

    The 8 Fold Path is about teacing us to speak and listen, to consider and act. There are ways of letting go into the active aspects of this Path but the important thing to recognise is that these active aspects are there. Sometimes we must be active.

    I’m generalising a bit of course, in asking the following questions, but here they’re nevertheless… So must there then be a (personal and internal) process whereby, as a woman conditioned to let go to authority, I recognise that I am a vital part of the community and that I acknowledge my responsibility to myself (being heir to my kamma) and that this includes acknowledging the wider role I plays as a member of the Sangha and that this includes safe guarding and caring for the communal nature of the Sangha as advised by the Buddha? Does it then become a process whereby, I as a woman conditioned to be questioning and independent and collaborative, learn when it is time to engage and activate this conditioning and when it is time (e.g.: when one’s eyes are closed in meditation or when it becomes clear that there is no useful purpose to a discussion) to truly let it go?

    It’s too easy to not interact. Too comfortable to not participate in community discussions. Too glib to say to someone who has been conditioned by a life of independence to just “let it go”. Dhamma practice is also about interaction, participation and the uneasy, sometimes uncomfortable task of learning to disagree with ease and to move towards consensus with true letting go, after real listening has actually taken place – where everyone at least feels acknowledged in their views. This practice isn’t always about getting comfy…it’s supposed to be challenging…it’s supposed to pick at those places where we are set in our ways.

    Letting go is not supposed to be like wearing an old comfortable pair of shoes. Letting go doesn’t necessarily always lead to feelings of comfort. True letting go should always lead to feelings of relief and release from old ways and burdens.

    With metta

  10. ” I became interested in the bhikkhunī issue when I noticed, as many people do, that most of the people who come to learn and practice Dhamma are women. Why is this so? […] the same phenomenon is seen everywhere, in places where there are few monastics of any sort; and anyway, it’s the same in other religions as well.
    […]
    So I did something very few monks ever seem to think of: I asked a woman for her opinion.”

    You know, I really hope that the bad picture you paint of monks is vastly exaggerated.

    “In my own imaginarium, the real reason why most spiritual seekers are women is because they are disempowered. It is because the opportunities for them in other spheres of life have been successively blocked or restricted. In addition to the absolute barriers of overtly sexist cultural constructs, there is the more subtle, pervasive, and ultimately more damaging “soft sexism,” which does not actually stop women from doing anything, but adds a grit to whatever women do, slowing them down, and making everything more work than it needs be. Everything is harder for women than it is for men.”

    I reflected some more about this because that was a novel idea for me. But I came to the conclusion that it’s probably wrong. This is why:
    You mentioned above that women coming to the Dhamma/religion are always the majority. So that’s true for western countries as well, where women have basically the same opportunities as men. Some “soft sexism” does remain, but it is applied by and against both genders (in different ways). Therefore it is misguided to diagnose gender as THE qualification for disempowerment.
    Here is an incomplete list of people in western countries who I think may feel disempowered much more, and for a good reason:
    -a man who wants to be a midwife or a child-care worker
    (-probably some equivalent case for a woman)
    -a black person who fails to get job offers despite good qualification
    -teenagers who are trapped in a dysfunctional family
    -poor people who can’t afford their preferred education program
    -people who tragically miss qualification for university because of dyslexia or a chaotic family situation
    -atheists who refuse to join religion on paper and try to get a job in social work (really hard in some areas)
    -people who are involuntarily obese and face discrimination because of that.
    -people who are poly/LGBTQwhatever and have to hide that
    -older people who are excluded from the job market
    -long-term unemployed people
    -very poor people
    -homeless people
    -drug addicts
    -prisoners
    -mentally ill people
    -illegal immigrants

    But: Those people don’t rush to retreats in great numbers. in my experience people on retreats are mostly white middle-class people without these problems, even if the retreats are completely financed with the Dana system. My data may not be representative though, so I would be interested if your experience is different. I remember you saying that sometimes LGBT people end up in spiritual communities but don’t feel welcome there either, so maybe something similar may be happening to some of the other groups?

    In any case, the groups I listed above have at least as many men as women, so this also wouldn’t explain the majority of women on retreats. Sadly, I don’t have a convincing explanation either.

    “So, they end up turning inwards. Let go of the external: you’ll never change it anyway, right? Change yourself, that’s the real Dhamma anyway.
    Last year we had a series of sutta discussions in Sydney and invited a panel of young people to help out. One of the guys was seriously manspacing. […] One of the women politely asked him to restrain himself, as it was seriously difficult for them to fit at the table. One of the other women jumped in and said, “Shouldn’t we just take this as a practice and let it go?” This is an example of how patriarchy gets internalized and women become its best defenders. […]”

    We could view this as something about patriarchy or about how women fail to recognize it, but then we would overlook that the problem “becoming a doormat after following the dhamma” is a much more universal problem, independent of gender.
    In fact, I think this is the fault of the Buddhist tradition, which often fails to be clear about the distinction between the Three Trainings, i.e. their distinct scopes.
    It’s the same confusion that leads to your students’ asking you “If there is no self, then who do we send Metta to?”
    This is one of the problems where IMO Daniel Ingram’s analysis is spot-on:
    http://www.dharmaoverground.org/dharma-wiki/-/wiki/Main/MCTB+The+Three+Trainings+Revisited/pop_up?_36_viewMode=print/en/de
    http://www.dharmaoverground.org/dharma-wiki/-/wiki/Main/MCTB+Integration

    • Dear F3li>,
      I hope you will suffer me to reply to your comment. I’m not an expert but I thought I would share my perspective as a female Buddhist meditator traveling in Asia.

      The way I read it, I didn’t interpret Bhante as trying to paint a bad picture of monks. Monkhood in most of the theravada world is a man’s affair, so as a woman you’re excluded from conversation or inquiry either as a matter of propriety, or you’re just merely forgotten. As much as it hurts me sometimes, I truly don’t believe it’s vindictive.

      As for your second point, you’re right, taking a sweeping view of society and saying women are always worse off than men may not be totally correct. As a privileged, educated white Australian woman I used to think sexism was over and feminism was overreactive. When I left Australia and started traveling I realised I was so so so so wrong. Very few women in the world have a life like mine. Outside of Australia I didn’t have a life like mine. As I became slightly less ignorant of this, I saw something. Under many if not all of the subcategories you list, women as a part of that subcategory fare worse than men. In low socioeconomic groups women bear the brunt of the suffering. Teen girls suffer more mental illness and attempt suicide at a higher rate than male teens. Obese women are subject to far greater and more brutal scrutiny than men. Same is true of immigrants, homeless, etc. Of course you may find a few cases where the effect of gender leads towards the men or is neutral. But generally not.

      The reasons these people don’t seek the Dhamma are extremely complicated, I would guess – interweaving cultural and family expectations, religious history and for the most part, just being too busy trying to cope with daily life, survival, illness, etc. And in many cases the path towards Buddhism is not very welcoming to them. Even we privileged ones don’t feel it sometimes.

      The way I see it, it would seem to me that in the Western mainstream, Buddhism has been pretty diluted and secularised. In this ‘buddhism’ men and women do tend to enjoy a more level playing field. A lot of this Buddhism has it’s roots or background somewhere in traditional Buddhism (often Thai or Burmese). But Bhante presented this talk at a conference for Bhikkhuni – female religious renunciates, most of whom live in those more traditional cultures. Even in Western culture the idea of a female renunciate is difficult to swallow. And it’s far far worse everywhere outside.

      What I’m trying to say is you can’t underestimate the surreptitious trend of patriarchy that both men and women uphold over many sections of society.
      I’m trying to say a lot and perhaps losing my cohesiveness.
      The last three months trying to make it work in Thai monasteries has actually worn my sanity to a veneer. Perhaps even that fact alone will communicate something my words cannot…
      With metta

  11. Hope things go well for you and thanks for your perspective which confirms my take. I am pretty much done with this sangha trip. A single monk made sure of that. I have the suttas and I have my integrity.

  12. A certain Western bhikkhu, Thai-trained, from whom I took instruction in both vipassana and the light kasina (unforgettable!) declared that the rate of success in meditation was 1. Eastern women : 2. Eastern men : 3. Western women : 4. Western men. ‘Why so?’ I asked. ‘Because the women just get right down on their asses and get on with it, whereas the men just want to discuss it endlessly!’ came the terse reply.

    • Dear Bhante,
      Thank you for such an inspiring piece of work. As i was reading it, i cannot help but to tie it to Singapore’s political arenas. Singapore’s general election was just over yesterday. i must confess that i am disappointed with the outcome. To me, having patriarchy and hierarchy in Buddhism, is the same as in the secular political world. The denying of bhukkhunis is also a ‘political’ agenda in another sense. After reading your post,, i am somehow comforted by the whole fact that the ‘sangha’ and ‘vinaya’ lies within each one of us. We make the difference.
      Thank you once again for such a great work.

  13. You sharply rebuked the patriarchal practice of “manspacing”, and it seems you’ve strongly suggested that manspacing must be motivated with a conscious intention of sexist domination over woman. I think manspacing should be defended, on the grounds that sometimes men need to take up more room by spreading their legs, while sitting, simply to provide comfort to their testicles, which would be otherwise painfully crushed if they pinched their thighs together (as woman are often seen doing). I’m a man, I’m sitting in a chair right now, and I can easily prove the danger of said pain to myself right now by even gently pinching my legs together. Womanspacing (a term that I hereby coin for all posterity), which would be the practice of women closing their thighs when they sit, has a twofold rationale (which I argue has no agenda of sexual domination, just like manspacing, which I’m defending here). This twofold rationale is as follows: Firstly, a woman’s ovaries are safely out of the way of their thighs, no matter what the woman’s weight is. Secondly, men cannot take a highly instinctual, lightning fast peek between the woman’s thighs (about 300 milliseconds before they even realize what their eyeballs have involuntarily chosen to point at).
    I hereby beseech you to recant your attack on manspacing, out of compassion for men’s testicular health and comfort.

    • What about situations where manspacing results in women having no space to sit? That’s what happened in the situation Bhante described – the men took up more than their fair share of the space and left no room for the woman, and she was in a very uncomfortable position (both before and after she spoke up about it). This kind of thing happens all the time. Women are put into situations that are both physically and socially uncomfortable because of manspacing, but presumably men think that their testicles have greater priority than the unreasonable discomfort that they cause to others.

  14. Hi Bhante Sujato
    I find it hard to imagine a Theravada Buddhism without hierarchy. There is even a hierarchy of realization. Hierarchy is intrinsically linked to authority and there seem very little inclination to question authority. Just to question is seen as disrespectful (I think the notion of respect is also deeply entangled in all of this). Although you have obviously put a lot more time in to this than me, it would seem that the relationship between the monastic and the lay is hierarchical (as well as the internal workings of the monastic communities) and the is intrinsic to the vinaya.

    I think many of us see a place where all this ends but at the same time buy into the whole patriarchal/hierarchical structure and believe the view that the one is dependant on the other and for that reason allow it all to continue and even endorse.

    The concept of manspace is also interesting to reflect on. Manspace certainly stifles.
    Thanks for sharing,

    • Be careful how you use the word hierarchy. It literally means “rule of priests”. The critical point is that it’s a power-based relation, such as you find in most corporations, and so on. There’s nothing like that in the Vinaya, and there doesn’t need to be. Of course you respect people for their seniority, their wisdom, and so on, but it doesn’t mean they have the authority to order you to do anything.

      This is why the relationship between lay and monastic is not hierarchical. Monastics can’t order or control lay people at all. Compare with the Catholics, where the priesthood controls the crucial rites of baptism, confession and communion, without which the doors to heaven are closed. There’s nothing even vaguely like that in Buddhism (at least early Buddhism).

      Perhaps we need another word for a relationship based on respect rather than authority: any ideas?

    • Sujato says:

      Perhaps we need another word for a relationship based on respect rather than authority: any ideas?

      piety? homage?

      Peter Durham says:

      Hierarchy is intrinsically linked to authority and there seem very little inclination to question authority. Just to question is seen as disrespectful (I think the notion of respect is also deeply entangled in all of this).

      here’s an apt description of a firsthand experience of that
      https://discourse.suttacentral.net/t/exhortation-to-worship-the-seven-past-buddhas/2221
      which drives people as far as seeking answers elsewhere just in order to avoid god forbid undermining a person’s respectability and inadvertently offend them

  15. Thanks for the clarification bhante. In practice it would seem that the relationship within the monastic sangha and in the relationship with the lay community is hierarchical. There is certainly very clear delineation, which tends to create power structures, in my opinion. Possibly this doesn’t originate from the texts though.

    • Certainly this is the case in the monastics Sangha, although even there it perhaps doesn’t work as you might think. In practice, in Theravada anyway, monks have a lot of freedom. As far as I know, the Mahayana orders tend to have more of a structured hierarchical system, or at least some of them do.

      But I’m curious as to what you’re thinking about in terms of sangha/lay relations. Apart from the monasteries themselves—which are home for the monastics—what kind of power of command do you see there? Or is it more of a soft-power influence thing?

  16. Well as example the giving of alms*. although on one level we can see it as a beautiful and timeless ritualized activity but on another the degree of deference, which is almost demanded within some scenarios could be seen as extreme and fuelled by a power dynamic. Lay people can be compelled to behave in a certain way due to the strength of tradition and reinforced by the behaviour of the monastic.

    Lay people can be very nervous in the presence of monastics and behave in a way which is not always true to there own being, which might be stifling and not conducive to communication. I don’t think that monastics are necessarily intentionally responsible for this it is partly the dynamic of the “hierarchical” situation – some certainly do buy into it though.

    Within the teachings and symbology there are many things which are hierarchical (wider meaning). I think it is easy to allow legitimate hierarchy (structure) to justify abuse.

    *specifically A friend related to me how she had been giving alms and a monk refused to allow her to offer as she had sandals on.

    • A friend related to me how she had been giving alms and a monk refused to allow her to offer as she had sandals on.

      I’ve seen this as well, and it’s a lot more important than it might appear. If, as is taken for granted in Theravada countries, offering to monks is a ticket to heaven, to not accept food is a huge deal. Vinaya allows the “overturning of the bowl”, but this applies only in the case of laypeople who seriously damage the Sangha. When this was done in the Vinaya, the lay people were horrified and immediately sought forgiveness. I think its dreadful for monks to do such a thing based on something as trivial as wearing shoes. Which, BTW is not in the Vinaya at all: the Vinaya says that the monks shouldn’t wear shoes, it says nothing about the lay people.

  17. Peter, my sense has been that the amount of power or influence that the monastics have over the lay people is measured only by how much the lay community delegates to the monastics. In other words, if the lay community perceives the monks as being overbearing, corrupt, or tyrannical, the lay people are free to not support them. Easier said than done, maybe, but that is how it should be. The lay community is empowered to simply not support monks that do not act properly…that is a huge risk for the monks. So, as I read it, the Buddha designed the relationship to be symbiotic and positive, so that the lay people support the good monks and nuns well in their requisites, and the monks and nuns in turn support the laity well in their spiritual needs and development. Your comments are correct in many ways, and perhaps some lay folks are not mindful of the mutual balance of power that they have in the relationship.

    • Hi Anagarika Michael
      Thanks for the comment. I understand the theoretical position of the mutually harmonious relationship but I think the actuality is that, for the most part, it doesn’t work like that.

      For the sake of discussion we could go further and say that if there are monks who abuse power it is actually the lay people who are to blame for supporting them. Which is what traditionally happens in power structures. Blame gets transferred.

      Another practice which is an example of the power command is merit. The notion that the most expedient way to gain merit is through donations to the monastic community. There is also within that a hierarchy in the benefit (giving to those with attainment).

    • Hi, Peter, thanks for your comments and I’m valuing this discussion very much. I suppose on these issues I fall back on what the Buddha prescribed for these issues. For example, while giving to the monks is merit making, the teaching as I have read it is that the Buddha taught that one gives to whomever his/her heart believes is most in need and deserving; dana is driven by this pure intention, vs. obligation to one group or person over another. The more that the laity understand of the actual Dhamma of the Buddha, the more guidance that is available for ethical and practical situations like those you so carefully described. And yes, despite our having the Buddha’s instructions, some do not pay attention to the guidance he has given to all of us on proper attitude and practice. Likely many monks skew this guidance so that the laity feels directed to support them, or the dana is tied to mechanical acts of merit making, vs. being directed to give to those most deserving and in greatest need. A great discussion…thanks for your insights, and have a good week..

    • Valued Anagarika Michael,
      it is not right if one says Dhamma for Dana is the deal, or Dana for Dhamma. Such is not the case and not intended by the Buddha at all. Actually there are many blocks that such a dealing could righteously take place. Both acts whether of the giving by Lay people or by monastics, have to be based on “no desire to get anything in return”. As for the Bhikkhu or Bhikkhuni, the Buddha told, that it is better to swallow burning iron balls then to accept a Dana based of greed. In regard of teaching, it is not allowed to do it for a gift, so Dana can only be received independently. There are even some rules, to block such corruptions (no need to speak about dhamma sharing places where dana would be suggested…) Atma guesses, that the thought of yours comes from the sutta, where Buddha speaks about the benefits both have of each other, to be aware of the matter of gratitude, but that potential dive goes direct into the practice and the sutta does not suggest Dhamma for Dana is the deal, if reading carefully and knowing the general attitude of the danger, that, like many monks and nuns, grow to corrupter of families, villages, communities, countries and even the whole world.
      The reason why a Bhikkhu or Bhikkhuni would be worthy of gifts, would be the fact, that he walks the right path or in its direction, which has much more impact on everybody and that would make them worthy and even the greatest field of merits, why to give people making Dhamma their livelihood, making deals, would be not only less merit, but a sooner or later destruction of the path.
      We or many should think about this matter very often and deep, rather to get popular by serving demands, claiming rather to teach right view..

    • Dear Samana Johann: Thanks for your kind response, and I do think that we generally agree with each other. I hope my comments didn’t suggest a “deal” between disciple and monastic; only that the relationship is mutual and must be healthy and motivated by pure ideals and intentions. I read today of an abbot in Thailand that ordered bulldozed a disciples’ home because she had the temerity to write a letter critical of the abbot’s behavior. This is, of course, and example of the disciple/monk relationship gone wrong and corrupt. I do feel that as always, the Buddha’s prescription for these relationships must always be mutual, beneficial, and motivated by the purest of intentions…this will ensure the viability of both the Dhamma and the monastic Sangha…we see this kind of positive relationship with many good monks and nuns, with Ajahns Brahm, Brahmali and Sujato and their disciples being just one excellent example of this.
      I wish you the best, Samana Johann, with Metta. Anagarika Michael

  18. ‘This is why the relationship between lay and monastic is not hierarchical’.

    Entry criteria to some Theravadan monasteries is not transparent. This is an example of power. The nuns having to collectively bow to monks in view of the public at nuns ordinations is about power. The well known ritual of nuns having to report on a regular basis to monks is about power.

    Dream on Bhante.

    • May I remember Fiona, that a monastery and other Dana is actually give. If it would be the case, that a giver would demand anything as a “claim” while giving, such a gift should be rejected by the community of monks, actually such would be the case for many monasteries. So in regard of Fionas welfare, do not think is such ways. Give if inspired or let it be. No duty or must at all and claiming afterwards would simply burn your previous good deeds. Such deeds would be in every case more worthy as to try to teach others a lesson, wouldn’t it?
      Only in a corrupt relationship (and it needs two parts) such as power can find a foundation and a hold. If one thinks in measures of rights, which is sadly introduced by monks… ones actions are nothing but based of wrong view, and actions based an wrong views have very heavy impacts for ones future.

  19. I remember a nun asking me to take dhana to the monastery so she could ‘evaluate my practice’. I suggested taking dhana was an act of generosity and I did not do it for any other reason.

    I was also asked to write about the bikkhuni ordination in the Enlightened Times shortly after it occurred but because I was not invited to the ordination I declined.

    I believe I was asked to write about the ordination because at some level the nuns understood I was a catalyst for triggering the ordination.

    The ordination was a closed shop for a chosen few. The event was broadcast at BSWA one friday night in a perfunctory manner by the president.

    I am no longer interested in Theravada.

    • It’s not needed to let go of Dhamma-Vinaya just because not satisfied by those one thinks that they transport it. It’s not easy, since it is on the way to disappear, to find the noble Sangha, but it is possible and its not something that is known, seen and broadcasted by the mass and their actions are not a means of glorification, business and winning favor, but done for a higher purpose.
      If one takes part on glorification, business and winning flavor, what can he/she respect since such will not last? An with this the first step is to be not interested in such birth giving things.
      So Mrs. Fiona, as Cunda Sutta Sn 1.5 shows, one who knows about the three Bhikkhus even if from the suttas, does not lose his/her conviction by being confronted by the 4th. Maybe its good to get them known first.

  20. thanks Mrs Samana Johann, I have not lost my conviction but I am not much good at adapting to the Asian framework so I have to develop another Asian Australian method. Suggestions welcome. I also need a place to retreat. I would like to meet a female master (adept at deflecting male master).

  21. Upasika Fiona, that is not an West-East problem, that is a generally not willing to make the basics practice, such as serving, paying respect, dana, sila… Its not possible to come into the Dhamma on this way and you should take every chance to fight the battle with your pride and defilements and walk for places and teachers who are extreme traditional and path worthy. Frankly, what would you win if you are walking for the “homies” in the “hood” and defilement fondler? A good sort time “oh pleasure” and later: Same same.
    You are welcome all the time, but as for female, they are even more and especially outwardly in pointing out their position, so like every wise female person will immediately tell you, if she has lasting certain stand on earth, that if you wish the tamed, you will not easy be tamed by a woman especially if pride is the hindrance. Look out for people who are honest and not people who depend on you, who need you as costumer. Look out for Bhikkhus or other contemplatives, who do not teach for a livelihood, but simply out of compassion with not a little acceptance to let anything be a deal of clinging/entertainment/uppadana.
    You wanna get free of suffering or to become and be?

  22. Behind every religion is some power structure, and at the top are people who are like business managers than saints. Some people in that hierarchy would no doubt argue that white is black, or black is white, simply because they don’t want to lose their special position. Change will probably have to come from outside, or come about through local activism. As long as the Vinaya is being observed, I don’t see how the changes could really go wrong. Nikayas and sangharajas are not really a part of normal Buddhism as envisioned by the early Buddhist texts.

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