Buddhism and “The Gender Dynamic”

Here’s an article that expresses the ‘other side’. It gives a straightforward argument in favor of sexism, and bases that on Buddhist ideas. Of course, I disagree with almost all the good author’s views, but I appreciate the fact that he’s confident enough to express himself clearly and openly.

Nevertheless, the doctrine he expresses is frightening: since domination of females by males is a fact, this is how it should be. This kind of thinking, though rarely expressed with honesty, lies behind many of the attitudes towards women that have been exposed in the rejection of bhikkhunis.

The author makes the surprisingly common error of thinking that ethical ‘equality’ means equality in fact. He says, ‘It is obvious to anyone with even an average level of insight and knowledge that males and females have differences physically, emotionally, mentally, behaviourally and societally.’ Yes it is. Likewise, old people are different from young, black are different from white, tall are different from short, and intelligent are different from stupid. People are different, and differences need to be taken into account.

But this has nothing to do with the ethical principle of equality, which means equal opportunity, equal treatment, and equal respect. Women are not lesser beings than men.

Try this: read the article below, and where it says ‘men’ read ‘whites’, and where it says ‘women’ read ‘blacks’. There’s no swifter way of cutting through the cruft of discriminatory argument.

The author trots out the usual criticisms of the ‘West’, apparently oblivious to the fact that many of the things he praises about Asian society – that women have equal access to education, voting, work opportunities – came about through the influence of ‘Western’ ideals of equality.

He says that women in Asia ‘choose’ to be dominated by men. I just received an email the other day from Sister Yeshe, working in India, who has been explaining to the young men there that it’s wrong to hit women. I wonder what happens to the women who ‘choose’ not to be beaten?

One of his basic arguments is that both the West and Asia discriminate, but the Asians are more honest about it. He’s wrong: people all over the world recognize that there is discrimination, and some, whether Asian or Western (or African or whatever), understand that this is harmful. It is the way it is, but not the way it should be. The Buddha taught an ‘ought’: he wanted us to do what is right, not what everyone else is doing. To use the Buddhist slogan of ‘the way it is’ to justify harmful social norms is a perversion of the Dhamma – one which, sadly enough, is not limited to the present article.

I especially love his arguments from animal behavior – now that’s an ethical precedent! If animals do it, it must be Dhamma! Imagine the possibilities…


Rasika Wijayratne

Men and women are not equal. This is what most people, especially in the West, have trouble grasping especially due to their cultural background and heritage. So when they approach an Eastern tradition like Buddhism and come across something like the Garudhamma rules instituted by the Lord Buddha, they instantly react against it. Although this is understandable, it is never wise or skilful.

The Garudhamma rules were first given by the Lord Buddha to Maha-Pajapati Gotami on admission to the Order as the first female bhikkhuni (higher ordained nun) with the establishment of the female Sangha. These 8 sacred rules were given as a part of her higher ordination and also became part of the female monastic Vinaya rules for all bhikkhunis (Buddhist nuns), starting with Maha-Pajapati Gotami as the first nun. Even though the rules were formally given to Maha-Pajapati Gotami, it is understood that it applies to all bhikkhunis and it is even clear from the way they are worded, “A nun should…”. These eight rules are only there for bhikkhunis and not for bhikkhus (Buddhist monks). This inequality is what upsets some, especially those from the West.

It is true that an inequality is there. However it is also true that men and women, whether one likes to accept it or not, are not equal. This is why this inequality exists in the rules. It is the inability to grasp and accept this basic truth regarding the inequality between men and women that has given rise to this whole debate over whether the Garudhammas should or should not exist in the Dhamma, whether they were or were not instituted by the Lord Buddha and whether sections of the Tipitaka are authentic or not, especially in relation to the Garudhammas. This inability to see, grasp and understand that significant differences exist between men and women and that therefore they are not equal, goes to the heart and root of this whole debate and issue. So it makes sense to try and understand these differences and to also accept and come to terms with them.

It is obvious to anyone with even an average level of insight and knowledge that males and females have differences physically, emotionally, mentally, behaviourally and societally. The physical differences are obvious. It is also a well-known fact that the kinds and levels of hormones (the main ones being testosterone in men and oestrogen in women) that activate inside the body affecting emotions, mood, etc. are different in men and women. These in turn differently affect thinking, behaviour and impact on attributes significant to mental training such as energy, confidence, etc.

The differences between men and women in society, in the East or West, are even more significant. The 2010 Catalyst U.S. Women in Business report found that only 2.4% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women!2 This is in the USA, a Western society that purports to be egalitarian (equal) in every aspect when it comes to women. It becomes clear from this single example alone, of which there are many, that even in the West, which constantly talks about gender equality, there isn’t much equality in reality. So it is fair to say that even Western societies are male dominated, even though most would not wish to acknowledge it due to factors such as ‘political correctness’ and the laws of the land.

Eastern cultures are openly male dominated by contrast and make no attempts to hide this fact. In Buddhist countries in the East such as Sri Lanka, women enjoy the same levels of equality as enjoyed by women in the West with equal access to education, work opportunities, health care, etc. However being an openly male dominated society, it is understood and accepted that in the family home and in society that the males play a dominant role while the females play a supportive role to the male. This also prevalent in Western societies, even though it is politically incorrect and even against the law to openly state it.

Being male dominated does not in any way refer to the mistreatment of women by men as happens in some societies through subjugation, torture, sexual mistreatment, etc. In a male dominated society both women and women understand the nature of their relationship and live in that way by choice, seeing the advantages in it, rather than by force. Women are treated with dignity and respect and their wishes are respected at all times. It is important to make this distinction clear.

Historically most societies such as the Hebrew, Greek, Roman, Indian, and Chinese were male dominated. However some especially in the West, attempted to adopt egalitarianism (gender equality).3 The West maybe egalitarian ‘on paper,’ but not in reality. So gender-egalitarianism, the view that males and females can ever be equal, contradicts reality, the way thing really are, in short it contradicts the Dhamma, as is evident in both the East as well as the West. So in reality most Eastern and Western societies are still male dominated, but only the East is willing to openly acknowledge it.

In the Bahudhatuka Sutta, the Lord Buddha says that only a male may become a Sammasambuddha, Wheel-turning Monarch, Sakka, Mara or Brahma thus: “It is impossible, it cannot happen that a woman could be an Accomplished One, a Fully Enlightened One (Sammasambuddha) … a Wheel–turning Monarch… that a woman could occupy the position of Sakka … Mara … Brahma – there is no such possibility (while in the form of a woman, however through rebirth as a male it is possible). It is possible that a man might be an Accomplished One, a Fully Enlightened One … a Wheel-turning Monarch… that a man might occupy the position of Sakka … Mara … Brahma – there is such a possibility.”4

Going beyond the these other realms and even looking at the animal realm this gender imbalance again becomes evident among most mammalian species, viz. “Female-biased dominance occurs rarely in mammals, and it is only observed consistently in hyenas and lemurs.”5 A questions that arises is, among lions for example where the males are dominant, what would would happen if females tried to be equal or dominant to the males? Would it create harmony or disharmony in the group of lions? The same question can be applied to other areas such as the Sangha and the family unit.

It is true that the concentrated or enlightened mind on its own is above gender distinctions. But it must be remembered this is following enlightenment, not before where gender where gender is very much relevant. To gain concentration (samadhi) and then enlightenment (Nibbana), one must first be established virtue (sila). This is where the Garudhamma rules have their place. They were instituted by the Lord Buddha first for Maha-Pajapati Gotami and then other bhikkhunis as a way of restraining gender specific unskilful qualities from arising that would compromise their and others’ training, affecting concentration (samadhi) and thus also enlightenment (Nibbana). Here gender specific unskilful qualities refers to the female desire to be on par with or even higher than males. This directly contradicts the reality of the inequality that exists between males and females. So the Garudhamma rules were instituted out of compassion for bhikkhunis, understanding the differences between genders, and not to degrade or subjugate females as some have misunderstood.

The Lord Buddha being full enlightened was fully aware of the gender differences, would have instituted these rules only for female also out of pragmatic reasons and thinking of the harmony of the Sangha community. A fully Self Enlightened One does not discriminate but acts pragmatically for the benefit and welfare of all. He would have understood the universal nature of this gender dynamic, that the males are dominant is every aspect, physically, emotionally, mentally, societally in most societies and even across other realms such as the Diving and animal realms. He would have also understood that if he did not institutionalise a set of rules such as the Garudhammas, that some would attempt to bring gender egalitarianism to the Sangha, as was attempted in Western societies. This would contradict the prevalent reality (Dhamma) of the gender dynamic and would thus create disharmony in the Sangha. As he foresaw 2600 years ago when he instituted the sacred Garudhamma rules, isn’t this very thing happening today in the Sangha community with various attempts at removing the Garudhamma rules in preference for ‘modern’ (and misguided) gender-egalitarianism?

May the true Dhamma remain uncorrupted and last for 10,000 years for the benefit of present and future generations. May you gain the wisdom and strength protect it from all present and future threats!


1. Please contact the author to obtain the latest version of this document.

2. See New U.S. Women in Business Statistics Released by Catalyst here http://www.womenonbusiness.com/new-us-women-in-business-statistics-released-by-catalyst/ and here http://www.catalyst.org/publication/132/us-women-in-business

Percentage of women in the U.S. labor force: 46.3%

Percentage of women in management, professional and related occupations: 50.6%

Percentage of female Fortune 500 corporate officers: 15.4%

Percentage of female Fortune 500 board seats: 14.8%

Percentage of female Fortune 500 top earners: 6.7%

Percentage of female Fortune 500 CEOs: 2.4%

3. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patriarchy

4. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, A Translation of the Majjihma Nikaya, Translated by Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, pp 929.

5. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dominance_hierarchy#Female_dominance_in_mammals


Ajahn Brahm’s response to ‘The Time Has Come’

A little while ago i posted the new article called ‘The Time Has Come’, by several former siladharas. As always, articles on bhikkhuni ordination evoke the most comments and response on this blog. We were delighted to have a post by Ajahn Brahm, which, as one of our commenters mentioned, was in danger of being buried beneath the weight of the comment thread. So i’ve lifted that comment and re-posted it here.

The discussion on these matters can get a little intense, so if I could ask you to read the ‘About‘ page, which has guidelines for posting, before making comments.

“What would it look like to relocate the ‘problem’ of bhikkhuni ordination and gender equity within Buddhism to where it really belongs? … with those who fear women’s full participation”

Having read the comments in this thread with interest, as I am inextricably involved, I think they have drifted away from the main thrust of the Buddhadharma magazine article as expressed in the quote above. That is, for too long Ajahn Sujato, myself and the participating Bhikkhunis, have been asked to justify our actions in facilitating the Perth Bhikkhuni ordinations.

Now it is the time for those Western monks, and Thai monks who either live in the West or regularly travel there, to either show their support for Bhikkhuni ordination in the West,or justify their opposition to it.

Ajahn Sumedho is leaving Amaravati at the end of this year, so is the Thai monk Ven Pannyasaro who, I was told, drafted the notorious Five Points. Ajahn Amaro, currently at Abhayagiri Monastery in California, is to take over leadership of the Amaravati group. It seems appropriate that he makes his position on Bhikkhuni ordination clear, in plain English not in Amaravati-speak, to the supporters of his future monastery. Other influential monks such as Ajahn Vajiro of Amaravati, Ajahn Nyanadhammo in Thailand, Ajahn Pasanno of Abhayagiri, the Thai monk Ajahn Preecha in Italy, Ajahn Tiradhammo in New Zealand, the Thai monk Ajahn Anan who visits the West regularly, they should also be pressed by their lay supporters to publicly explain their position, not as a group but as individuals. If they have nothing to be ashamed of, they should have no fear in articulating their position in public clearly and independently. I ask this because I understand that straightforward honesty, not deafening silence, is necessary for moving forward on this painful issue.

Unfortunately, I do not have the power to compel these good monks to explain whatever position they hold on Bhikkhuni ordination, or to question them on why they refused my genuine offer of forgiveness and reconciliation. But you, the lay people who feed these monks and provide the funds that support their other needs, do have that power. Maybe it is the time to exercise that power.

It is now the time, as a result of The Buddhadharma magazine’s article, for them to personally explain themselves to the Buddhist world.

With Mega Metta, Ajahn Brahm.

The Time Has Come

Here’s a very important new article on bhikkhuni ordination, called The Time Has Come. To which I cannot help but add: a fact’s a fact.

It’s by three ex-nuns, Thanissara, Jitindriya, and Elizabeth Day (Cintamani), and will be appearing in The Buddhadharma in a few days. The article spells out clearly and straightforwardly the issues that have arisen since the Perth ordinations. It deals with the ordinations, Ajahn Brahm’s expulsion, the responses of the siladharas, the five points, and the nature of institutionalized sexism. As well as the main article, there are substantial contributions by Janet Gyatso, on the historical heritage of the garudhammas, and Llundup Damcho (Diana Finnegan) on the situation in the Tibetan Sangha.

The authors ask:

What would it look like to relocate the ‘problem’ of bhikkhuni ordination and gender equity within Buddhism to where it really belongs? … with those who fear women’s full participation.

The time really is here. How long must we be ‘patient’? It takes an hour, tops, to perform a bhikkhuni ordination that would satisfy every Vinaya requirement. But we’ll be waiting for Maitreya Buddha if we want to satisfy the requirements of the ‘Walters’, the hyper-conservative monks who oppose bhikkhuni ordination on principle.

The opposition has gone back underground now, where it has festered for the past decades. Senior Ajahns in England opine that the gender issue cloud will simply pass in time. Keep the conversation under wraps and gender equity will be just like a bad dream. (I have previously mentioned that in Amaravati, this and other websites that support bhikkhunis were blocked; apparently this is no longer the case.)

But the opposition is no less active for being hidden. In Thailand, the Western monk Ajahn Nyanadhammo has done his best to persuade Bhante Gunaratana to reverse his long standing support for bhikkhunis.

Ajahn Brahm has been excluded from this year’s UN Vesak because of the ordinations, after having had a presentation already accepted. A group of bhikkhunis, on the other hand, will attend the occasion, being encouraged to do so by a number of senior Thai monks.

The opposition will not appear in public, and will at all costs avoid a debate. Those who oppose bhikkhunis, with a few refreshing exceptions, will not even admit the plain fact that they are in opposition. Silence is their friend.

On the other hand, we supporters of bhikkhunis are happy to say what we say in public, to participate in an open dialogue. Today I’m on my way to the ABC studios in Sydney, where we’ll do an interview for John Cleary’s Sunday night radio program; the interview is on the upcoming Buddhist Film Festival, where bhikkhuni ordination is a major theme.

We’ve got to keep talking, to keep the dialogue alive, keep the issue in people’s minds.

Change is with us already.